FUKUOKA – Ozeki Kaio will be under enormous pressure to finally clinch promotion to yokozuna in front of his home fans when the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament kicks off in Fukuoka on Sunday.
Kaio stole the limelight away from grand champion Asashoryu and captured his fifth Emperor’s Cup with a 13-2 record at the autumn meet in Tokyo but for the 32-year-old, whose career has been ravaged by lower back problems, this could be his last shot at reaching sumo’s summit.
For years, Kaio’s sumo career has been a roller-coaster ride of soaring expectations derailed by injuries and a tendency to choke when it comes down to the crunch.
After lifting his first title as sekiwake in 1999, Kaio won four more Emperor’s Cups but has blown three opportunities to follow up with strong performances and a chance for promotion to yokozuna.
And with Fukuoka bracing for a backlash from Mongolian bully Asashoryu, who is still the man to beat despite his disappointing 9-6 showing in Tokyo, and other ozeki looking to block Kaio’s path to glory, it won’t be any easier this time around.
However, Kaio, who kicks off his campaign against nemesis Kotomitsuki, is eager to get it right and his stablemaster Tomozuna is confident that he can continue his winning ways at the 15-day meet at Fukuoka Kokusai Center.
“This tournament means a lot more to me than the others. I’m tuning up properly and feel in good shape,” said Kaio, who wisely avoided predicting his chances on promotion.
“I’m not thinking about anything like that. Yokozuna is not something you think about until you’re there,” added Kaio, who will need at least 13 wins to be considered for place alongside lone yokozuna Asashoryu.
Stable master Tomozuna said, “Kaio is still on a roll and in top shape after winning the last tournament.
“As a fan of his I think the best thing for him to do is not think about things so much, maybe forget about his sumo.”
Asashoryu, who saw his hopes of taking all six titles dashed at the autumn meet, will be looking to end the year on a winning note and put behind him the deportation of three relatives found working illegally at a factory in Shizuoka Prefecture last month.
Chiyotaikai, who only managed to scrape together an 8-7 record in Tokyo, has been hampered with an elbow injury but can never be ruled out, while fellow ozeki Tochiazuma and Musoyama will once again be battling to save their ranks.
In the lower echelons, 18-year-old Kiseinosato, who changed his name from Hagiwara last month, will be looking to make an impact as the second youngest grappler in recent times to reach the makuuchi division.
Takahanada, who went on to become legendary yokozuna Takanohana, was the youngest to reach the sumo’s top flight since 1926 when he did it at 17 years old.
“It hasn’t really sunk in that I’m in the makuuchi division although I’m sure it soon will,” said Kiseinosato.