If, on Jan. 10, the first day of the 2016 Hatsu Basho, the 11,000 sell-out crowd at the Ryogoku Kokugikan had been asked who they thought would be standing atop the dohyo two weeks later to collect the Emperor’s Cup, few, if any, would have pointed to ozeki Kotoshogiku.
But come the 24th, on Day 15, shortly before 6 p.m., Kotoshogiku was indeed the man being crowned champion.
And as he collected the solid silver trophy, and the hoard of prizes that go with it, much of Japan and the sumo following world breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The decade long drought during which no Japan-born rikishi had won a top-flight title was over. Former ozeki Tochiazuma’s January 2006, title triumph was no longer the forlornly remembered “the last time a Japan-born rikishi won the Emperor’s Cup.”
Talk turned to the beginning of the end of Mongolian and in part eastern-European domination of the sport.
By the morning after, Kotoshogiku was, in some areas of the Japanese media being credited with returning pride in sumo to the Japanese people.
Kisenosato, 9-6 overall in Hatsu, and a far more consistent Japanese ozeki in the past four years and a frequent thorn in the side of the Mongolian yokozuna trio was suddenly forgotten. Goeido, another Japanese ozeki (4-11) ceased to exist.
In the space of two short weeks, Kotoshogiku, known largely as a makunouchi also-ran in many sumo circles, barely doing enough to maintain his rank at times was elevated almost to sainthood.
As an ozeki Kotoshogiku should, in sumo theory at least, be challenging the yokozuna for the title basho in, basho out. As an ozeki he really should be putting up scores of 10-5 or better each tournament.
And as an ozeki, Kotoshogiku really should be expected to win at least a few tournaments over the course of his career, even if he never makes it to the rank of yokozuna.
But only in January 2016, a full 14 years after his sumo debut, and just over four years since he became an ozeki has the man from Yanagawa City in Fukuoka prefecture chalked up numero uno on the Makunouchi champions list slate.
In just seven tournaments out of 25 prior to Hatsu Basho as an ozeki has he put up the unofficial minimum “double digit” wins supposedly required of an ozeki.
He has been kadoban (in danger of losing his rank) five times after posting a losing record and has each time run the risk of being demoted to sekiwake had he recorded consecutive makekoshi losing records.
Only once since November of 2011, when he was promoted to the sport’s second rank, has he ever threatened to win a tournament; 18 months ago in July of 2014 when he finished 12-3, one win off Hakuho’s 13-2 record.
Injuries have taken a huge toll on his body over the years. His trademark back stretch pre-bout is oftentimes as entertaining as he gets on a dohyo.
Technique wise he is limited. A full 60 percent of his recent wins are by way of yorikiri frontal force out. Oshidashi frontal push outs account for another 15 percent of his victories.
This is not a man with the range of techniques of any of his ozeki peers, let alone those ranked above him.
This fact alone, oftentimes coupled with the timing — exactly 10-years since the last Japan-born sekitori had his hands on the silverware — has led to more than a few claims of bout rigging making a return to sumo.
This is not the way in which Kotoshogiku won the Hatsu Basho, however. Not in my eyes at least.
Lady Luck was on his side at times, and unusually poor performances by the yokozuna trio of Hakuho, Harumafuji and Kakuryu — men with a pre-Hatsu combined 54-90 win/loss career record against Kotoshogiku — all contributed.
It was quite simply Kotoshogiku’s time to shine. And shine he did!
As a result sumo has it’s first Japan-born yusho winner in 10-years, the sport has seen five different champions in the last five outings, something that has not happened for over 15 years, and the weight of a nation is now firmly on Kotoshogiku’s already injured upper torso.
Millions are now hoping he can win the March tournament in Osaka and become the first Japanese yokozuna since Wakanohana was promoted in 1998.
Unfortunately, this will not happen. A good as he was at the Hatsu Basho, it was a time in which his stars were aligned and everything went his way.
Giku’s time is now. He should enjoy it.
Day 15 in Osaka will see another man crowned champion and Japan will have to wait a while longer for a home grown yokozuna.