Well, the day everyone has been saying is upon us for years and years, the event which everyone knew was just one more basho away, is finally here. As of today, July 19th, after losing to fellow ozeki Kotooshu, Kaio is officially retired.
While we here at Sumo & Stogies pull no punches in our feelings about Kaio, it is important for us to gain some perspective here, so let’s take a look back at Japan’s favorite rikishi.
Kaio was born Hiroyuki Koga and hails from Nogata city in Fukuoka. Kaio made his sumo debut at the tender age of 15 at Haru basho 1988 making it to juryo in under 4 years, picking up sandame and makushita yushos on the way up. His makuuchi debut was in May of 1993 at the rank of M15w following a 9-6 from J1w. Kaio entered makuuchi at an exciting, and competitive time. Akebono was the lone yokozuna, but Takanohana, Wakanohana, Musashimaru, and Konishiki were already in sanyaku providing constant competition for the yusho.
Former ozeki Takanonami, maegashira mainstays and perennial sanyaku men like Takatoriki, Terao, Kotonishiki, Kirishima, Tochinowaka, and others filled out the ranks. There were several guys in the maegashira ranks who had, or would win a yusho in their careers, and Kyokushuzan’s entrance and the ensuing Mongol invasion would not begin for another 3 years.
After a disappointing 4-11 makuuchi debut, Kaio was sent back to Juryo, but two straight 10-5 records got him back up to the big show and by his 4th basho in makuuchi (ranked at M1w) Kaio scored a 9-6, a kinboshi over Akebono, the shukun-sho, and promotion to Komusubi. With the exception of an injury related set back ion 1997 and a string of three 7-8 records in 1998, Kaio never left sanyaku and from 1994-2000 he racked up 9 more shukun-sho, and 5 more kinboshi, in addition to 5 kanto-sho, 4 jun-yusho, and 1 yusho.
Kaio was officialy promoted to ozeki for the September 2000 basho, posting an impressive 11-4 in his ozeki debut. Kaio picked up his 2nd yusho in Osaka 2001 with a 13-2, then got injured in for May, but came back to win the Yusho in Nagoya with the same 13-2. Despite occasional injuries this was Kaio’s prime, picking up 3 additional jun-yushos in 2002, and generally kicking ass and taking names. It was during this time that Kaio’s famous kotenage, or Kaionage as some call it, was in full bloom (3 of his wins in his 3rd yusho were via Kaionage.)
Kaio’s brush with yokozuna promotion came in 2003. In Osaka, Kaio picked up a 10-5 jun-yusho with wins over Asashoryu, and Chiyotaikai. He followed that up with an 11-4 jun-yusho in May with another upset over Asa. Kaio’s 4th yusho came the next tournament in Nagoya with a 12-3, as Asa pulled out due to an injury after day 9. It was looking sealed up, another yusho, or even junyusho, and Kaio would be yokozuna. However, Kaio only managed to turn in a 7-8 in September. He would have to start the run all over again.
However, pops still had some gas in the tank. Kaio fought back in 2004, turning in great results. January – 10-5, March – 13-2 jun-yusho, May 10-5, July 11-4, September 13-2 yusho, November – 12-3 jun-yusho. Unfortunately, that would be Kaio’s 5th and last yusho, as well as the last year he would achieve a record of at least 10-5 for every basho.
Over the next year a series of injuries, mostly to his back, kept Kaio from finishing tournaments. In fact, Kaio only made it through half the tournaments in 2005, although the ones he did finish, he posted straight 10-5.
And so began the long denouement, the iris of which closes today. There were some occasional comebacks. A 10-5 or 9-6 sprinkled in every once in a while, and his 12-3 back in last November for what we now know was Kaio’s last hometown basho.
Over his 23 years in sumo Kaio participated in 140 basho. He picked up 5 yusho (more than any non-yokozuna in the modern era, and more than some yokozunas), 11 jun-yusho, 10 shukun-sho, 5 kanto-sho, and 6 kinboshi (over Akebono(2), Takanohana(3), Wakanohana(1) ). He shares the distinction for most basho at Ozeki with Chiyotaikai at 65. Most career wins (1,047), Most top division wins (879), most top division bouts (1,731), and most top division basho (107). Say what we will about Kaio and his methods of winning, it will be quite some time before those records are challenged.
Kaio was never an overly diverse rikishi. Although he did use 35 kimarite throughout his career, many of them he only used a handful of times, and some only once. In fact, he has more fusen victories than he does shitatedashinage. However, his forward moving meat-n-potatoes sumo, and his strong defensive capabilities carried him through leagues of challengers. In fact only 2 other rikishi remain active from the class of Haru 1988. Ranbo, who never made it out of Makushita, and Minezakura, whose highest rank was Sandanme 74. Kaio had staying power, and the support of the public behind him.
That being said, it’s no secret that other rikishi have been soft-pedaling Kaio for years. Whether or not these tendencies to take it easy on ones elder, and possibly mentor or inspiration, were monetarily remunerated or not is up for speculation. Now that Kaio has finally stepped down, let’s end the trash talk and remember him for what he was.
There is a saying about the young men of the Confederate States of America, coined by William Faulkner in Intruder In The Dust and made famous and put inot perspective by historian Shelby Foote. Pardon my paraphrasing, but i deem in appropriate. ” ‘For any Southern boy… not once, but whenever he wants it, there is an instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863. The guns are laid, the troops are lined up, the flags are already out of their cases and ready to be unfurled, but Gettysburg and the turn of the tide of the Civil War hasn’t happened yet, and he can go back to a time before the war was going to be lost, and he can always have that moment for himself.” Well, as far as sumo is concerned, those who were there can always go back to a sunny late July day in 2003, or 2002, or 2001, or 2000, or even 1999, when the war is all but won, and Kaio is still a contender.