Israel’s Sagi Muki takes gold at judo world championships
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Israel’s Sagi Muki takes gold at judo world championships

Muki defeats Belgian opponent to become first male Israeli world champion; at semifinal, Egyptian contestant refuses to shake his hand

  • Sagi Muki of Israel, top, competes against Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men's -81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
    Sagi Muki of Israel, top, competes against Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men's -81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
  • Sagi Muki of Israel reacts after defeating Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men's -81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
    Sagi Muki of Israel reacts after defeating Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men's -81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
  • Sagi Muki of Israel reacts after defeating Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men's under-81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, August 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
    Sagi Muki of Israel reacts after defeating Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men's under-81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, August 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
  • Sagi Muki of Israel, top, competes against Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men's -81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
    Sagi Muki of Israel, top, competes against Matthias Casse of Belgium during a men's -81 kilogram final of the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was named world champion Wednesday, taking the gold medal at the World Judo Championship finals in Tokyo, Japan, and becoming the first male Israeli athlete to receive the top prize.

Muki claimed the gold after defeating Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the finals of the men’s under-81 kilogram weight class.

An emotional Muki fell to the ground after winning, then got up and spread his arms wide to cheers from the audience.

The middleweight champion reached the finals after narrowly defeating Egyptian opponent Mohamed Abdelaal, who refused to shake his hand at the end of their match (echoing another Egyptian judoka’s actions when losing to Israel’s Ori Sasson at the Rio Olympics in 2016). “I’m sorry” that Abdelaal refused, said Muki. “I’m pleased that I was able to show the beautiful face of Israel.”

Ahead of the semi-final there were reports that Iran’s Saeid Mollaei, who had also advanced to the penultimate stage, could drop out if he were paired with Muki — although Iran was recently reported to end its longstanding ban on its athletes facing off with Israelis.

The matter was not tested, however, as Mollaei eventually fought, and lost to, Belgium’s Casse while Muki fought Abdelaal. Casse and Mollaei “are both excellent sportsmen,” said Muki.

Mollaei “is a terrific guy,” said Israel’s coach, Oren Smadja. “I think he would have competed [against Muki] if he had made it to the final.”

Israel’s Sagi Muki celebrates winning the semi-final against Egypt’s Mohamed Abdelaal in the men’s under 81kg category during the 2019 Judo World Championships at the Nippon Budokan, a venue for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo on August 28, 2019. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

After the victory, Israel’s national anthem ‘Hatikvah’ was played at the medal ceremony as Muki and Israeli members of the audience sang along.

Muki’s win makes him the first male Israeli to be named world champion. In 2013 Yarden Jarbi won the World Judo Championship in Rio de Janeiro in the women’s under-63 kilogram weight class.

Muki has been a rising star in Israeli sports. A two-time European champion, he was considered a favorite for a medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but a disc injury thwarted his chances.

In May, he took home the gold medal at the Baku Grand Slam and last October he won the gold at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, which led to Israel’s national anthem being played in a Gulf state for the first time.

He is considered one of the country’s greatest hopes for the 2020 Summer Olympics, also to be held in Tokyo.

Israel’s Sagi Muki (in white) fights during the semi-final against Egypt’s Mohamed Abdelaal in the men’s under 81kg category during the 2019 Judo World Championships at the Nippon Budokan, a venue for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo on August 28, 2019. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Muki on his win, tweeting: “You’ve brought us all great honor and pride.”

In a conversation between the two broadcast on Israeli TV, Muki told Netanyahu it was “a privilege” to represent Israel, and said he was boosted by the large number of Israelis supporting him in the arena.

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