Seriously, never ever underestimate a 3-time Olympian! Ashley McKenzie competed in London, Rio and Tokyo for Great Britain but made the switch to Jamaica, following his father’s heritage, knowing that it was his last chance to represent that half of his DNA at the highest level.
A year ago, competing for Jamaica on the WJT for the first time, Upper Austria Grand Prix 2023.

McKenzie is 34 years old and competes at -60 kg; not many lightweights have such longevity. The fast-twitch muscle work required to compete at the speed of the World Judo Tour lightweights is truly remarkable. In Linz, though, we saw a specific moment of speed and brilliance akin to his early days on the circuit, only perhaps wrapped in more than a dozen years of experience to ensure it brought him the win he needed.

It isn’t often we see Japan versus Jamaica at any judo event and it is even less common to see the Pan American flag take the victory, we await confirmation of this being a true first! Yuta Higuchi, largely unknown, had found himself in the repechage at the hands of Cedric Revol (FRA), almost a veteran himself at 29 years old.

The repechage final began evenly, McKenzie recovering well after his quarter-final loss to Khalmatov (UKR). Neither was decisive and neither fully committed but both appeared to understand that if they got it right, they could take the win and a place in the final block. However, right from the beginning, McKenzie was extremely focused and seemed to be fully aware of every rule, every potential infringement and every position in which he could find himself on the end of an unwelcome throw. Higuchi wasn’t so sharp or aggressive.

McKenzie (JAM) getting his attacks in.

McKenzie has in the past been guilty of backing off too much while encouraging his opponent to step on to his seoi-otoshi techniques, even more so if leading by a positive score. On this occasion, he remained in control of the space and didn’t allow any shido or other disturbance to change his plan. By 2:24 into the contest he was leading two penalties to one and deservedly so. He attacked enough, just enough.

The finish came with just 12 seconds left on the clock. Higuchi stood completely square in front of McKenzie, neither side more prominent than the other and his attempt to grip seemed casual. The Jamaican capitalised perfectly, gripping the lapel first with his right hand, not altogether normal for the left-hander, catching his left hand under Higuchi’s right arm and around the back, firing his o-uchi-gari straight through middle, super low as always, his knee making contact with the tatami.

The cement for the score and the win was a tiny change of angle after execution, pulling to the left over the reaped leg, giving absolutely no chance to Higuchi to step off or otherwise escape.

McKenzie (GBR) at the Tunis Grand Prix, 2018, attempting a previous version of the o-uchi-gari against Miyanohara (JPN).

The lesson is that no matter which flag is on the chest of your opponent or how old they are, if they made it to face you, they have the same chance as you to take the win. Judo is unpredictable most of the time but perhaps McKenzie raised his chance of predicting the outcome by staying focused, drawing on his 4 Olympic cycles and sticking to the plan. The bottom line really is, never ever underestimate a 3-time Olympian.

See also