Hakuho remains student of sumo despite success

by Jason Coskrey

Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho says his style of sumo is nothing special.

It just happens to be very, very effective.

The 192-cm, 155-kg Mongolian, who won the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament with a 15-0 record, will be aiming for his 11th-career title when the May basho begins in Tokyo next month.

“Many Japanese sumo wrestlers say they have one particular technique which they are strong at,” Hakuho said recently to a gathering at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “I don’t think I really have any special technique. The only thing I am very good at is yorikiri (pushing people out of the ring).”

Hakuho said he’s currently studying the techniques left by Sadaji Futabayama, sumo’s 35th yokozuna (1937-45), who expressed the importance of the opening stanza of a match.

“He was the 35th yokozuna,” Hakuho said. “He also holds the record for most consecutive victories at 69. I believe he’s been brilliant in his analysis and I consider him to be sort of a god.”

The Mongolian grappler said through those teachings he is learning a different approach to sumo. Specifically, it’s the second person to leave the crouched position at the start of the match who often becomes the victor.

“For me, being able to get out of that first tachiai (opening crouch before a match) and grab (the other) person’s mawashi (belt) is what I’m most focused on.”

Before his rise to one of sumo’s elite, however, Hakuho had to endure hard times on his road to the top. Hakuho came to Japan in 2001, weighing just 62 kg, and initially had trouble finding a stable that would take him.

After finally finding a home, he paid his dues, and made his professional debut in 2001 before eventually becoming the 192-cm, 155-kg yokozuna he is today.

“When I came to Japan, I was 15 years old, I didn’t know a word of Japanese, I didn’t know anything about Japan, I didn’t know my way around, I just really didn’t know anything,” Hakuho said. “The world of sumo was very, very tough. Very severe.

“Not only the practice sessions, everything was very, very hard for me. Very difficult. All I can say is I learned to endure. As the result of enduring and not giving up, I’m able to be here in front of you today. You may look at me and see that I have a happy face and think that I must be very happy. But at that time I was crying every day.”

While he had harsh beginnings in the sport, sumo is in Hakuho’s blood.

His father, Jigjidiin Monkhbat, reached the summit of sumo in Mongolia and was also a silver medalist in freestyle wrestling at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Despite his father’s status in his homeland, Hakuho is far from well-versed in the style of sumo practiced by his countrymen.

“Actually, when I was a child I played basketball,” Hakuho said. “Of course I admired my father very much. He won the silver medal, so I eventually wanted to be able to follow in his footsteps.

“However, when I discussed this with my father, he said, ‘It’s too early for you and you should do other sports.’ So I had no basic training in Mogolian sumo when I came to Japan and I learned nothing and I started from scratch.”

Hakuho likely won’t get to follow in his father’s footsteps as an Olympic medalist, but said he would be on the frontlines should sumo ever make it into an Olympic program.

“That would be wonderful and I would be really happy about that,” he said on the possibility of sumo becoming an Olympic sport. “But I wonder if that’s really feasible. If sumo were to become an Olympic sport, then I would very much want to be part of it, and I would want to surpass my father.”

For now, Hakuho is content to chase his own dreams, which include one day retiring to own a stable of his own where he can mentor aspiring rikishi.

“I would very much like to open a stable and help raise the next generation of wrestlers,” he said. “My father is considered a hero in Mongolia because he was a yokozuna in the Mongolian sumo world. There are some people who are very stubborn in Mongolia who believe that the son of such a hero should come back to the country.

“But I want to be able to stay in Japan and contribute to the world of sumo in Japan.”