Imagine you’ve reigned supreme in a sport for approaching a decade, winning 128 successive matches on the way to securing a record eight world titles.
What could there possibly be left to achieve?
In the case of Teddy Riner, a whole lot more. The pursuit of sporting history seemingly never stops for the French judoka, who dominated the heavyweight division once again at this year’s Suzuki World Judo Championships in Budapest.
“It is a big day for me, my family and my federation” Riner told CNN Sport. “This gold medal is French. This gold medal is mine!”
The 28-year-old hadn’t stepped onto a tatami in a competitive match since winning the Olympic final in Rio de Janerio 386 days ago.
Much has changed since — not least the very rules themselves — but his standing within the sport remains unquestioned.
The six-foot-eight, 141 kilogram judoka was imperious under the lights of the Papp Lazslo Arena, pawing away his opponents’ advances like a cat toying with a piece of string.
Bigger, heavier opponents stood in Riner’s way — including Egypt’s Maisara Elnagar (151.8kg) and Brazil’s Rafael Silva (167.8kg) — but no man could stop him.
Winning all four of his preliminary matches by ippon — judo’s equivalent of a knockout — Riner faced explosive Georgian Guram Tushishvili at the semifinal stage in one of the most hotly-anticipated clashes of the Championships.
It was the first ever meeting between two of the best pound-for-pound judokas on the planet.
Tushishvili, the lightest in the division (111kg) and still just 22, had capitalized on Riner’s absence by winning European Judo Championships in Warsaw earlier this year.
But, despite forcing the match to golden score and enjoying the backing of a noisy Georgian contingent, he was unable to prevent the man known as “the Teddy Bear” scoring the decisive waza-ari.
It meant Riner faced David Moura of Brazil for a record-extending ninth World Championship title in the gold-medal showdown.
Champion in both Cancun and Ekaterinburg this year, Moura traveled to Hungary occupying top spot in the rankings. Riner, meanwhile, had dropped to 14th place during his absence from judo and begun the tournament unseeded.
Not that it mattered.
Riner won the match in golden time with a sasae-tsurikomi-ashi throw, taking his unbeaten run to 134.
“These days it is very difficult,” Riner told CNN Sport. “This is my first competition since the Olympic Games and now there are a lot of new opponents.
“The younger guys have very beautiful judo, very quick judo, so I am very happy!”
Still just 28 years old, Riner is now aiming for a tenth consecutive World Championship gold.
“The Olympic Games are very far away,” he said. “After maybe five or 10 days’ rest, I will come back, train and go for it again.”
In Saturday’s other weight divisions, Japan’s Aaron Wolf emerged victorious in the -100kg final against Georgia’s Varlam Liparteliani, with Azerbaijan’s Elmar Gasimov and Azerbaijan’s Kirill Denisov walking away with bronze.
South Korea’s Minjeong Kim and Iryna Kindzerska took bronze in the women’s +78kg category. China’s Song Yu beat Japan’s World Championship debutant Sarah Asahina in the showdown for gold.