With Lukas Krpalek (CZE) moving back to U100kg, Teddy Riner’s (FRA) main rivals are down to just four players: Guram Tushishvili (GEO), Kokoro Kageura (JPN), Tatsuro Saito (JPN) and Tamerlan Bashaev (RUS). Let’s look at the prospect of each of them.
For the longest time, Tushishvili (ranked No. 2) was seen as the man who could beat Riner, primarily on account of his athleticism and the fact that he is a drop player. Tushishvili has fought Riner three times so far and two of those times, he came very close to winning.
In the 2017 Budapest World Championships, he footswept Riner with just five seconds left in the match. The attack floored Riner but since he mainly landed on his front, no score was given. In a European club championship in Gori last November, Tushishvili seemingly won the match but it was later ruled that he had committed a hansoku-make offence (for sweeping the support leg from the inside and behind) and the win was reversed. Although he has yet to beat Riner, Tushishvili has shown he has what it takes to really challenge Riner.
Kageura has actually beaten Riner, and on the Frenchman’s home turf, at the 2020 Paris Grand Slam, where he side-stepped Riner’s sloppy uchimata to get the winning score. Kageura is a relatively smaller player in the heavyweight division but he is a very powerful drop player, and Riner has difficulty dealing with players like him. He could really cause trouble for Riner. Kageura’s main challenge though is earning the +100kg spot. Although he is ranked rather high at No. 4 in the IJF World Rankings, he needs to defeat a domestic rival to earn the right to represent Japan at the Olympics.
That domestic rival is Tatsuro Saito, the son of the legendary double Olympic Champion Hitoshi Saito. He is currently viewed as Japan’s great heavyweight hope. In contrast to Kageura, he is very large and very heavy. He is relatively new to the World Senior scene and has never fought Riner before. One could easily imagine how his big size would make it hard for Riner to do his usual big techniques like uchimata, harai-goshi and osoto-gari, although sumi-gaeshi might work. He is ranked 8th in the world but in Japan, he probably has an edge over Kageura as the top prospect for Paris 2024.
Bashaev famously defeated Riner in the Tokyo Olympics with a drop technique. He could pose a real problem for Riner as well. But being from Russia, he has not competed at all in 2022 due to the political fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. It is not clear if any Russian players will be competing in Paris 2024 given that the Ukraine war is far from over.
As for Riner himself, he has been going for lots of training camp, including in Japan. But he has not been competing much. In the whole of 2022, he competed in only one IJF event, the Hungary Grand Slam, which he won.
It does seem like he is sticking to his “minimal competition” playbook from the last Olympic cycle, although it’s not clear why he is doing so. It didn’t work for him in the Tokyo Olympics, it’s baffling why he would want to repeat it for Paris 2024. It’ll be interesting to see how many competitions he will take part in this year.