Tochinoshin finally lifted the Emperor’s Cup on Sunday, 12 tumultuous years after joining the sumo world.
The Georgian has had his fair share of ups and downs over the past decade with a career that not only came close to ending more than once, but in fact almost never even got off the ground.
Back in October 2005, Levan Gorgadze, just three days past his 18th birthday, finished competing at the World Sumo Championships in Osaka and was desperately looking for a sumo stable willing to take him in. Unable to find one, it seemed his dream of becoming a rikishi was over, until at the last minute Nihon University Sumo Club agreed to let the future Tochinoshin lodge with it for the time remaining on his visa.
Gorgadze was still a raw prospect at that stage, but one with a lot of potential. Making his tournament debut at the 2004 Junior World Championships after only a handful of training sessions, he managed to place joint third in the open-weight division, a feat that looks even more impressive in retrospect.
The other three medalists that day were future ozeki Goeido, makuuchi stalwart Kaisei and Hungarian Mausutoo (highest rank: makushita 16). A year later, the young Georgian did even better, taking silver in both the heavyweight and team competitions.
At Nihon University, the tourist visa Gorgadze possessed meant he had only a short period in which to find a stable. A month later, with time almost up, it seemed once again his quest was doomed until the Kasugano stable took him in on a trial basis.
That was a significant move in itself, as the stable hadn’t had a foreign rikishi since Tochinohana from Taiwan retired in 1988. Gorgadze, despite a complete lack of ability to communicate with anyone there, impressed the stablemaster with his diligent approach to training and was offered a place.
Almost immediately, however, news arrived from Georgia that his grandmother had been killed and his father seriously injured in an accident. Rushing home, Gorgadze wanted to give up his sumo ambitions but was persuaded by his father to return to Japan and follow his dreams.
Needless to say, the 18-year-old was an emotional wreck the next few months but regular talks with compatriot Kokkai helped him though it and Gorgadze was able to quickly climb the sumo ladder.
Years later, Tochinoshin would in turn help younger Georgians in Japan fighting in amateur tournaments and trying to follow in his footsteps.
Gorgadze’s sumo was almost universally praised by sumo elders in the early days of his career. In contrast to the other Europeans and Russians that used pulling techniques from their wrestling and judo backgrounds, Tochinoshin took his stablemaster’s exhortation to focus on Japanese-style sumo to heart and developed a powerful forward-moving attack.
Twelve straight tournaments with a winning record from his debut meant Tochinoshin reached the salaried ranks shortly after his 20th birthday. It wouldn’t all be plain sailing, however. In 2009, in the wake of the Russo-Georgian War, training was interrupted when he and Kokkai had to return for military duty in their homeland. The normal year-and-a-half requirement, though, was shortened to a month and both men were back in time for the next basho.
A couple of years later, Tochinoshin’s breaking curfew and going out in street clothes rather than kimono so enraged his stablemaster that he beat the Georgian and two other rikishi with a golf club.
That resulted in him going AWOL from the stable for a week and telling no one where he was. Eventually all sides cooled down and Tochinoshin returned to Kasugano, though the tension during training was palpable for quite a while thereafter.
The Georgian’s biggest setback came in 2013, however, when a cruciate ligament injury forced him to sit out three straight tournaments and dropped him down to makushita 55. He has often talked about how he came close to quitting several times during that period but the support of his stablemaster kept him going.
Despite the occasional youthful misstep, their relationship has been a tight one and Tochinoshin has been a remarkably conscientious and dedicated student. His demeanor and ability to persevere through heartbreak and tribulation is reminiscent of the legendary rikishi of old.
On a personal level, I can attest to the fact that he has always been available to answer questions win or lose, and has given thoughtful answers even when contacted late at night. Whenever I’ve taken visitors to the Kasugano stable, Tochinoshin has been gregarious and willing to chat with them.
In fact, so dedicated is he that even after his championship the Georgian isn’t taking time off from his duties and obligations to go see the 3-month-old daughter at he has never met.
It was no surprise to see the tears flowing freely from his wife or stablemaster. Those close to the man know how much he has sacrificed and how hard he has worked over the past 13 years.
Friends in Georgia tell me Tochinoshin is now on every channel and front page. The Georgian president, prime minister and ambassador to Japan have all posted numerous messages of congratulations on social media.
As someone who was there in Osaka in 2005 to see Tochinoshin start out, and who has seen him get knocked down and fight back numerous times, it feels nice in this time of sumo scandals to finally write a story where the good guy wins in the end.