In most cases the cream eventually rises to the top but not always and it is the anomaly that often grabs our attention. In the second round of the -60kg category we saw the number one seed, Verstraeten (BEL), an Olympian and medallist at many World Judo Tour events, beaten by 21 year old Shulman (ISR) who has no medal on the Tour and very little experience, in comparison.
Next we note the great attitude of those with young hope who expected to win against each other in order to maybe win again and fight Verstraeten in round three. They wouldn’t have that chance as he was already out but still they fought ferociously for their win. Myradov (COL) and Rojas (COL) gave everything from the beginning and within a single minute it was all over. First the Colombian was thrown for waza-ari with a seoi-otoshi but in the very next exchange he returned the favour and threw for ippon with a perfectly placed yoko-tomoe-nage.
This energy and mixing of styles continued in the category throughout the day but in the end the two halves of the draw produced very different outcomes. In the top half both the top seeds went out, not even reaching the repechage,leaving space for the totally unseeded Hebrard (FRA) and Yusifov (AZE) to put themselves into an unexpected semi-final. It was the Azeri who took out young Genki Koga (JPN) before passing the Frenchman. Yusifov was a medallist at the junior worlds in 2019 but since then has had a rough ride, winning his first World Judo Tour medal only this year, in Tashkent. Now he is really beginning to climb, his first final is a milestone.
On the bottom half of the draw the two top seeds made it to their respective semi-final. Khalmatov (UKR) was explosive and persistent throughout the day and passed Yildiz (TUR) the same way.
Before moving on to the medal fights we also note the great promise for the future made by Mohammad Rashnonezhad of the IJF Refugee Team who beat, in round two, the number 7 seed Pantano (ITA) with a great throw and equally great spirit. His day was halted after that but he arrived well prepared and committed to his mission of improvement.
Both Israelis made it to bronze medal matches in this category. Shulman, the victor over number one seed Verstraeten, faced Yildiz, the number 3 seed, for his place on the podium. Twenty year old Wolczak made his way to the final block more quietly and faced the as yet unrewarded Frenchman, Hebrard. Wolczak has no reference on the World Judo Tour but he stunned the judo world in Tashkent at the 2022 World Championships when he placed 5th out of nowhere. Here in Zagreb, regardless of the result of the medal contest, he will be placed for the first time on the Tour, as will the French competitor.
To find Azerbaijan and Ukraine in a final is not necessarily a surprise but perhaps Yusifov’s name has not resonated for many before.
Shulman and Yildiz continued the momentum created by the -48kg medal contests, fighting for their bronze medal with real dynamism. The Israeli attempted a number of sacrifice techniques and was also fast to transfer his energies to ne-waza. Yildiz struggled somewhat to keep up through some phases but when he did attack it seemed as if he was reluctant to fully commit, wary of counters and perhaps rightly so. The match went into golden score with 3 penalties between them but no lack of action. Almost straight away, the Turkish judoka put in his best attack of the contests and scored ippon.
Grand prix final block debutants Wolczak and Hebrard fought a close battle for the second bronze medal but as the end of time approached the Israeli looked set to win, always ahead, first to the attack, more active, more positive and he had been rewarded with a lead on penalties. However, with only 30 seconds to go the Frenchman dropped under with a seoi-otoshi for waza-ari and then attempted to play on the ground to perhaps keep his lead and prevent any kind of comeback from the Israeli. This proved to be even more fruitful than expected as he freed his trapped leg and held for the second score and his first ever medal on the World Judo Tour.
The final went as the previous 5 final block contests had, fast-paced gripping, a huge range of attacking techniques and a clear desire to not give up the opportunity to stand on top of the podium. Normal time came and went with just a couple of penalties on the board and so golden score was required to settle things. It was the Ukrainian who held his nerve, leaving Yusifov with 3 penalties and a silver medal.