Ozeki Kisenosato is set to become the first Japanese-born yokozuna in 19 years after a Japan Sumo Association advisory body recommended his promotion on Monday.
Kisenosato will be named the 72nd yokozuna, the first born in Japan since Wakanohana in 1998, at an extraordinary JSA board meeting Wednesday as a formality, after the rankings for the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament are decided.
Kisenosato won his first career title at the New Year tourney that wrapped up Sunday, and Monday’s approval by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council all but guarantees him to reach sumo’s highest rank.
“I’ve had lots of people supporting me, and I want to give back to them by becoming even stronger,” Kisenosato said of his highly anticipated promotion.
“I was always under pressure last year, and now I’ll continue to be under pressure but I want to take whatever I can from this experience.”
The 73 tournaments Kisenosato needed to win promotion are the most by any wrestler since 1926. Sumo has not had a Japanese-born yokozuna since Wakanohana’s younger brother, Takanohana, retired in 2003.
“I’m really glad I didn’t sulk and persevered,” he said. “Whether people think it was worth the wait will all depend on how I perform from here. I’ll aim to produce the kind of results that will have people saying it was worthwhile.”
The 30-year-old Ibaraki native clinched his long-awaited first championship on Saturday, when yokozuna Hakuho slipped to his third defeat of the 15-day meet. Kisenosato further strengthened his case for promotion when he floored Hakuho with a last-ditch beltless arm throw for his 14th win of the tournament.
“I’ve finally got my hands on it (the Emperor’s Cup) and the sense of pleasure hasn’t changed,” Kisenosato said ahead of the council’s announcement. “It’s hard to put into words but it has a nice weight to it.
“I felt a force in addition to my own strength that worked in my favor (against Hakuho). I have never clung on in that manner in my whole life.”
He also thanked his late stablemaster, former yokozuna Takanosato.
“Training was tough, but useful,” he said. “Gratitude is the only word I can find. It won’t be a real payback to him if I don’t train further and get stronger. He always used to say ‘to be a yokozuna is lonely.’ I couldn’t fathom it at the time but I’ll strive so I can come to understand.
“Yokozuna is a rank that carries responsibility. Defeat signals the end.”
Kisenosato said he knows what his former master would say to him if he were around.
“He’d be telling me this is where the real battle begins, and I’m thinking the same,” Kisenosato said. “I still feel good physically and mentally, and I think I can get much stronger. I’m starting all over again.
“My behavior at the training ring and the way I carry myself will be scrutinized. I want to become a role model for the younger wrestlers.”
Luck was on Kisenosato’s side at the New Year Basho, with up-and-down Mongolian yokozuna Harumafuji and Kakuryu both withdrawing. Fellow ozeki Goeido also pulled out on the 13th day, gifting a win by default to Kisenosato.
Eight of the last nine yokozuna secured promotion by winning their preceding two tournaments. Mongolian Kakuryu, the last to be promoted to yokozuna ahead of the May 2014 meet, lost in a playoff that January despite finishing 14-1, but won the title in March.
So often accused of being mentally fragile, Kisenosato has finished second-best at a meet 12 times. After Kotoshokigu and Goeido captured their first titles last year, Kisenosato had become the only Japanese-born ozeki not to have won a trophy.
But Kisenosato found consistency and finally came into his own in 2016, becoming the first wrestler to win the most bouts in a season without winning a single title.
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