Kakuryu secures promotion to yokozuna, but will he now revert to form?

by Mark Buckton

In the days since he defeated fellow ozeki Kotoshogiku to win his first makunouchi championship at the Haru Basho in Osaka on Sunday March 23, new Mongolian yokozuna Kakuryu has been getting used to the helter-skelter off the dohyo lifestyle he will have for the rest of his sumo career.

With his 14-1 Emperor’s Cup victory following on from another 14-1 score in January, albeit with a play-off defeat to eventual winner Hakuho that time round, few were in any doubt as to whether or not he would be unveiled as the sport’s 71st yokozuna grand champion in 257 years of recorded history.

Most of those that did harbor doubts soon saw them evaporate when a Monday meeting of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council all but rubber-stamped comments made by current council chief Kitanoumi a day earlier that supported the advancement of what will be the sport’s fifth consecutive non-Japanese and fourth consecutive Mongolian to be promoted to the rank.

Following an official visit by sumo association elders to advise him of his promotion on Wednesday morning, Kakuryu said, “I am determined to focus all my efforts to train even harder, and be certain to give all my strength not to defile the yokozuna name” For his first official duty as a yokozuna, he performed his own dohyo-iri ring entering ceremony in Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine on Friday afternoon. Doing so before several thousand fans and the spirits of the Meiji Emperor and his consort, the screams of ‘“Kakuryu gambatte” (good luck) ringing round Tokyo’s most famous shrine were a clear indication of the fan adoration he attracts.

He will return to the Kansai region for a similar ceremony at Ise Shrine on Sunday, which will be followed by a month of touring through eight prefectures. This is just the beginning of his duties as a yokozuna.

Naturally, in addition, there will the increased expectations of his inclusion in the title bouts for the remainder of his career.

And it is with regards to this last aspect of his career to date that warning flags are already being raised by a number of sumo watchers on just how successful, if at all, he will be in the long haul.

When looking back at his 12 tournaments as an ozeki, few can argue that his record over the past couple of years hardly bodes well should he slip back into recent form over the coming months and years as a yokozuna.

Just five of 12 basho at ozeki finished in double digit final day scores – the unofficial prerequisite minimum of ozeki. Three of the 12 basho have seen him barely scrape by with an 8-7 record come the final day, and at no time as an ozeki did e ever challenge for a yusho prior to January 2014.

Indeed, so “out of the blue” has been his sudden grab at top-dog status it mirrors several other breakout tourneys over the course of his career in the top division; his maegashira to komusubi promotion was secured on the back of a then championship equivalent record of 11-4 in mid-2010.

A year later, another championship equivalent enabled him to stake his claim as a sekiwake. He followed the same pattern in early 2012 when a 13-2 – again yusho equivalent – at the Osaka tournament of that year saw him promoted to ozeki.

But, after each major promotion on his way to the top he has reverted to “form” in ever-extending periods afterward by struggling to get anywhere near double figures. Indeed, less than half of his 21 tournaments in sanyaku, following promotion from maegashira, has resulted in double-digit final-day records.

More disturbing is the fact that for the past two years he has also shown a tendency to collapse in the second week of a tournament.

It’s these weakness that worry some observers, such as 40-year sumo fan Keiko Hashimoto: “Yes he has ‘qualified’ as a yokozuna by winning the championship and his January score being deemed a yusho equivalent, but I think the (sumo authorities) need to look at the bigger picture and whether or not he has the consistency to be a real yokozuna challenging Hakuho and Harumafuji every tournament. I remain to be convinced.”

Former American maegashira Sentoryu (real name Henry Miller), a veteran of 93 tournaments in professional sumo between 1999 and 2003, is taking a wait-and-see stance: “I think he will be a normal yokozuna, but he is getting stronger and stronger so it will be very interesting to see how well he will do. Nobody really noticed him during his makuuchi days and I’m pretty sure that not too many people expected him to make yokozuna.”

Jeremy Blaustein, a long-term sumo fan based in central Japan, has faith. “It may seem a bit early for the promotion, but since Hakuho is one of the greatest yokozuna in history, it is unnaturally difficult to become a yokozuna now so rikishi that normally would make it easily have a real uphill climb. I think that Kakuryu has the skill, power and temperament to be a great yokozuna and I think he can get stronger than he is now. So my answer is yes (his promotion was deserved).”

Moeko Yamamoto from Kanagawa also believes Kakuryu has the right stuff: “He is more aggressive these days and beat both Hakuho and Harumafuji this time out. He will prove himself a worthy yokozuna.”

So be it historical stats, form on any given day or his extra duties at the pinacle of the sport, Kakuryu will, every minute of every day from now until the day he retires, be under the spotlight like never before.

Here’s hoping he lives up to the words he prepared for his acceptance speech and never “defile(s) the yokozuna name.”