SUMO ABC (44) / Kisenosato’s defense helps him escape trouble, beat Hakuho

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ozeki Kisenosato holds firm against pressure from yokozuna Hakuho before getting out of trouble and eventually throwing him to win on the final day of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament.

By Shuji Miki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterKisenosato has finally won promotion to sumo’s top rank, being sworn in as the 72nd yokozuna. He grabbed his first career title at the recent New Year Grand Sumo Tournament in his 31st basho as an ozeki — the longest period on record since the Showa era started in 1926.

Some in sumo circles regard the period serving in the sport’s second-highest rank as the “time for special education to nurture future yokozuna.” I wonder whether Kisenosato expected his “study period” would last so long.

The wrestler shed tears during a post-tournament interview on the final day of the New Year basho on Jan. 22, which also made some of his fans at the Ryogoku Kokugikan cry in sympathy.

Kisenosato’s bout against yokozuna Hakuho in the final match of the tournament was impressive. I’m not referring to the moment when Kisenosato overcame an adverse situation to beat the yokozuna with a beltless arm throw — what hit me was the scene when a desperate-looking Kisenosato withstood pressure from Hakuho at the edge of the ring, his body bending backward like an arch.

Sumo is not just about offense — what creates drama in the sport is defense. Instead of trying to grab the mawashi belt to go head-on with Kisenosato, Hakuho made a powerful push right after the jump-off. I assume that the yokozuna had concluded it would be difficult to beat Kisenosato if the two grabbed each other’s belts and squared off. That was why Hakuho launched an all-out offense from the start.

“It was as if something more powerful than my strength was at work in the moment,” Kisenosato later said to describe his defense against Hakuho’s attack. “The way I held back at the edge of the ring — I don’t think I’ve done that before, nor did I do it with my own strength.”

There is no doubt that this special power helped Kisenosato turn the table on Hakuho for a victory that made his promotion to yokozuna even more celebratory.

Kisenosato entered his stable in 2002 at age 15, as soon as he finished junior high school. He started off on a good note, winning promotion to the second-tier juryo division at 17 and the top-tier makuuchi division at 18.

However, the wrestler made gradual progress after becoming a makuuchi wrestler. It took another seven years to be promoted to ozeki after the Kyushu tournament in 2011. Kisenosato missed being able to present his promotion to his stablemaster Naruto (formerly yokozuna Takanosato), who died just before the tournament.

Kisenosato’s skills can be confirmed most notably by his upset of Hakuho in 2010 that ended the yokozuna’s 63-match winning streak. I believe we can look forward to watching an even stronger Kisenosato now that he has been promoted to the highest rank.

The Yokozuna Deliberation Council unanimously recommended his promotion when it held a meeting the day after the end of the tournament. During a press conference following the decision, Kisenosato was asked if he was bursting with emotion, but the wrestler replied by mentioning first the heavy responsibility he will assume: “On the contrary, [the recommendation] made me feel even more strained,” he said.

On Wednesday, Kisenosato received messengers from the Japan Sumo Association, who officially informed him of the promotion. Asked during a press conference afterward what he thinks of the past 15 years since entering professional sumo, the wrestler said: “I’ve become what I am today because I’ve gone through really excellent experiences, and I’ve also been blessed by my encounters with people.

“I’ll focus on my training while keeping gratitude in my mind.”

I’d like to applaud from the heart the ascension of this new yokozuna.

— Miki is a sumo expert.

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