In praise of Hakuho, from those in the know


Special To The Japan Times

In the days since yokozuna grand champion Hakuho pushed ozeki Kisenosato from the ring on Day 13 of the Hatsu Basho at Ryogoku’s Kokugikan to claim his 33rd Emperor’s Cup, the man from Mongolia has been featured in media around the globe.

As is often the case with sumo when covered by non-Japanese news outlets, much of the coverage he has enjoyed since Friday features paraphrased passages from Hakuho’s Wikipedia page, interspersed with nuggets of information picked up from Japanese news sources.

Most of the stories focus on him moving past Taiho’s 32 championships, a record that stood for more than four decades.

Fewer stories have looked at what the championship itself means to those most closely, now, and in the past, connected to sumo.

And for that reason Sumo Scribblings contacted a few people, including fans, amateur competitors and a former top-division pro to see what they thought about witnessing history in the making.

“Congratulations to Hakuho for becoming the new top yusho winner!” said a former maegashira once known as Sentoryu, now by his real name of Henry Miller. Hailing from the Tomozuna Beya, he remembers Hakuho’s early days. “I still remember when he first joined sumo and I used practice with him. I thought then that he would become a strong sekitori, but really didn’t think he would become the new top yusho winner.”

“It is a privilege to witness Hakuho’s supreme reign in sumo as he sets new highs,” said John Traill, a long-time amateur wrestler and Oceania Director of the International Sumo Federation. “He is the absolute embodiment of the yokozuna prerequisite — hinkaku (dignity and grace) yet he still manages to exhibit a cheeky side to himself on and off the dohyo.

“He has a fierce level of confidence that enables him to strike fear into the hearts of all those who face him and to remain untouchable even when he is not in top condition.”

These are sentiments shared in part by a much-respected Bulgarian wrestler, former lightweight world champion Stiliyan Georgiev. “[Hakuho] has an extensive arsenal of techniques and skills and uses them against each opponent. [Add to this his] sporting behavior and respect shown towards his opponents, and it makes [him] even greater.”

Dutch wrestler Francoise Harteveld, another amateur rikishi who picked up three silver medals at world championships and a brace of golds in European competitions, sees similarities with her own techniques in sumo and even judo.

“[He is] is always grabbing for the mawashi, not relying on tsuppari [thrusting movements]. Hakuho usually tries to reach around the outside and over the back of his opponents, and even if he is injured he is not easy to throw — always quick.”

Then there are the fans, without whom the sport would not exist.

Some, like Israeli fan Moti Dichne, have been watching the sport for decades and seen some of the best ever perform and yet they are still left in awe of the man of the moment. “Hakuho has broken the unbreakable (record): 33 championships — unfathomable.

“I hear people saying he had no real opponents and that in the old days he would never have made it. There is no way we can put that to a test. All I know is he is the healthiest yokozuna ever. He makes his opponents look weak. Even when he’s not at the top of his game [like in this basho] he manages to get out of difficult situations and win.

“Incredible stats — winning 10 straight (bouts) from Day 1 for the 28th time, and getting double-figure wins for the 48th (!) time. Say what you will: We are in the presence of the greatest ever, no asterisks beside his name. His records will stand for many years.”

Even those not quite as long in the tooth recognize something special when they see it. Harumi Kanaya, a relatively new sumo fan, said, “Everyone is really excited to see the new record set by Hakuho winning his 33rd as he’s one of most popular yokozuna. If only a Japanese wrestler could win a tournament, I think the good times could return for sumo, as we had in the Waka-Taka years of the ’90s.”

And with a reported 15 days of sell-outs at the year’s first basho, the first time since the late ’90s, that time might already be upon us — thanks to one man.