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Is Hakuho on his way to becoming the greatest ever?

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

On sumo’s list of all-time yusho winners, Hakuho currently stands tied with Kitanoumi on 24 championships to date. Just three men stand between the Mongolian and the all-time record: Asashoryu at 25, Chiyonofuji at 31 and Taiho at 32.

Many modern-day sumo fans never saw the recently deceased Taiho, for many the greatest yokozuna ever, and winner of 32 tournaments over the course of his 1956-1971 career.

Fewer still have any memory of Futabayama, active between 1927 and 1945 (d. 1968) and himself winner of 12 yusho, albeit in an era of just two, sometimes three tournaments a year.

Many do, of course, remember the current chairman of the Sumo Association, Kitanoumi, and the 24 top division championships he claimed between 1974 and 1984 after joining the sport in his early-teens.

Many also will recall the 31 yusho of Chiyonofuji. The “Wolf” as he was known won his first yusho at age 25, his last nine years later at age 35. Formidable at times, the fact that he never had to go against heya-mate yokozuna Hokutoumi and reigned over a group of ozeki as ineffective at the time as the likes of Kaio, Chiyotaikai, and Musoyama were in taking on number three on the list Asashoryu almost 20 years later is largely forgotten.

Chiyonofuji did famously win his 31 yusho all after the relatively advanced age of 25, but times have changed and in the years since most yokozuna have been promoted in their early 20s.

More will, of course, recall the 22 times Takanohana won the trophy over a decade spanning the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

For much of his tenure as a yokozuna he was also going against the American yokozuna pair of Akebono (11 career titles) and Musashimaru (12 times yusho winner) but benefited greatly from not facing his brother and fellow yokozuna Wakanohana, and some of the best rikishi in recent memory in the shapes of Takanonami, Takatoriki and Akinoshima — all members of the same stable.

Impressive for most, Takanohana’s 22 count was eventually bettered by the sport’s first yokozuna from Mongolia — the 68th to date — Asashoryu.

Indeed, Asashoryu’s own tally of 25 trophies between late 2002 and early 2010 deposited him in the upper echelons of sumo’s greatest come the end of his career just over three years ago.

But with Hakuho currently standing in joint 4th position on the all-time list, on a par with Kitanoumi, one shy of Asashoryu and within sight of Chiyonofuji, the time has come to look anew at the list of all-time grand champions.

Currently 28 years old, Hakuho still has another two or three years in him, a dozen or perhaps 18 more tournaments in which to win eight tournaments and equal Taiho atop the list of greatest ever.

But can he do it?

On paper alone he is already a better yokozuna than the vast majority of others in the history of the sport.

But fans of the modern game surveyed are currently split.

Around half those asked still hang on to the Asashoryu era, oftentimes citing how exciting it was to watch the yokozuna-turned-Ulan Bator businessman, who at times seemed to go out of his way to cause headlines.

As a result, even with his current statistical deficit of one, his overall awareness of what it takes to be a yokozuna manners-wise, and the glaring lack of negative headlines associated with his name, Hakuho is already considered “better” than his predecessor. That he rose to the top when Asashoryu was at his peak only adds weight to this argument.

That Hakuho behaves in a more dignified manner on the dohyo too is also never far from the surface; few and very far between are unnecessary shoves seen post a Hakuho bout when compared to fights in which Asashoryu was seen to do the same.

Yet, while Hakuho is still being compared with his peer, Asashoryu by some, it is only a matter of time before he finds himself all alone in 3rd place behind Taiho and Chiyonofuji on the career yusho table. By September of this year he could potentially be on 26 career titles.

By mid-2014 he could even pull level with Taiho if all goes his way.

Whether or not he does ever pull level with his own personal idol, Taiho, depends on how well he can avoid injuries over the next couple of years, and in large part whether or not Harumafuji proves good enough to give him a consistent run for his money.

Few would today bet against the 69th yokozuna one day moving past the 32 benchmark set by the man he so respected in life.

But the question has been raised whether or not he would want to.

The yokozuna himself is an incredibly humble individual, and being non-Japanese on the back of the scandal-filled reign of Asashoryu must be admired further for the way in which he is going about his own business while rebuilding the bridges burned down by his predecessor.

This humility was only magnified in the eyes of both Japanese and foreign fans alike when he broke from protocol in asking for a period of silence to remember Taiho during his own awards ceremony in Osaka in March.

And, if he is looking down, there would probably be none happier than Taiho himself if Hakuho one day won his 33rd, perhaps even 34th yusho.
Already being penciled in as the third greatest on the all-time winners list, the onus is now on Hakuho to show he has what it takes to move past the 30 mark, and make a serious assault on the 32 benchmark set so long ago by Taiho.

I for one think he will do it, but not without a great deal of soul-searching.

  • Des

    Of course he will take the record – there is virtually no opposition around. The “sport” element went out of sumo a few years ago, which explains why it’s not hard to pick up a ticket to any basho nowadays. The bigger question is – how longer will sumo survive with the elderly fan-base dropping off by the year?

  • Dennis Bauer

    I agree with des, the last few years the Ozeki have been under performing (to say it lightly)

  • tartanohana

    A tough one Des. There are definite worries in terms of fan demographics, but what to change whilst preserving the heart of the sport? It seems to occupy a curious place in Japanese society, a closed sub-culture marked by hazing and betting scandals. The sacrifices rikishi must endure must seem fairly unappealing to a Japanese youth spoon fed images of bishounen masculinity courtesy of Johnnys et al.

    Certainly, some media training for rikishi wouldn’t go amiss, as most of them seem more phased by surviving a post-match interview than going toe-to-toe with Gagamaru. The rapturous applause for any rikishi bold enough to show the vaguest hint of personality (Takamisakari and Kotoshogiku’s pre-bout routines) shows there is an appetite for this, with the trash-talking pro-wrestlers an example not to heed.

    As for Hakuho, of course he can. Am not a fan, but admire his ability and Takanohana-esque calm before wiping the floor with a.n.other

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Audrey-Burdeos/100001358835167 Audrey Burdeos

    I became interested in Sumo when I watch with my grandson one afternoon and it was a bout between Assashyori and Hakuho. From then on I watched Dumo because I became a fan of Hakuho who admire his sumo style and humility