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Kotooshu Talk Asia Interview

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(CNN) -- AS: Atika Shubert

(Note: Translation is from Bulgarian to English)

AS: This week on Talk Asia sumo sensation Kotooshu talks about his rise through the ranks and the future of this ancient sport. This is Talk Asia.

With a potent mix of strength and speed, Kotooshu has taken sumo by storm. In just four years, the 2-meter giant has climbed to the sport's second-highest ranking, Ozeki, the first European to do so. For the man born Kaloyan Stefanov Mahlyanov it was a long road from Bulgaria to the highest levels of Japan's ancient sport.

Kotooshu: At the beginning it was very, very hard. I didn't speak the language, I didn't know the traditions.

AS: But with his successes in the ring, not to mention good looks, Kotooshu has become a celebrity in his adopted home.

Kotooshu: Japanese fans are very devoted. When they like someone, they really show it.

AS: We caught up with Kotooshu at his sumo stable where he trains with fellow wrestlers. He took time from his lunch break to talk about his extraordinary rise through the ranks.


AS: So Kotooshu, welcome to Talk Asia. Let's start from the beginning. What makes a young Bulgarian teenager want to become the next big thing in sumo? What was it that inspired you?

Kotooshu: I was accepted in the National Sports Academy in Bulgaria, and my major was wrestling. The training for both majors -- wrestling and sumo -- was held in the same hall. It all started as a joke. I started practicing sumo as a joke! And just look what the outcome is!

AS: Why did you choose sumo? What was it about sumo that you found to be something that you wanted to do?

Kotooshu: Because in sumo you can eat as much as you want, while in wrestling I always had to control my diet to stay in my category. I was always in the heaviest category but I could never keep my weight low enough to be in it.

AS: What did your parents say when you told them that you wanted to pursue sumo wrestling?

Kotooshu: Well, they said: You are already 18. You choose your future yourself. We can't tell you what to do. Just don't blame us later for your choice. If you like sumo then practice it.

AS: Sounds like they might have been tough parents? Is that the case?

Kotooshu: Well, not necessarily. At times when needed, they were strict with me. But when I myself had to make decisions, when I decided that I had to do something, they never stopped me from doing it. They have always respected my choices.

AS: Today, of course, you speak Japanese, you know, you are fluent in Japanese traditions and customs on sumo ring, you wear a kimono, how did you begin this transformation into becoming a sumo wrestler?

Kotooshu: At the beginning it was very, very hard. I didn't speak the language, I didn't know the traditions; there was no way I could get any explanation about the traditions and culture. I couldn't even communicate with people.

But with time, after I learned some Japanese, I started understanding their traditions.

AS: Do you have any specific memories or an incident that you remember being very challenged either by the language or culture, even food can be difficult to deal with at first?

Kotooshu: When I started picking up the language... They were telling me: This should be done this way. And if I asked them why, they couldn't actually explain the reason. They would just say: 'Because that's the way it should be done. That's the way everybody does it.'

AS: Let me ask you, how did Japan greet you? How did, for example, other sumo wrestlers who already knew about these traditions, how did they help you to adapt?

Kotooshu: All the wrestlers helped a lot, especially those wrestlers in my stable.

They were teaching me the language, showing me how to train.

AS: What about Japanese fans? How did they accept or greet you? Because obviously you stand out on the sumo ring. I am wondering how did the Japanese fans welcome you?

Kotooshu: Japanese fans are very devoted. When they like someone, they really show it; and not only do they cheer for that person, they support him with all their heart.

AS: When you first started as a sumo wrestler what goal did you set for yourself?

Kotooshu: For myself? My goal was simply to become a stronger wrestler, in as short time as possible.

AS: You've already achieved the second-highest rank of ozeki, did you see yourself in that position when you first started, or did this come as a surprise to you?

Kotooshu: No, my dreams and the goals that I set for myself are not all that high. I set very reasonable goals. So that little by little, with every step I make I can achieve the current objective. Then I define another reasonable goal so that I can accomplish it even faster. Then, again and again. I don't set goals that are too high, goals that may be impossible for me. Just reasonable goals, one after another.

AS: One of the crowning moments of your career so far has been defeating the grand-champion Asashoryu. How did it feel to clinch that victory?

Kotooshu: On that day, in that tournament in Fukuoka, with that victory, I proved that I have the right to be promoted to the rank of ozeki. That day was very special for everyone. Because on that day, the previous stable master retired and the current one took over in his place. On that very day I defeated Asashoryu, and it was a very big event not just for me, but for the entire stable.

AS: And now that you have already accomplished so much, what's your next target, what's your next goal that you have set for yourself?

Kotooshu: My next goal is to become the champion of a tournament. Last year, I missed the chance to win twice. This year, I had an injury for a long time. Now I am getting better, and next year I am hoping for a first victory in the tournament.

AS: How would you describe your childhood? Growing up in Bulgaria? Was it a typical Bulgarian childhood?

Kotooshu: How would I describe myself? I was a child like all other children. I remember we all played together, all my friends in a group. Whatever we did, we did it together.

