It has been 10 years since a Japanese-born wrestler last won a championship title at a Grand Sumo Tournament, and much of that decade has been riddled with near misses for the man once touted as the sport’s next homegrown hope.
Kisenosato was 19 years old and a ninth-ranked maegashira when ozeki Tochiazuma lifted the Emperor’s Cup for the third and final time in his career on Jan. 22 at the New Year basho in 2006.
At the time, Kisenosato was being tipped for a bright future in a sport that has been dominated by Mongolian wrestlers in recent years.
The Tagonoura stable ozeki, who turns 30 in July, has endured years of frustration as he attempted to live up to the hype but he has been putting in overtime in a bid to restore national pride and capture an elusive first title at the New Year tourney getting under way in Tokyo on Sunday.
“So many times I have blown it and lost crucial bouts,” Kisenosato said with his customary frown. “I guess I just haven’t had the all-round ability and a strong enough will to win.
“Looking back to 10 years ago, I never thought at the time that 10 years down the line I would still be getting up onto the raised ring. The frustration of every loss remains.”
Over most of the last decade, Kisenosato has been battling it out in the top ranks of the makuuchi division, only to see the likes of Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu, Hakuho and Harumafuji cart home the tournament hardware time and again.
“What the foreign wrestlers do is neither here nor there. Never having been at the very top is the big source of frustration for me,” said Kisenosato. “Dreams are not something that you see, they are something that you seize.”
The Tagonoura stable wrapped up “keiko” practice much earlier than usual on Dec. 27 last year, but Kisenosato, who went 10-5 at the Kyushu basho in Fukuoka in November, continued tuning up at a dimly lit training facility until Dec. 30.
“I’m not in a position to be taking time off,” he said. “Thanks (to the extra training) I am in good shape (ahead of the tournament).
Whether or not Kisenosato has the strength of character to go all the way and win the title remains to be seen, but Hakuho, with 35 titles the most successful wrestler in the history of the sport, will once again start as title favorite.
Hakuho faded down the stretch and lost his last three bouts at the Kyushu basho and will be aiming to bounce back and win his first title in three meets.
Hakuho appeared to be bothered at times by a left-elbow issue in training but that did not affect his movement and he should be there or thereabouts as the tournament draws to a close.
“The New Year holiday starts after the New Year Basho for sumo people. The (professional) soccer and baseball seasons are over now and this tournament will draw more attention. Hopefully I can wrestle well,” said Hakuho.
A second consecutive title will be on the line for Harumafuji but a left knee problem has hampered his preparations, while yokozuna Kakuryu will be in with a chance if he can snap the habit of pulling back and instead wrestle more offensively at the 15-day meet.
Of the other ozeki, Kotoshogiku will be hoping his quick-fire attacks can get him on a roll but a winning record will be the main objective for Goeido, who is nursing a sore right wrist.
Terunofuji is carrying injuries to both knees and 10-plus wins are likely the best that can be expected from the Mongolian ozeki.
One man who could pose a threat to sumo’s big guns is giant-killer Yoshikaze, who is enjoying an Indian summer to his career and has reached sumo’s third highest rank of sekiwake.
At 33 years, 10 months old he is the sixth oldest “new” sekiwake in the post-war era.
Former komusubi Tokitenku has been suffering from malignant lymphoma but is on course for recovery, his stablemaster Tokitsukaze revealed Friday.
The 36-year-old Mongolian wrestler complained of rib pain during September’s Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament before being diagnosed with the disease. He has been in and out of hospital since October and will receive treatment through April, according to Tokitsukaze.
“He must be the one in the most pain but says ‘I want to overcome this for those who are suffering from the same disease,’ ” said the stablemaster, who revealed that Tokitenku has lost 20 kg but has no problems talking or walking.
Tokitenku missed November’s Kyushu basho, his second grand tournament absence since he debuted in the 2010 New Year basho, and is ranked ninth in second-tier Juryo division for this month’s New Year tourney.
Tokitenku is expected to discuss his future with Tokitsukaze before March’s Spring Grand Sumo Tournament, when he is certain to find himself wrestling in the makushita division, the sport’s third highest competition.