Better Know a Rikishi: Kakuryu Rikisaburo
At the end of the 2019 Nagoya Basho, a Yokozuna stood alone on the Yusho Arasoi with 14 wins. Although it was the kind of performance often associated with Hakuho, it was the other Mongolian Yokozuna, Kakuryu. That's beeen Kakuryu's role as a Yokozuna, the "other" one. Such a status fits his sumo style perfectly.
Kakuryu is never going to be the most exciting rikishi mounting the dohyo. A prototypical Kakuryu match involves him withstanding his opponent's tachiai, taking one step back, and slapping down his opponent with a hatakikomi. The other Kakuryu special is withstanding the tachiai, getting a firm belt grip, and quickly walking his opponent over the edge for a yorikiri. It's subtly effective and has earned Kakuryu 6 Emperor's Cup and the title of Yokozuna.
Mangaljalavyn Anand was born in Sukhbaatar province in Eastern Mongolia, and he never really was into sumo as a kid. Unlike most Mongolians who do take the dohyo, he also wasn't into Mongolian wrestling, judo, or any other grappling sports, but basketball. At the age of 14, he saw sumo for the first time and was impressed by the first wave of Mongolians, Kyokutenho and Kyokushuzan. So he wrote a letter to multiple sumo stables asking to be taken on. Somehow, Izutsu beya invited him over to Japan.
It should be said that while Izutsu has a long history, it has been a small stable with limited 21st century success. It didn't suggest the young Mongolian was destined for stardom. Neither did his 82 kg weight. He even got a relatively plain shikona, as Kakuryu straightforwardly means "Crane Dragon," and isn't even a shikona anyone else in the history of sumo has used. Nonetheless, at 16, he was a fully fledged sumotori.
Kakuryu's progress was slow, but steady. He needed a few tries to stick in the third-lowest Sandanme division. He also bounced right back to Makushita after he first made Juryo in 2005. Yet within a year, he made his Makuuchi debut at the advanced rank of Maegashira 8 for Kyusho 2006. He didn't make that leap with eye-popping win totals, but by going 9-6 over four straight basho.
As a Maegashira, Kakuryu was a solid performer who never looked like a future Yokozuna. He did make the Sanyaku ranks in 2009, bounced around in upper Maegashira, then firmly established himself as a Sanyaku wrestler a year later. He never really seemed to be putting together an Ozeki run, until he got 13 wins in March 2012 after two straight 10 win performances. That fulfilled the promotion requirements, and up he went.
The pattern repeated itself as an Ozeki. He never really seemed to be able to put together the necessary two straight yusho, or even threaten that often. Then, at Hatsu 2014, Kakuryu got 14 wins and lost the yusho in a playoff to Hakuho. In March, he got 14 wins and an outright yusho. That made him a Yokozuna.
It was slightly controversial, if not unexpected. He seemed to be giving ammunition to his doubters. He tore his left rotator cuff in 2015, and he appeared to be a Yokozuna with less than two career yusho. Coming back from injury, though, he won the September 2015 tournament in a playoff over countryman Terunofuji.
Since that time he has added four more yusho, but also has racked up plenty of inuuries. He's also developed a weird habit of fading in tournaments after strong starts. Kakuryu's up and down performance is less than ideal for a Yokozuna, but he gets up enough to keep his place and dignity.
Perhaps it is Kakuryu's peculiarity that makes him so difficult to understand. He was never seen as a future Yokozuna because usually that label is reserved for rikishi with overwhelming size, speed, and strength. Kakuryu's only overwhelming skill might be smarts. That's allowed him to win much more than he has lost. It also has allowed him to improve as he's aged. Like any other sumo wrestler over 30, you have to pay attention to Kakuryu's health. Still, he is a Yokozuna for a reason, and he will prove it out one slap down at a time.