Montreal 1976, -63kg: Hector Rodriguez (CUB)

The top favorite for the lightest weight category in Montreal was Japan’s morote-seoi-nage specialist Yoshiharu Minami, a double World Champion (1973 and 1975). No one had expected much from Cuba’s Hector Rodriguez, a World bronze medalist from the 1973.

Minami easily defeated his first opponent from Guyana and was set to defeat France’s Yves Delvingt, who at the time was but a European bronze medalist. Surely, the Frenchman would have no chance against a double World Champion who, at 24 years of age, was still in his prime. But Delvingt understood Minami’s game and was able to block Minami’s morote-seoi-nage attempts. He also attacked aggressively and although Delvingt did not score, in the end it helped win him the hantei decision. Minami’s defeat was a shock to the Japanese camp. Head coach Isao Okano stormed off in disgust even before Minami could step off the mat.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez steadily worked his way to the final, often throwing his opponents with uchimata, a technique he picked-up while training in North Korea. He saw a player there using that technique and vowed to master it himself. He worked hard on it and in Montreal, it had become his tokui-waza.

Rodriguez’s opponent in the final was South Korea’s Chang Eun-kyung. Rodriguez had lost to Minami in the quarterfinals of the 1973 World’s and perhaps it was his preparation against Minami’s morote-seoi-nage that helped him in his match against Chang, who also happened to specialize in morote-seoi-nage.

And indeed it was with that technique that Chang opened up with at the start of the match. Almost as if he was expecting it, Rodriquez countered the morote-seoi-nage with a perfectly-timed kosoto-gari for koka. Moments later, Chang managed to slip underneath Rodriquez and roll him over with morote-seoi-nage for koka. A minute had not even passed and two scores were already on the board. This was the kind of all-action judo final fans love.

With the scores even, Rodriguez tried to get ahead with ouchi-gari. This time, it was Chang who was prepared for the attack and countered Rodriguez so effectively, he had the Cuban in the air. It was only Rodriguez’s agility that allowed him to avoid conceding a score.

Around the seven-minute mark, Rodriguez came in with his favorite technique, the uchimata, and launched Chang high into the air. Only yuko was given although it could have easily been a waza-ari.

Chang attacked relentlessly with morote-seoi-nage, putting Rodriguez on the defensive. At one point, upon hitting the ground while evading yet another morote-seoi-nage attempt, Rodriguez seemed to have injured himself. The medic ended up wrapping his torso with bandages and play was allowed to continue. It was only later that Rodriguez revealed he had gotten injured during training in the lead up to the Games.

It was obvious that Rodriguez was badly hampered by his injury. Chang poured on the pressure, regularly attacking with morote-seoi-nage. Although he could not score, he managed to get Rodriguez penalized to chui for passivity. That gave him a yuko, so that meant he had a yuko and a koka on the board. Rodriguez meanwhile, had thrown Chang for a yuko and a koka but he had an additional koka because Chang had also received a shido. So, in the end Rodriguez was ahead by the smallest of margins, a koka.

The referee, who seemed confused, initially gave the match to Chang, who raised his arms into the air to celebrate. He seemed to want to get off the mat as soon as possible but the referee quickly corrected his mistake and awarded the victory to Rodriguez, who became Cuba’s first-ever Olympic judo gold medalist.