In 1971, when the great Taiho retired from the sport of sumo with 32 Emperor’s Cups to his name, Hakuho was not yet born.
Sumo was, with but a few exceptions, a Japanese-only sport, and nobody could have possibly predicted a skinny teen from Mongolia would one day join, and top, even Taiho’s records in Japan’s quasi-national sport.
Losing his first-ever bout, back in the sixth-ranked jonokuchi division, to finish with a less-than-stellar 3-4 record in his first tournament in May 2001, perhaps even fewer would have predicted that the 80-kg, 180-cm newbie, Davaajargal Monkhbat, would last long in the sport.
Young and inexperienced as he was, however, the signs were there. And, thanks to the wonderful gift of hindsight, sumo writers and historians can now look back and see the wide range of finishing moves the teenager from Ulan Bator was employing in his first few tournaments. The lad was learning, and learning fast.
Come September 2002, Hakuho had moved up to two divisions and a couple of hundred ranks higher than his debut almost eighteen months earlier.
Of those he had faced in that May 2001 debut basho, by September the following year, none ranked above the youngster starting to be noticed by followers of the action in the lower divisions.
Usually young wrestlers hit what is frequently referred to as ‘the wall’ as they approach the upper ranks of the third-ranked makushita division, but Hakuho was different. He smashed his way through any wall, imaginary or not, in November 2003, on the back of a 6-1 scorecard to guarantee promotion to juryo.
Right after said promotion, and now 10 cm taller and a full 55 kg heavier than when he had first stepped onto the dohyo, Hakuho was starting to be recognized as one to keep an eye on.
Taking the juryo title in just his second outing as a salaried wrestler in March 2004, with a 12-3 record and a final-day playoff victory against a former top-division veteran named Hayateumi, Hakuho was now well and truly in the wider public eye.
Next up was the top-ranking makunouchi division, the location of another ‘wall-like’ phenomena called ‘the meat grinder’ by some sumo fans.
Everyone hits a wall in makunouchi at some time or another, most commonly in the ‘meat grinder’ that brings together the upper maegashira ranks and sanyaku men ranked from komusubi to ozeki.
Yet, in 67 tournaments and over eleven years since his top-flight debut in May of 2005, Hakuho has yet to suffer a losing record in a tournament he has completed.
True, he went 6-3-6, withdrawing in July 2005, having to pull out midway through the action, and missed an entire tourney in November the following year, again due to injury.
But this was a man already making waves, both statistically and for the kind of sumo he has demonstrated in a decade of top-division action.
History will always remember him for his final title count, and for at least a generation, likely much longer, rank him atop all others in the 2½ centuries since a sumo ranking sheet was first released in 1757.
Today, that count stands at 35, three better than Taiho’s eventual tally.
And, whilst 35 Emperor’s Cup victories is itself an incredible achievement, especially as he went head-to-head against the then third-best-ever yokozuna, Asashoryu, for much of his early career, and now has competition in the shape of fellow yokozuna Harumafuji and Kakuryu, it is time for the greatest ever to think about calling it a day.
He has nothing left to prove.
Yes, he could go on to add to his current tally, and might get to 40 titles, or 100 career tournaments — he is now on 86 — if he continues until late 2017. And yes there has been talk of him leading proceedings, perhaps the Mongolian contingent at the 2020 Olympics, but he could do that anyway.
Hakuho has a career virtually unblemished locked away in the bank of sumo history. He is a once-in-a-generation fighter, if not a once-in-a-lifetime example of what can be achieved in Japan’s oldest organized sport.
Too many others at the top of the sport have for too long hung on, unwilling to call time on great careers as they eke out another pay check, struggling to survive.
Many have eventually bowed out on the back of an ignominious loss to a relatively unknown rank-and-filer before feigning injury and sitting out the remaining bouts. The obligatory announcement of lack of strength, battered body and inability to compete to the best of said wrestler’s ability follows — and that’s that.
Hakuho should already be thinking of the perfect time to go.
If for nothing more than being able to say in the future that he finished at the top of his game, to leave the fans wondering ‘what if’ should another man ever come close to his record, it’s time for the best ever to hang up his mawashi.
He is just too good to fade away.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5