Ken Marantz / Japan News SportswriterTakuto Otoguro got little sympathy as he sat on the mat for a second time, holding his painful right ankle. In fact, the crowd booed louder, and his opponent impatiently gestured for him to hurry up and resume the match.
Otoguro returned to action and, fighting the hostile crowd and an opponent known for putting on late surges, did what he was least expected to do — instead of nursing the lead as well as his painful limb, he went on the attack.
In a performance that won over the crowd, he piled up more points to finish off a 16-9 victory over India’s Bajrang Punia in the freestyle 65-kilogram final, making him the youngest male Japanese in history to win a gold medal at the wrestling world championships.
The 20-year-old Otoguro’s battles with injuries, mixed with his fierce determination and silky smooth technique, have become the trademarks of his rapid ascension to the top of the sport, making him one of Japan’s best hopes for a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Winning a world gold at 19 years 10 months wasn’t all that thrust him into the spotlight. His dramatic encounter with Punia at the world championships last October in Budapest was selected by United World Wrestling, the sport’s governing body, as the freestyle match of the year. Otoguro himself was chosen as breakout performer of the year in freestyle.
“He was wrestling well, so I also had to wrestle well, and that produced a match that was the real deal, or at least a match that shows how exciting wrestling can be,” Otoguro said in an interview at a national training camp in Tokyo last month ahead of the men’s freestyle World Cup in Russia. “So I’m happy about that.”
Otoguro was unable to compete at the World Cup, as he was hit with his latest malady, a sudden onset of bursitis in his right knee which has also knocked him out of this month’s Asian Championships.
It remains to be seen how that will affect his preparation for the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in June, when he will try to clinch a place on Japan’s team to this year’s world championships in Astana in September.
Getting to the world championships is especially critical this year — the Japan Wrestling Federation has decreed that winning a medal in Astana will secure an automatic berth at the Tokyo Olympics, without having to go through the usual qualifying process.
Propensity for practice
At the national camp training session open to the press, Otoguro sat on the sideline icing his knee as he spoke with a reporter. His soft-spoken, reserved nature contrasts with his aggressive style on the mat. He flashes a ready smile beneath what another generation would call a Beatle haircut. He likes the idol group Nogizaka46, “but I don’t listen to them before a match, I only listen when I want to relax.” He says he prefers Latin sounds and reggae before battle.
Otoguro, now a junior at powerhouse Yamanashi Gakuin University, was limited to a truncated workout on the balance ball that day, in contrast to his reputation for an obsessive dedication to practice.
“He is level-headed and an extremely hard worker, not your typical [20-year-old],” says national assistant freestyle coach Shogo Maeda. “He’s called a ‘prodigy,’ but actually watching him, he does the work in practice that makes a world champion.”
Japanese men have medaled in wrestling at every Olympics dating back to the 1952 Helsinki Games (excluding the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games), and going for gold has been the driving force behind the Yamanashi Prefecture native since he followed older brother Keisuke into the sport at age 4 at the wrestling club coached by their father.
“From the beginning, it was fun,” Otoguro says. “I was just a normal kid when I started. But if I have to say, I won a lot.”
That’s quite an understatement. At the national age-group championships, he finished third for two straight years as a preschooler, then third again in his first year of elementary school. From there on, there was no stopping the Yamanashi dynamo as he reeled off victories for the next five years, with two of his championships coming in tandam with Keisuke.
Otoguro’s development was not limited to the gym. Growing up, he and Keisuke, who is two years older and now competes in the 70-kilogram division, would have epic battles in their home, much to the dismay of their mother.
“We would break windows, and open holes in walls,” he says. “It would escalate from wrestling into fighting.” He added that such roughhousing laid the foundation for his success. “It made us both better. It was the best way.”
After finishing elementary school, Otoguro made a bold decision. He left home to follow Keisuke and enroll in the JOC Elite Academy, where he would intensively train at the sports school in northern Tokyo while attending local Inamura Junior High School, then later Teikyo High School.
“While leaving my parents, I thought this was the best step to become stronger by joining the top team,” Otoguro says. “I never saw not going there as an option.”
As national junior high champion, he made his first foray overseas for the 2013 World Cadet Championships in Zrenjanin, Serbia, where he brought home a bronze medal at 46 kilograms.
“It was fun going against various opponents,” says Otoguro, although he has taken comparatively few trips abroad for competition. “It’s a bit different than Japan. They are physically stronger and the wrestling style is completely different.”
Finishing third in his first overseas meet gave him validation that his own style would be viable on the world stage, but it had its drawbacks.
