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Perseverance pays off for a homegrown sumo star

Kisenosato ends 19-year wait for a Japan-born 'yokozuna'

Japanese sumo wrestler Kisenosato performs the ceremonial entrance into a sumo wrestling ring in a style called <i>unryu</i> at Tokyo's Meiji Jingu shrine on Jan. 27. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

TOKYO A late bloomer like his mentor, sumo wrestler Kisenosato won the title of yokozuna after traveling a long, bumpy road.

Kisenosato, center, holds up a red sea bream as he celebrates his promotion to the rank of <i>yokozuna</i> on Jan. 25 in Tokyo. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

He is the first Japan-born sumo wrestler to ascend to the sport's highest rank in 19 years. Mongolian and American wrestlers have dominated the position after Wakanohana III, who became a yokozuna in 1998.

This new homegrown star, with his stoic dedication to the traditional Japanese sport, is seen as invigorating the Grand Sumo tournaments.

VIEW FROM THE TOP Kisenosato secured the championship on Jan. 21, the second-to-last day of the 15-day January tournament. Back in the dressing room, he shed tears of relief, as if he were finally freed from a bed of thorns.

Kisenosato, left, became the first Japanese-born yokozuna in nearly two decades after winning the January sumo tournament.

He had come in second 12 times, to the consternation of his fans. On Jan. 25, the sumo organization Nihon Sumo Kyokai formally named Kisenosato a yokozuna.

Kisenosato's strict yet observant late stablemaster, Naruto, helped him on his journey when the wrestler was struggling to reach the second-highest rank of ozeki. In 2010, when he was still a maegashira -- the lowest rank of the Makuuchi top division of wrestlers -- Naruto made the shocking remark that Kisenosato "doesn't like practice very much." This was right before a tournament in Fukuoka Prefecture, which began that November.

Kisenosato trained under a particularly strict stable that mandated two sets of practices by noon. The stablemaster was apparently talking not about the volume of practice, but attitude. Repeating the shiko practice of lifting and lowering legs alternately to strengthen the lower body, for instance, is a solitary struggle unattended by anyone and requires strong initiative.

Kisenosato "turns weak in defense but goes on the offensive when the opponent is under pressure," Naruto said about his disciple.

A major focus of the November 2010 tournament in Fukuoka was whether yokozuna Hakuho would top the historic record of 69 consecutive victories held by Futabayama, a famous yokozuna who retired in 1945.

On the second day of the tournament, Kisenosato beat Hakuho, ending the Mongolian yokozuna's winning streak at 63. This historic match conjured up memories of Akinoumi, who became a yokozuna after halting Futabayama's record winning streak. Kisenosato beat Hakuho in Nagoya in July 2013 as well, capping the latter's consecutive wins at 43.

Just a year after the Fukuoka match, Naruto suddenly passed away. Using his sorrow as a springboard, Kisenosato continued his quest, finally rising to the rank of ozeki.

RESTLESS BATTLE The journey that followed was filled with trial and error. In his battle to rise higher, Kisenosato discovered new aspects of practicing outside his home stable and in the shiko exercise. Inspired by the monumental victories of fellow Japanese wrestlers Kotoshogiku and Goeido in 2016, Kisenosato made his dream a reality. He finally won the championship, in the 31st tournament after becoming an ozeki. It was the culmination of 15 years of perseverance.

Stablemaster Naruto, who was himself a yokozuna known as Takanosato, was also known for undergoing great struggles. Battling diabetes, he left the sport with a record of 16 wins and 12 losses, ceding dominance to rival yokozuna Chiyonofuji. Like his late master, Kisenosato became a yokozuna after reaching age 30. But yokozuna Wakanohana I often said that "real power manifests after age 30."

Kisenosato has inherited the untainted, stoic spirit of the Nishonoseki school of sumo that has been passed on for generations, as is apparent in his distaste for collusion among wrestlers and the influence of the entertainment industry. Hopes are rising that this new Japanese yokozuna will reinvigorate the world of sumo.

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