Sumo

Hakuho braced for shot at history

by Dave Hueston

Kyodo

Standing on the horizon of yet another historic moment in his illustrious career is nothing new for the lord of the raised ring.

But for yokozuna Hakuho, claiming his career 33rd Emperor’s Cup promises to be a monumental event on the scale of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Michael Phelps’ 18 Olympic gold medals or Lance Armstrong’s seven-consecutive Tour de France championships.

Sole possession of the all-time record, which he will be vying for at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament that kicks off at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan on Sunday, would put him in a league by himself with the most unbreakable mark the sport has seen.

The last time a wrestler was in similar straits was at the 1964 New Year basho, where Hakuho’s late mentor Taiho matched Futabayama’s leading mark of 12 titles before going on to win 20 more championships over the next seven years.

The legendary mark achieved by Taiho, generally considered until now the greatest sumo wrestler in the post-war period, had stood the test of time since 1971 — the only other rikishi to come close being Chiyonofuji, who recorded 31 championships from 1981 to 1990 before his retirement.

“Only Taiho really knew the mental and physical fortitude (required to achieve such a record),” said Hakuho weeks prior to the start of the Tokyo meet. “If I can surpass him and carry out my responsibility for two or three years, maybe I will begin to understand what Taiho felt on his one-man journey.”

Hakuho, who will turn 30 in March, has already put himself in the pantheon among the three greatest yokozuna to ever live, but his admiration and sublime respect for Taiho is nothing short of extraordinary.

For Hakuho, who will be aiming for his fifth consecutive title, the proverbial “load off his shoulders,” was posting his 30th career win at the Nagoya basho last July. Since matching Taiho with 32 career wins, the yokozuna waxes more like a sage than a sumo wrestler.

“It can be said that people, no matter how strong or great they might be, are completely different in how they carry themselves in a given situation. I think this is what is meant by learning until the day one dies,” he said.

For Hakuho, whose career continues to burn brighter despite a slowdown in training as of late, an uncharted realm lies just around the corner, where he will be the one embarking on a journey that defines a truly arduous course for those who dare follow.

“I want to challenge myself in the pursuit of my brand of sumo for the remainder of my career,” said Hakuho, who, if he accomplishes the task at hand, would be only the second wrestler other than Taiho with two streaks of five-straight championships.

Of course, his fellow yokozuna Harumafuji and Kakuryu, who recently announced his engagement to be married, will be pulling out all the stops to try to deny Hakuho his record-breaking milestone, as will ozeki Kisenosato.

Kisenosato, who has prepared well for this competition and looks his strongest in recent meets, hopes to finally give Hakuho a run for his money as he aims to become the first Japanese-born wrestler in nine years to win a championship.