“Still, it was third place. Getting a medal at that time might have been a big point, but a loss is a loss. My strongest feeling was, I’ll be back next year.”
In fact, it would take two years for Otoguro to reach the top step of the podium, which he did by winning the 54-kilogram cadet gold in 2015 in Sarajevo.
Heading back home
He kept the victory express churning through high school, becoming the fourth wrestler in history to win the national Inter-High tournament for three consecutive years. Among his other honors was the 60-kilogram title in the junior division at the JOC Junior Olympic Cup, in which he defeated five collegians along the way.
After graduating from high school, Otoguro returned home in a way by enrolling at Yamanashi Gakuin.
“The fact that it was close to home was part of it, but it is the strongest college team in Japan, and Kunihiko Obata is the coach,” says Otoguro, referring to the former eight-time national champion. Another incentive was the presence of head coach and wrestling legend Yuji Takada, the 1976 Montreal Olympic gold medalist.
Takada expressed delight that it was one of his disciples who broke his record for youngest male Japanese world champion when Otoguro won the gold in Budapest. Takada was 20 years 6 months when he captured the first of his four world titles in 1974.
In addition to his brother, Otoguro has no shortage of top-level training partners. Among the other team members are Yuki Takahashi, the 2017 world champion and 2018 bronze medalist at 57 kilograms, and Yuhi Fujinami, a 2017 world bronze medalist at 70 kilograms who currently competes at 74 kilograms.
“Of course he works hard, but what I am most envious about him is his total preparation for matches,” Takahashi says. “He knows no fear. He is really remarkable.”
Otoguro’s first major encounter with the injury bug came in his final year of high school, when a ruptured cruciate ligament sidelined him for about a year. It then hit again in his first major test on the senior level.
At the 2017 All-Japan Championships — referred to as the Emperor’s Cup, which, combined with the Meiji Cup, serve as Japan team qualifiers for major championships — Otoguro faced Rei Higuchi, the 2016 Rio Olympic silver medalist at 57 kilograms who had moved up to the next Olympic weight of 65 kilograms.
In a masterful performance, Otoguro pulled off a stunning 8-5 victory in their second-round match, but suffered another injury, unrelated to his knee, during the win and had to withdraw from the tournament.
Otoguro recovered in time for the 2018 Meiji Cup. There he repeated his victory over Higuchi, winning 6-0 in the final to earn a place in a playoff against Emperor’s Cup champion Daichi Takatani for the world championships berth. He overwhelmed Takatani with a 11-0 technical fall in 1:55, earning his ticket to Budapest along with brother Keisuke, who won his playoff at 70 kilograms.
Ignoring the fuss
Having skipped over the junior level, Otoguro hardly seemed out of place in his debut on the senior stage. He ripped through his first three matches, winning all by technical fall, then overcame a 6-3 deficit to defeat Russia’s Akhmed Chakaev 15-10 in the semifinals.
That set up the clash with Punia, who had beaten Takatani in the final at the Asian Games in Jakarta the previous summer. Otoguro, using his trademark deep single-leg takedown, jumped out to a 5-0 lead, only to see the Indian come back and end the first period trailing just 7-6.
About a half-minute into the second period, Otoguro, who hurt his ankle in the first period, felt a sharp pain while attempting a roll. The tournament doctor came out, but ordered him to stand up and continue. As Otoguro pleaded his case, the crowd started to boo and Punia showed his displeasure.
“I didn’t really think much about [the booing],” Otoguro says. “I know I’m not a liar. I was thinking, ‘This really hurts.’ I was wondering what they were making a fuss about.”
Otoguro stayed aggressive and padded his lead to go up 12-6, but with 1:21 to go, dropped again to the mat in an appeal for an injury timeout. Instead, Punia was awarded a penalty point and the crowd resumed booing.
And once again, it was Otoguro who took the initiative instead of sitting on his lead, thwarting Punia’s counters to score twice with tackles.
“It was his day and not mine,” Punia was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India. “It was an exciting bout, going up and down. No one knew who was going to win.”
Still, the Indian felt the pauses played to Otoguro’s advantage.
“There was no time to watch videos of his bouts, so I could not strategize. Also, he was tired and was taking frequent breaks. If he had fought without breaks, I would have bridged the points gap and done better.”
Disregarding injury defaults, Otoguro says he has not lost a match since his second year of junior high school, and estimates his career losses in official matches remain in the single digits.
As for his total number of victories, “I don’t know,” he admits.