Hakuho returned to his corner for a third time to grab another fistful of salt, his face a picture of concentration, his eyes narrowed and focused as the crowd in Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena bristled with anticipation.

He turned, tossed the granules high into the air and made his way back toward the center of the dohyo, slapping his thighs and pumping himself up as he completed the centuries-old pre-bout ritual.

Opposite the Mongolian-born yokozuna (grand champion) stood, somewhat fittingly, Japan's top-ranked wrestler, Kisenosato, the last barrier between Hakuho and a history-making triumph.