NAGOYA — Former grand champion Musashimaru has no pity for the likes of Kotomitsuki, the ozeki recently banned for life from sumo after he admitted gambling on pro baseball games.
The American Samoan, the second foreign-born wrestler to reach sumo’s top rank of yokozuna after Hawaiian Akebono, has the ultimate respect for the ancient sport and thinks those who violate the rules should pay the price.
But the former yokozuna, who won 12 Emperor’s Cup titles in his storied career, is not overly concerned with the gambling scandal, saying it comes down to a few rotten apples.
“It doesn’t really bother me. Everyone looks at it different. People who never do it, they’re taking a beating, too, but what happened, I just ignore it. I just let it go by me,” Musashimaru said in a recent interview.
The 39-year-old Musashimaru, whose real name is Fiamalu Penitani, is now a coach at the Musashigawa stable and goes by the sumo elder name Furiwake. He set a record of 55 consecutive meets with a majority of wins, or eight or more victories, a mark that still stands today.
“People ask me, ‘What’s up with the gambling?’ and I say some dumb guys did it. That’s it. I just don’t talk about it. Everybody in this world or in this country? — they gamble. Nobody’s perfect. It’s just that we got the stick. They did it the wrong way and they got caught. They got booted,” he said.
Kotomitsuki and former stablemaster Otake received the harshest punishment, as they were both fired by the Japan Sumo Association for betting on baseball, gambling believed linked to the underworld.
Ten wrestlers in the top juryo and makuuchi divisions have also been suspended from the Nagoya meet, several sponsors have dropped out and NHK has been airing bouts only in a digested version at the end of the day, not live, due to public criticism.
“You can go to Vegas. And it’s legal. But in Japan they did it the wrong way,” Musashimaru said.
Asked if he feels sorry for Kotomitsuki, Musashimaru said bluntly: “No, I don’t feel sorry for him. If he felt sorry for us he wouldn’t have done it. Right? If he were thinking, then he wouldn’t have done that. But he was thinking of himself.
“The only thing you can do in Japan that is legal is pachinko. Everything else is illegal. Everybody knows that. You’re not in Vegas, where everything’s out in the public,” he said.
Though critical of the culprits, Musashimaru called NHK’s decision not to broadcast the meet live nonsense.
“I don’t know why NHK pulled out. I don’t know what their problem is. They should have stayed in. It doesn’t make any sense because they show (short replays) on TV anyway. They show replays for about 20 minutes anyway, so why not show the whole thing? A lot of old folks in the countryside look forward to the sumo.”
Yokozuna Hakuho has been on an amazing winning streak at the Nagoya meet, shrugging off the pressure of the scandal. But Musashimaru said his winning ways have more to do with there being no strong opponents out there to beat him than Hakuho’s physical ability alone.
“The guys around him are too weak. That’s it. The guys around him better work harder or they’re never going to stop him. If anyone can come close to stopping his (winning streak) it would probably be the Bulgarian (ozeki Kotooshu) or the Estonian (ozeki Baruto) and some of the (other) foreign wrestlers,” Musashimaru said.
“In a tournament, you’re always gonna have one or two bouts that are ‘abunai’ (dangerous),” Musashimaru said.
One strong point about Hakuho, said Musashimaru, is his ability to remain calm under fire. The yokozuna exudes confidence in truckloads.
“When he’s on the ring he’s in his own little world. When a guy is coming for him, he can’t get in. He’s always like that. That’s what’s good about him. It’s hard to beat him because he has faith in beating everybody.”
Like a jovial uncle who reminisces with a twinkle in his eyes about how things were so much different back in the day, Musashimaru said today’s wrestlers cannot hold a candle to the “rikishi” (wrestlers) of his generation.
“In my time it was a different ballgame. We had animals out there. We had four yokozuna at one time and six ozeki. Halfway through the tournament somebody (in that group) would have one or two losses. Hakuho has a winning streak on right now, but it’s because there are no guys around to beat him,” he said.
“Take (former yokozuna) Takanohana? He’s a great guy. But he didn’t have such a long streak because somebody was always bumping him off the boat. That was the difference.”
Musashimaru recounted one of the more famous matches in sumo history — the time he faced the diminutive Mainoumi at the 1992 spring meet, but lost when judges awarded the match to his opponent after a ringside conference.
“I never lost to the guy. But they gave away my fight to him one time. I picked him up and pile-drived him. I gave him a DDT. They said I lost because my back went down first but his hair was on the ground first. I lost but I told him that I still beat your (butt). You wanna do it again?”