Judo's rising star Manuel Lombardo: From "bionic man" to Olympic medal hope

The -66kg world number one is back in competition in Prague, Czech Republic, for the first time in almost a year: 'I want to win these European Championships'

By Alessandro Poggi

Nothing seems to stop Manuel Lombardo's meteoric rise.

In the last 24 months, the 21-year-old Italian judoka jumped from the 26th place to the top of the -66kg world rankings.

Lombardo started with a success at the Tel Aviv Grand Prix and impressed at the Paris Grand Slam, where he stunned two-time world champion Abe Hifumi.

At the World Championships in Tokyo, at the iconic Nippon Budokan, he missed the bronze medal after just recovering from a fractured jaw.

During the bronze medal final against Abe, the athlete representing the Esercito Italiano was initially awarded an ippon which was later cancelled by the video judges.

But that fifth place motivated him to end the year strongly: second place at the Brasilia Grand Slam, followed by victories at at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam and at the Qingdao Masters. Until then, no Italian had ever won gold the IJF's second-most-important competition.

But Lombardo wants more: "I feel I haven't won anything major yet," he told the Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview.

"I won important competitions, but for me what matters are European championships, Worlds and Olympics."

The Italian has the chance to claim his first major title at the European judo championships taking place in Prague, Czech Republic, from 19-21 November.

"I want to win these European Championships. I want to test myself against the best." - Manuel Lombardo

When did you start with judo?

I don't even remember, my parents told me I started when I was three years old. My brother used to practise judo since he was six and I followed him at the gym when I wasn't even able to walk...I was basically born into the judo world!

What have you learned from this sport?

The first thing that you learn is respect. Without respect, you can't grow in our sport. You can't be selfish, you can't isolate yourself in training. The best practice is when you can face international partners. Then in competition our opponent is not an enemy and we have to show him respect before and after the match. That's why bowing is important in judo.

How has judo changed your personality?

Judo is my life and I must say that judo hasn't changed my personality, it has literally created it! When I wear a judogi and step on a tatami, I can feel myself in a way that I can't in my day-to-day life. We are not football players, when I go out in my neighbourhood, nobody recognises me.

"When I put on my uniform and I compete on the mat of the Paris Grand Slam I feel like I'm Cristiano Ronaldo." - Manuel Lombardo

Abe Hifumi (left) facing Manuel Lombardo at the 2019 Judo World Championships in Tokyo CREDIT: Marina Mayorova (IJF)

You won an European and World title as a junior: when do you feel you have made your breakthrough as a senior?

I won the Mediterranean Games in 2018 and I won the Tel Aviv Grand Prix at the beginning of 2019, but I would say that the match that made me understand that one day I could become the best was when I defeated [Abe Hifumi] in Paris at the second round.

Since then my goal was doing like the Japanese judokas: they take part in very few events, but they are always competitive.

You started to climb the rankings after the World Championships in Tokyo, what clicked in your mind after that fifth place?

I think that tournament helped me a lot in terms of confidence because before I achieved good results, like a fifth place both in Paris and Dusseldorf, but I couldn't quite get where I wanted. And to be able to participate in the Worlds, I had to bounce back from a very difficult situation.

Less than one month before, I badly fractured my jaw in training: I underwent surgery and the doctors advised me not to go to Tokyo. But I needed points for the Olympic rankings and the Worlds is the event awarding most points, twice as much as a Grand Slam for example. So I agreed with my staff to join my team in Tokyo later, try to win a couple matches and, in case of any pain or other issue, immediately withdraw from the competition.

The Esercito Italiano allowed me to use their facilities, but it wasn't easy, because I had to interrupt my preparation with the team and train on my own.

"I've become like a bionic man: I had 20 titanium pieces in my mouth and my face was so swollen and bruised that they had to photoshop my portrait picture for the tournament!" - Manuel Lombardo

When I was in Tokyo, I gained confidence match after match. In the last eight, I had the best match of my life when I beat the Israeli Baruch Shmailov after coming back from a waza-ari.

In the end I finished fifth, but that experience helped me grow.

You missed a medal after a controversial decision in the bronze final against Abe. The Japanese is rumoured to face Maruyama Joshiro in a winner-takes-all match in December to decide who's going to the Olympics: who do you hope to avoid at the Games?

I don't want to avoid anyone. Actually it would be a personal motivation to win the gold medal in Japan against a Japanese judoka in the final. Probably, given my judo style, facing Maruyama would be 'easier'. But I'm sure that Abe will make it to the Olympics and I would like to face him again, also to make up for that fifth place...

You grew up at the Akiyama judo academy, near Turin, like reigning -66kg Olympic champion Fabio Basile, who's now in the -73kg class. How's your relationship with him?

I've know Fabio since I was six. He was very close to my brother and I remember that once during the Easter holidays he joined us in a trip to an amusement park. We play golf together, sometimes we have a drink in Turin, we've spent New Year's Eves, Halloween parties together. He's a friend.

Fabio has been a great inspiration to me. In Rio he achieved something incredible: he qualified for that Games despite competing in very few events and, as an underdog, he beat the best.

Basile is very confident, what do you think about his mentality?

In that respect, I feel similar to him. All the champions have this mental attitude. When I faced Abe in Paris for the first time, I was convinced I could beat him. You can gain this confidence with time, without it you can't win.

Who are the other judokas that you admire?

I've been growing up watching videos of Rishod Sobirov from Uzbekistan. He was two-time world champion and three-time Olympic medallist and I'm so happy I could know him in person. His kata-guruma inspired me and now this is my signature move.

Then Ono Shohei is the best. I trained with him and he practises a type of judo not conventional for a Japanese: his grips are different and he's good at catching you off guard.

What are your future plans?

I want to carefully select the next events ahead of Tokyo, maybe I'll go to the Masters in Doha and for sure I don't want to miss the Paris Grand Slam. Then after the Olympics I will move up to the -73kg class.

In the future I wouldn't mind taking part in some TV shows, like Fabio did, maybe 'Dancing With the Stars', although I can't dance... Celebrity Big Brother? It's best I stay away from it, I don't want to commit any gaffes! (laughs)