Olympic Preview Part 2: Men’s -81kg

This is Part 2 of my preview for the 2016 Olympic Judo contests. Instead of previewing every division, I have chosen the three weight classes where USA Judo athletes are highly ranked and expected to compete in the medal rounds: Women’s -57kg (Marti Malloy), Women’s -78kg (Kayla Harrison), and Men’s -81kg (Travis Stevens).

After an eventful two days of Olympic Judo that featured everything from stunning upsets to brutal armbars and last-second ippons, it is time for the Men’s -81kg division to take the mats.

For USA Judo, that means one more ride for Travis Stevens, the venerable warrior who came within a referee’s decision of dethroning the reigning Gold medalist and making it to the final match four years ago in London.

Since missing out on a medal in the 2012 games, his career has been on a rollercoaster triumph and tragedy. Travis won  Grand Prix tournaments in Tashkent and Dusseldorf over a five month span from the end of 2013 to the beginning of 2014, and had one of the most impressive outings of his career winning Gold at the 2016 World Masters. But he also suffered a career-threatening concussion on a match-winning ippon at the 2015 Dusseldorf Grand Prix, and nearly had his leg amputated after letting a knee infection linger.

Despite the setbacks and missed time, Travis was still able to secure the number five spot in the World rankings at -81kg. Coach Jimmy Pedro says that Travis is 100% and has hit peak form, and if that’s true, he will an excellent chance to medal.

Speaking of the World rankings, here is the Top 8 at -81kg, with their W/L and Win% stats versus Top 15 World ranked opponents since 2013 in parentheses.

Top 8 World Ranked, W/L and W% vs. Top 15 Ranked Opponents Since 2013       

  1. Avtandil Tchrikishvili, GEO (25-8, .758)
  2. Takanori Nagase, JPN (15-2, .882)
  3. Ivaylo Ivanov, BUL (7-5, .583)
  4. Antoine Valois-Fortier, CAN (4-12, .250)
  5. Travis Stevens, USA (5-10, .333)
  6. Khasan Khalmurzaev, RUS (7-2, .778)
  7. Joachim Bottieau, BEL (1-9, .100)
  8. Dagvasuren Nyamsuren, MGL (4-8, .333)*

*Nyamsuren left off the Mongolia roster in favor of #19 ranked Uuganbaatar Otgonbaatar.

Travis has Olympic history with a couple of his Top 8 peers: he beat World #1 ranked Tchrikishvili at the 2012 games, and lost to Valois-Fortier in the Bronze medal match.

As for the rest of the Top 8, Travis has one or less matches with them since 2013, so there isn’t much familiarity there.

Within Travis’ Pool B bracket, there isn’t a single Judoka World ranked above #21 aside from Ivaylo Ivanov (#3), who is at the opposite end of the Pool bracket. Travis will start the day against Robin Pacek of Sweden, a seoi-nage specialist who doesn’t win by ippon often (23% of his wins) but does lose by ippon more than the average (28% of his losses). Pacek owns a win over Travis at the 2016 Grand Prix Samsun, their only meeting, but has lost 5 of his last 6 matches coming into the Olympics. Travis is an aggressive Judoka whose ippon wins account for 43.5% of his total wins, good for second best among his peers in the Top 8. Pacek is talented and certainly poses a threat, but ff Travis comes in sharp, his superior grips, world class newaza (he is a BJJ black belt under John Danaher), and fierce aggression should be to much for Pacek to overcome.

I don’t foresee Travis having much of a problem advancing past Round 3 either, meaning that he is likely to face Ivanov for a trip to the Semi-Finals, which would guarantee him a chance at Bronze, and the opportunity to win himself into the Gold medal match.

That means he would face the winner of Pool A, which includes World #1 Tchrikishvili of Georgia who probably has the toughest bracket of any elite -81kg Judoka. His first match is against #15 ranked Ivan Felipe Silva Morales of Cuba, someone who could easily play the role of upsetter in this division. In the next round, he would be likely to face fellow Georgian who moved to Greece to join their non-existent Judo team and changed his name to sound like a character from 300 just like Ilias Iliadis did in 2004 Greek Judoka #10 ranked Roman Moustopolous, another man who could easily surprise people and wind up in the Gold medal match.

(BTW, I don’t blame Roman Moustopolous, aka Vano Revazishvili, from bailing on Georgia to become a Greek judoka. The Georgian Olympic Judo team is insanely stacked with talent, and the reality is that if he stayed, he would have been sitting on the sidelines at Rio while Tchrikishvili got to compete against the world under the Georgian banner. Are you listening, Helene Receveaux? If Automne Pavia decides she wants another crack at Olympic Gold in 4 years for Team France, you can always move to Greece and change your name to Helena Roussopolous. Hey, why is Judo the only Olympic sport who enforces this dumb “one competitor per country per weight class” rule?)

Anyway, I think the odds are really good that Travis will meet Tchrikishvili in the semi-finals. Travis actually beat him four years ago in London, but since that time Tchrikishvili has gone 3-0 against Travis in international competition. I love the momentum Travis has headed into Rio, though, as he has won 7 of his last 9 matches including four wins over opponents ranked in the Top 16 or higher. It appears as though Travis is healthy, which means he can beat anybody put in front of him.

On the other side of the brackets, Pools C and D are likely to come down to Takanori Nagase (#2), Victor Penalber (#12), Sergiu Toma (#9), Antoine Valois-Fortier (#4), and Khasan Khalmurzaev (#6).

I have to be honest: I don’t see anybody stopping Nagase from getting to the Gold medal match, with the exception of Khalmurzaev. Since entering the Senior competition circuit in 2013, Nagase has cut through the rest of the weight class like a blade through paper.

In only 10 international competitions, the 22 year old Nagase has gone 37-6, winning 53.5% of those 37 victories by ippon, and somehow having faced 17 Top 15 ranked opponents in that short time, which is more than everyone else in the Top 8 except Tchrikishvili (who has faced 33). Against Top 15ers, Nagase went 15-2, and against the Top 8 his record is 9-2, with those two losses coming against Tchrikishvili (who he beat 3 times). Right now, it looks like Tchrikishvili is the only other competitor who can beat the reigning World Champion Nagase.

I do think Khalmurzaev poses a threat to Nagase, if only because he is riding a huge wave of momentum right now, winning his last 15 matches in a row which includes names like Tchrikishvili, Ivanov, Stevens, Bottieau, Bottieau. His win percentage against Top 15 comeptition is .778%, second to Nagase’s .882%. It’s not a large sample size (9 matches total against Top 15 opponents), but his record in 2016 alone is enough to put fear into opponents. In only one match against Nagase, Khalmurzaev lost.

I’m feeling good about a Stevens/Tchrikishvili and Nagase/Khalmurzaev semi-finals. Gun to my head, I would pick Nagase to win Gold, but betting against Travis Stevens is never a smart wager.

Now enjoy these highlights from the -81kg class, featuring the division’s best Judoka.

Takanori Nagase vs. Avtandil Tchrikishvili, Semi-Finals, 2015 World Championships Astana

Travis Stevens vs. Joachim Bottieau, Finals, 2016 World Masters

Khasan Khalmurzaev vs. Ivaylo Ivanov, 3rd Round, Grand Prix Zagreb 2015

Check back for Part 3 tomorrow, where I finish off with a preview of the Women’s -78kg division featuring Kayla Harrison.

All stats provided by Judobase.org.

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