AS: But you became involved in a very traditional, very unusual sport, and I am wondering how, what was that moment that happened? Obviously you were wrestling already. When did you make that leap?

Kotooshu: Well, the circumstances were that, I came here to Japan, and I had to change.

AS: The circumstances being...

Kotooshu: When you live here, you have to adapt to the environment. When in Rome, do as Romans do.

AS: Coming up, ceremony, tradition, and training: life as a sumo wrestler.


AS: More than 2,000 years old, Sumo originated as a religious rite of Japanese Shinto tradition, but it wasn't until the 17th century that it turned into a spectator sport, when Japanese warlords kept a stable of wrestlers as a symbol of power and prestige.

The rules are simple: two wrestlers face off in a ring of sand. The first to be pushed out of the ring or toppled to the ground loses. Matches typically last only seconds. There are no weight limits and wrestlers can weigh more than 200 kilograms (440 pounds). It's a sport steeped in tradition, from hairstyles to winning moves, wrestlers must follow a strict code of conduct. Everything is sacred, from the ceremonial salt tossed into a ring before a bout, the stiffly folded mawashi-loin clothes worn by the wrestlers.

In the sumo stable, hierarchy is strictly enforced, the more bouts you win, the higher you rank, the later you can wake up for practice, the earlier you can eat lunch. Junior wrestlers are relegated to waiting on everyone else, even cleaning out the toilets, tradition and a big incentive to win, and keep winning.

AS: Could you give us a description of what is life like for you as a sumo wrestler? What's life like in a sumo stable?

Kotooshu: First of all, in sumo wrestlers are divided into two groups: the first group -- those who are in the higher divisions, and the second group -- those who are in the lower divisions. In other words, you're either in the group that serves the other, or the group where someone serves you. The group that cooks for the others or the group that has someone to cook for them. The group that does the cleaning or the group that has someone clean for them.

AS: Was that difficult for you to adjust to? Coming from Bulgaria, where I am sure culturally it was very different.

Kotooshu: When I was in Bulgaria, I was on the national wrestling team. When we went to training camps, we had everyone take care of us -- doctors, masseurs; we had proper rehabilitation, medicine. After I started practicing amateur sumo, we had the same people taking care of us. Then I came to Japan, and here it is a professional sport. I thought they would really treat us well, take good care of the sumo wrestlers. Because more or less, it is a professional sport here. But in fact, when I entered the professional sumo world in Japan, the reality was quite different.

Kotooshu: Here, the situation in sumo is like this: If you don't want to cook for someone; or serve someone, you should become stronger in as short a time as possible. That's the way they push sumo wrestlers here to train harder, the way they motivate them to move faster into higher ranks so that they start getting a salary. The low-ranking wrestlers -- they have neither salary nor free time for themselves, because they have to serve the others. The difference with Bulgaria is enormous. That's the way they motivate here -- you either become a strong sumo wrestler, or you stay a servant.

It all depends on one's efforts. Everyone starts at the same bottom level. How far you get all depends on you. How hard you train, how devoted to the sport you are, it all depends on you.

AS: How were you able to prove yourself in that system?

Kotooshu: To prove myself, I train hard. I devote myself to the sport. And meanwhile, every two months a tournament is held, and there you have to show how hard you have trained. Sole participation in the tournament is not enough. You also have to win in the bouts.

It's all linked. With time you get to higher ranks.

AS: So how you do prepare for a big match?

Kotooshu: All matches are big!

It's very straightforward -- I just isolate everyone and everything else and just focus on the bout.

AS: Now this is going to sound like a very pedestrian question but it's something everybody wants to know: what do sumo wrestlers eat in order to gain the mass that they have? What is the kind of special training that you need to become a sumo wrestler?

Kotooshu: Well, we eat out of a big pot of stew, and we also have other kinds of food. We eat twice a day, and every meal is big; once after training for lunch, and once in the evening.

AS: Of course this is not just about your body mass, you also have to be very quick, very flexible. In fact I have read in an article that you can even run 100 meters in 11.5 seconds. I am not sure if that's true, may be you can confirm that for me.

Kotooshu: Yes, that was at the time when I entered the sumo world.

AS: And that was your speed?

Kotooshu: Yes

AS: That's very fast.

AS: How do you train to achieve not just body mass but that quickness and that flexibility, what do you have to do to make yourself in a tip-top shape?

Kotooshu: We do a number of special exercises designed entirely for flexibility. The more flexible a sumo wrestler is the more injuries he can avoid.

AS: You are known for being actually quite slim and tall for being a sumo wrestler. Also for employing a lot of different of moves. Do you think you have a very different style of sumo and how would you describe it?

Kotooshu: It is difficult to talk about a specific sumo 'style'. There are more than 60 techniques that are used in the bouts. It's just that the Japanese wrestlers tend to focus on one or two techniques and they hardly use the rest of the moves.

AS: Do you think that sumo styles are evolving in general, are they changing?

Kotooshu: I don't know if you can say sumo styles are changing. Sumo is sumo. No matter how you look at it, it really doesn't change. It's just the people who come into and then leave the sumo world change. For example the Japanese wrestlers use only one or two techniques, like thrusting only.

