Family legacy weighs heavily on young sumo prospects

by John Gunning

Jigjidiin Monkhbat, the father of yokozuna Hakuho, passed away recently. A legendary figure in Mongolian wrestling, the six-time Naadam festival champion was also a silver medalist at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Monkhbat’s son, if anything, has surpassed his legendary father.

Hakuho has 40 top-division titles (and counting) and holds almost every single sumo record of note. His good bloodline, however, wasn’t enough to overcome skepticism when trying to join sumo back in the winter of 2000.

No one would take in the skinny 62-kg 15-year-old, and it took the intercession of Mongolian senior Kyokushuzan to convince the Miyagino stable to give him a shot.

In hindsight, overlooking Hakuho was the sumo equivalent of Tom Brady being passed over multiple times by every professional football team earlier that same year at the NFL Draft.

It’s hard to be too critical of those stables though. Parental background is often no indicator of sumo success.

Of course, there are some families where fathers, sons, brothers and uncles all plateau at a similar level. The Hanada dynasty, with its three yokozuna and one ozeki, springs to mind immediately. The two Wakanohanas and two Takanohanas have 39 Emperor’s Cups between them.

Similarly, further down the banzuke, three brothers born in the 1990s, Tsurunoumi, Mitoyutaka and Honda, all reached the third-highest makushita division just as their father Asahitsuru did in the 1980s.

But even in that latter case there is another brother, Tsurutaro, who didn’t have what it takes to become a rikishi and instead joined the Nishikido stable as a yobidashi (ring announcer) instead.

Former top-division regular Masunoyama likewise has a brother who is the hairdresser in his stable.

While it can be hard to tell at an early age just how successful sons of former wrestlers will be, one of sumo’s newest recruits has started his career with expectations higher, and levels of media attention more intense, than any since the aforementioned Hanada siblings.

18-year-old Konosuke Naya has joined the Otake stable, founded by his legendary grandfather, Taiho.

A graduate of Saitama Sakae, the high school sumo powerhouse that has produced Goeido, Takakeisho, Hokutofuji and a host of top-division talent, Naya has been the subject of press interest since early childhood.

Though physically and in sumo style closer to Terunofuji than Taiho, he will never be able to escape comparisons with a grandfather whose portrait and photos line the walls at Otake.

At a training session I watched last week, although Naya was more than holding his own against makushita division regulars, it was clear his sumo still needs work and he is nowhere near the finished product.

Reminders of Taiho are a constant for the youngster. The Otake stable is also still also called “Taiho Dojo,” and as well as the photos of his grandfather, replicas of the yokozuna’s 32 Emperor’s Cups are displayed in a case that is right in the line of sight of anyone fighting in the ring. Even the first name Konosuke shares a kanji character with that of Koki, his illustrious progenitor.

It would be no surprise, then, if the young man wilted under such a glaring spotlight. When 50 reporters show up at your high school to cover an announcement of joining the professional ranks that was a foregone conclusion for more than a decade, that’s the kind of attention that can be hard for any 18-year-old to deal with.

Signs are, though, that Naya will manage the expectations.

That wasn’t always the case. As a young kid, he bought into his own name and fame, became lazy and developed unhealthy eating habits.

Though he did reasonably well in tournaments, a lack of athleticism prevented him from ever dominating the way he could have.

Once he went to Saitama Sakae, however, all that changed. Michinori Yamada, the head of the sumo club at the school, took him under his wing, changed his diet and whipped him into shape. Naya’s body-fat percentage dropped as his sumo improved and by his final year he was team captain and winning important tournaments.

His success actually led to him to postpone his debut in professional sumo in order to compete in the All-Japan Championships held at the Kokugikan in December.

The winner of that tournament gets to start his sumo life just outside the salaried ranks, cutting probably a year and a half or two years off the time needed for someone like Naya to get to that position when starting at the bottom.

In the end, however, he wasn’t able to match the power of veteran fighters and his amateur days came to a close with a 1-2 record in his final tournament.

Naya’s start to professional sumo life has been a lot brighter. He has 10 straight wins since his debut and it would be no surprise to see him continue that unbeaten streak in the next two tournaments.

Young men with his size and ability often don’t encounter difficulties until they reach the makushita division (the highest division outside the salaried ranks). He’s already bettered his acclaimed grandfather in one respect. Taiho only went 6-1 in his jonokuchi division debut.

Of course he was 16 years old at the time and weighed just 75 kg. But even at his peak, the yokozuna never broke 150 kg, while Naya is already pushing 170 kg at just 1 cm taller.

Naya’s father too was a sumo wrestler and former stablemaster at Otake. Though Takatoriki’s single title pales in comparison to Taiho’s 32, he did finish his career third all-time with 1,456 consecutive matches and only three wrestlers have won more special prizes.

Naya likely won’t come close to his grandfather but could surpass his dad’s achievements. It’s hard to say at this point which way things will go, but Naya’s ability to deal with the spotlight and a sumo level that has shown marked and continual improvement bodes well for his future.