The Azerbaijan Judo Federation are welcoming athletes on the IJF World Judo Tour this week for the three-day Baku Grand Slam. As the host nation, they’re sending in their gold medal hopefuls including WRL #1 Hidayat HEYDAROV (-73kg), Zelim KOTSOIEV (-100kg), Saeid MOLLAEI (-81kg), as well Paris Grand Slam silver medallists, Zelim TCKAEV (-81kg) and Eljan HAJIYEV (-90kg). Tckaev will in fact be defending his 2023 title at home.
Coming to rival the the Azeri duo, Turan BAYRAMOV and Balabay AGHAYEV in the -60kg category is the current European Champion and Paris Grand Slam winner, Luka MKHEIDZE (FRA), followed by Dilshot KHALMATOV (UKR) who lost out to Mkheidze in the European final in Montpellier. There is plenty talent in the top half, but notably a little lower in ranking is Temur NOZADZE (GEO).
The -66kg men’s division is lead by Azerbaijan’s Yashar NAJAFOV, with the top five in the world absent in this Grand Slam event. Nevertheless, the level will not be deterred, Bodgan IADOV (UKR), Willian LIMA (BRA) and Alberto GAITERO MARTIN (ESP) take up the remaining top four spots. With the Olympic Games in mind, this event could be extremely important for those just out of qualification, especially with the top five not participating, it may be a golden opportunity to rack up some points.
There’s quite a gap in the ranking between -73kg top seed, Heydarov and Obidkhon NOMANOV (UZB) in at #14. So again, this is a huge chance for those looking for Grand Slam points, gold, silver and bronze bring about 1000, 700 and 500 respectively, with a minimum of 10 given for participation alone. We have the likes of Jorge CANO GARCIA (ESP) who showcased his best in the European Club Championships in December.
In the -81kg category, it is a different story, Francois GAUTHIER DRAPEAU (CAN) is in the lead based on ranking but will be chased down by Mollaei and Tckaev, as well as Attila UNGVARI (HUN) and then the Austrian brothers, Shamil and Wachid BORCHASHVILI who are only three paces apart in the world ranking. Closing out the top eight are Frank DE WIT (NED) and Antonio ESPOSITO (ITA). The unseeded and #54 in the WRL, Zaur DVALASHVILI (GEO) took bronze in the Upper Austria Grand Prix and went on to become the U23 European Champion, and could potentially shake things up for the more experienced.
The -90kg men are lead my Olympic medallist TOTH Krisztian (HUN), who hasnt had the strongest start to the year but will endeavour to be on the podium in Baku. Challenging the WRL #4 are a host of athletes still trying to claim their qualification spot including Sami CHOUCHI (BEL), and French duo Alexis MATHIEU and Axel CLERGET as the final spot has yet to be claimed. The top four following TOTH include Ivan Felipe SILVA MORALES (CUB), Noel VAN T END (NED) and Ivaylo IVANOV (BUL).
As for the -100kg, the WRL #1 Ilia SULAMANIDZE (GEO) will make his first appearance on the IJF World Judo Tour in 2024, and it looks like there could be a European Championships final rematch between himself and the home favourite Kotsoiev if both succeed in their respective halves. Michael KORREL (NED) didn’t quite achieve his goal in Paris but he is back to make corrections, and then we have double acts from Canada; Kyle REYES and Shady ELNAHAS, and Brazil; Leonardo GONCALVES and Rafael BUZACARINI. Eyes will also be on Georgios KROUSSANIOTAKIS (CYP) who played champions in Portugal and was unluckily drawn against former World Champion, Muzaffarbek TUROBOYEV (UZB).
Back on form in the +100kg is Johannes FREY (GER), taking the gold medal in the Gyor European Open last week, and moving directly to Baku after a long time off following knee surgery. He will have stiff competition, with the likes of Olympic silver medallist Guram TUSHISHVILI (GEO) in as top seed, followed by Rafael SILVA (BRA). There is also the Dutch duo, Jelly SNIPPE and Jur SPIJKERS, and home favourite Ushangi KOKAURI (AZE). Another Cypriot looking for an Olympic spot is Junior European silver and Junior World bronze medallist, Giannis ANTONIOU who currently sits at #44.
Author: Thea Cowen