By Matthew Pettersen, Fight Nerd Collegiate Correspondent
Team France took home gold medals at the New York Open Tournament this past Sunday as they defeated the reigning German champions in a thrilling final round. France moved into the finals with a win over USA Team B, highlighted by 2008 Olympic Silver Medalist Benjamin Darbelet at -81kg. He scored a strong wazari (half point) with a sasae tsurikomi ashi foot sweep against USA’s Salama Salem before scoring ippon (full point) with an ouchi gari inside trip. Germany earned its spot in the finals with a quarterfinal win over Canada.
The finals began with the +90kg division. Germany’s Benjamin Behrla got his team off to a quick lead with an impressive ukiwaza sacrifice throw that scored wazari. He capped it off with another wazari via pin. France got even in the next match with a victory by combined scores. The best match in the finals was at -81kg between France’s Darbelet and Germany’s Fleischer. Fleischer shocked the crowd with a sumi gaeshi sacrifice throw for wazari within the first twenty seconds. It looked like he would upset Darbelet, but as the clock ticked down to the one minute mark, Darbelet pulled out a huge harai goshi hip toss for ippon. It was the biggest throw of the tournament.
Schneider evened the score for Germany with a masterful sode tsurikomi goshi, a two sleeve hip throw, at -73kg. This set up a winner-takes-all final at -66kg. It had all the makings of an exciting finale, but Simon Yacoub of Germany went for an illegal leg grab. The match was decided by hasokumake disqualification. With that, the French took the gold medal and the $7,000 cash prize.
The biggest surprise of the tournament was the emergence of USA “B” Team. This hodgepodge of young judoka earned bronze medals, upsetting Russia and Canada. USA B’s bronze medal bid over Canada was capped with an impressive win by the undersized American Aaron Kunihiro at -66kg. He scored with a slick kouchi gari sweep, getting under the much taller Patrick Gagne. After the win, USA coach Jimmy Pedro (former Olympian) suggested a name change. He declared that they were now the USA “B+” team.
In what was perhaps the most exciting match of the day, American Shintaro Higashi pulled off an ippon victory over the French heavyweight in the quarterfinals. Late in the match, Higashi went down by wazari after being countered with tani otoshi, silencing the crowd. In the very next exchange, he entered for uchimata, and as the Frenchman tried to counter him, Higashi switched to ko uchi gari for the ippon score. As the crowd erupted, both men raised their hands in victory, but a video review would prove that Higashi was the victor. Higashi is a member of the NYAC’s club, and was able to perform for his home crowd.
In the shadow of USA’s B Team sat the USA A Team. They fought Team Russia for 5th place, despite higher expectations. USA won impressively, taking four of the five matches. Two time Olympian Travis Stevens is the biggest name on the USA team, but the highlight reel throws came from South African Champion Zack Piontek at -90kg and 2012 Olympian Kyle Vashkulat at +90kg. Piontek pulled off a beautiful tomoe nage sacrifice throw to dispose Galeev of Russia for ippon.
Vashkulat finished Kushpita with a strong ouchi gari for ippon. Team USA had a strong finish, but 5th is a disappointing finish for such a talented group.
Ippon – Full Point
Wazari – Half Point
Yuko – Quarter Point
Photography by Tom Pettersen