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Newly minted ozeki Tochinoshin reaping rewards of fighting spirit

by John Gunning

Yokozuna Kakuryu came from behind to win consecutive tournaments for the first time in his career on Sunday.

It was the Mongolian’s fifth title overall, drawing him level with well-known names such as Kashiwado, Kaio and Wakanohana III.

After a dreadful 2017, when he only managed to complete a single tournament, Kakuryu began the year facing the possibility of having to retire if he couldn’t return to competitiveness.

An 11-4 record in January earned the yokozuna some breathing room, and the 32 year old then turned things up a notch in March and May.

“Winning consecutive championships has been a goal of mine ever since I became a yokozuna,” a visibly relived Kakuryu said after the tournament.

Kakuryu’s victory this time out came at the expense of Tochinoshin. The burly Georgian won his first 12 bouts before a disastrous loss to rank-and-filer Shodai allowed Kakuryu to pull even, and the yokozuna won their head-to-head matchup the following day to put himself in the driver’s seat.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Tochinoshin, though.

The Japan Sumo Association informed the media on Day 15 they would be recommending him for promotion to ozeki after the tournament.

Tochinoshin also picked up two special prizes for his efforts but was disappointed about missing out on a second Emperor’s Cup saying, “After winning 12 straight I wanted to win the championship.”

The Kasugano stable man wasn’t too downhearted though and said he was looking forward to becoming an ozeki.

Prior to the tournament, speculation had been that the 30-year-old wrestler would need 10 or 11 wins at least to be in contention for promotion.

Normally, 33 wins over three tournaments while ranked at komusubi or sekiwake is the standard, but because Tochinoshin began his run as a rank-and-file wrestler, the exact number needed this time was unclear.

What is clear, however, is that his dominating victory over Hakuho on Day 12 blew away any remaining doubts.

Tochinoshin had never beaten the yokozuna in 25 previous meetings stretching back to 2008.

True, Hakuho is arguably the greatest wrestler of all time and holds a commanding head-to-head advantage over everyone he has faced — with the exception of former yokozuna Asashoryu.

For someone of Tochinoshin’s level to go a full decade without a single win against Hakuho was always something critics would point to when debating his worthiness for promotion.

Tochinoshin’s win was reminiscent of Ireland, a rugby powerhouse, needing 29 attempts over 111 years to get a first victory over New Zealand, before finally doing so in stunning fashion.

That 2016 crushing of the All Blacks announced the current Ireland team’s coming of age just as Tochinoshin’s belt-to-belt overpowering of Hakuho signals his arrival in sumo’s upper echelon.

It’s been a long road for the sport’s newest ozeki.

After initially struggling to find a stable willing to take him in, Tochinoshin had to return to Georgia immediately after being accepted by the Kasugano stable when his grandmother was killed and his father seriously injured in an automobile accident.

Getting called up for military service during the Russo-Georgian war and falling out with his stablemaster over breaking curfew also hindered his progress before the biggest blow of all hit five years ago.

A cruciate ligament injury forced Tochinoshin to miss three straight tournaments and dropped him down into the unpaid ranks.

He gave serious thought to retiring at that time but decided to stick it out and is now reaping the rewards.

And those rewards are plenty.

First and foremost Tochinoshin’s salary will increase by roughly 30 percent. After promotion he will have a base monthly income of about ¥2.4 million.

An enlarged supporter base and greater public profile also means the new ozeki can expect a serious bump in the amount of sponsorship money and gifts he gets.

That process has already started with Coca-Cola Japan giving Tochinoshin 900 cans of his favorite Georgia brand coffee and discussing the creation of an advertising campaign featuring the Georgian.

Tochinoshin will also no longer have to enter Ryogoku Kokugikan on foot. Ozeki and yokozuna are allotted space in the parking lot beneath the arena and get to come and go by car.

While promotion to ozeki is difficult to achieve, once there a wrestler has a level of job security found nowhere else in the sport. Holding the rank requires just a winning record every second tournament. So in theory, a wrestler could alternate between 0-15 and 8-7 records and never be demoted. Without the pressure to be in contention for the title every tournament or face calls to retire like yokozuna, becoming an ozeki often actually ends up extending a wrestler’s career.

Historically, ozeki was sumo’s highest rank and it still has a status far greater than those below it. Indeed along with yokozuna, they are usually just addressed by their title rather than their fighting name followed by “zeki.”

There is, however, a certain kind of pressure that comes with the promotion.

“Ozeki and yokozuna are actually kinda treated the same” explained former champion Konishiki when I talked to him in 2017 on the 30th anniversary of his ascension to the rank. “It becomes a responsibility just like a yokozuna to be at (your) best behavior anything you do because you are representing not just your sumo beya any more — it’s about you are an ozeki of the (Japan) Sumo Association, so it’s a lot of pressure.”

Being so close to the top of the mountain also brings a constant stream of questions about when a man will make the push for yokozuna promotion.

For those like himself who never took that final step, Konishiki sees parallels in other sports.

“It’s the same thing a lot of athletes deal with. You made it to a Super Bowl but never won (it),” Konishiki said. “We could go through a lot of big names in the NFL and MLB that got there to the final show and never really got it.”

Tochinoshin at 30 becomes one of the older ozeki promotees in modern sumo history, but given that he seems to be coming into his own and with the two yokozuna several years older, there is every possibility that he might avoid that fate and go one step further to become the first Caucasian yokozuna in the history of the sport.

For now, though, he can relax in the knowledge he has made it into elite company and enjoy a well-earned rest and time with his baby daughter who he will see for the first time when he returns to Georgia after the promotion activities are complete.