The three men with the highest expectations to lead Japan in a much-needed resurgence in the over-100 kg class at the London Olympics this summer fell flat at the judo national championship on Sunday.
Unheralded Hirotaka Kato beat Ryuta Ishii in the final to claim his first title, but tournament favorite Daiki Kamikawa, veteran Keiji Suzuki and Kazuhiko Takahashi failed to produce the goods for early consideration in the open-weight Olympic qualifier.
The 26-year-old Kato, who was making his fifth appearance at the championship, deployed a corner-drop technique to score an ippon against Ishii in 1 minute, 29 seconds into the match at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan.
"This feels like a dream," said Kato, who is the first under-100 kg judoka to win a national crown in 40 years. "I am so excited I feel like I don't know where I am. I was determined that I had to win this, and I kept plugging away until the end."
Shinobu Sekine, who won the national title in 1972 and then went on to win a gold medal in the middle weight class at the Munich Olympics, was the last non-heavyweight to achieve the feat.
Kato, who stands at 1.74 meters and weighs in at just 93 kg, defeated former national champion Yasuyuki Muneta on a judges' decision in the quarterfinals, and dropped Masaru Momose using a stomach throw for a waza-ari in the semis.
The 22-year-old Kamikawa, meanwhile, lost a judges' split decision to Momose in the quarterfinals, while Takahashi was tossed to the mat by Ishii with an outer-leg trip, also failing to make the semis.
"I have no one to blame but myself for a weak performance. When it came to a decision, I thought I might be in trouble," said Kamikawa, who is aiming for his first Olympic berth. "The only thing I can focus on now is trying to win at the national weight-class championships."
Suzuki, the 2004 Athens Olympic champion in the heaviest weight category, made it to the semifinals against Ishii, but received three point deductions for passivity after hurting his right shoulder when his opponent sent him down with an inner thigh throw.
The 31-year-old Suzuki, who was later diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder, was aiming for his fifth national title.
"I feel nothing but disappointment the national championship has ended like this for me. I want to apologize to my fans," Suzuki said in a statement before leaving for the hospital.
The Japanese men's over-100 kg category for London will be decided at the national weight-class championships being held at Fukuoka Kokusai Center on May 12-13.
Japan men's coach Shinichi Shinohara praised Kato for a job well done, but read the riot act to his three mainstays.
"I am happy one of our young judoka could win and I look forward to his future performances, but I have to ask the three guys who are in the running for the Olympics, 'What the heck are you doing?' There were too many wrongs I saw from them today.
"From the beginning, I couldn't see Kamikawa's determination to fight and win. These guys are the ones being considered, so they have to act like it. This is a tough result to swallow. But Kato really did a great job."