That's the way the sport is right now, but in 10 years after younger wrestlers join, maybe they will fight in a different way. Maybe then we will be talking about a change in the style of sumo. There is no set style of fighting in the sport.

Reporter: Up next, Kotooshu on the future of this ancient sport.


AS: It started with Jesse Kuhaulua, the first foreigner to enter the sumo rink. The Hawaiian wrestler became an instant celebrity, changing his name to Takamiyama, dawning the traditional kimono and loin cloth. A string of foreign born sumo stars followed, many whom were Hawaiian born, like Saleva'a Fuauli Atisano'e, better known as Konishiki, the heaviest wrestler ever, weighing in at 275 kilograms (605 pounds), earning him the nickname 'meat bomb.' But a foreign face was not welcomed by traditionalists who said Konishiki lacked dignity. Despite a string of victories, he never made grand champion.

Then came Chad Rowan, or Akebono, also from Hawaii. He became the first foreigner to win the coveted title of yokozuna, or grand champion. His victory cleared the way for a series of foreign wrestlers that now dominate the sport. Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu is the current reigning champion, but Bulgarian wrestler Kotooshu is quickly gaining ground. Yet sumo's popularity has plummeted in recent years. Fans say until a home grown hero rises through the ranks, sumo will remain in the doldrums.

AS: Of course, you already had a background in wrestling; your father was a wrestling coach, but sumo has so much tradition and ceremony attached to it, I wonder how is it different for you doing the wrestling you were doing before and doing sumo now?

Kotooshu: You can't adapt to sumo right away. It is different from wrestling, so one can adapt to it only gradually.

AS: Out of curiosity, your father was a wrestling coach, what does he think in particular about the sumo wrestling? Has he given you any advice?

Kotooshu: Well, he was a wrestler and for him wrestling is the greatest sport. When I first told him I was going to practice sumo he said: What kind of sport is that?

AS: Now you have become a sumo star. You have even been called the 'Beckham of sumo'. How does it feel to be such a celebrity? How do you handle the fame?

Kotooshu: How do I feel? I personally think I haven't changed at all. From the time when I first arrived here until now -- I am still the same.

AS: Do you feel any extra responsibilities or burdens in being a celebrity?

Kotooshu: Well, one thing is that I have no free time any more.

AS: That's true. I suppose you can't go even shopping without being recognized.

Kotooshu: No, I can't. I can't go anywhere. Wherever I go, there are always crowds following me. I can't do anything in private any more any more. 04:57:41

AS: How do you try and make some private time for yourself? How do you try to create a little privacy?

Kotooshu: Well, there is rarely such thing for me. But after tournaments I always get 5 free days off, And I always try to go somewhere, far from everything.

AS: Well getting back to the sport of sumo. It has become increasingly popular with a lot of foreigners. Why do you think it has reached such a wide audience outside of Japan?

Kotooshu: Maybe the reason is that sumo is so traditional thing in Japan, the national traditional sport. Every foreigner, when they come to Japan, or when they want to learn about this country, these days it is sumo that attracts their interest, not just the samurai!

AS: And yet even though we have that popularity with foreign wrestlers coming in, the popularity seems to be declining in Japan. Why do you think that is? And what do you think the ways of reviving it might be?

Kotooshu: The Japanese want to 'open' sumo to the world and have it in the Olympic Games; but at the same time many want to keep it in Japan only, worrying about pleasing Japanese fans. If they really want to make sumo an Olympic sport, they should 'open' it to the world, just like they did with judo. If they want to keep it as a traditional sport in Japan, they will have to keep it the way it is now.

AS: I was going to say, one of the issues of getting a wider audience, bringing it to the Olympics, even having exhibitions like you did in Las Vegas, what does that do to the traditions and ceremonies of sumo? Do you see those changing over time?

Kotooshu: No, those things won't affect sumo traditions in any way; in fact, I think they will only help increase the popularity of sumo.

AS: Where do you see sumo going in the next few years? How do you see the future of sumo?

Kotooshu: It's tough to say. If I answer this question, then I have to take a side on those two different views of what sumo should be -- to say that the sport should be only for Japan, or to say that it should be open to the world. This is something that doesn't depend on me.

AS: When you were younger you were wrestling, but you didn't know you were going to be a sumo wrestler. How did you, if you didn't have that option, sumo wrestling, what direction do you think you might have gone in?

Kotooshu: Right now?

Well, I guess by now I would have graduated from the university and started working as a wrestling coach or a school teacher.

AS: What advice would you give to young sumo wrestlers?

Kotooshu: Every single wrestler can become successful and get to higher ranks -- as long as they work hard. Sumo is an individual sport. It all depends on the efforts of the individual. If you are devoted to the sport, if you train hard, then you can achieve good results.

I agree, it is very hard, very difficult; there is nothing easy in this sport. But it is not impossible to succeed!

AS: Thank you very much. We've been talking to Kotooshu. This is Talk Asia, and thank you for watching.

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