At long last, he overcame his weakness of losing make-or-break bouts to claim not just a championship, but his sport's highest rank and greatest esteem.
On Jan. 22, Ozeki Kisenosato realized a dream when he won the New Year's Grand Sumo Tournament, his first-ever championship. Just days later, the Japan Sumo Association's yokozuna deliberation committee unanimously recommended Kisenosato for promotion to sumo's highest rank. The journey to the sport's top status was a long one; Kisenosato first entered the ring as a professional at age 15, some 15 years ago. He has been an ozeki for the last five of those years. We celebrate the elevation of this "worldly-wise" yokozuna.
Kisenosato is also the first Japan-born rikishi to be made a yokozuna since Wakanohana III reached the rank after the 1998 Summer Grand Sumo Tournament.
All three of the other current yokozuna -- Hakuho, Harumafuji, and Kakuryu -- are from Mongolia. It's natural that we should so happily welcome the promotion of a native Japanese wrestler after such a long absence atop the sumo world. However, we must not forget that it was foreign rikishi who kept Japan's "national sport" afloat amid a series of terrible scandals and the subsequent intense public attention.
Kisenosato had been tabbed for greatness from an early age, with observers expecting a fast rise to ozeki and yokozuna. When he graduated from junior high school, he was already 180 centimeters tall and weighed in at 110 kilograms. And indeed Kisenosato lived up to those expectations early on, pushing up through the ranks at a quick clip. It was Kisenosato who, as a hiramaku-ranked rikishi, stopped Hakuho's consecutive victory streak at 63 matches when he defeated the Mongolian at the 2010 Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament. It is still spoken of as one of the greatest moments in sumo history.
However, following his promotion to ozeki, Kisenosato stalled. While coming close to winning more than 10 tournaments, he could never quite win enough to come first. He was rejected for promotion to yokozuna six times.
Some observers said he was psychologically too weak to get any higher, but Kisenosato refused to crumble at that his toughest moment, and dedicated himself to yet more training. And on Jan. 25, he reaped his reward: promotion to yokozuna.
Kisenosato has always fought head on, not once deviating from direct confrontation in the ring. Since his first professional tournament, he has missed just one day of competition. What's more, win or lose, he never lets his feelings show on his face -- a key component of his popularity.
Under the yokozuna selection committee's rules, to be considered for elevation to sumo's top rank, a wrestler "must be an ozeki with a winning record for at least two consecutive tournaments, or very good results of the same caliber." As such, some have wondered if Kisenosato's promotion hasn't been a bit too hasty, coming after just his first tournament championship.
However, he took down all three yokozuna at last year's Kyushu tournament, and in the climactic match at the recent New Year's tourney, Kisenosato was pushed to the very edge of the ring by the legendary Hakuho before turning the tables for the victory. He also led all other wrestlers with 69 victories in 2016, building off of years of improvement and establishing a steady record of success.
The four-yokozuna era will begin with the next grand tournament. Hakuho stood essentially without rival at the top of the sumo mountain for years, but after four straight tournaments without a championship, he is beginning to look beatable. Harumafuji and Kakuryu have been beset by breakdowns. Meanwhile, youthful up-and-comers Takayasu and Mitakeumi have been making their presence felt. All in all, it appears as though a major sumo power shift is in the offing, and that alone gives us high hopes for the new yokozuna.
Kisenosato was invited into pro sumo by late stablemaster Naruto (former yokozuna Takanosato), who said of the young wrestler, "I'd like to see him build himself up into a force without peer," from which Kisenosato draws his ring name.
To those worried about elevating a 30-year-old to yokozuna, Kisenosato says, "My body is healthy, as is my heart. I will become even stronger," and we trust him at his word. We would very much like to see him devote himself yet further to the sport, and carry the sumo world into the future on his broad shoulders.