He is possibly sumo's brightest rising star, just one step away from the ancient sport's top rank. He's the first European ever to make it so far and -- at 204cm tall and weighing a beefy 144kg -- he truly looks the part.
But Bulgarian sumo champion Kotooshu has a confession to make.
"It's true, as a child I did like baking cakes," he said yesterday. "But now I am totally focused on my training."
Japan's homegrown wrestlers may wish he stayed by the oven.
Kotooshu is one of a growing number of foreign-born fighters who have put a stranglehold on Japan's national sport, dominating the top positions, winning virtually all of the yearly titles and shoving the local talent out of the spotlight.
The coveted rank of yokozuna, or grand champion, is now held by Mongolia's Asashoryu -- who has won eight of the past nine tournaments. Two of the five wrestlers in the sport's second-highest rank of ozeki, or champion, are also foreigners -- Kotooshu and newly promoted Hakuho, another Mongolian.
Though the foreign stars have devoted followings of fans and have energized the ring with their strength and speed, the failure of Japanese wrestlers to provide much competition has generated a good deal of hand-wringing in the Japan Sumo Association, which oversees the professional sport.
Ticket sales have been declining, it is becoming harder for sumo to find young recruits and TV ratings have fallen significantly compared with a decade or so ago, when Japanese were still more of a factor in the six annual tournaments.
Hopes of a Japanese revival were boosted before the most recent tournament, last month, but were then dashed when ozeki Tochiazuma placed third behind Asashoryu and Hakuho. Kotooshu, coming off an injury, finished the 15-day tournament with a mediocre 9-6 record.
"I think the popularity of sumo is recovering compared with a year or so ago," said Sadogatake, a former wrestler who runs the "stable" where Kotooshu trains. "But it will be hard without the rise of a strong Japanese wrestler."
Sadogatake added, however, that he believes the number of foreigners in the sport now is about right -- each stable is limited to having just one on its roster, for about 60 altogether.
"That rule was suggested by my predecessor, so I can't say anything about it," Sadogatake quipped during a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan.
Kotooshu -- born Mahlyanov Kaloyan Stefanov -- had no comment on the impact of foreigners like himself, saying only that he is happy to be competing.
The 24-year-old has risen up the sumo ranks faster than any wrestler before him, reaching champion status in just over three years. He is a sought-after personality on TV commercials and has been named a goodwill ambassador for the EU, which Bulgaria is to join next year.
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