Thu, May 22, 2008 - Page 19 News List

FEATURE: Rare woman in sumo made Kotooshu a star

AFP , SOFIA

Bulgarian Sumo Federation chief Lilyana Kaneva stands next to a poster of a Sumo wrestler in Sofia, Bulgaria, last Thursday.

PHOTO: AFP

In the male world of professional sumo wrestling, in which women are not even allowed to touch the ring, it's a small woman with a big smile who made Bulgarian Kaloyan Mahlya­nov into the superstar he is today.

Mahlyanov, 25, known in Japan as Kotooshu, in 2005 became the first European to reach the rank of ozeki, the second-highest in professional sumo.

His own broad smile and comparatively lean physique compared with the famously fat sumo wrestlers have also turned him into a heartthrob among Japanese girls, while Japanese media have dubbed him the David Beckham of sumo.

But this towering giant of 145kg, who started off as a Western-style wrestler, might never have entered professional sumo if it were not for the vision and tenacity of a petite, blond woman whose interest in sumo was sparked during a trip to Japan.

“I was like a clever fox in the late 1990s, luring plump boys from wrestling clubs to try out sumo,” said Bulgarian Sumo Federation chief Lilyana Kaneva, who previously worked for the national wrestling federation.

The International Wrestling Federation (FILA) had conducted a major overhaul of its rules in 1996, doing away with weight classes above 120kg, so that wrestlers sometimes had to grapple with much heavier contestants.

“Kaloyan was a second-year wrestling student who turned up at an amateur competition and I knew immediately that he had talent and potential in sumo and not in wrestling, as he already weighed over 100kg,” she said.

After converting to sumo, Mahlyanov quickly became amateur champion in Bulgaria and the Sadogatake sumo stable in Tokyo was ready to take him on as a disciple.

“I had trouble convincing his mum and dad to let him go, at the same time undertaking this enormous responsibility as he had to quit university and it was clear to me that there was no going back once he went to Tokyo,” Kaneva said.

But Mahlyanov made it to Japan, where he joined the stable’s draconian training during the day, discussing problems with his mentor in the evenings.

“After 20 days, it was time for me to go and he suddenly said: ‘I’m leaving with you,’” she recalls, adding that she was then fully aware that this would amount to sacrilege.

Knowing the stable had expelled a South Korean wrestler to make space for Mahlyanov — each Japanese stable is only allowed one foreigner — she said she “promised him luxury, posh yachts ... the world” but he insisted on returning to his tiny village of Djulyunitsa in central Bulgaria.

“We were sitting there the last evening, finishing dessert and I told master Kotozakura [the famous former head of the Sadogatake stable] to let him go, and that I would commit harakiri if Kaloyan did not return to the stable within a week,” Kaneva said.

“Well, he was granted leave, but returned to Tokyo as promised so I was spared harakiri,” she laughs, referring to Japanese ritual suicide.

Kotooshu made his debut in professional sumo in November 2002.

A towering 2.04m tall but weighing an unusually lean 145kg, he raced up the ranks, reaching the rank of ozeki in 2005, faster than anyone since the current tournament style was introduced in 1958.

Former French president Jacques Chirac became one of Kotooshu’s biggest fans and asked to meet him during a March 2005 visit to Japan.

In April 2006, the EU made him its Goodwill Ambassador to Japan.

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