The first rikishi whose place of origin was listed as somewhere outside Japan was Hiraga, who joined professional sumo in 1934.
Three decades later, Jesse Kuhaulua became the first wrestler of non-Japanese descent in ōzumō (professional sumo).
It took almost another half-century for the first European to make it to sumo’s salaried ranks.
That man was Levan Tsaguria from Georgia, who fought under the name Kokkai (Black Sea).
His arrival heralded the start of a mini wave of Europeans with Takanoyama (Czech Republic), brothers Roho and Hakurozan (Russia) and Kotooshu (Bulgaria) all joining sumo within the space of 18 months.
Kokkai was a big, burly rikishi who brought a fired-up brawling style of sumo to the ring. What he lacked in technique he more than made up for in all-out effort.
The 189-cm tall Georgian usually weighed in around 155 kg and his thrusting, shoving style often overwhelmed opponents.
The former freestyle wrestler won the title in four of sumo’s six divisions, but his best performance came in March 2008 when he finished runner-up to Asashoryu with a 12-3 record. All three losses that tournament came at the hands of fellow Europeans.
Kokkai’s younger brother followed him into the professional ranks but when their father passed away suddenly, he returned home to help care for their mother.
Kokkai, a native of Sukhumi, received the Honor Medal from Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili in 2010 for raising his country’s profile abroad.
He also paved the way for countrymen Gagamaru and Tochinoshin in sumo.
After his active career came to a close, Kokkai returned to Georgia and resumed his involvement with amateur sumo in his home country.
In 2018, he was elected president of the Georgian Sumo Federation for a four-year term.
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