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After years of persistence, Kisenosato ready to rise to sumo's pinnacle

Kisenosato sheds tears during his victory interview at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo venue on Jan. 22, 2017. (Mainichi)

Sumo Ozeki Kisenosato shored up his hopes of being promoted to the top rank of yokozuna after winning the January Grand Sumo Tournament, felling Yokozuna Hakuho on the tournament's final day on Jan. 22.

The 30-year-old grappler, whose real name is Yutaka Hagiwara, finished the 15-day tournament at Tokyo's Kokugikan sumo venue with a 14-1 record. In his victory interview, the Ibaraki Prefecture native, who belongs to the Tagonoura stable, was unable to hold back his tears of joy.

"This is heavy," he said as he held the Emperor's Cup for the first time.

With a career spanning 15 years, Kisenosato worked his way up in the world of sumo after graduating from junior high school, and high expectations were held for his success. However, he initially struggled to produce good results, but didn't give up. "I did my best and stuck to it. That was a good thing," he said. With his tournament win the bitterness he had tasted finally turned to joy.

"I think it was the support I received that enabled me to come this far," Kisenosato tearfully said in an interview next to the clay mound after defeating Hakuho on Jan. 22. "I desperately hung on at the end."

Kisenosato entered the Naruto stable at the age of 15 under Takanosato, a former yokozuna. Kisenosato was deemed to go on to attain the rank of ozeki or yokozuna for sure, but he came up against a wall of powerful Mongolian rikishi. A particularly powerful opponent was Yokozuna Asashoryu, who would defeat him and leave him covered in sand not only during their tournament bouts, but also during training away from his own stable. Still, as an ozeki, Kisenosato progressed to a level where he himself became able to lead younger wrestlers, and he could understand Asashoryu's spirit.

"He's about the only person who would give me lessons. There was a lot that went on, but I can respect him," Kisenosato said.

Rising after Asashoryu was the top Mongolian rikishi Hakuho, whom Kisenosato battled in critical bouts. During the Kyushu tournament in 2010, it was Kisenosato who sent Hakuho crashing to defeat following a 63-match winning streak. Yet on the 13th day of the summer tournament last year, when both Hakuho and Kisenosato stood undefeated, Kisenosato lost. Still, Hakuho gave a nod to Kisenosato, who, like himself, served to beef up tournament competition.

"It's a good thing that there's a strong ozeki," said Hakuho.

Though he was able to to break through the Mongolian wall, he lagged behind fellow Japan-born wrestlers Kotoshogiku and Goeido, who both won tournaments in 2016. Both wrestlers entered the sumo world from high school and rose to the rank of ozeki. Kisenosato saw Kotoshogiku claim his first tournament victory in the January tournament last year from the dressing room.

"There is a lot I want to say, but I'll hold it in and do my best," Kisenosato remarked at the time.

Kisenosato's father Sadahiko holds hopes that his son will continue to wrestle strongly.

"If he becomes a yokozuna, I think it'll be even tougher for him than it is now. It won't be just about wrestling like he wants to; he'll have a heavy responsibility. As a representative of Japan, he has to make sure he's not crushed," his father said.

Kisenosato declared, "I'll believe in myself, train and become stronger, and do my best so people can see me perform well."

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