A significant pair of retirement announcements came in the middle of the ongoing November Grand Sumo Tournament.
Veteran ozeki Kotoshogiku hanging up his mawashi means there are now only four men in makuuchi still active who reached the sport’s top division before the start of 2010.
How long Hakuho, Kakuryu, Tochinoshin or Tamawashi have left is hard to say, but it’s clear that the generation that dominated the first decade of the new millennium is really on its last legs.
Gagamaru, who only appeared in the ring twice in 2020, didn’t have nearly as successful a career as Kotoshogiku, but was a popular rikishi in his own right, and his retirement may actually be of bigger consequence in the short term.
The massive Georgian calling it a day opens up a precious slot for a foreign wrestler in Kise Beya and, given that stable's proclivity for university wrestlers, comes at an opportune moment.
Seventeen rikishi in Kise stable (including all seven men in the top two salaried divisions) are former collegians, and that number could well rise with the addition of one or more competitors from next months All Japan Championships.
Strong links to Nihon University puts Gagamaru’s now former stable in line to land Yersin Baltagulov, a fourth-year student at that college. The Kazakhstani won the East Japan student championship recently, and a similar result in December would allow him to skip sumo’s three lowest tiers and begin his career just below the juryo division.
Mongolian Purevsuren Delgerbayar at Nippon Sports Science University has already earned that qualification thanks to his victory in the All Japan student meet and could be another potential Gagamaru replacement in Kise Beya. Were Delgerbayar to win the All Japan amateur title as well, he’d be able to join ozumo at makushita 10 — where a 7-0 record would have him in the paid ranks the very next tournament.
It’s possible that both collegians have already been recruited into professional sumo and decided upon their respective stables, but confirmation announcements are unlikely to come before the end of the amateur season.
Whoever ends up in Kise Beya won’t have their Georgian predecessor helping out, however, as, without elder stock, the Tbilisi native cannot stay in ozumo.
Gagamaru leaves sumo after an interesting, if unspectacular, 15-year stint. He took a while to find his feet, and at one stage it seemed as if he was destined for a career spent primarily in the lower ranks like Hungarian Masuto — a man with whom he was often confused by casual fans.
After piling on the pounds, though, Gaga, as he was affectionately known, found success and had a purple patch at the start of the current decade, making it as far as sumo’s fourth highest rank.
That extra weight soon became a liability, though, with a lack of speed and mobility preventing him from ever truly challenging the top rankers.
Gagamaru’s outgoing and candid personality ensured his popularity wasn’t negatively affected by a lack of success in the ring, though his casual attitude, and affinity for socializing, did sometimes get him — and others — into hot water.
One all-night drinking session with fellow Georgian Kokkai finished up at an Indian restaurant at 7 a.m., where (according to the owner) things got rowdy, resulting in a broken glass partition — and a stern reprimand from the JSA.
My own decision to quote Gagamaru telling me in the dressing room after 2011’s Technical Examination Tournament that he "intended to go drinking many times" as a way of illustrating the relief felt by many rikishi in those post yaocho scandal times, didn’t go down well with a senior editor at the newspaper I wrote for back then and led to a definite frostiness towards subsequent pitches.
Kotoshogiku, conversely, was responsible for a major uptick in commissions and requests for articles when he became the first native-born winner of the Emperor’s Cup in a decade in 2016.
That championship was clearly the career high point for the former ozeki, but Kotoshogiku put in a solid 18-year shift in professional sumo and retires trailing only five of the most legendary rikishi in the history of the sport in top division wins.
One of the greatest exponents of the gaburi-yori (belly bump) style of sumo, Kotoshogiku’s title win invigorated sumo.
These days, when it seems every two months brings a new debutant champion, it’s easy to forget just how shocking it was to see a Japanese rikishi emerge victorious from a fifteen day meet. Mongolian-born wrestlers had won 56 of 58 tournaments prior to Kotoshogiku’s championship, with the remaining two going to a Bulgarian and an Estonian.
In ending the drought, the Fukuoka native gave hope to peers like Kisenosato and Goeido, and opened the door to a more competitive era of sumo.
Unlike his Georgian contemporary, Kotoshogiku intends to stay in sumo and has taken over the Hidenoyama elder name.
With the incumbent Sadogatake stablemaster only age 52 and not due to retire for another 13 years, Hidenoyama may, like fellow ozeki stablemate Kotooshu, have plans to open his own stable.
If he does open his own stable, many will be interested in seeing how its fortunes contrast with the mooted one of his great rival Kisenosato.
Although they figure to have very different lives from here on out, both Gagamaru and Kotoshogiku left an indelible mark inside — and outside — the ring over the past decade and a half.
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