Quick rise, meteoric fall mark career of troubled yokozuna

by Mariko Kato and Minoru Matsutani

In his 11-year career, sumo wrestler Asashoryu stomped out record-breaking wins to become the undisputed champion of the past decade. Yet his reign was littered with scandals that floored the traditional sport, where athletes are expected to act with decorum both in and out of the ring.

Born in 1980 in Mongolia, Asashoryu became the sport’s 68th yokozuna, or grand champion, claiming 25 tournament victories before announcing, while still in his prime, his retirement Thursday amid allegations that he engaged in an injurious drunken brawl outside a Tokyo nightclub.

Asashoryu, 29, whose real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, entered his first “basho” (tournament) in 1999 and quickly tore through the ranks. By winning the November 2002 tourney, he equaled then-yokozuna Takanohana’s modern-day record for quickest tournament victory, clinching his first one in just 24 bouts.

After another victory in January 2003 he was crowned yokozuna, the first Mongolian to reach this rank.

Yorimasa Takeda, a journalist who wrote a book that alleged Asashoryu was involved in match-fixing scandals, said the champion earned all his promotions but they were premature.

“Asashoryu’s athletic ability was very high. He also practiced a lot early in his career. But the stable master and others around him let him ascend to a higher ‘banzuke’ (rank) too soon without educating him as a yokozuna. They created a monster, Asashoryu.”

Asashoryu rewrote sumo history. By 2005 he had won seven straight tourneys, the longest string of victories ever. At the New Year Basho he celebrated his 25th victory, claiming third place on the all-time list after legends Taiho (32) and Chiyonofuji (31).

Asashoryu’s sheer power in the ring earned him many fans, according to sumo journalist Koyoshi Nakazawa.

“Asashoryu contributed to the popularity of sumo to a significant extent,” he said.

“He was the only yokozuna for three years, and no Japanese could beat him. He was responsible for 30 percent of sumo’s popularity, and now the sumo industry is suffering a 30 percent loss in popularity.”

With his ascent to yokozuna, Asashoryu began upsetting the sumo establishment with bad behavior in and out of the ring. In July 2003, he became the first grand champion to be disqualified from a match when he yanked the top-knot of compatriot Kyokushuzan.

He then received a two-tournament ban in 2007 for feigning an injury to get out of a summer regional tour. He was undone after being spotted rehabilitating by playing soccer in his native Mongolia.

Asashoryu’s go-my-own-way nature finally eclipsed his achievements last month, when he was accused of seriously injuring a man in a drunken rampage outside the nightclub. This led to his shocking withdrawal from sumo, which he had dominated with both talent and controversy.

“Asashoryu was a maverick because he was the only yokozuna who thought he could behave badly and get away with it because he is strong,” Nakazawa said.

“(But) the Japanese traditional mentality is that a yokozuna should be a role model for every other sumo wrestler, must be modest and cannot do selfish things.”