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Harumafuji retires with impressive legacy in ring

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It was plain from both Harumafuji’s words and body language at Wednesday’s news conference announcing his retirement that he was going under duress and felt harshly treated.

Still, the yokozuna understood that given his position, no other outcome was possible once it became clear he had assaulted another rikishi.

The pain on his stablemaster’s face was visible and at times Isegahama oyakata had trouble holding back the tears. That’s understandable with him having raised Harumafuji since the age of 16. Stablemasters and their wives (okamisan) are often described as more surrogate parents than coaches and managers, and in Harumafuji’s case it’s even truer with his biological father having passed away a decade ago.

Without a history of bad behavior and known as a thoughtful, friendly and introspective man outside the ring, the sudden demise of the yokozuna has come as a shock to his legion of fans.

Undoubtedly, sumo inside the ring will be poorer for his absence. Although already 34 years of age and the winner of just one tournament in the past year, Harumafuji was still one of the elite few that was a serious contender to win any basho he entered.

The veteran’s record against arguably the greatest of all time also puts him in rarefied company. His 22 defeats of Hakuho are by far the most of any rikishi. And his success against his Mongolian senior (he went 22-28, winning 44 percent of his matches) trails only Asashoryu. Given the size and power differences between the men it’s even more impressive.

Harumafuji was never about brute strength though. His speed and ring sense were his trademarks and so fast was he at the initial charge that many people mistakenly took his “hit and move” technique for a straight-up sidestep.

Having watched Harumafuji train often, I can honestly say in my two decades of attending keiko (training) I’ve never seen another sumo wrestler display such body control. Time after time, the yokozuna would perform some exercise or movement, then have another rikishi try to copy it, only for the man to fail miserably. Not that Harumafuji was having fun at others’ expense. A natural teacher, the yokozuna took an active part in training sessions, constantly dispensing advice to those in the ring and pulling young rikishi aside to show them how to improve their sumo.

Indeed were it not for the fact that Harumafuji took a special interest in Terunofuji when the latter moved to Isegahama stable, it’s doubtful that man would have reached the rank of ozeki. Terunofuji, then known as Wakamisho, had spent his first few years in a declining Magaki beya. The stablemaster there was usually absent receiving treatment for a stroke and with no other coaches and just a couple of lower-ranked rikishi in the room, Terunofuji was reduced to training on his own most days. His progress naturally stalled.

Demotivated, he was considering quitting the sport when the stable closed down and the rikishi were moved to Harumafuji’s stable. The yokozuna took the younger man under his wing, guiding him daily and helping him reach his full potential. Terunofuji would likely have reached sumo’s top rank himself by now had knee injuries not derailed his ascent.

Harumafuji’s impact was not just felt in training. Though few picked him to rise so high when he first debuted in the top division, his relatively small size at the time (184 cm and 110 kg) combined with his feisty all-out attacking style immediately endeared him to many fans.

Harumafuji’s first three years were filled with exciting bouts but mixed results. By late 2007, his sumo had matured and having put on 10 kg he started to step things up. Upon promotion to ozeki he changed his fighting name from Ama to one more suited to the rank. It took the newly renamed Harumafuji some time to find his feet near the top of the banzuke, but even when not in contention for a yusho he often influenced the outcome.

Back-to-back titles in 2012 (the only time he would achieve that feat) saw him promoted to yokozuna. Constant ankle injuries meant he wasn’t as effective as he might have been, but Harumafuji still finished with nine top division titles, just one short of what is normally needed to be considered a dai-yokozuna. Newer fans to the sport, spoiled by the exploits of Hakuho and Asashoryu may not realize just how big of an achievement those nine Emperor’s Cup win are.

Given both his size and the era he competed in, Harumafuji’s record deserves every accolade it receives. He leaves sumo ranked sixth all time in makuuchi wins and had he stayed active for another two years would almost certainly have been top three.

Given the nature of his demise, it’s almost certain that Harumafuji will no longer be connected to the sumo world, but he certainly isn’t short of options. Having completed a course that makes him eligible to become a police officer in his native Mongolia, Davaanyamyn Byambadorj (his given name) may move into law enforcement.

Even if that happens he is unlikely to sever all links with his second home. Scandals of this nature tend to recede quickly from the public consciousness and Harumafuji could take advantage of his popularity and fame to forge a career in media or entertainment in Japan in the future.

Considering where he started in sumo and how high he rose, who’d bet against him succeeding in that field, too?