SOFIA (AFP) — In the male world of professional sumo wrestling where women are not even allowed to touch the ring, it is a lady with a gripping smile who made Bulgarian-born Kaloyan Mahlyanov, known in Japan as Kotooshu, into the sumo superstar he is today.
Kotooshu, 25, became in 2005 the first European to reach the second-highest rank in professional sumo wrestling, ozeki.
His broad smile and comparatively lean physique compared to the famously plump sumo wrestlers have also turned him into a heartthrob for Japanese girls, while Japanese media have dubbed him the David Beckham of sumo.
But this towering giant of 145 kilogrammes, who started off as a Western-style wrestler, might never have entered professional sumo if it was not for the vision and doggedness of a short blond-haired woman, whose interest in sumo was sparked during a trip to Japan.
"I was like a clever fox in the late 1990s, luring plump boys from wrestling clubs to try out sumo," Bulgarian Sumo Federation chief Lilyana Kaneva, who previously worked for the national wrestling federation, told AFP.
"Kaloyan was a second-year wrestling student who turned up at an amateur competition and I knew immediately that he had talent and potential in sumo and not in wrestling, as he already weighed over 100 kilogrammes (220 pounds)."
The International Wrestling Federation, FILA, had done a major overhaul of its rules in 1996, doing away with weight classes above 120 kilogrammes, so that wrestlers sometimes had to grapple with much heavier contestants.
After converting to sumo, Mahlyanov quickly became amateur champion in Bulgaria and the professional Sadogatake sumo stable in Tokyo was ready to take him on as a disciple.
"I had trouble convincing his mum and dad to let him go, at the same time undertaking this enormous responsibility as he had to quit university and it was clear to me that there was no going back once he went to Tokyo," Kaneva said.
But Mahlyanov made it to Japan, where he joined the stable's draconian training during the day, discussing problems with his mentor in the evenings.
"After 20 days, it was time for me to go and he suddenly said: 'I'm leaving with you'," she recalls, noting she was then fully aware that this would amount to sacrilege.
Knowing the stable had expelled a South Korean wrestler to make space for Mahlyanov -- each Japanese stable is only allowed one foreigner -- she said she "promised him luxury, posh yachts... the world" but he insisted on returning to his tiny village of Djulyunitsa in central Bulgaria.
"We were sitting there the last evening, finishing dessert and I told master Kotozakura (the famous former head of the Sadogatake stable) to let him go, and that I would commit harakiri if Kaloyan did not return to the stable within a week," Kaneva said.
"Well, he was granted leave but returned to Tokyo as promised so I was spared harakiri," she laughs.
Kotooshu made his debut in professional sumo in November 2002.
A towering 204 centimetres tall but weighing an unusually lean 145 kilogrammes he raced up the ranks, reaching the rank of ozeki in 2005, faster than anyone since the current tournament style was introduced in 1958.
Former French President Jacques Chirac became one of Kotooshu's biggest fans and asked to meet him during a March 2005 visit to Japan.
In April 2006, the European Union then made him its Goodwill Ambassador to Japan.
Kotooshu's Bulgarian fairy godmother has meanwhile become the first woman ever to sit on the board of directors of the International Sumo Federation and the European Sumo Union.
Kaneva, who studied French philology and writes haikus, a form of Japanese poetry, in her free time, is still luring plump boys into her "sumoland" as she calls it, and has fostered the development of 20 amateur sumo clubs around Bulgaria.
In November 2006, she was awarded the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, the second most prestigious Japanese decoration, for her contribution to the nation.
The only thing she says she regrets now is that she did not discover sumo earlier.
"I could have become a sumo wrestler and not just a sumo judge," she says with a wink.
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