Hanyu roars in comeback for world title, U.S. men earn third spot

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In the end, Yuzuru Hanyu stood alone once again – literally.

The reigning Olympic champion came into Friday’s free skate at the World Figure Skating Championships down seven points of compatriot Tatsuki Machida, the short program leader who turned in a solid free skate just minutes earlier.

But the 19 year old, Japan’s first-ever Olympic men’s champion, was undeterred. He took to the ice in Saitama and delivered a clean and thorough “Romeo and Juliet” free skate, launching himself to the top of the podium once again, his second major international crown in a matter of weeks.

More: Asada sets world record in ladies’ short program | Savchenko/Szolkowy win pairs

Hanyu, who is coached by former world champion Brian Orser, stood alone to celebrate as his score was announced, jumping up and pumping his fists over his head. Orser was already tending to his other world class pupil, Javier Fernandez, who skated next.

Fernandez ended up third, making up for his botched finish in Sochi last month, where he fell to fourth place because he miscalculated his points during the free skate.

Yet there was no miscalculation for the U.S. men in Saitama, who earned a third spot for the World Championships for the first time since 2011.

They did so thanks to an inspired skate from Jeremy Abbott, the four-time national champion with a history of international hiccups. The Colorado native skated with gusto in his long program and moved from eighth to fifth overall. 2013 U.S. champ Max Aaron placed eighth.

The U.S. needed the final skater of the competition, Takahiko Kozuka, to fall below Abbott. He did just that, putting his hand down on several jumps and moving tentatively on the ice.

Skating in what he’s said will be his last-ever competition, Abbott summoned the same free skate spirit he found in Sochi, connecting with the “Symphony Number 3” music as it seemed to sway him over the ice. Technically, Abbott lost little points from jump to jump, but overall the feeling of the program was one of triumph, Abbott’s final spin was not quite done when the capacity crowd rose to its feet to congratulate him.

“I have so many emotions going through my head. I’m happy with how I skated and that was exactly what I wanted to do here,” said Abbott in a U.S. Figure Skating statement. “That’s what I’ve been training for. That’s the best I’ve ever skated that program in competition. I’m so proud and honored to do it in Japan. I had such a warm welcome.”

More: Full men’s scores and standings

Aaron’s long program, meanwhile, was reflective of his entire season: he skated fast but messy, attacking his jumps aggressively but seemingly unable to find his skates underneath him. Just two of his eight jumps were marked as cleanly executed.

“I’m frustrated. I came out here and gave it my best,” Aaron said in the same statement. “I trained hard for this but obviously it didn’t go the way I trained it. It’s reality. I have to go back and see what I can do for next season.”

The U.S. men needed a combined finish of 13th to gain a third spot at Worlds next year. They got just that, with Abbott fifth and Aaron eighth. This is the first time the U.S. men will have three spots at a World Championships since 2011.

Hanyu wasn’t completely alone in the Kiss and Cry: He brought along a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear, which has famously followed him around the world, garnering its own Twitter handle. He mocked shaking hands with the bear before his scores came in, a world champion already confident in what he had accomplished, yet still a playful teen at heart.

Overall, the men delivered a much more engaging, dramatic and technically sound free skate than in Sochi, where falls dominated the final two groups. Many argue that a day between the short and long programs allow for better rest and recovery and thus better skating. Saitama may have proved that.

Ice dancing
A surprising turn of events ended the short dance program of the ice dancing competition, which is without the two teams that have dominated the discipline over the last five years.

Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte were the ones to step up Friday and take advantage of that, skating a near-flawless routine to score a 69.70 and sit a half point ahead of Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.

It’s Weaver and Poje’s compatriots Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir who are skipping the World Championships, as are reigning Olympic gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. The two teams own the gold and silver medals from the last two Olympic Games.

America was well represented in the short dance, however, where both Madison Chock and Evan Bates as well as Maia and Alex Shibutani put out strong performances, finishing fourth and sixth, respectively.

“We had the most fun today that we have all season performing [our short dance],” Bates said via U.S. Figure Skating. “Our goal was to pay tribute to the program and skate it well. It’s been a great program for us.”

Chock/Bates were eighth in Sochi, the Shibutanis ninth.

Chock/Bates sit just half a point off the podium behind veterans Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, who have medaled just once at Worlds (bronze in 2012) and were fourth at the Olympics last month.

Sochi bronze medalists Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia looked poised to continue their strong run before Katsalapov stepped out of a sequence of twizzles, costing the team valuable points and putting them in fifth heading into the free dance.

Men’s overall standings
1. Yuzuru HANYU JPN 282.59
2. Tatsuki MACHIDA JPN 282.26
3. Javier FERNANDEZ ESP 275.93
4. Maksim KOVTUN RUS 247.37
5. Jeremy ABBOTT USA 246.35
6. Takahiko KOZUKA JPN 238.02
7. Han YAN CHN 231.91
8. Max AARON USA 225.66

Ice dance standings – Short dance
1. Anna CAPPELLINI/Luca LANOTTE ITA 69.70
2. Kaitlyn WEAVER/Andrew POJE CAN 69.20
3. Nathalie PECHALAT/Fabian BOURZAT FRA 68.20
4. Madison CHOCK/Evan BATES USA 67.71
5. Yelena ILINYKH/Nikita KATSALAPOV RUS 65.67
6. Maia SHIBUTANI/Alex SHIBUTANI USA 63.55
7. Nelli ZHIGANSHINA/Alexander GAZSI GER 62.27
8. Victoria SINITSINA/Ruslan ZHIGANSHIN RUS 62.11
18. Alexandra ALDRIDGE/Daniel EATON USA 53.34

Michael Phelps: To a naked eye, Milorad Cavic won — 10th anniversary of Beijing butterfly

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So many onlookers thought Milorad Cavic beat Michael Phelps in the Beijing Olympic 100m butterfly. Even Phelps himself.

