Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Takanohana’s departure marks end of era for sumo

by John Gunning

Takanohana’s retirement, announced on Tuesday, brings to an end the Hanada dynasty’s 72-year-long involvement in sumo.

The scion of a family that dominated both in the ring and in the headlines since the 1950’s, Takanohana never seemed at ease in the sport that was his birthright.

His success as a wrestler, as well as the Beatlemania-like popularity that both he and his brother Wakanohana enjoyed, masked the fact that the recalcitrant Takanohana harbored deep-seated views about sumo that were often at odds with its established traditions.

As a stablemaster, those views, along with Takanohana’s inability (or unwillingness) to build alliances and play politics, stymied his career and ultimately led to this week’s retirement.

Although popular among the general public and expected to receive more sympathetic media coverage than the Japan Sumo Association over the resignation, Takanohana’s departure is unlikely to have any long term repercussions for sumo or its governing body.

Already sidelined within the organization, the ex-yokozuna will have even less influence outside it.

There has never been a shortage of well-known former wrestlers willing to criticize sumo or dish dirt on its inner workings, but inevitably the JSA closes ranks and rides out the storm, knowing the public’s appetite for scandal is not as great as its love for the drama in the ring.

While the departure of the 22-time Emperor’s Cup winner has few practical implications, Takanohana’s retirement is filled with historical significance.

The “Waka-Taka Fever” of the early-to-mid 1990’s saw sumo reach unparalleled levels of popularity as the two young Hanada brothers climbed the sumo ladder.

The Takahanada (as Takanohana was known at the time) bout with Chiyonofuji in May 1991 is one of the most famous and significant matchups in sumo history. The 18 year old’s defeat of the legendary yokozuna was era-changing as it helped seal the latter’s decision to retire a couple of days afterwards.

Both Takanohana and his older brother would go on to reach yokozuna status themselves, surpassing their father who had been an ozeki in the 1970’s.

That man, who also fought under the name Takanohana, enjoyed his own period of fame and was known as the “Prince of Sumo.” Coincidently his own retirement came after successive defeats to a young and rising Chiyonofuji.

As with his sons, the first Takanohana also had a brother who was a wrestler. He too was called Wakanohana and was the patriarch of the Hanada dynasty.

Twenty-two years older than his brother, the first Wakanohana was a slight but fearsome wrestler known as the “Demon of the Ring.”

Winner of ten top division championships, he also displayed a savvy as a stablemaster that eluded his nephew, rising to become chairman of the JSA.

Indeed it was in that role that he handed the Emperor’s Cup to the younger Takanohana when the then-19 year old won his first championship in 1992.

This week’s retirement marks the first time since November 1946 there won’t be a member of the Hanada family in sumo.

It also means the definitive end of “Takanohana Stable,” which was created after the former yokozuna was given a special “one-generation stock name.”

Takanohana along with Kitanoumi and Taiho are the only three men in history to have been awarded that status. Chiyonofuji was offered the honor but turned it down.

This week’s news ends hopes of seeing widespread reform of some of sumo’s more historical yet problematic traditions and practices.

Takanohana was born into sumo’s royal family, raised in a stable and groomed to become a champion almost from the moment he could walk. The Tokyo native’s immersion in the sport was total, and his singular focus and determination allowed him to embrace the practice the way few others could.

He is known to have wanted to modernize the sport and improve the lives of wrestlers, especially those in the lower divisions. Paying a salary to everyone and ending the stable system in favor of a professional sports team-like environment were said to be among his aims.

Unfortunately for Takanohana and his followers, that aforementioned single-mindedness was also his undoing. Widely regarded as aloof and inscrutable, Takanohana failed to work the back room political circuit and build enough support for ideas that were anathema to those in power.

Unwilling to compromise his principles, Takanohana found himself constantly outmaneuvered in internal elections.

He was also left with few options but to kowtow to the JSA’s demands in order to save one of his wrestlers who had gotten in trouble for beating a junior.

The decision to retire appears to have been triggered by the association’s latest moves to consolidate power and doesn’t seem to be part of any long term strategy.

While few people have any insight into the thought processes of the former yokozuna, the suddenness of that decision and the palpable sense of relief mixed with the obvious frustration and anger he exhibited at Tuesday’s press conference would seem to indicate Takanohana’s realization that prolonging the fight was an exercise in futility.

Whether the 46-year old continues to push for sumo reform from the outside or starts an entirely new chapter in his life like his older brother — who attempted to become an American football player after retirement — Takanohana won’t soon be forgotten.

In the end, too, it will always be remembered that Takanohana was the ultimate insider who never fit in.