Yokozuna Kisenosato appeared lethargic and in no condition, both physically and mentally, to enter the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament. But his attitude seemed to change after he got smacked around by one of the most dominant sumo wrestlers in history.
Either way, Kisenosato's decision carries the risk of colossal failure and even an end to his career.
If he enters the tournament and performs poorly because of his injured arm, calls will inevitably rise for him to retire.
Kisenosato could skip the tournament, which starts on July 8, and hope to recover to 100 percent by the time the following tournament rolls around.
But that would bring him the undignified honor of having failed to complete eight consecutive tournaments, a record for a yokozuna under the system of six tournaments a year. In four tournaments, he dropped out halfway through. For three, he didn’t enter.
He must make his decision before the morning of July 6, when the matches will be set for the first and second days of the tournament at Dolphins Arena in Nagoya.
The fate of Kisenosato has been the focus of much attention here, given that he is the first Japan-born yokozuna since 2003, when Takanohana retired.
In June, Kisenosato did not have the air of a grand champion.
During training at the end of the month, Kisenosato sparred with low-ranking wrestlers whom he would not face if he does fight in the Nagoya tournament.
"I felt that it was a training session intended to help Kisenosato regain his confidence," said sports commentator Shuhei Mainoumi, a former sumo wrestler. "He seemed to be steadily preparing for the following tournament, and I assumed that he would refrain from competing in the Nagoya 'basho.’"
But Kisenosato, who belongs to the Tagonoura stable, found a higher caliber sparring partner, and the practice bouts apparently gave him jolt of energy.
On July 2, Kisenosato visited the Kokonoe stable and came across rival yokozuna Hakuho of the Miyagino stable.
The two grand champions sparred under "degeiko," a practice session in which wrestlers visit rival stables to brush up on their techniques.
It was Kisenosato’s first sparring session with Hakuho in more than a year.
The following day, Kisenosato visited the Miyagino stable and continued sparring with Hakuho.
Kisenosato repeatedly ended up collapsed and rolling on the dohyo sumo ring. Although his back was blackened with dirt, he had a satisfied look on his face.
"I felt like the sparring bouts enabled me to put all my doubts behind me," Kisenosato said. "Sparring with a wrestler at the top of the 'banzuke’ rankings makes a difference. I feel that I have begun picking up speed."
July 3 was also Kisenosato’s 32nd birthday. Media representatives presented him with a cake, on which he wrote in chocolate, "Heijoshin," which refers to an unwavering spirit that cannot be disturbed by actions or events.
"Many things haven’t worked out the way I wanted," Kisenosato said. "I hope I can survive the tournament with heijoshin, although various things can happen."
Both Kisenosato and his stable master, Tagonoura, have not given a commitment for his entry. And the yokozuna’s left arm is far from tip-top condition.
"I would like to deliberately consider Kisenosato’s entry to the Nagoya tournament after discussions with (Kisenosato and relevant people)," Tagonoura said.
Hakuho, who described the sparring sessions with Kisenosato as "great," would not speculate on whether his rival would enter the Nagoya tournament or the next one.
Masato Kitamura, chairman of the Japan Sumo Association’s Yokozuna Deliberation Council, also would not dwell on Kisenosato’s decision.
"I want him to come back to the tournament after getting into top shape," Kitamura has repeatedly said.