TOKYO -- The withdrawal from competitive sumo of fan favorite yokozuna Kisenosato on Jan. 16 saw an early end to the first Japan-born wrestler to rise to the sport's top rank in 19 years.
In his early days, Kisenosato, 32, was respected by former yokozuna Asashoryu while the former was in his glory days, and had even put a stop to yokozuna Hakuho's historic streak of consecutive wins. However, struggling with consistency, Kisenosato lost often to lower-ranking grapplers, and even after he rose to the second-highest rank of ozeki, he let many chances to win tournaments pass him by.
Entering the world of sumo at the age of 15, Kisenosato was one of the few grapplers in the current top "makuuchi" division that made his way from the bottom to the top. Sometimes revealing a tearful face in public, the 72nd yokozuna attracted the favor of many fans with the ups and downs of his career path.
Kisenosato, whose real name is Yutaka Hagiwara, first trained under late stable master Naruto, who was yokozuna Takanosato when he was an active grappler, and made his debut on the "dohyo" ring during the 2002 spring tournament. With his entrance into the traditional grand sumo world, he changed his name from Hagiwara to Kisenosato along with the wishes of his first stable master to "create a rare strength (kise)."
True to his new name, Kisenosato became the second youngest wrestler in recent history to stand in the ring at the 2004 Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament at the age of 18 years and 3 months. He was second only to the elite grappler and former yokozuna Takanohana. At 19 years and 2 months old, he won his first Fighting Spirit Prize, one of three special prizes awarded to tournament participants, advancing his career rapidly.
In the makuuchi division, Kisenosato managed to defeat Asashoryu, who had 25 grand championships under his belt, a total of four times. The yokozuna even said of Kisenosato's strength, "Only that one is different." Among Japanese sumo wrestlers, he even holds the highest number of wins against Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho at 16. At the 2010 Kyushu meet, Kisenosato put an end to Hakuho's quest to best former yokozuna Futabayama's record 69 consecutive wins at 63.
However, Kisenosato struggled to seal any tournament victories, and it took him seven years to rise to the rank of ozeki. While he won many big bouts, he also had many unfortunate losses. During the 2012 Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, after remaining undefeated for the first 11 days, Kisenosato finished with three consecutive losses, and saw the trophy go to Kyokutenho, of the lower maegashira ranks.
It seems that these tough experiences came to his mind when he began shedding tears during his victory interview after the New Year meet in 2017. The tears came again during the following March Grand Tournament, his first as a yokozuna, when he defeated sole leader and then-ozeki Terunofuji in their regulation and playoff bouts for an upset while suffering from an injury to his left arm and chest muscles. While saying, "I really didn't intend to cry," he still showed glistening eyes out of the ring.
Kisenosato again showed tears at the press conference announcing his retirement on Jan. 16 held at the Ryogoku Kokukikan sumo venue in Tokyo, as he looked back over his 17-year career. "I was supported by many people, had many cheer me on, and when I look back, I can't help but shed tears," he said, wiping at his eyes repeatedly.
His late stable master Naruto, who passed away in November 2011, often told him that "when you become a yokozuna, the way you see things will change." In response to a reporter's question about the truth of those words, Kisenosato said, "Ozeki and yokozuna are completely different. However, I was still unable to see the view of my master," who had won four tournaments during his time as yokozuna. His remarks revealed the regrets he leaves behind for his failure to perform as he aspired.
Kisenosato had been conflicted about retirement since suffering his injuries. But even then, he decided to continue forward for his fans and the other people who had supported and cheered for him. This forced Kisenosato to be absent from eight tournaments in a row and post four consecutive losses from the first day of the Kyushu meet in 2018, among other unsatisfactory records he left behind. "I deeply regret that I was unable to live up to what is expected of a yokozuna," he said.
At his ring entry ceremony after being promoted to yokozuna in January 2017 at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, about 18,000 people crowded around to attend. This was second only to Takanohana, who attracted 20,000 fans to his post-promotion ceremony in 1994. When asked if it were those very expectations that had weighed him down and led to the unfortunate outcome, he said, "I was happy as a competitor to be able to take part in sumo amidst those cheers."
As a man of few words who embodied the traditional ideal sumo wrestler in being "kind but powerful," Kisenosato was loved by many. "I could not have made it this far without you," he said, expressing his gratitude to his fans who cheered him up even in his most painful moments. Now, as he faces a change in becoming a trainer of young grapplers, he said, "I would like to raise wrestlers who participate in sumo with all their heart and are strong against injuries."
With an expression of relief, he left the press conference and the sumo venue behind him.
(Japanese original by Taro Iiyama and Nobuyuki Mashimo, Sports News Department, and Takeshi Fujita, Nagoya Sports Group)