Journeyman wrestler Tokushoryu turned the tears into laughter at the victory interview on the dohyo ring following his upset triumph in the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament on Jan. 26.

“Can someone like me win the tournament?” the 33-year-old asked at the start of the interview, as if not believing his Cinderella story himself.

Spectators at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan cheered and roared at the veteran, who had been relegated to the lower juryo division after disappointing results.

He had just returned to the top makuuchi division for the first time in four tournaments as maegashira No. 17, the lowest-ranked wrestler, at the tournament.

Seemingly inspired by the death of his college coach during the tournament, Tokushoryu rattled off 13 consecutive victories.

He burst into tears after beating ozeki Takakeisho in the final bout of the day, clinching the title.

But during the interview afterward and the long awards ceremony, a big smile often returned to Tokushoryu's face.

Asked by the interviewer if he had thought about winning the tournament during his unexpected run, Tokushoryu said, “No, I didn’t pay much attention to that.”

Then, he couldn’t keep a straight face.

“I just lied. Yes, I was conscious of that. Very much.”

Spectators loved Tokushoryu's humor and cheered even louder.

He even confessed that he had practiced the celebratory interview in a bathroom many times.

For the big guy from Nara Prefecture, “to make people laugh” is something that he has trained for, as much as for fighting in the sumo ring.

Growing up in a home that had an abundance of laughter, his mother always encouraged him to trade jokes with her in the rapid-fire "manzai" stand-up comedy fashion.

“My ‘Kansai people’s spirit,’ which is to make people laugh, came out (at the interview),” Tokushoryu said at a news conference on the morning of Jan. 27.

“Did they laugh all right?” the new champion asked reporters who gathered at his Kise stable in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward.

“I had never thought of myself as a sumo wrestler who could win a tournament,” Tokushoryu said. “It was a surprise to myself, too.”

MENTOR’S DEATH A WEEK AGO

Joking aside, Tokushoryu had reasons to celebrate and to cry.

Born as Makoto Aoki, Tokushoryu graduated from Meitoku Gijuku Senior High School in Kochi Prefecture and attended Kindai University in Higashi-Osaka, Osaka Prefecture.

He became a sumo disciple in 2009 and was newly promoted to the makuuchi division at the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament in July 2013.

However, until the January tournament, he had never achieved double-digit wins in the makuuchi division except at just one tournament.

Now in his 30s as a rank-and-file wrestler, Tokushoryu had shuttled back and forth between the juryo and makuuchi divisions over recent years.

Those results belie his formidable physique as a sumo wrestler, standing 181 centimeters tall and weighing 188 kilograms.

But the generation of sumo wrestlers who were born in 1986, the same year as Tokushoryu, has produced many of the sport's top wrestlers in recent years, including former yokozuna Kisenosato and ozeki Goeido.

As they rose to higher positions ahead of Tokushoryu, he never expressed regret, just saying, “Live and let live.”

“He had a great talent, but he always remained nonchalant,” said Kise, Tokushoryu’s stablemaster.

Tokushoryu lost a bout on the second day at the tournament. Virtually no one during the first half of the tournament thought him capable of making a run at the title.

But a tragedy occurred on the morning of the seventh day of the tournament.

Tokushoryu received the news that Katsuhito Ito, his mentor and coach at Kindai University’s sumo club, died at the age of 55.

Tokushoryu's sumo ring name was, in fact, named after Ito, as they share a same kanji character, which also means “win.”

“I should do it for him,” Tokushoryu thought, feeling his determination reignited.

In every bout, he was forced into a defensive struggle against his opponent. But in the end, Tokushoryu would summon the will to thrust his opponent down at the edge of the ring.

“It is ugly sumo,” Tokushoryu admitted of his style of fighting.

But that was precisely what Ito taught the young Tokushoryu.

Tokushoryu often employed a “slapdown” technique when he was at the university. But Ito said, “It’s OK to do it, but make sure to do it after moving forward.”

TEACHINGS FROM THE GOAT

Tokushoryu maintained his focus during the tournament, concentrating on an oft-repeated mantra of sumo, "one day, one bout at a time"

He was so focused that he sometimes forgot what day it was and had to ask the people around him.

Tokushoryu's bitter experience in the past also helped change his attitude.

He returned to the makuuchi division at the summer tournament last year after being relegated for two years. But he ended up losing badly, posting a dismal 4-11 mark.

He recalled feeling relieved by returning to the top makuuchi division at the time.

This time after returning to the makuuchi division after three tournaments in the juryo ranks, he kept telling himself, “I should never feel satisfied.”

At the last bout on the 15th and final day of the tournament, Tokushoryu, at 13-1, faced off against Takakeisho, who was out of the championship running with an 11-3 mark, but poised to play spoiler. Maegashira No. 4 Shodai won his bout earlier in the day to post a 13-2 mark and was hoping for a playoff if Tokushoryu lost.

In the previous five bouts in the New Year tournament, Tokushoryu had dodged and forced down the opponents. But this time, he took a different approach--a left-handed belt grip.

It was a technique that his former stablemaster and one of the greatest yokozuna in history, the late Kitanoumi, encouraged him to master.

When the Kise stable was temporarily closed in 2010, Tokushoryu became part of the Kitanoumi stable for a time and gained invaluable lessons.

“You think a pushing technique is your strength, but I see you are good at a left-handed belt grip,” Kitanoumi told him.

Tokushoryu had a habit of using a left-handed belt hold only when he practiced judo. Kitanoumi never missed executing the potential killer move that would make Tokushoryu a more competitive wrestler.

Tokushoryu followed the master’s words and sharpened his technique.

At the most important bout in his 10-plus-year career in sumo, Tokushoryu forced out Takakeisho, using the left-handed belt hold technique called “hidari-yotsu.”

‘CALL ME MAKO-CHAN’

Tokushoryu became the third oldest tournament winner since the current system of six tournaments a year started in 1958.

Tears started rolling down his face the moment he realized he had won the championship.

He left the ring and went to a dressing room to have his bun restyled on the east side of Ryogoku Kokugikan, where a yokozuna usually sits on a zabuton cushion with a solemn expression.

Tokushoryu couldn’t believe what he saw there--his own zabuton.

With a wry smile, he said, “My face is not like that. No, that’s not my face.”

It’s an expression used in the sumo world when one feels like they are living beyond their means.

His peers and supporters were ecstatic as well. Tokushoryu said he has received calls and e-mails from more than 500 people, to which he hasn’t been able to respond.

Kisenosato, who retired last year and now is known as the Araiso stablemaster, told Tokushoryu that he was “moved by someone else’s sumo for the first time.”

Tokushoryu said it was the best thing he has heard from well-wishers after his triumph.

The next tournament in March will be held in Osaka, which is in the Kansai region, Tokushoryu’s beloved home area.

“I will be laughed at if I don't post a good record the next time as well,” he said.

Age should not be a hindrance, he said.

“I will try my best and think like I’m still 33 years old, not that I’m already 33 years old,” he quipped.

“It would be great if people cheer me on and call me Mako-chan or Toku-chan."

(This article was written by Kai Uchida and Tomohiko Kaneko.)