Montreal 1976, Open: Haruki Uemura (JPN)

The Open weight division holds a special place in the hearts of Japanese judoka. Haruki Uemura was 13 years old when he watched on TV the 1964 Olympics Open final where Anton Geesink held down Akio Kaminaga for ippon. That defeat was seen as a national humiliation for the country where judo was born.

Little did Uemura dream at the time that 12 years later, he would be the one avenging that defeat. As fate would have it, it was Kaminaga, as a director at Meiji University, who scouted and recruited Uemura.

At only 174cm in height and weighing less than 100kg, Uemura was not a large heavyweight. Nor was he particularly nimble. “My personal best for the 100-meter sprint was 17.7 seconds. I was short, I don’t have speed, I don’t have strength,” he recalled. Which is why he used his head. For example, he had noticed that most techniques taught were throws to the front and to the back. There were very few throws done to the side. He decided he would work on those to give himself an advantage.

In 1973, he competed in his first World Championships where he made it to the final. There, he lost to his teammate Kazuhiro Ninomiya and had to settle for silver. In the 1975 World’s, he once again made it to the final, and once again he faced his teammate Ninomiya. But this time, it was Uemura who won the gold.

Uemura’s second opponent in the 1975 World’s was none other than Shota Chochishvili, the 1972 Olympic Champion and pick-up specialist. Their match entailed a dramatic reversal of fortune. Chochishvili had managed to pick Uemura up with a dynamic Khabarelli technique that could have easily scored ippon. But the referee gave only a waza-ari. The impact of the fall had caused Chochishvili to be momentarily stunned. Without missing a beat, Uemura climbed on top of Chochishvili and pinned him with kami-shiho-gatame for ippon.

Some observers considered Uemura’s win to be a lucky break and many were looking forward to a rematch in Montreal. It did happen but not in the final. They were both drawn on the same side of the pool so they met in the semifinal. As it turned out, the rematch was something of a let-down. Uemura, now fully aware of Chochishvili’s pick-up abilities, fought a tactical match and in the end, won by decision.

His final match was against Britains’ Keith Remfry. Uemura was the smaller of the two and he resorted to doing many drop techniques which Remfry was able to quash. At one point, Remfry looked like he could get an armlock on Uemura but he didn’t succeed. Uemura got a yuko score from an ouchi-gari technique that took Remfry onto his side. Uemura quickly followed up with a kami-shiho-gatame to finish the match. With that victory, on the last day of the judo competition, Japan finally won its first Olympic Open weight gold.