Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Sumo dominance down to heart over matter

by John Gunning

The newly-released banzuke (rankings) for the upcoming Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament see Hakuho back in his old familiar ‘Yokozuna 1 East’ position.

It is the 48th time that the Mongolian veteran has occupied the top slot — a sumo record.

Indeed at this stage in his career there are few numbers associated with the Miyagino Stable veteran which aren’t the best of all time.

The consecutive victory mark is the only significant record Hakuho doesn’t own, and even there he is in second place with 63 behind Futabayama’s 69.

Hakuho has the most championships (41), most career wins (1,095), most top division wins (1,001), most wins in a calendar year (86, twice), most undefeated championships (14) and most consecutive championships (7).

Even if his recent knee surgery keeps him out of the Fukuoka meet, the yokozuna’s September victory ensured that for the 13th straight year he won at least one tournament — another record.

Hakuho’s career overlapped that of another all time great: Asashoryu. His fellow Mongolian dominated the sport completely between 2003 and 2007, finishing with 25 Emperor’s Cups — good enough for third all time when he retired.

Asashoryu, in turn, rose to prominence just as Takanohana was retiring.

The youngest-ever tournament winner, Takanohana was only the fourth man in sumo history to take at least 20 titles. He downed the legendary Chiyonofuji at just 18 years old, prompting the 32-time champion to retire a few days later.

Hakuho, Asashoryu, Takanohana and Chiyonofuji. These four men have ruled the sumo roost since the 1980s, just as Kitanoumi and Taiho did in the 1970s and 1960s respectively.

All of the wrestlers, despite their dominance, had very different physiques and fighting styles, which raises the question of just what it is that makes a great sumo wrestler.

First of all, it must be noted that unlike in other sports, sumo has seen no dramatic increase in tactical awareness and complexity over the past four decades.

When goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel claimed in 1997 his Manchester United team would beat the 1968 European Cup-winning side, it caused derision in the soccer world, but it’s hard to argue that he was wrong.

In addition to tactical nous, fitness levels increased dramatically over that span. Watch games from both eras side-by-side and it will almost seem as if the older match is being played in slow motion.

Rugby, likewise, has seen a massive increase in physicality since the advent of the professional era, to the extent that backs in the modern game are often bigger and stronger than forwards were 30 years ago.

Sumo, however, has more or less maintained the same techniques and training methods that were commonplace not only 30 years ago but 300.

The sport had also had champions both massive and (relatively) small at all points in its history.

If tactics or physicality don’t automatically lead to titles, just what is the secret to sumo prosperity?

Inside Japan’s national sport, success is ascribed to an ability to master the principles of shin-gi-tai (heart, technique, physique).

The last of those is mostly determined by genetics, but sumo’s rigorous training, if carried out diligently, ensures even smaller men can exert real power.

Likewise, technique is something that daily training improves. Because sumo practice follows the same pattern day in and day out, with basic movements and skills repeated hundreds and thousands of times, even those with no grappling or fighting background can attain a high level of proficiency in the sport’s technical aspect in three or four years.

As a result we are left with ‘heart’ as the deciding factor between good and great in sumo.

While commonly translated as heart, ‘shin’ actually encompasses many concepts beyond fighting spirit, including self belief and mental focus.

The latter two are exceptionally important in sumo as the vast majority of bouts are decided in a split second at the tachi-ai (initial clash).

Most other combat sports go several rounds and generally allow participants to feel out their opponents and adjust strategy accordingly.

Occasionally quick finishes happen in other rings. But even Conor McGregor’s 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo back in 2015, a UFC record, would still be a longish sumo match.

Few fights in the raised ring make it to ten seconds and a large percentage are decided in fewer than five.

It’s incredibly difficult to recover from losing the tachi-ai in sumo. When wrestlers say they want to do ‘their own sumo’ in interviews, they mean that they want to impose their will at the face-off and take the initiative.

“Heart,” in a sumo sense, is the ability to do just that. Hakuho, Asashoryu, Takanohana et al. won countless fights before the tachi-ai through sheer intimidation and self belief.

Each wrestler may have different pre-bout routines, but their expressions before touching their hands down on the dirt show that they didn’t just think they were going to win — they knew it.

Contrast that with the often-indecisive actions and expressions of other rikishi at the face off. Those are akin to someone playing rock-paper-scissors: a mind wondering if a chosen strategy will match up well to that of one’s opponent.

The ultimate expression of sumo ‘heart’ is the “go-no-sen” tachi-ai where the opponent is allowed to attack first.

It’s a concept of complete focus and harmony found in many Japanese martial arts but extremely rare in sumo, given how crucial taking the initial advantage is in the sport.

Only one champion in living memory has been able to reach the almost-mythical level of heart needed to perform that tachi-ai.

It shouldn’t be hard to guess who: Hakuho.