Sumo

Despite injuries, Kisenosato embodied rikishi ideals

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

Kisenosato’s retirement, while both inevitable and expected, casts a pall over the ongoing tournament.

The veteran yokozuna has been one of sumo’s most popular wrestlers over the past decade and a half.

Initially a bright young talent whose rapid rise was catnip to a Japanese public that idolizes teenage sporting heroes, Kisenosato came to embody the phrase “fall seven times and stand up eight” in the latter part of his career.

The great irony of course is that Kisenosato — the ultimate iron man over the first 15 years of his career, missing just a single bout out of 1,123 — fell apart physically upon reaching the mountaintop and was never able to properly enjoy the fruits of his labors.

In his yokozuna debut tournament in March 2017, Kisenosato, despite a pectoral tear suffered two days earlier, somehow managed to mount the dohyo on Day 15 and claim his second title with a pair of wins over championship-chasing Terunofuji.

The injury, however, forced Kisenosato to miss 102 of his following 150 fights.

Even after being absent for all or part of eight straight tournaments, there were few if any calls for Kisenosato to retire.

That spoke to his popularity and the high regard in which he is held in the sumo world.

The 32-year-old, who spent most of his early years in Ryugasaki, Ibaraki Prefecture, became a sumo fan as a child and participated in a few tournaments, but baseball was the main focus for young Yutaka Hagiwara.

Playing multiple positions, he was good enough to earn offers from several powerhouse high schools but decided to pursue a career in sumo after visiting Naruto stable.

And pursue he most certainly did. From his earliest days in the stable, Hagiwara (the name he used until reaching the makuuchi division) was known as an extremely hard worker who rarely took time off from training.

Even over New Year holiday periods, it wasn’t uncommon for Kisenosato to rest only on Jan. 1.

That diligence, along with his stoic nature both inside and outside the ring, made Kisenosato the embodiment of the dignified rikishi ideal.

In an era when many his peers got caught up in scandal or were reprimanded for their behavior on the raised ring, the yokozuna’s exemplary behavior endeared him to fans.

Kisenosato had little time for outside activities, but one of his few non-sumo interests was American football.

The yokozuna is a longtime fan of the game and accepted an invitation I extended to watch last year’s Rice Bowl, Japan’s national championship.

Kisenosato proved to be deeply knowledgeable about the sport. Away from the spotlight and able to watch the game and relax, he showed a laughing and joking side that few people see.

That was just par for the course with Kisenosato. In any of my dealings with him I’d never found the yokozuna to be anything but friendly and outgoing.

Given the weight of expectation he has had to carry since his mid teens, both in terms of his own career and as the “Great Japanese Hope,” it’s amazing that Kisenosato had the level of success he did while avoiding any sort of negativity or scandal.

All the near misses and failures at the final hurdle would have broken a lesser man, but Kisenosato handled everything with dignity, eventually reached sumo’s summit and won two championships.

An apt comparison from the yokozuna’s favorite sport would be retired quarterback John Elway.

The question now is can Kisenosato follow a similar path to the Denver Broncos legend and find success in an executive role?

Here’s betting Araiso oyakata (as Kisenosato will be known) does just that.

Today’s Sumo 101 can be found online at www.japantimes.co.jp