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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2001

'Black Sea' makes waves, battles culture

Kyodo News

SOKA, Saitama Pref. -- When Tsaguria Merab Levan of Georgia was selected among 16 aspirants hoping to make his mark on sumo's raised ring in May, little did he know that his name would go down in the age-old sport's history books just several months later.

Not since 18-year-old Englishman Nathan Strange, or Hidenokuni, stepped onto the sacred clay in 1989, has a wrestler from Europe been so successful.

In fact, Tsunami might be a more appropriate moniker for Kokkai, whose ring name means Black Sea after the region bordering his home town of Sokhumi, as the 20-year-old has taken sumo's lower echelons by storm since making his professional debut in July.

Hidenokuni, who started out alongside Samoan-born Musashimaru, was unable to get used to the conservative sumo world and packed his bags after just four months to become a cameraman back in England. Musashimaru went on to reach sumo's ultimate rank of yokozuna.

Kokkai may have to move mountains to achieve the same feat as grand champion Musashimaru, but after winning the jonidan division crown and with just two defeats in three tournaments it looks like he intends to stick around.

"Absolutely bowled over" at his new-found fame, Kokkai thought his experience as a top European junior freestyle wrestler helped him be successful in the ring.

The 145-kilogram giant, however, said he was totally unprepared for the numerous extra chores awaiting him at the Oitekaze stable run by former maegashira Daishoyama.

Along with a grueling training schedule, helping prepare chanko-nabe, the one-pot meal wrestlers usually eat to gain weight, cleaning the stable, and tsukibito -- being at the beck and call of higher-ranked rikishi -- are all part and parcel of his daily routine.

"Japanese sumo people in Georgia kept saying to me, 'Listen, are you really sure that you want to become a professional sumo wrestler? It's quite different to wrestling in Europe,' " Kokkai recalled.

"And they were right. It is a completely different ball game. When I was a freestyle wrestler, you just did your training and you were out of there, done.

"But here, six days a week it's training and chankoban (taking charge of preparing chanko-nabe), soji (cleaning), tsukibito and everything else."

"Fortunately for me, everyone is always really kind and totally supportive regardless of seniority or professional status," Kokkai said of his colleagues at the stable, home to maegashira Hamanishiki and Hayateumi.

On his sumo debut in July, Kokkai cruised through his first tournament in Nagoya in the jonokuchi division, the lowest of the junior leagues, and after moving up to jonidan followed up with another 6-1 success in September.

Kokkai then became the first European wrestler to reach sandamme after a victory over Matsumidori in a playoff in the Kyushu tourney in November, going one division higher than Hidenokuni who quit after posting a 4-3 winning record as a jonidan grappler.

Groomed by Georgia's former world and European amateur sumo champion Levan Ebanoidze, Kokkai has set his sights on the very top but knows that the "awesome strength" of hero Takanohana and the avoidance of injuries are crucial to his future success.

"Of course I want to be No. 1. Even more so after watching Takanohana win in that playoff (in the summer tourney) against Musashimaru. He showed awesome physical and mental strength, despite having a bad knee," he said.

"I guess injuries are the biggest down side of sumo. It would crush me if I'd given it my all to reach the higher divisions only to get injured and slip back down the rankings."

Most foreigners coming to terms with living in a strange land for the first time pine for something. For Kokkai, it's his family, in particular his 14-year-old brother Giorgi.

"There's a real possibility that Giorgi will come out here and try sumo for himself. And I hope so," Kokkai sighs wistfully.

But any sandamme opponents at the New Year tournament who have heard of Kokkai will know that one Georgian bruiser in their midst is quite enough for now.

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