TOKYO -- Konishiki, the only American to become within striking distance of the highest rank in Japan's sumo wrestling, got a boost toward his goal Friday with the announced retirement of the sole grand champion, Yokozuna Hokutoumi.
Should Konishiki, a Hawaiian ethnic Samoan whose real name is Salevaa Atisanoe, attain the title of grand champion, he will be the first foreigner to achieve sumo's highest rank.
With Hokutoumi's retirement, there will be no grand champion (yokozuna) participating in the 15-day sumo tournament starting Sunday with Konishiki the strongest contender.
Hokutoumi, who clinched eight tourney wins, submitted his formal resignation to the Japan Sumo Tournament.
Sumo observers cautioned that Konishiki, the gigantic 28-year-old who recently tipped the scales at 580 pounds, still faces tough challenges in his bid to win a fourth tournament title and promotion to yokozuna.
Konishiki hopes to end a controversy over racism in sumo with a grand championship performance that will assure his elevation to the pinnacle of the ancient Japanese sport.
Hokutoumi, also 28, said he was quitting because of shoulder, elbow and knee injuries. He participated in the March tournament after staying out of the previous three, but he withdrew after suffering two straight losses.
'I've lost my fighting spirit to continue training,' Hokutoumi told a news conference. 'I felt everything was over.'
Konishiki's recent 580-pound weigh-in was up 4.4 pounds from March, prompting him to attempt to reduce his weight to increase his mobility in the ring.
Eating only once a day, a vegetable instead of a meat-based meal, Konishiki has also increased his exercise schedule.
Sumo experts observed Konishiki, who currently holds sumo's second- highest rank of ozeki, did not appear in good condition in pretourney practice sessions. Skeptics cite his advancing age and leg problems as obstacles to winning two consecutive tournaments.
The association recommends that wrestlers who win two tournaments or register a comparable record be considered for promotion to yokozuna. Konichiki's victories were not consecutive.
Attributing his less-than-optimum practice performance to nervousness, Koniishiki has pronounced himself ready and fit.
He won the March Osaka tourney with a 13-2 mark and is expected to be promoted to yokozuna if he wins more than 13 bouts in the May Tokyo tourney.
One of Japan's most popular and successful sports stars, Konishiki moved into the international limelight when he was quoted by two newspapers in April as saying racism was behind his failure to make yokozuna status.
While the former high school football player denied he had complained of racial discrimination to the New York Times or the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a leading economic daily, the controversy reached the highest levels of government, prompting several top officials to proclaim racism was not a factor in sumo promotions.
After receiving a warning from Sumo Association Chairman Dewanoumi against making 'careless comments' that could be misunderstood, Konishiki apologized.
Konichiki has accumulated an impressive record of 39 wins and only 6 losses in the last three tournaments.
But recent statements by Noboru Kojima, a member of the association's committee that decides on yokozuna promotions, reflect the sentiments of those who contend the honor of becoming a yokozuna should not be bestowed on a foreigner regardless of his athletic prowess.
Kojima said Japanese grace, unobtainable by non-Japanese, is a necessity for the ultimate rank.