In a shade over 250 years of recorded sumo history, no European has ever been crowned king of the ring. No European has ever held aloft the Emperor’s Cup. No European has ever won a Grand Sumo Tournament.
Until now. At the latest basho, Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu upped his game tenfold and refrained from his recent tendency to backpedal and pull down instead of moving forward. Most importantly, he made the decision to meet the opposition head on and push them back or throw them to the clay — day after day.
On 14 of 15 occasions at the Natsu Basho, he did so successfully, at times with such ease it seemed comical for those aware of just how lethargically he has been performing since his record-breaking rise to the rank of ozeki only three years after entering the sport.
Losing just once during the May 11-25 tourney, and only then to the wily old Aminishiki on Day 13, the 203-cm, 152-kg Goliath from the hills of north-central Bulgaria is a man reborn.
As he pummeled his way through all those set before him in the first week, fans started to sense something was different about the 25-year-old as he out-muscled yokozuna Asashoryu on Day 11, then made relatively short work of Hakuho 24 hours later. He could see the finishing line, and with his father having flown in to celebrate, all the pieces were falling into place.
Although he was made to wait until the penultimate day of action before being presented with the initial trappings of winning a yusho — a celebratory fish symbolizing victory — from around Day 12 any seasoned fan could see that Kotooshu would eventually be riding in the convertible “victory car” on the final day.
Indeed, at 5:39 p.m. on May 25, sumo history was made and Kotooshu Katsunori — his full Japanese name — became the first European-born rikishi to leave the stadium holding the coveted Emperor’s Cup.
However, instead of being the sole recipient of domestic and global media attention, he has to contend for column inches with sumo bad boy Asashoryu, the reigning yokozuna and winner of 22 Emperor’s Cups.
Who could have predicted that Asashoryu would follow up his loss to Kotooshu with bizarre defeats to the well-over-the-hill ozeki duo Kaio and Chiyotaikai? But that’s exactly what he did, losing to men who, by the basho’s end, only managed a total of 13 wins between them (Kaio, 8; Chiyotaikai 5).
In addition to his not nearly so shocking defeat by komusubi Kisenosato on Day 1, Asa was clearly suffering in the basho’s second week. He did, however, reclaim some self-respect in the tournament’s final bout by defeating fellow grand champion Hakuho. Unfortunately, with the man waiting to be crowned champ looking on from his seat beside the dohyo, and millions of fans in Japan and around the world eyeing the bout, Asashoryu again demonstrated a marked detachment from the decorum of a yokozuna.
After beating Hakuho with a slap-down move, he could have walked back to his side of the dohyo, picked up his winnings and headed for the exit. Instead, with his top-ranking opponent lying semi-prostrate, all four limbs on the floor, Asashoryu administered an insult-to-injury two-handed thrust after the bout was clearly over. He then followed that up with an apparent slap or gesture toward Hakuho’s face after the younger man regained his footing.
As a result, Asashoryu could easily find himself in yet more hot water with the Sumo Association and the butt of even more caustic remarks from the Yokozuna Deliberation Council. What’s worse, though, is that at a time when the focus should be on the glory of others, Asashoryu has managed to dull the sheen of his fellow rikishi’s achievements and yank the media spotlight back on himself.
As a potential yokozuna, provided that he wins the Nagoya basho in July, the Bulgarian known as “Osh” could clearly be a new media darling. For now, however, Asashoryu has managed to steal the show again.