A month or two ago I had a great conversation with my judo sensei over some iced coffee. We discussed his recent trip to Japan and the judo experiences he had there. It was great to hear his stories. Eventually we stumbled upon the question, “Who’s your favorite judoka, past of present?” Such a tough question! Do you go for technicians or champions? Asia or Europe? It’s this question that inspired me to share my current top 5 favorite judoka. The cool thing is, this list has changed and will continue to change over the course of my life. Enjoy.
5 (Tie). Name: Mike Swain. Country: USA. Weight: 71kg.
Mike Swain is a staple in American judo and I have had the honor to have him actually shape my judo. He was a San Jose State judo legend and coach by the time I enrolled in school there. I remember when I was still in high school, my brother was a freshman on the SJSU judo team, and he came home for Summer and brought his Blue Mike Swain Century judo gi with him. I stole it and attended practice in it, I remember feeling as if I was Superman.
Swain’s technical ability was unparalleled on the World stage, a 1987 Gold medal at the World Championships proves this point. He literally wrote the book on Ashiwaza and his Tai-otoshi was a notorious technique among international competitors, a pure technician. For this, Mike Swain starts off this list.
5 (Tie). Name: Shohei Ono. Country: JPN. Weight: 73kg.
Shohei caught my eye after winning the 2013 World Championships in style and is one of my newest favorites. His aggressiveness comes through his techniques as he often seems to plant his opponents through the tatami. He seems to have a chip on his shoulder and steps on the mat with a certain swagger. He has had numerous set backs in his young career and is currently not even ranked in the top #10 in the world. Despite this, he’s still a favorite of mine due to his punishing style. He was recently passed on for the 2015 World Championships and I’m curious to see where his career goes from here.
4. Name: Takashi Ono. Country: JPN. Weight: 81kg/90kg/100kg.
You may or may not have ever heard of Takashi Ono, but he’s a favorite of mine for several reasons. He never won a World Title and he never placed in the Olympics, but that’s the exact reason why I look up to him so much. He has fought and placed in tournaments all over the World, spanning 3 weight categories, and is still currently fighting. I recently checked out the draw for the 2015 All-Japan Judo Championships and spotted his name among the Japanese elite. While some may consider him past his prime, I admire the fact that he is still competing which makes me believe his love of judo goes well beyond glory, he simply loves to fight.
3. Name: Ilias Iliadis. Country: GRC. Weight: 73kg/81kg/90kg.
3x World Champion. 2x European Champion. Olympic Champion. The results speak for themselves. But judging how the international community rallies behind Ilias, it seems safe to assume that he is not only a world class competitor, but he is a world class human being. I place him on this list not only because of his competition records, but I truly enjoy watching his style judo. It’s blunt, straight forward, and he’s always shooting for the ippon. I’m currently working on getting my hands on an autographed gi of his for my shop.
2. Name: Flavio Canto. Country: BRA. Weight: 73kg/81kg.
Flavio has been a long time favorite of mine. The way he effortlessly combines his tachiwaza with his newaza is something I can only dream of doing. He’s a jiu jitsu Black belt as well and is one of the main reasons why I began jiu jitsu in the first place. His career spans many high points, with an Olympic Bronze medal being it’s cornerstone. More importantly, he’s another individual, based on how the community treats him, who seems to be a phenomenal human being. I follow him on Instagram and he is constantly seen giving back to judo in Brazil’s poorest communities.
1. Name: Isao Okano. Country: JPN. Weight: 80kg.
There’s a reason why I chose Isao Okano to adorn the mural in my shop, it’s because I consider him a judo legend. World Champion and Olympic Champion, his competition record is stellar. I had the opportunity to train with Isao Okano on several occasions, both at SJSU and at his Ryutsu Keizai University judo program. His son, Tetsu Okano, was also my team mate at SJSU, so the personal connection just adds to my adoration.
As I stated above, it will be interesting to look at this list 5-10 years from now to see who my favorite judoka were at this time. Due to restrictions, I could not fit all of my favorites, but some names I would include would be Kirill Denisov of Russia, Nyam-Ochir Sainjargal of Mongolia, and Varlam Lipartiliani of Georgia.
Who are some of your favorites?