Joonhwan Lee defeats Casse for gold U81kg in Tokyo
Four world champions in the rostrum in the category U81kg at the Tokyo Grand Slam but none of them were able to take the title as Joonhwan Lee of Korea snatched the gold medal. Matthias Casse (BEL), Saied Mollaei (AZE) and Sagi Muki (ISR) were joined by current Olympic champion Takanori Nagase (JPN), only Casse made it past the pool stages.
On the bottom half of the draw, it was the breakout star of 2022 in the category, Joonhwan Lee (KOR), who battled through to face Casse. He defeated Abdujalilzoda (TJK) in round 1 on penalties, followed by Fernando (POR) using a typically strong Korean ippon-seoi-nage. His quarter-final opponent was Zelym Tckaev (AZE), who was responsible for Nagase’s early exit, and that trusty seoi-nage scored the Korean a waza-ari 2 minutes into golden score to take him through to the semi-final, where another Francois Gauthier Drapeau (CAN) awaited him. It was another challenging contest but waza-ari for the Korean again was enough for Lee to book a first-ever meeting with Casse, which had been eagerly awaited by judo fans ever since he exploded onto the IJF World Judo Tour.
That final was an intriguing affair, where Casse struggled to keep up with Lee’s dropping attacks. Around halfway through the fight, Lee changed tack and latched onto Casse’s leg using ko-uchi-makikomi, rolling through to score waza-ari. Casse kept coming forward in search of a score, but Lee reacted positively, continuing to launch his own attacks under pressure. He successfully defended his lead to take home his 3rd grand slam gold medal. The first encounter between these two terrific athletes did not disappoint; we look forward to the next one.
The Belgian world number 2 Casse was looking to make a return to the podium after missing out on medals at the recent Baku Grand Slam and Montpellier European Championships. He started his day in round 2 with a victory over Perez (CHI) using tomoe-nage to score waza-ari. Next up, in round 3 was the up-and-coming Svidrak (UKR), who took Casse deep into golden score in a back-and-forth contest. A 3rd and final shido for the Ukrainian eventually decided the match after 8 minutes of fight time.
Casse did just enough to get past Asad Masabirov (KGZ) in their quarter-final with a waza-ari score; the Kyrgyzs athlete had impressed with his three earlier victories but couldn’t find a way to get back into the contest. The Belgian’s semi-final opponent was Somon Makhmadbekov (TJK), who had just defeated recent Abu Dhabi grand slam winner David Karapetyan (AIN) in the quarter-final stage. Casse dominated the bout with sound tactics to take the victory after a 3rd penalty was awarded to his Tajik opponent. So far so smooth for the 4-time grand slam winner.
Karapetyan and Gauthier Drapeau faced off for the first of the bronze medals in the category. Karapetyan went ahead with a well-timed ko-soto-gari in the first minute and finished the job a minute later. The Canadian reached for an o-soto-gari and the neutral athlete countered with a strong ura-nage to score waza-ari-awasete-ippon. Karapetyan ends 2023 in great shape with two grand slam medals in as many attempts.
Tckaev and Makhmadbekov would battle for the second bronze medal. The Azeri controlled the contest from start to finish; the Tajik judoka picking up a third penalty in the final minute to hand the victory to his opponent. With Saied Mollaei sent packing early and Tckaev adding this bronze to his gold medal in his home grand slam, he will be hoping that the Paris dream could still become a reality.