Harumafuji dreaming big after overcoming early setback

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Yokozuna Harumafuji insists the prospect of being forced to retire never once crossed his mind ahead of last month’s dominating victory at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, but the Mongolian refuses to speculate on how much more success he can achieve before he calls it a day.

Harumafuji went into the Jan. 13-27 basho with his career effectively on the line, having been warned by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council that a repeat of his debut at sumo’s highest rank would be unacceptable. The 28-year-old ended the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament in November with an unseemly 9-6 record, prompting the powers-that-be to question whether his September promotion had come too soon and pondering forced retirement as a solution.

At Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan last month, however, Harumafuji offered his riposte. The 185-cm, 133-kg wrestler laid waste to the opposition on his way to a fifth career title, earning redemption in the most emphatic way possible with a perfect 15-0 mark.

“I believe in myself more than anyone, and after the result of nine wins and six losses I was always thinking of the next tournament,” Harumafuji told an audience at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo earlier this week. “I always think in terms of ‘from this moment on.’

“In my first tournament as a yokozuna my record was nine wins and six losses, but at that time I was giving everything to do the best that I could. People say that results are all that matters and maybe that’s true, but I was trying to do everything to the best of my ability. When you are in the moment you can’t think about results — you just have to do your best.”

If Harumafuji felt vindicated by his New Year victory, however, he is not about to rest on his laurels. Next month’s Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka offers the chance to add more silverware to his growing collection, but Harumafuji is too concerned by the here and now to be distracted by the bigger picture.

“When I describe myself I always do so in terms of ‘from now on,’ ” he said. “In other words, for me to say how many tournaments I think I can win is not something that I would normally think about.

“I believe that what you achieve in life is the accumulation of all the effort and striving and training you put in, so I intend to focus only on that effort.”

One obvious obstacle to Harumafuji’s future success lies in the formidable shape of fellow yokozuna Hakuho. The poster boy of sumo currently finds himself playing the unfamiliar role of challenger after years of standing alone at the sport’s summit, but Harumafuji is relishing being able to meet his rival on equal terms.

“We are a similar age, so in a sense we are almost like classmates, and we have been rivals for many years,” Harumafuji said of Hakuho, who was promoted to yokozuna in May 2007 and has won 23 career titles despite being a year younger than his fellow Mongolian. “We have both been going after the same dream, and I believe that he is a wonderful yokozuna and a wonderful role model.

“He is someone that I really admire. Of course he was able to become yokozuna earlier than I was, but now that we are the same rank I will continue to study how he fights. I hope that we can provide many memorable bouts for years to come.”

Harumafuji’s elevation to sumo’s highest rank gave the sport two yokozuna for the first time since Asashoryu retired in February 2010 after assaulting a man outside a Tokyo nightclub. The firebrand former great upset many with his controversial behavior over the years, but Harumafuji will always be grateful to his friend and countryman.

“We were very much like brothers, and I have known him since I came to Japan,” he said of Asashoryu. “I learned a great deal from him, both good things and bad things.

“It was only natural that he had to retire as yokozuna because he did something that was not acceptable in society. He had to step down and take responsibility. I didn’t have any negative thoughts toward anyone about that because it felt natural, and I think he felt the same way too.”

Asashoryu’s retirement was just one of a string of scandals that rocked sumo in recent years, with match-fixing allegations in 2011 bringing the sport’s reputation to a new low.

“In every sector there are scandals that occur,” said Harumafuji, whose real name is Davaanyamyn Byambadorj. “Of course I don’t think we should forget, but we must work very hard to correct the situation. We must start from scratch and try to win the hearts of fans. The only way to do that is to continue to work hard.

“I feel very strongly that we wrestlers should move the people who come to see us. If we work hard to inspire these people, then I think young boys will see that and feel they would like to be a part of it too. We have to inspire dreams in children.”

As for Harumafuji’s personal ambitions, it seems reaching the pinnacle is only just the beginning.

“There is no higher ranking in sumo, but my next goal is to try to do even better as yokozuna,” he said. “I want to inspire the audience and leave them feeling that they have witnessed really memorable bouts.”