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Takayasu’s rise built on solid family support

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When yokozuna Hakuho was interviewed ringside on Sunday, after wrapping up his first title in a year, he congratulated the people of the Philippines on the imminent promotion of Takayasu to ozeki. It was a nice nod to the Taganoura stable man’s mother, who hails from an island in the south of the country.

Television cameras later showed Takayasu’s parents applauding the comment as well as Hakuho’s wife and children celebrating the day 15 win that sealed the yokozuna’s record 13th perfect tournament.

Both men have in the past credited family as being responsible for a large part of their success, and a point that sometimes gets lost in a sea of training session and injury reports is just how significant a solid support structure is to a rikishi’s prosperity.

For foreign wrestlers in particular, finding themselves in a strange land at a young age, separated from peers and unable to speak the language, family takes on an even greater importance. Parents and spouses become islands in a turbulent ocean of intense physical training, constant mental pressure and never-ending media scrutiny.

Indeed the just-completed Summer Basho may have had an entirely different outcome were it not for Hakuho’s wife and father. In 2015, after overtaking the legendary Taiho in career tournament titles, the yokozuna was struggling to find motivation to continue his career. Admitting that he had come close to quitting, he said it was his wife that had convinced him to stay on, and he found the motivation he needed in his father’s career records.

Hakuho’s father, Jigjidiin Monkhbat, is an Olympic medalist who also won six Naadam championships in Mongolian wrestling. Since Naadam is held only once a year and sumo has six basho, Hakuho reasoned that 36 titles would be equal to what his father achieved. And while sumo isn’t an Olympic sport, the yokozuna knows that if he can hold on until 2020, he may be able to “participate” in them — as Akebono did in the 1998 Nagano Olympics — by performing a ring-entering ceremony.

Even if Hakuho is no longer around as yokozuna three years from now, don’t bet against sumo’s newest ozeki reaching the rank by then.

A close examination of Takayasu’s record since joining sumo reveals a career path very similar to yokozuna Kakuryu. Both men are well-rounded rikishi that, while not spectacular in any one department, are solid in all of them. It would be no surprise to see Takayasu with the white rope around his waist in 2020.

Needing 10 wins this past tournament to ensure promotion to sumo’s second-highest rank, the Ibaraki native stormed out to an 11-2 record before dropping his last two fights. That focus and ability to ignore the pressure was something that was evident from a young age.

When he was 15, Takayasu decided to dedicate himself to sumo, telling his mother, “we won’t be able to meet every day but let’s persevere.” He knew it would be difficult as they were particularly close.

“Ever since my business and life became successful while I was pregnant with him, I’ve called him my lucky baby,” Bebelita Takayasu told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “Even now I text him daily when I wake up or before going to sleep. Just simple things like how is his day or what did he have for lunch. I don’t talk to him about sumo. If I am worried about him he always tells me it’s OK.”

Takayasu may have been born and raised in Japan but his close relationship with his mother means he takes an active part in helping her native country. After promotion to sekitori, he began regularly donating money to help orphans as well as buying uniforms and textbooks for elementary school kids in the Philippines.

It’s no surprise that when he took up the sport. Takayasu chose the Taganoura (then known as Naruto) stable. Sumo stables generally are closer to families than they are to sports teams but some, like the Chiba-based outfit, are particularly tight-knit.

The former stablemaster, who passed away in 2011, didn’t allow his apprentices to train at other stables (normally a common sumo practice) or even to socialize with outside rikishi. As a result, Takayasu, Kisenosato, and the other wrestlers in the stable developed a very tight brother-like bond. That bond and family-like support has allowed Kisenosato and Takayasu to focus on their sumo, ignore outside distractions and maximize their potential.

That was illustrated by Kisenosato’s championship victory in the March tournament, which he achieved in his debut basho at sumo’s top rank. It is rare for newly promoted yokozuna to win their first tournament as they are generally exhausted and distracted by overwhelming levels of media attention in the preceding two months.

That’s something that Takayasu will have to face now that his new rank is official. On Tuesday morning, he had his promotion announcement at a central Tokyo hotel and he’ll have countless interviews, functions and parties to attend between now and July 9, when the Nagoya Basho gets under way.

His mother, of course, will provide him with a consistent non-sumo oasis, and “big brother” Kisenosato will be able to advise him on how best to pace himself and handle the increased attention.

Both men should be in good condition and ready when the entire sumo world relocates to central Japan in late June. Standing in their way will be that other family man, Hakuho. The legendary champion, refreshed and revitalized, has already passed the mark his father set, but seems to be gaining new motivation as a parent himself.

Indeed, with his own son having already put on a mawashi and competed, perhaps these family ties will stretch into another generation.