Azerbaijani judoka Vugar Shirinli gave a masterclass in grit and determination to give Azerbaijan its first gold medal at the IBSA Judo Grand Prix.
The 27-year-old judoka stepped on to the tatami in Baku at the top of his game after a run of medals in international competitions, including bronze at last year’s World Championship.
But he needed every ounce of his experience to battle his way to victory in the -60kg final against Florin Bologna. With the chanting home crowd right behind Shirinli, the fight was decided by a waza-ari point with just 15 seconds to go.
After the fight, Shirinli said: “It was a very difficult match for me, but I came here to prove my strength to everyone and that’s what I did. My next goal is the European Championships in July and my license to compete at the Tokyo Paralympics. That is my ultimate aim – to become a Paralympic champion.
Bronze medals in the -60kg category were taken by Kazakstan’s Olzhas Orazalyuly and Recep Ciftci from Turkey.
Shirinli’s win was the first of five medals for Azerbaijan’s men on the first day of the Grand Prix.
In the -66kg category, Azerbaijan’s hopes rested on Rio silver medallist Bayram Mustafayev. In an epic final, he lost to Georgia’s Georgi Kaldani, who won by ippon with 23 seconds left on the clock.
In the fight for bronze, Azerbaijan’s Namig Abasli faced Giorgi Gamjasvili, beating the Georgian by Ippon. The other bronze medal was won by Munkhabat Aajim, from Mongolia.
Eight times world champion medallist Ramil Gasimov will be disappointed not to have secured a place in the final of the -73kg category, but met old rival Nikolai Kornhass from Germany in the fight for bronze.
Gasimov, who at 38 is one of the most experienced in the Azerbaijani squad, defeated Kornhass in their last three contests. But another victory was far from certain this time.
Gasimov gained an early lead with a waza-ari point, but Kornhass came back strongly to equal the score. Gasimov’s final waza-ari point for ippon came with just seven seconds to go.
The second bronze went to Ukraine’s Serhiy Kotenko. Gold was won by Uzbek world champion Feruz Sayidov.
The first day of the IBSA Judo Grand Prix in Baku closed with a silver medal for Azerbaijan, when Huseyn Rahimli faced Davurkhon Karomotov from Uzbekistan in the final of the -81kg category.
Rahimli, 24, has already won silver and two bronze medals from World Championships and is one of Azerbaijan’s strongest prospects for the future.
In Baku, the Uzbek judoka attacked from the opening moments to secure an early waza-ari point. It took 33 seconds for Karomotov to gain the ippon point and take gold. Bronze in the -81 category went to Mexican Eduardo Avilla Sanchez and Russian Ruslan Albagachiyev.
Azerbaijan’s men will be in action and hoping for more medals on the second day of the IBSA Judo Grand Prix. In the -90kg category, Rovshan Safarov and Ramin Aliyev are hopeful of progressing, while Kamil Aghayev carries the flag for Azerbaijan in the -100kg category.
In the heavyweight +100 category, the legendary Ilham Zakiyev will be flying the flag for Azerbaijan in what looks to be a very tough category.