Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Departed yokozuna Wajima brought charisma to ring

by John Gunning

Last week’s column featured links between sumo and American football, including a mention of how yokozuna Wakanohana took up the latter sport after retiring from the raised ring.

He isn’t the only former yokozuna with connections to the gridiron, however.

The 54th yokozuna, Wajima, likewise became involved in football post-retirement, serving for a time as general manager of ROCBULL, a now-defunct X-League team.

The Ishikawa native, who passed away on Monday at age 70, was also by turns a pro-wrestler, restaurant owner, tourism ambassador, and generally a bon vivant who lived life on his own terms.

Wajima’s outgoing personality and exciting style of sumo meant that, despite his later career being marred by controversy and scandal, he remained popular both inside the sumo world and among the wider general public.

Evidence of the high regard in which he was held can be seen in the fact that Hakuho wore a golden mawashi, similar to the one that was Wajima’s trademark, when he equaled the former yokozuna’s record of 14 championships in May 2010.

Hakuho on Tuesday shared photos of that moment on his social media accounts and thanked Wajima for all his help.

The Mongolian native of course isn’t the only wrestler to wear a golden mawashi in honor of Wajima.

Endo and Kagayaki, both of whom also hail from Ishikawa prefecture, regularly sport the color.

Endo also shares an alma mater with the former yokozuna: it was at powerhouse Nihon University that Wajima first made his name in sumo.

All-Japan college championships wins in 1968 and 1969 allowed the student yokozuna, a title bestowed to the winner of that tournament, to start his professional career in the third-highest makushita division. He promptly won back-to-back titles there as well to earn promotion to sekitori status.

Incidentally, Wajima’s main rival in college, and his predecessor as student yokozuna, was Hidetoshi Tanaka. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he is currently the head of both the International Sumo Federation and president of Nihon University.

In another gridiron link, an independent investigative panel concluded in July that Tanaka holds ultimate responsibility for the recent football violence scandal that rocked the game in Japan and saw national champions Nihon University Phoenix banned from play for the 2018 season.

Wajima, for his part, was no stranger to controversy either. Known for his partying lifestyle while an active wrestler, he was rumored to enjoy the company of certain shady individuals. Later, as a stablemaster, it was discovered he had used his toshiyori-kabu (sumo elder stock) as collateral on a loan taken out to cover debts accrued from his failed restaurant business.

That led to him being dismissed from the Japan Sumo Association entirely. His firing, along with the fact that he turned to professional wrestling, created such bad blood between Wajima and the JSA that it would be a full 24 years before he set foot in the Kokugikan again.

While Wajima’s relationship with the Sumo Association deteriorated, his friendship with many inside it remained strong.

Neither the aforementioned scandal nor his previous mismanagement of the stable had much effect on his wider popularity either.

None of that should really come as any surprise. It’s one of the great ironies of sumo fandom that while most people love the sport for the pomp and ritual, as well as the stoic nature of its combatants, it’s the wrestlers with “personality” who are always the most popular.

Whether it’s Asashoryu’s big mawashi strike or Takamisakari’s slapping himself into a frenzy before bouts, deviations from the norm are often what generate the most excitement at a tournament.

Look no further than former yokozuna Takanohana for evidence of that. He was absolutely expressionless on the dohyo for virtually all of his 15-year career, but best remembered for one fleeting moment in May 2001 when he let his composure slip after downing Musashimaru to take the title, despite a serious knee injury that had left him barely able to walk.

Wajima was in many ways the anti-Takanohana. He lived the celebrity lifestyle and loved it.

That endeared him to fans who like their athletes to have color, but his exploits in the ring were how Wajima really made his name.

The yokozuna’s golden mawashi was matched by his dominant “Golden Left” hold.

So associated was he with that underarm grip that 37 years after he finished competing, its associated nickname was used in the headline of virtually every column and obituary about Wajima his week.

Fighting in an era when most sumo bouts essentially had a standing start, Wajima’s belt battles with longtime friend and fellow star Takanohana (father of the recently-retired wrestler of the same name) were thrilling affairs.

However, It was his later rivalry with yokozuna Kitanoumi that pushed both men’s popularity to new heights.

The contrast between the tall, muscular Wajima who drove around in a Lincoln Continental and the stocky, powerful and gruff Kitanoumi could not have been greater and only added to the drama.

While the younger Kitanoumi had a more successful career overall, the pair’s 46 bouts over nine years were almost equally split, with Wajima holding a slight 24-22 edge.

At the time of his retirement as well, Wajima’s 14 Emperor’s Cups were good enough for third all time, behind only Kitanoumi and Taiho. In November 1977 he was actually joint-second overall in terms of championships won, alongside the legendary Futabayama.

While Wajima may have had his failings and made his share of mistakes, what he achieved both inside and outside the ring means that with his passing, sumo has lost one of its all-time great champions.