History was made in Japan’s national sport on Monday with the release of the banzuke rankings for the upcoming March tournament in Osaka.
Kazakhstan native Kinbozan’s promotion to the rank of maegashirahas resulted in sumo’s top tier gaining its first-ever wrestler from the central Asian nation.
The 25-year-old’s elevation to makuuchi also adds a new country to the top division’s roll call for the first time in almost a decade.
Egypt became nation No. 11 on that list in November 2013, when Osunaarashi earned the honor for his country, marking Africa’s makuuchi debut in the process.
Australia — and, of course, Antarctica — now remain the only continents yet to produce a makuuchi-level rikishi.
The early part of this century saw the greatest number of new maegashira from previously unrepresented nations, with South Korea, Georgia, Bulgaria, Russia and Estonia producing makuuchi debutants over a three-year span starting in 2003.
Mongolia earned top-tier representation for the first time in 1996, but over the past two decades has come to dominate not just the ranks of foreign wrestlers, but all of sumo itself.
Mongolian influence even extends to sumo’s newest top-tier nation, with Kinbozan’s introduction to Japan coming by way of former yokozuna Asashoryu.
While the wait for country No. 13 took a decade, No. 14 could arrive as soon as this year, with Ukrainian-born Sergey Sokolovsky, who fights under the ring name Shishi, holding his own in the makushitapromotion zone since last summer and just seven wins away from reaching jūryō.
As Kinbozan prepares for Kazakhstan’s top-tier debut, none of his 12 predecessors, who were the first to (metaphorically) plant their nations’ flags on the Kokugikan dohyō, remain active in the ring.
Some have continued on in the sport as elders or even stablemasters, while several others found themselves kicked out of sumo for various infractions.
Kinbozan’s immediate predecessor, Osunaarashi, was forced to retire in 2018 after lying to police about being behind the wheel during a minor traffic accident.
Ten years earlier, Roho — Russia’s first ever sekitori — met a similarly ignominious end, when both he and his brother were dismissed from the Japan Sumo Association after a series of failed drug tests.
Two decades before the Russian siblings were kicked out of sumo, substance abuse was also a factor in the demise of Western Samoa’s first-ever maegashira.
Heavy drinking marked much of the short-but-promising career of Nankairyu, and after a confrontation with his stablemaster resulted in a “quit alcohol or quit sumo” ultimatum, he left both the sport and country, and returned to his homeland.
Takanoyama, the Czech Republic’s first — and, to date, only — professional sumo wrestler also had a brush with drug use. But in his case, it was surreptitiously injecting his stablemaster’s insulin in order to gain weight after reaching the top division while listed at just 98 kg.
The JSA deemed that indiscretion worthy of just a warning, and Takanoyama got to spend most of his final three years in sumo as a sekitori after toiling in the lower divisions for the first decade of his career.
Beginning in 1967, Brazil has been the birthplace of 16 pro sumo hopefuls, but it took over half a century for South America’s largest nation to produce its first maegashira. That man, Ricardo Sugano — better known as Kaisei — eventually reached the sport’s third-highest rank, before calling it quits last September and taking up the elder name Tomozuna.
Kasugao, South Korea’s first (official) top-tier wrestler, spent a seemingly uneventful decade in makuuchi before becoming one of 23 men dismissed from sumo in 2011 in the wake of the largest match-fixing scandal in the sport’s history.
That group included another trailblazer, but one who fought the sacking and earned a very different outcome.
Scandal, dismissal and reinstatement — followed by a career-high rank and ascendancy to stablemaster — were all part of the incredible career of Sokokurai, China’s sole top-division wrestler to date.
Baruto and Kotooshu, Estonia and Bulgaria’s respective pioneers, had the most objectively successful runs of all national debutants, with both men lifting the Emperor’s Cup and reaching sumo’s second-highest rank of ozeki.
The two Europeans have taken very different post-retirement paths, however.
Kotooshu has remained in the JSA and became Naruto stablemaster, while Baruto has been many things — including an actor, politician, farmer, MMA fighter and tourism ambassador.
Georgia’s first makuuchi wrestler’s ring name, Kokkai, means “Black Sea,” and the man from the Caucasus was, in fact, the first-ever white wrestler to reach sumo’s highest tier.
Kyokushuzan, part of the initial group of six youngsters that came from Mongolia to try their luck in Japan’s national sport, was also the first from his country to reach the top division. Like Baruto, he left sumo and has had a varied career that includes politics.
The first ever non-Japanese top tier wrestler is arguably the one whose impact has never been matched. Hawaii’s Takamiyama ensured many of sumo’s foreign firsts were claimed by the United States, including reaching sekiwake, claiming the Emperor’s Cup, and becoming a stablemaster.
A wildly popular fighter in his day who was the face of advertising campaigns for numerous and varied products, he also was directly responsible for scouting and training the first-ever foreign yokozuna in sumo history.
Now 78 years old, “Jesse,” as he is commonly known, still lives in Tokyo’s sumo district and hosted the team from his home state prior to the recent Hakuho Cup.