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Dominant Hakuho continues to redefine greatness

by John Gunning

Sumo columnist James Hardy once bemoaned the difficulty of doing daily tournament reports, saying, “There are only so many ways to write A pushed out B.”

With yokozuna Hakuho wrapping up his 42nd championship last Sunday, I’m beginning to feel the same way about describing the Mongolian’s titles.

Victory in the final basho of the Heisei era means Hakuho now has ten Emperor’s Cups more than the legendary Taiho.

That yokozuna’s mark was once thought untouchable, but Hakuho blew past it — as he has done with virtually every sumo record of note — and set a standard that may never be matched.

Indeed, Hakuho has been so dominant, and the recognition of his status as the greatest-ever so widespread, that he has spawned a subset of fans who ascribe his achievements primarily to weaker competition.

Takanohana in the 1990s and Chiyonofuji in the 1980s faced far tougher opposition than was realized at the time, goes the reasoning.

Hakuho wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if active a couple of decades earlier, according to those who adhere to the theory.

One online revisionist even backed up his argument by including Wakanohana (five titles — none while yokozuna) as an example of the kind of opponent that Hakuho hasn’t had to battle.

That kind of thinking isn’t just limited to fans. Former ozeki Konishiki, when rhapsodizing to me about the hardships of his era and the toughness of its fighters, claimed that Hakuho wouldn’t even have made sekiwake in his day.

That might have been hyperbole, but it is clear than there are some for whom the sheer scale of what Hakuho has achieved is difficult to comprehend.

Any comparison of eras is of course an exercise in futility, but to say that Asashoryu and Harumafuji don’t stack up well against Akebono or Hokutoumi isn’t credible.

What many of those who view the achievements of the past through rose-colored glasses often forget is that the dominance of stables like Futagoyama and Kokonoe meant that Takanohana and Chiyonofuji didn’t have to face many of the strongest rikishi on the banzuke at the time.

Hokutoumi (current JSA Chairman Hakkaku) was a yokozuna who won all eight of his Emperor’s Cups while stablemate Chiyonofuji was still active. They met only once — in a playoff for the title in July 1989.

Chiyonofuji was undoubtedly the better rikishi but Hokutoumi would certainly have won a significant proportion of their matchups. What would have happened if those wins had come in January 1987, March 1989 or any other tournament where one extra loss would have given someone else the title or at least forced a playoff?

Takanohana benefited to an even greater extent from the rule preventing stablemates from facing each other.

Take any tournament in the mid 1990s and you’ll find a whole host of tough opponents that Takanohana couldn’t be matched against.

In July 1996, two ozeki, one komusubi and three other maegashira in the top six ranks (all of whom reached sanyaku at some stage) were off the slate for the yokozuna.

That’s almost half the lineup that someone like Hakuho has had to face every single tournament of his career, being replaced on the schedule by men from the lower end of makuuchi.

Imagine, for example, taking rikishi equivalent to Harumafuji, Takayasu, Takakeisho, Onosho, Ichinojo and Endo off Hakuho’s schedule for most of his career and substituting them with men ranked maegashira 7 to maegashira 16. What kind of career would he have had? Instead of 42 titles, might we be talking about 52 or even 62?

If that sounds fanciful, remember that Hakuho has finished runner up 21 times in his career so far.

His 63 tournaments finishing either first or second dwarf the 42 of Chiyonofuji or 38 of Takanohana.

Indeed, even if you add all the Emperor’s Cups won by Akebono and Wakanohana to those of Takanohana, you are still four short of what Hakuho has already achieved.

Even more impressively, the 34-year-old now has 15 perfect titles to his name. One more and he would reach the same number as Taiho and Futabayama combined.

Chiyonofuji managed the feat seven times and Takanohana just four.

Hakuho also owns the records for most career wins, most top division wins and most wins in a calendar year (86 of out 90 bouts — achieved twice), among others.

In terms of pure numbers, there is no one that even comes close.

A few years ago, some German sumo fans compiled ELO-style ratings for sumo going back to the 1950s. A few different methods were used but all of them reached essentially the same conclusion — Hakuho is the best there has ever been, and by a significant margin.

The yokozuna passes the eye test as well, constantly adjusting his style of sumo over the years either to cope with age and injury or just to challenge himself and maintain his position at the head of the pack.

The bicep injury Hakuho sustained this tournament raises the prospect of not seeing him in action for a while, but with the yokozuna’s stated goal of being active until the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo there is little danger of a sudden retirement.

Either way, there are only a limited number of chances left to watch the G.O.A.T in action. If you haven’t yet seen Hakuho live, I recommend doing so as soon as you can. It’ll be something you tell the grandkids.

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