New quad, same old: 2012 Olympic all-around champion Kohei Uchimura is the king of men's gymnastics, and will be until someone dethrones him.
So who's up for that? Uchimura, the first man in history to win three World all-around titles back to back (which was really four if you count his imperfect-but-still-so-far-ahead-of-everyone-else performance in London last summer), has been so great for so long that there are no more questions about his ability in general, or his ability to be ready for major competitions -- he is the favorite, and will be the favorite, until someone proves otherwise.
But there are gymnasts with aspirations, and a few of them will even be doing the all-around in Antwerp. Not among them are Germany's Marcel Nguyen and Danell Leyva, who stood second and third to Uchimura at the Olympic Games. The race is long and wearisome, and while Uchimura took some well-deserved time off after London to marry and spend time with his pregnant wife, Nguyen and Leyva were jumpstarting their Rio campaigns on the World Cup circuit...three years and 10 months before next Olympics. After participating at two big end-of-year World Cups, followed by the American Cup and European Championships (Nguyen) and American Cup and U.S. Championships (Leyva), both are now out of the Worlds with what sounds an awful lot like burnout. Uchimura, meanwhile, is slated to defend his all-around title in Antwerp.
During the Kohei years, there have been a few solid number twos, men whose gymnastics would have defined the era had it not been for the Japanese Superman over there. The best example is probably Philipp Boy, a manly pillar of strength and elegance, who won silver to Uchimura in 2010 and 2011 before retiring post-London. But there is also Fabian Hambuechen, who has long been the backbone of the German team and who continues to surprise.
Hambuechen won the World high bar title before the Beijing Olympics and then followed up with the 2009 European all-around gold. He was training triple backs on floor before injuring his foot prior to the 2009 Worlds. He tore his Achilles in January 2011, and it seemed to take him until the night of prelims at the 2012 Olympics to get back into full shape.
Hambuechen's big souvenir from the 2012 Games is the silver medal on high bar, but it's worth noting that he was also third in the all-around on the first day of men's competition in London. (He knocked himself out of the running for an all-around medal by taking a large deduction on his vault in finals.)
As a veteran of three Olympic Games now, Hambuechen is not a newcomer on the international scene, but every year he continues to improve. 2013 has been no exception: in strategically limited post-Olympic appearances, he's been trim and competition-ready. He sat out of Europeans, but his high bar routine in Berlin earlier this year was better than ever, showing a confident, seasoned competitor who showed total mastery over his very difficult gymnastics. In other words, he's been competing like Uchimura.
Among the younger men, five Europeans and one American stand out. Four -- Russia's David Belyavskiy, Ukrainians Oleg Verniaiev and Oleg Stepko and Max Whitlock of Great Britain -- set themselves apart at the European Championships in Moscow in May. All have the difficulty to challenge Uchimura, but nobody has shown that they can hit under pressure every time it's required of them. (It's worth interjecting that the young Uchimura had his meltdowns too, notably at the 2008 Olympics, when he fell twice from the pommel horse in the men's all-around final. Nobody is perfect. He still won silver.)
All are a bit different -- Stepko, with a necklace tattooed around his chest that says "Only God can judge me" is the passionate competitor, who stalks each event with fire in his eyes. When he succeeds, he's jubilant. When he fails, he can't hide his disappointment.
Verniaiev is the budding master technician, a young man with superbly beautiful lines and enormously complicated routines but a bit of a reputation for letting things slip from his grasp when he might capitalize.
Belyavskiy, who has risen from prodigious European Youth Olympic Festival prodigy to senior European champion this year, would love to take his title global. For the most part, he has the skills to do it. His biggest challenge will be high bar, the event that he just wants to survive, and likely the event that he will end on in Antwerp if he is among the leaders' group.
Among the strong British generation, Max Whitlock has a great head for competition, and proved last year in London that he's as dependable as they come. With his all-around silver at the Moscow European Championships, he's shown that he's in full transition from a young gymnast on the make to a future leader of the British team -- and an all-around contender on the world level.
Also not to be counted out: newly naturalized Russian Nikolai Kuksenkov, who celebrated his citizenship with the all-around gold at the surprisingly competitive World Universiade this summer in Kazan. Competing for Ukraine, Kuksenkov was perpetually fourth: Fourth all-around at the 2010 Worlds, fourth all-around at the 2012 Olympics, heartbreakingly fourth with his team in London as well. Being in Russia seems to have rejuvinated him -- he looked like a different athlete at the Universiade. Sharper, more prepared.
The new American ace is Sam Mikulak, whose laid-back SoCal attitude clashes with his intense routines on every event. Without several of their top all-arounders, the U.S. men this year have selected some specialists and are hungrily eyeing several event finals: floor and possibly vault for Jake Dalton and Steven Legendre, rings for Brandon Wynn, pommel horse for Alex Naddour. Mikulak and possibly John Orozco will vie for all-around medals.
China is a wildcard, opting to send one World Champion (2009 World pommel champ Zhang Hongtao, who hasn't been to a Worlds since) and five inexperienced gymnasts.
But in the end, the conversation still revolves around Uchimura -- and the pretenders to the throne. Until he shows weakness, or someone else grabs the crown, Kohei is still king.