Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Quiet man Kakuryu on top after long struggle

by John Gunning

Kakuryu won his fourth championship last Sunday. It was the yokozuna’s first Emperor’s Cup in eight tournaments and the relief on his face was visible as he accepted a stack of kensho (prize money) envelopes after downing Goeido on day 14 to take the title.

In fact, he was so happy that we had the rare sight of a yokozuna fist-bumping a spectator on his way back to the dressing room. Kakuryu confirmed as much in his post-tournament press conference, laughing that he had never felt so good waking up as he did the morning after taking the title.

The extent of the yokozuna’s desire to win — especially after his collapse in the last basho — could be seen in his reversion to old pulling habits. Six wins by hatakikomi (slap down), even allowing for the fact that he was injured, is not a good look for a yokozuna. That’s always been a feature of Kakuryu’s sumo though. When under pressure, he reverts to bad habits.

The quality of the sumo is not reflective of the quality of the man, however, as Kakuryu is both widely respected and admired by people inside the sport. A self-starter without any personal experience in, or family connection to Mongolian wrestling, Kakuryu originally wanted to be a basketball player but decided to try sumo after seeing countrymen Kyokushuzan and Kyokutenho on television.

A letter outlining that desire, translated into Japanese by a friend, impressed Izutsu oyakata (sumo elder) enough for him to give the then 16 year old a shot.

Not only does Kakuryu no longer need a translator, but he is now universally acknowledged to be the foreign rikishi who has the best command of Japanese. In fact he’s so fluent that one stablemaster said the veteran Mongolian speaks the language better than most of the native-born rikishi.

A quiet introspective man, Kakuryu’s mastering of Japanese mirrors his mastering of sumo. A mere 65 kg when joining the sport, he made up for a lack of size and experience through intelligence. Kakuryu’s father is a university professor and those smarts were certainly passed on to his son. The young Mongolian studied past and present rikishi intensively and came up with creative and inventive ways to train. Self-scouting, he identified his own weaknesses and worked on them assiduously.

Success didn’t come immediately, however. In contrast to his fellow Mongolian yokozuna, who breezed through the lower levels, Kakuryu took more than three years to get to sumo’s third-highest division of makushita. Even when promoted to juryo and later makuuchi, many people, this writer included, doubted his ability to go beyond komusubi or sekiwake.

In my defense, even his own stablemaster expressed doubts. I had a front-row seat in Izutsu stable for banzuke day in April 2014 when Kakuryu was first ranked at yokozuna. While the Ulan Bator native was his usual unaffected self, the worry was etched into his oyakata’s face and he continuously talked about hoping Kakuryu could get a first championship at the rank.

As well as the natural concern for a man he had basically raised from the time he was a teenager, Izutsu was clearly worried about Kakuryu being forced into an early retirement. Yokozuna cannot be demoted and if they aren’t in contention for the title deep into each basho, the pressure quickly builds to either perform or quit. Izutsu’s stable had just five rikishi then — it’s down to Kakuryu and three veteran lower-rankers now — and without the income a yokozuna brings in it’s doubtful the stable could survive for long.

Winning the title in Osaka, as well as the fact there currently are two other yokozuna, has bought Kakuryu more time but he’ll be 33 later this year and the end is approaching regardless.

With both Hakuho and Kisenosato also in their career home straights, ozeki Takayasu’s win over Kakuryu on day 15 may actually have been the most significant bout of the tournament. The Tanganoura man has reached the age when most rikishi are at their peak and two straight 12-3 records arguably puts him in line for promotion to sumo’s highest rank if he can claim his first title in May.

Even though there hasn’t been a lot of chatter about Takayasu being on a tsunatori run (an ozeki’s attempt to reach yokozuna) it’s hard to imagine he won’t get the white rope with a 15-0 or 14-1 championship next time out. Kisenosato went 10-5 and 12-3 before a maiden 14-1 tournament win that saw him promoted. It would be unfair on his stablemate if the same criteria weren’t applied.

One has the feeling, though, that the JSA will take into account the fact we are a few years away from seeing young guns like Takakeisho and Onosho push for the top and the non-promotion of Takayasu (if he takes the title) risks seeing a period without any yokozuna.

Soap opera-like infighting and violence scandals continue to plague the association. Up and comer Takayoshitoshi maybe have ended his own career just as it was taking off by assaulting a junior wrestler in full view of everyone in the dressing room at Osaka Prefectural Gym. The Sumo Association doesn’t need any more bad news and a yokozuna-less tournament is PR disaster they will be keen to avoid.