Japan had high hopes for wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And in fact, Japanese wrestlers won five gold medals, becoming overnight heroes for Japan.
But one of the least well-known of the overnight heroes was Yojiro Uetake, who moved to the United States in 1963 and competed for Oklahoma State University. Uetake wasn’t asked to come back to Japan to compete for the Olympic team, so he paid his way back to Tokyo in the early summer of 1964. When he arrived at the training camp to select wrestlers to represent Japan in the Olympics, Uetake said he was an unknown and made others uncomfortable.
The selection process was to wrestle the seven wrestlers competing in the bantam weight division. And the competition was strong: Hiroshi Ikeda (1963 bantamweight world champion), Tomiaki Fukuda (1965 bantamweight world champion), Masaaki Kaneko (1966 featherweight world champion), Takeo Morita (1969 featherweight world champion). But the Japanese from Oklahoma swept through the competition and finished 6-0, sealing his selection to the 1964 Olympics.
At the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the wrestler from the Soviet Union, Aydin Ibrahimov, was considered a strong favorite to win gold in the bantamweight class of the freestyle wrestling competition in 1964. As it turned out, Uetake met Ibrahimov in the semi-finals of the bantamweight championships. In the heat of the battle, Uetake’s left shoulder popped out of its socket. His coach pressed hard on Uetake’s arm and popped his shoulder back in. “I didn’t feel anything,” Uetake told me, but he went on to tackle Ibrahimov twice to win 2-0. “When you are in the Olympics, tension is very high. I was simply so excited I don’t feel any pain. Of course, after it was all done, it hurt a lot!”
Uetake had plowed through the competition to this point. But to win the gold, Uetake had to defeat Huseyin Akbas of Turkey, the reigning 1962 World Wrestling Champion. And to that day, no Japanese had ever beat him. Uetake told me that he only needed a tie to win the gold medal, and in such cases, a wrestler could become passive.
Uetake wanted to take Akbas down by grabbing his left leg, but was cautious because Akbar was fast and was known for turning that attack to his advantage and flipping his opponent. It seemed to Uetake that Akbas was staying away while Uetake was trying to find the right opening. In the second round, the referee briefly stopped the fight to warn Uetake to attack, and gave Akbar a point. That was the only point Uetake gave up in his Tokyo Olympic competition.
“My mindset was to never lose a point,” Uetake told me. “I would never ever let an opponent touch my leg. I’d always be looking at the opponent’s eyes and prevent any opening for the opponent. I would always be moving my legs, while using my hands and body to keep away from my legs. I’d also be attacking, but pulling back quickly if there was no opening.”
That sounds like basic technique. But Uetake (today known as Obata after changing to his wife’s family name), was not only precise in his technique, he was fast. American wrestler, Dave Auble faced off against Uetake in the semi-finals, and he told me he was simply outplayed. “Everything I tried to do, he was a split second ahead of me. It was a blow out. It was devastating. I was totally demoralized. He won by a decision. I don’t know how he didn’t pin me. I had never had a match like that, even against world champs.”
With only 3 minutes remaining in the match, the two wrestlers were tied. Uetake wanted to go for Akbas’ leg, but the Turk was matching Uetake’s moves and shifts. After Uetake was cautioned, and found himself suddenly behind 1 – 0, Uetake’s instincts took over. “The last 2 minutes and 40 seconds, I don’t remember anything. But apparently I was able to grab his leg and bring him down twice, and get two points.”
Uetake took the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and then returned to form in 1968, winning gold again at the Mexico City Olympics.