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Fighter Profiles > World Champions > Hitoshi Sugai
DOB - 29 December 1962
COUNTRY - Japan
WEIGHT - U95kg
Essen, 1987, Gold
Hitoshi Sugai began judo at the age of thirteen, in his hometown of Furubita, Hokkaido. A chubby child, he enjoyed sports, but disliked running, and so was naturally attracted to judo. From the outset he studied many different techniques, including Ashiwaza, Sode-tsuri-komi-goshi and even Uchimata sukashi. However, his height indicated a likely physical propensity for uchimata, and by his black belt grading at the age of 15, Uchimata was already beginning to settle as his Tokui-waza. By sixteen, despite often harbouring a desire to be Seoi-nage specialist, Sugai had to concede that his body was telling him something completely different, that Uchimata was his throw!!
His early teacher, Nobohiro Sato, elder brother of Nobuyuki Sato who would become his teacher at Tokai university, instilled in him the importance of the diverse forms of kuzushi for Uchimata, and the crucial role it played in executing the technique. Time after time, he made Sugai fight larger opponents, emphasising the smooth pull on the sleeve grip, or hikite, as they say in Japan. No matter how tall Sugai’s opponent, Sato sensei never allowed him to forget to pull upwards, he insisted on technical precision and this would become the foundation of Sugai’s judo in the future.
At the age of 18, Sugai left Hokkaido for Tokai University where the crop at the time included Yasuhiro Yamashita as well as many other tough opponents. Like all Tokai’s fighter’s, Sugai had to endure the Kangeiko (mid winter, early morning practices) and shochugeiko (summer training at the hottest times of the year) and it was through these that he learned to keep his technique functioning in the face of extreme exhaustion. It was also here that Sugai learned to deal with foreign opposition as he practised with many visiting fighters, including double Olympic Champion, Peter Seisenbacher and the tough Belgian, Robert van der Walle.
From the age of 21, Sugai began to compete regularly in the high level competitions. It became evident that his Uchimata was less effective against top level Japanese opponents than against Westerners, relying as it did on a strong aggressive pushing opponent. However, he still had a good repertoire of techniques to fall back on, including, De-ashi-barai, Osoto-gari, Tai-otoshi and Ouchi-gari. After several successes in his early years as a competitor, Sugai came to be seen as a potential representative for Japan on the International scene. He won his place for the World Championships in 1985 when he beat fellow U95kg fighter Masako Mihara in the national selections, using two uchimata attacks for a Waza-ari each.
In Seoul, things went remarkably smoothly for Sugai, as he won each of his opening three contests with Uchimata. In the fourth round he faced van der Walle and, having often been dominated by the Belgian in training sessions at Tokai, expected to lose. Despite this, Sugai capitalised on his opponent’s momentum near the edge of the mat the throw for ippon with another Uchimata. This was almost as satisfying for Sugai as the final against Hyung-Zoo Ha, the Korean Olympic Champion, which proved to be an all action match, with lots of small scores, but which Sugai eventually won with Tai-otoshi seconds before the bell.
Though a great success, Sugai knew that in Seoul he had been fortunate enough to face all right handed opponents, whom his left handed stance suited better. He was however aware that, were he to continue such successes, he would have to develop his Uchimata to work in an ai-yotsu situation, in his case, left vs. left. Part of the problem for him was his opponent’s defensive grip on his sleeve. One evening after training, he had the idea of using this grip to his advantage, a technique which would produce spectacular results as he attempted to defend his World title In Essen, in 1987.
This time, his opponents had done their homework, and refused to grip up with him, in an attempt to prevent his Uchimata. Thus, he won his early rounds mostly on penalties and with one handed attacks. Then against Marc Meiling of West Germany, Sugai was able to put his new idea into effect. As Meiling dominated his left arm, Sugai used it to his advantage, pulling forwards and spinning underneath the German for one of the best Uchimatas of his career. As Sugai notes, ‘this was my most satisfying victory: I had noticed my weakness, found a solution, worked on it and put it into practice at the most important time’. In the final he beat the Dutchman, Meijer, with two yuko scores to successfully defend his title.
Essen proved to be the highlight of Sugai’s career, as he failed to pick up medals at the Seoul Olympics or the 1989 World Championships. However, he had shown in his career that a rhythmic style based on technique could work at the highest level against more powerful opponents. He therefore showed that the principle of Ju yoku go o sei suru (softness can overcome hardness) can be made a reality.