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Joubert loses world title, but regains No. 1 ranking

Buttle enters top five after surprising victory

Jeffrey Buttle shows off his men's gold men from world championships in Sweden.
Jeffrey Buttle shows off his men's gold men from world championships in Sweden. (Getty Images)

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By Todd Hinckley
(03/24/2008) - As the men's field prepared for the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships, the competition was expected to clear up the picture atop icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings. Instead, the pecking order was clouded even more.

Daisuke Takahashi was the favorite going into Gothenburg because of his record-breaking, 264.41-point performance at the 2008 Four Continents Championships. The Japanese champion had skated a near perfect season so far, and he wasn't expected to be beat, as long as he skated like he did in South Korea.

Well, he did not skate his best. His short program certainly kept him in the running, but falls on his second quad and his triple Axel during the free skate limited his gold-medal hopes. By executing an extra combination during the long program, Takahashi gave up his chance of making the podium. His fourth-place finish left him second in the world rankings.

Two-time world champion Stéphane Lambiel, who signaled his place among the world's elite with a gold at the Grand Prix Final in December, was another pre-event favorite who struggled on the ice in Sweden. Actually, the ice itself seemed to be his biggest problem; he repeatedly claimed that it was "crashy" and that he was never comfortable on the surface. With a fifth-place finish, the Swiss star failed to make the worlds podium for the first time since 2004. He did, however, maintain his place in the rankings -- at No. 3.

After the short program, defending world champion Brian Joubert also seemed destined for disappointment in Sweden. He made more news early in the week with his mouth -- claiming that only he, Takahashi and Lambiel could win the event, discounting several serious challengers -- than with his skating, which placed him only sixth after the short program.

Unlike Takahashi and Lambiel though, Joubert thrived in the free skate. After watching them struggle, the Frenchman purposely played it safer in his long program, performing a triple, rather than quad, Salchow and doing a triple-triple combo instead of his second quad toe. He did keep the first quad in his program, and he nailed it. Coming off the ice, Joubert thought he had done enough to defend his title. While he finished with just the silver medal, he did gain enough rankings points to retain the top spot from Takahashi.

The hype in Sweden centered around the three skaters mentioned above, but it was Canada's Jeffrey Buttle who stole the show. He skated a masterful short to take the lead and matched it with an even more beautiful free skate to take the gold medal. Although he did not attempt a quad in either program, Buttle's performances combined solid jumping, including triple-double-double and triple-triple combos in the free skate, with superb technical elements. The gold medal moved the Canadian into the top five in the rankings for the first time all year.

Making room for Buttle in the top five was American Johnny Weir, who dropped a spot, to sixth, despite a bronze-medal finish. Weir was Buttle's partner in crime in bringing down the favorites at worlds. His artistic short program nearly matched that of the Canadian, and while he did attempt a quad in the free, his type of skating certainly relates more to the new world champ than to Joubert and the rest of the top three.

The overarching theme of men's figure skating this season had to be the quad -- who performed it, how much it's worth, whether you can win without it, etc. Buttle certainly answered the last question. His victory was a major statement for fans of artistic skating. The sport may not be the jumping contest that it is perceived to be by some. But it's not like the new world champion won't consider trying the big jumps in the future.

Joubert is still very deserving of the No. 1 ranking, but the world championships proved that the men's field has more serious podium candidates than any other discipline. Joubert, Takahashi, Lambiel and U.S. champion Evan Lysacek, who was forced to withdraw from worlds due to injury but maintained his No. 4 ranking, will continue to be the favorites wherever they skate, but skaters like Buttle and Weir who focus more on the artistry of skating can not be counted out. Thus, their place near the top of the rankings is deserved as well.

Behind Weir in the rankings is European champion Tomas Verner, who suffered a disastrous free skate to drop him to 15th place overall in Sweden. This performance is more likely an aberration, and the Czech star should still be considered in the sport's upper echelon.

Belgium's Kevin van der Perren rose up one spot, to No. 8, thanks to a superb, third-place free skate at worlds. His sixth-place finish was a career best, but he will undergo hip surgery in April, and this might have been a farewell performance.

Rounding out the top 10 is Patrick Chan of Canada (ninth at worlds) and Stephen Carriere of the U.S. (10th).

Like van der Perren, Russian national champion Sergei Voronov made a move up the standings in the free skate in Sweden, finishing fourth in that discipline. In just his second appearance, he finished seventh at worlds, moving up two places, to 12th, in the rankings but not catching France's Alban Préaubert, who remained at No. 11 despite withdrawing from the world championships.

The rest of the top 20 is as follows: Adam Rippon of the U.S., Brandon Mroz of the U.S., Sergei Davydov of Belarus, Takahiko Kozuka of Japan, Jeremy Abbott of the U.S., Artem Borodulin of Russia, Christopher Mabee of Canada and Andrei Lutai of Russia.