Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Future without sumo unthinkable for Hakuho

by John Gunning

The Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, which gets underway on Sunday, is shaping up to be a make-or-break one for several wrestlers.

Takayasu and Kisenosato have seen their respective hopes for a yokozuna run and triumphant comeback dampened by injuries both old and new.

Ozeki Takayasu, coming off back-to-back 12-3 runner-up performances, had many people expecting he would take the final step this time out and win his first Emperor’s Cup.

That was until Takayasu hurt both his right shoulder and left upper arm in training over the past week. Now even his participation in the tournament is in doubt. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for the 28-year-old just as he was reaching his peak and set to make a breakthrough.

Takayasu’s stablemate Kisenosato has likewise been in poor condition in training sessions, throwing into question the wisdom of his decision to attempt a comeback in May rather than wait until July.

The reasoning behind that move likely was the fact that the yokozuna’s pectoral injury wasn’t going to heal over the next two months so he might as well give it a shot now. Given how poorly he has been performing against rank-and-filers in practice, however, it would be no surprise if the decision were reversed.

Whether it’s this tournament or the next one in Nagoya two months from now, though, it’s looking increasingly likely that we are seeing the final act of the Ibaraki man’s career.

The toshiyori-kabu (elder name stock) owned by Kisenosato has been vacated by the person borrowing it; further indicating that the yokozuna’s retirement is imminent.

There are 105 extant toshiyori-kabu and possession of one is a requirement for former wrestlers that wish to remain in the Japan Sumo Association after retirement.

There are certain eligibility requirements for ownership that must be met as well. In general, the man in question must have been active for at least 20 tournaments in the top division or 30 in the top two divisions before he can buy or inherit a name stock.

In 1976, Japanese citizenship was also made a prerequisite for those wishing to hold stock.

That point has always clouded Hakuho’s future in sumo.

The yokozuna is still a Mongolian citizen and since Japan doesn’t allow dual nationality, if he were to retire from sumo now, the most successful wrestler of all time would be out of the sport completely.

That’s an almost unthinkable prospect. While fellow countryman Asashoryu was never going to remain in sumo, having chafed against its rules and restrictions from day one, Hakuho has always been seen a potential lifer.

The issue for the yokozuna seems to have been that either his father was against him giving up Mongolian nationality or that Hakuho, out of respect, didn’t want to make the switch while the former Olympic medalist was still alive.

Hakuho’s mother threw cold water on the first theory after her husband’s funeral in Ulaanbaatar last month, saying he was never opposed to the switch. Speaking about her son, she indicated that the change was inevitable, explaining, “His wife is Japanese, his children go to school in Japan.”

Hakuho of course has already laid the groundwork for his post-retirement career. Several of the men at the Miyagino stable where he trains are his own personal recruits. Wrestlers like Ishiura and Enho would move with the yokozuna if he decided to branch out and open his own stable.

Hakuho doesn’t need to sweat over acquiring name stock either. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will be given a special one-generation stock under his own fighting name. It’s an honor that has been offered to every yokozuna with more than 20 Emperor’s Cup wins (with the exception of Asashoryu, who was forced out of the sport).

Taiho, Kitanoumi and Takanohana all continued after retirement under those names. Chiyonofuji declined the offer in favor of taking over the existing Kokonoe stock.

None of the men as stablemasters achieved anything like the level of success they saw as active wrestlers. Between them, the four legends managed to raise only a single recruit to sumo’s top two ranks (ozeki Chiyotaikai).

In contrast, yokozuna Mienoumi, who won just three tournaments, created a stable with one yokozuna and three ozeki when he became a stablemaster.

What level of success Hakuho will achieve is hard to say. Recruiting prospects is just half the work. Training them so that they reach their maximum potential is equally as important. Being able to do something and teaching others to do it are very separate skills, and there is also the pressure that comes with being essentially a surrogate parent.

“It’s a lot of responsibility,” explained former yokozuna Akebono in a 2016 interview. “I felt the responsibility of raising my own children and I didn’t know if I had what it took to take somebody else’s child and promise that I’ll send them back a man.”

The other side of being a sumo elder, of course, is the politics. Here, too, Hakuho’s predecessors experienced a mixed bag. Among those with special one-generation status, Kitanoumi with his two terms as Japan Sumo Association chairman stands out. Takanohana’s maneuvering and power plays have been a total failure and seen him sidelined and demoted to the lowest ranks.

Let’s not forget there is also the question of whether a foreign-born elder can rise in the ranks at all. For Akebono, the man who shattered the glass ceiling as a wrestler, it was a roadblock too far. “The biggest thing that made me leave was I actually asked if there was a chance of me becoming chairman (and was told no) so I told them there was no future for me in the Sumo Association,” he explained.

Given all that he has achieved so far, though, who would bet against Hakuho breaking that barrier as well?