“To a naked eye, he won the race,” Phelps said in an Omega documentary first published in 2016.

The 10th anniversary of that final — which Phelps won by .01 on a come-from-behind, half-stroke finish — is Wednesday night in the U.S./Thursday morning in China.

It marked Phelps’ seventh gold medal of those Games en route to his final tally of eight, breaking Mark Spitz‘s record for golds at a single Games. But it wasn’t without a little controversy.

Years later, Cavic jabbed again about the results that his Serbian federation unsuccessfully protested in Beijing.

“I don’t necessarily feel like it was an injustice,” the Serbian said in the 2016 film. “Mistakes were made on my side. There were things that I could have done better which would have made it a definite victory for myself, but my gut instinct is that I won.”

Cavic was arguably the favorite on the morning of the final. He broke the Olympic record in the preliminary heats, then was again faster than Phelps in the semifinals, when Phelps was coming off a 200m individual medley final.

After the semifinal, Phelps remembered walking down a Water Cube back hallway with coach Bob Bowman after the 15th of 17 total races.

“I said, ‘I’m done. I don’t have any more energy left. I’m cashed,'” Phelps said. “To put it bluntly, [Bowman] said tough s—. You’ve got a couple races to go, and you can suck it up.”

But Phelps was fired up by Cavic’s comments before the race, that it would be good for the sport if Phelps lost in Beijing. He woke up that morning and was on the starting block in lane five, right next to Cavic looking at him in lane four.

“What does a man do when the devil smiles at him? You smile back,” Cavic said. “It was a religious moment for me because I knew I was destined for this day.”

The race went out as expected, with Cavic leading at 50 meters and Phelps in seventh at the turn.

“I watched the NBC coverage of it, and [analyst] Rowdy [Gaines] was pretty much saying that I’m fighting for a silver medal,” Phelps said. “I knew [Cavic] always struggles the last 15 meters. That’s kind of my chance.”

In the last strokes, Phelps felt Cavic’s splash more and more into his own face. He was inching closer and closer. Then that last stroke. Cavic came up a bit short and glided into the wall. Phelps was even shorter, so he took one more partial stroke, slamming his fingers into the wall.

“If I were to take another full stroke, my arms would actually be at the halfway point of my stroke, with my face hitting the wall,” Cavic said. “He knew that he was behind me, and he knew that if he also had a long finish as I did, he would have lost. So his only option was to take another stroke but make it a half-stroke. It’s not textbook. It’s not something any coach ever wants to you to do.”

Phelps said that when he took the last half-stroke rather than a perfect finish, he thought that had cost him the gold. Each man turned around and stared at the scoreboard.

“The lack of oxygen in your body and in your head, it makes things very, very blurry for your eyes,” Cavic said. “It takes a couple of moments just for everything to clear up.”

“I looked back, and I saw one one-hundredth,” Phelps said, “and I was like, holy s—, that just happened.”

As for the Serbian protest and Cavic’s doubts?

“Well, the results don’t lie,” Phelps said. “That’s all I got to say. … Seeing the [Sports Illustrated] frame-by-frame and watching it in slow-mo, there’s no question in my mind that I won the race.”

That silver was Cavic’s one and only Olympic medal in four Games.

“I will be remembered,” he said. “It was the best and worst thing that happened to me.”

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Kayla Harrison set for second MMA fight at PFL 6; TV, stream info

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Double Olympic judo champion Kayla Harrison returns to the cage for her second MMA bout at a Professional Fighters League event in Atlantic City, N.J., live on NBC Sports on Thursday night.

Harrison, 28, faces Jozette Cotton (8-1-0) at 155 pounds on the PFL 6 card.

NBCSN coverage starts at 10 p.m. ET, also streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Harrison, who converted to MMA after the Rio Olympics, won her MMA debut on June 21, forcing Brittney Elkin to submit via arm bar after 3 minutes, 18 seconds, of the five-minute first round.

“I was wicked nervous,” the Massachusetts native said afterward. “This is all so new. No one has ever locked me in a cage and said, go kill someone. … I can’t wait until the next one.”

LIVE STREAM: Kayla Harrison at PFL 6 — Thursday, 10 p.m. ET

Harrison announced in October 2016 that she joined the MMA promotion as a commentator and brand ambassador, but not necessarily a fighter. A year ago, Harrison said she would compete.

The comparisons to former judo training partner and Olympic bronze medalist Ronda Rousey have shadowed her for years.

They won’t stop after Harrison won her first bout using Rousey’s signature arm bar.

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MORE: Rousey: UFC return just as likely as Olympic return