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A Judo Legend Just Took Bronze After What Might Be The Biggest Upset In Judo History

France's Teddy Riner (right) and Tamerlan Bashaev of the team from Russia compete Friday during the men's judo over 100-kilogram quarterfinal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Chris Graythen
Getty Images
France's Teddy Riner (right) and Tamerlan Bashaev of the team from Russia compete Friday during the men's judo over 100-kilogram quarterfinal at the Tokyo Olympics.

TOKYO — Judo fighter Teddy Riner lost in the Olympic quarterfinal to the top-ranked judo athlete in their class in the world – and it was considered one of the biggest upsets in the history of his sport.

That says a lot about the legacy that the French athlete, a 6-foot-8-inch, two-time gold medalist known as "Big Ted," has built over his decade of absolute domination.

A loss in 2020 – to a Japanese fighter now nicknamed the "King Slayer" – ended Riner's 154-straight-fight winning streak.

Tamerlan Bashaev, a scrappy Russian nearly a foot shorter than Riner, was ranked higher going into the fight Friday after competing more regularly in recent months. The two competed in the heaviest weight class — over 100 kilograms.

Neither judoka was able to throw their opponent decisively and end it – judo's equivalent of a knockout punch called an ippon. In overtime, Bashaev won by waza-ari, meaning he landed a move that wasn't clean and powerful enough to be an ippon.

Riner, 32, looked surprised and walked by reporters without taking questions. No loss can change the rock star status he has in his sport and the accomplishments that almost no modern judo fighter has ever matched.

Perhaps even more notable than the shock of the quarterfinal was the way Riner roared back.

At the end of the night, he walked away with a bronze. It was his fourth consecutive Olympics to medal.

"I'm over the moon. It's been a day that went well. I would have liked it to end differently, but in the end I won a bronze medal. I'm very proud," he said.

The judo community talks about him like he is a god

Riner, who was born on the island of Guadeloupe and grew up in Paris, has said he tried a lot of sports growing up – but ultimately picked judo because he liked only needing to rely on himself.

He said the preparation for these Games was difficult, between the postponement due to COVID-19 and an injury. "I've learned a lot," he added.

For people knowledgeable about judo, Riner is seen as almost superhuman. He's also the only judoka, male or female, to win 10 world championships.

"His thing is not to enter the pantheon but to destroy the door with a ram and to sit on the throne of eternity," the International Judo Federationsaid ahead of Friday's competition.

"Riner is part of that cast of gifted elect who walk on water as if it were something normal," it added. "Riner is not Everest but the entire Himalayan range. Winning against him would be, without a doubt, one of the greatest feats of all time."

Riner claws his way back into medal contention

"This is not the expected result ... but there is an Olympic medal to go for," Riner tweeted after his loss to the Russian.

He then faced Brazilian Rafael Silva and struck quickly and explosively. He flipped Silva, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist who is as tall as he is, onto his back and used his knee to pin him down by the neck. The whole thing was over in 45 seconds.

"This is a hard competition. I knew I would have a hard time with Riner," Silva said after the fight.

"Determined," Riner tweeted simply, with a photo of him walking away with Silva on the floor.

The action went down at a historic judo arena. The Nippon Budokan, an octagonal space with soaring ceilings designed to evoke Mount Fuji, is where the sport made its Olympic debut in 1964. It's considered the spiritual home of Japanese martial arts.

At the end of his night, Riner went up against Japanese star Hisayoshi Harasawa in a grueling fight that went into overtime. Riner managed to defeat him and smiled and held up four fingers at the end – an apparent reference to his four medals.

Judo awards two bronze medals at the Olympics per weight class. Riner's rival, Bashaev, ended up losing in the semifinal. Even though Bashaev brought down the judo legend, they stood on the same level on the podium.

The gold went to Lukas Krpalek of the Czech Republic, and Georgia's Guram Tushishvili took silver.

Riner will have another opportunity to pick up a gold in Tokyo – he'll compete with the French team Saturday.

"I have maybe two options again — tomorrow, maybe gold medal," he said. "And the next time is Paris."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.