Last Wednesday, Kakuryu confirmed his intention to return to the ring after four consecutive tournaments absent. Ranked at West Yokozuna alongside fellow Mongolian Hakuho in the East slot, Kakuryu shared his feelings on the upcoming Haru Basho, now only one week away.
“I’m finally competing. Finally,” he said between sniffles and coughs while talking to reporters over the phone. “My cold’s not getting much better,” he told them, explaining he’d had it for 3 weeks now, and that was why he quit part way through the joint practice week. He assured the press that it was not hay fever, and it certainly isn’t COVID symptoms. “I had the same cough last year,” he said. Still, participation in full-contact inter-stable training while sick seems a risky move at the moment.
Mainly due to low back pain and an elbow injury, last year’s closed-door Osaka Basho was the last time Kakuryu finished a full 15 day tournament. Same goes for Hakuho, for whom knee trouble is the most recent culprit. Hakuho vs. Kakuryu headlined the final day exactly a year ago. Their exciting grappling match resulted in a record extending 44th Emperor’s Cup for Hakuho, and an agonizing 8th time runner-up for Kakuryu.
Even before Osaka 2020, Kakuryu posted a string of three consecutive unfinished tournaments which began at the 2019 Aki Basho in September. Kakuryu had started the basho well, but a knee injury saw him pull out on day 8, just one day before the death of his stablemaster Izutsu (shikona: Sakahoko). The following tournaments were spent mourning the loss of the man who had raised him in the way of sumo, adjusting to his new environment at Michinoku Stable, and trying to heal injuries, the latter to no avail.
Publicized talk of retirement between Kakuryu and Michinoku-oyakata began around September of last year. And by November, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council (Yokoshin) began to issue warnings to both Yokozuna over their extended time off. “Compete or retire,” was the council’s recommendation in short, but try as he might to heed the warning, Kakuryu’s physical condition would not allow him to withstand full on training.
Japanese citizenship is a requirement for remaining in the Japan Sumo Association after retirement from competition. Hakuho achieved his papers in 2019, well before the Yokoshin began putting the pressure on. Some wondered if citizenship was all Kakuryu was really holding out for before retiring.
But when word finally came from Japan’s Minister of Justice and Kakuryu announced his citizenship on December 10th, retirement did not directly follow. He aimed to compete at Hatsu 2021 but was held back once again by his own body for a 4th straight kyujo. The 6 yusho Yokozuna’s main motivation in continuing at this point remains somewhat of a mystery…
(Your opinions are appreciated in the comments!)
Whatever the case, this past Wednesday, Kakuryu confirmed he is set to take on Haru Basho (beginning March 14th in Tokyo). It seems the 35 year old believes in his own ability to perform at least one more time. And to prove this, he put a beat down on the likes of Mitakeumi at the end of last month during joint sparring at the Kokugikan. 30 matches equaled 30 wins for Kakuryu!
Just when the path seemed clear for a triumphal comeback, Kakuryu revealed his latest obstacle: the cold. “It’s really not getting better very quickly,” he told reporters. However, “It really hasn’t affected my ability to approach training seriously. As long as I can train seriously, I’m alright.” Since the joint sessions, Kakuryu has diligently put in the miles against sekitori stablemate, M4 Kiribayama.
Kakuryu seeks his 7th Emperor’s Cup among a slew of broken-in sanyaku and a recently recovered Hakuho. Will Kakuryu’s success in sparring be reflected onto the Kokugikan clay? The proof is in the pudding starting next Sunday!