A once-skinny kid from Mongolia who initially dreamed of playing professional basketball has traveled a long and bumpy road in Japan.
But on March 23, Kakuryu elevated himself to the top of the sumo world.
The 28-year-old easily dispatched fellow ozeki Kotoshogiku to finish 14-1 in the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka and capture his first Emperor’s Cup.
The Japan Sumo Association has indicated that it will formally promote Kakuryu to yokozuna, sumo’s highest rank, during a meeting March 26 of its promotion committee.
“I will work hard to become the kind of wrestler who can make everyone happy,” Kakuryu said in an interview after his final bout, as shouts of “yokozuna” rang through the crowd.
He later said: “I will devote myself even more because a yokozuna must always dominate the ring.”
Early in his life in Mongolia, Kakuryu saw his future career in hoops.
But at age 14, he watched a live TV broadcast of compatriots Kyokutenho and Kyokushuzan competing in a grand sumo tournament in Japan.
He was so impressed with their skills that he decided to devote himself to sumo.
Unlike the Mongolian yokozuna trio of Asashoryu, Hakuho and Harumafuji, Kakuryu did not have a father with a sumo background. His dad is a dean at a national technical university.
The young and ambitious Kakuryu wrote a letter about his sumo dream and had a friend of his father translate it into Japanese. He then sent copies of the letter to several sumo stables.
The letter caught the attention of Izutsu, who eventually became Kakuryu’s stablemaster.
Kakuryu knew he had to gain weight. When he first arrived in Japan, he weighed only 65 kilograms.
When he saw Kakuryu for the first time, Izutsu said, he thought he would have to make him the stable’s “tokoyama” (hairdresser).
Many bowls of “chankonabe” have helped Kakuryu bulk up to 154 kg. In addition, he frequented sushi restaurants to get used to eating fish, which is considered sacred in Mongolia.
Kakuryu made his sumo debut in 2001, but not everything has gone as planned.
He was twice demoted from the sandanme division to the second-lowest jonidan division.
It took him 17 tournaments to win promotion to the fourth-lowest makushita division, an unusually slow process for a future grand champion.
He finally won his first Emperor’s Cup in his 74th basho.
Along the way, Kakuryu has learned how to speak Japanese, English and Russian.
Kakuryu’s long struggle to reach the pinnacle of the sumo world has been worth the wait, and no one is prouder than his dad.
“I have been waiting for (this moment),” said Kakuryu’s father, while giving his soon-to-be-yokozuna son a big kiss on the cheek.
(Takuta Minoda contributed to this article.)
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN