Israeli Judoka Uri Sasson Looks to Add a Notch to His Belt

After emerging from the shadow of his big brother, Sasson heads for the World Championships as Israel's next best hope in his weight class since Arik Ze'evi.

You wouldn’t want to meet Uri Sasson while walking in a dark alley. At 1.93 meters tall and weighing 100 kilos, his sheer body mass is intimidating body mass. He sports a rough beard and is liable to come across as threatening, but when he speaks, his words are calming.

“People are deterred by the way I look,” says the judoka. “It’s not something they see every day, but the moment they talk to me they discover that I’m the complete opposite of my appearance.”

Sasson says that outside judo he is not at all aggressive. “On the mat I have to put on the persona of totally different person - otherwise they’d eat me alive. It’s like a jungle – if you look a little weak, you’ll lose in battle. I went through a maturation process and learned on the mat. I have to put my feelings on the side and be a lion.”

The 23-year-old finished fifth in the European Championships and is participating in his first World Championships, which began Monday in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, his big brother and national team captain, Alon, is staying at home. “It bothers me that he didn’t come to the European Champions. I really wanted him to be with me, but I’ve learned not to let these things influence me at the professional level,” say Sasson, who competes in the under-100 kg division on Saturday.

Needless to say, Sasson’s dimensions weren’t always what they are today. As a child he suffered blows from Alon, who made the hierarchy at home clear. “From an early age Alon was the Israeli champion in judo and a model for me to emulate,” recalls Uri. “As a child, I saw him win and I wanted to feel what it’s like to be an athlete like him.”

Sasson donned a kimono and belt of his own at age eight. “In the early years I had a fearful respect for Alon, and over the years I became more massive. I climbed up the weight categories and the situation between us balanced out.” The two brothers competed in the under-90 kg category and, six years ago, fought each other for different teams in the Israeli judo league. “It was the straw that broke me,” recalls Sasson. “Rivalry between brothers isn’t healthy, especially when it involves physical contact and all the emotions being released.”

The younger brother conceded that contest -- and then nature intervened to prevent such a loaded fight from taking place again: Uri moved up to the under-100 kg category. At the same time, Alon encountered some political problems within the Israel Judo Association, and found himself outside the sport for two years.

“The news that my brother was no longer with me weakened me mentally, but I had no choice but to carry on,” says the younger Sasson. It is after all a survival sport. I progressed and basically picked up where Alon left off. Deep inside I had the desire to be the best, physically, in the sport, and when I went to fight I had enormous motivation to win.”

Yet another challenge awaited Sasson in the under-100 kg category: one of the top athletes in the country against whom he would have to fight for a lone ticket to the Olympic Games in London. “It was clear that to get past Arik Ze’evi I would have to do something exceptional, and I took into account that it might not happen. Later, I switched to the over-100 kg category, and I was close to making the Olympics, but it was too late.”

Preparing mentally for the big time

After missing out on a spot in London, Sasson returned to the under-100 kg category and began to grasp what needed to change. “Even if Arik weren’t competing in my weight, I still wasn’t mentally ready for the big time,” he says.

He has worked in recent years closely with Noam Eyal, a sports psychologist for the Israel Olympic Committee. Eyal worked on his mental resilience. “I changed, and began to understand new things. I really believe in the psychology of life,” says Sasson, adding that he believes now is his time to bloom. Ze’evi retired last year, and the spotlight soon turned to Sasson, the natural choice to be Israel’s next hope in the under-100 kg category.

Aside from being motivated and working hard, Sasson also has genetic traits that work in his favor. He has a low body mass index, which makes him quicker than his opponents. “It’s a build that is more appropriate for bodybuilding than judo, but it demands maintenance like a car,” says Sasson, who looks at the bright side of things. “So I party less, watch my health and raise my preparedness for competition.”

Sasson lives in Netanya, and between his morning workout and another in the evening, he studies business administration at Ruppin College. “I wanted to be involved in something outside of judo, because to fall and get knocked on the head every day can drive you mad,” he says. “A combination of competitions and business can take you to all kinds of places.”

Like the other guys on the national team, Sasson trains under Oren Smadja, the last judoka to return from a world championship with a medal in an Olympic category (Ze’evi did it in the open weight division). “It’s an honor to train with him,” says Sasson. “He has a kind of aura of champions around him. It boosts our confidence to know that someone who was in these situations is leading you on this path. Oren took an amazing journey with us over the last three years. We started with nothing because of all the changes in the association, and it was a powerful and emotional journey. Today, we have a unified, strong team in Europe.”

In Ze’evi’s absence, Sasson says he is trying to fill the former champion’s shoes. “You have to know how to deal with that,” he says. “People are looking for the successor who will bring results. Are they trying to get me to fill in big shoes? I have no problem with that.”

Meanwhile, Sasson’s older brother returned to the sport to become captain of the national team. “Having brothers together is power,” says Uri. “It props you up when there’s a bad practice or you’re having a hard time.”

Sasson doesn’t sound too worked up about the World Championships. “People around me stress that it’s just like any other competition I’ve experienced,” he says. “It’s the same opponents - just the name World Championships is more inflated. The experience here is amazing: I get all the energy of Rio de Janeiro and it’s a deadly combination. I’ll try to simultaneously possess and internal fire and calm. I’ll try to arrive very hungry for battle, but also not put to much pressure on myself. I’ll have to step up my game.”

Israel Judo Association