Two-time Olympic judo champion Shohei Ono, who dominated the men's 73-kilogram division for the better part of a decade, announced his retirement from competition Tuesday.
The 31-year-old Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo Games gold medalist confirmed he will go into coaching rather than pursue a third straight Olympic title next year in Paris.
At a press conference in Tokyo, Ono spoke of the intense competitive drive that kept him undefeated against international opponents since August 2014, barring matches he was forced to forfeit.
"Bouts are a matter of life and death for me. I can never take one lightly or go into it with a smile," he said.
"Having experienced winning two straight Olympics at the Tokyo Games, there was no other competition that could fire me up like that. I'm certain no other experience will surpass it."
Ono, who also won three world championships, plans to start a two-year-long course in Britain as part of the Japanese Olympic Committee's overseas training program for sports instructors.
"I'm going to Europe and hope to return home after reconfirming my joy of judo there," he said before adding he "would love" the chance to coach the national team one day.
Known for a dynamic and aggressive style in which he attacked opponents head-on, Ono was once dubbed the "the world's strongest judoka" by Sydney Olympic men's 100-kg gold medalist and former national team coach Kosei Inoue, who paid tribute to Ono on Tuesday.
"After nine years of interaction as his national team coach, I'd say he was the ideal judoka equipped with both offensive and defensive abilities," said Inoue, who is now vice chairman of development at the All Japan Judo Federation.
"He had a strong philosophy about his own judo and was a judoka who could fight logically. The scenes of him winning the Tokyo Olympics and shedding tears are unforgettable."
After completing elementary school in his native Yamaguchi, Ono moved to Tokyo to enroll in a private judo academy. He emerged on the competitive scene while still studying at Tenri University and soon became a mainstay of the Japanese national team, winning his first world championship in 2013.
Following his 2016 Olympic triumph, Ono took a year off to rest and attend graduate school before proving even more dominant upon his return, winning all six of his matches at the 2019 worlds at Tokyo's iconic Nippon Budokan by ippon.
In the Tokyo Olympic final at the Budokan, Ono won a tense battle against Georgia's Lasha Shavdatuashvili that went deep into golden score.
"I spent 10 years as a national team member...I had the pure desire to walk the high road, and fought thinking as though I was the last samurai," he said.
"I take pride in managing to express to the world what Japanese judo is, and winning back-to-back titles at the home Olympics is the most prestigious thing in my life."
Ono hinted at his retirement by skipping the Tokyo Grand Slam in December, which left him with little chance of qualifying for this year's worlds.
"I've been aiming to be the unprecedented, strongest-ever, superhuman, the one with monstrous strength," he said. "Nobody thought a judo boy from Yamaguchi would come this far. I'd give myself a pass mark."
"I'll keep learning my whole life. My life as a judoka has even more way to go from here."
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