All eyes on Hakuho in debut as yokozuna

by Gus Fielding

Kyodo News

Newly promoted Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho will be looking to pull sumo out of the doldrums and prove his elevation to its top rank was no fluke when the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament starts Sunday.

Japan’s national sport hit a new low last week when the Japan Sumo Association revealed that no one applied for the tests for new recruits for the first time ever.

The death of a 17-year-old wrestler after a recent practice session and the JSA’s plans to file a criminal complaint against a magazine publisher for defamation have also threatened to overshadow Hakuho’s grand champion debut at the July 8-22 basho at Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium.

Hakuho wants to help boost sumo’s popularity “by performing so well that children will dream of sumo” but the 22-year-old acknowledges he will be under pressure to constantly churn out the kind of stunning 15-0 displays that earned him promotion after the summer meet in May.

“It’s nice that everyone around me has started talking about me as a yokozuna,” Hakuho said after a recent training session.

“There’s a big difference between being ozeki and yokozuna. I have always to be right in the thick of the title race. I am now in a position where I have to win.”

Hakuho’s promotion ended Asashoryu’s 21-tournament reign as sole grand champion and the Nagoya basho is once again set to be a two-horse race between the Mongolian duo.

Should Hakuho prevail and clinch his third title in a row in Nagoya, he would become only the eighth wrestler to win in his yokozuna debut and first since former yokozuna legend Takanohana did it at the New Year meet in 1995.

The Mongolians occupy both the east and west sides on top of the rankings for the first time in sumo history.

Foreign-born rikishi outnumber Japanese in the sport’s top four ranks of yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake and komusubi.