The unfulfilled potential of Cheng Xunzhao (CHN)

Cheng smashes Iliadis (GRE) with his trademark ippon-osoto.

One of the most stunning series of events at the 2016 Rio Olympics was how little-known Cheng Xunzhao of China upset not one, not two but three top players in the -90kg division, and all with the same technique.

Not many people would relish the prospect of fighting Ilias Iliadis (GRE) for their first bout but that’s what Cheng had to contend with in Rio. That Iliadis would be the one to move to the next round was but a foregone conclusion. But the unbelievable happened. Cheng smashed Iliadis to the mat with an ippon-osoto (an osoto done with an ippon-seoi grip).

His next opponent, Krisztian Toth (HUN) may have felt relief that it was Cheng he was facing rather than Iliadis, but if so that sentiment would fade rather quickly as Cheng as also smashed him to the ground with exactly the same technique: ippon-osoto.

Toth was stunned, Toth’s coach was stunned, the crowd was stunned, the live commentators were stunned, and Iliadis – if he was watching in the wings – would have been stunned too. That stunning victory propelled Cheng into the quarterfinal where he would face Marcus Nyman (SWE).

Cheng performed arguably the greatest hattrick in Olympic judo history when he again proceed to slam his next opponent to the mat with ippon-osoto, the very same technique he threw Iliadis and Toth with.

This turn of events was so remarkable, so amazing, so unbelievable that color commentator Neil Adams said on live TV: “If you’d put money on there, we’d be millionaires… we’d be trilliionaires.”

Watch Cheng throw Iliadis, Toth and Nyman with three consecutive ippon-osoto for ippon.

The big win catapulted Cheng into the semifinal, against Mashu Baker (JPN), who proved to be a bridge too far for Cheng. But he quickly bounced back and defeated Otgonbaatar Lkhagvasuren for the bronze medal.

Immediately after the Olympics judo fans and pundits alike were wondering: “Is Cheng a one-hit wonder?” Was his standout performance in the Olympics a one-time thing never to be repeated again?

You can imagine the excitement in the air when Cheng reappeared in the 2017 Paris Grand Slam, where obliterated the opposition, including future World Champion Nikoloz Sherazadishvili (ESP) and former World Champion Gwak Donghan (KOR) on his way to the final. There, he met home favorite Axel Clerget, whom he threw for ippon using… you guessed it: Ippon-osoto.

And with that, a star was born. Everyone was looking forward to more brilliant performances by Cheng. He looked to be on course to possibly becoming China’s first male World Champion but then he suddenly disappeared, for two whole years.

There were speculations that he had been injured, but how serious would his injury have to be for him to be gone for two years? There was also talk that he was focusing on domestic competitions in China but why would any player do that when they’ve just won a Olympic bronze and a Paris Grand Slam gold?

Exactly two years after his mysterious disappearance, Cheng fought in the 2019 Rome World Cup where he lost in the quarterfinal. His next appearance was that 2019 IJF World Masters in Qingdao. Surely, he would do better on home ground. But alas, he lost in the preliminary rounds. And with that, he once again disappeared.

Today, apparently, he is a member of the coaching staff of the Chinese team.