Sumo

Sumo 101: Mongolians

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

Sumo might be Japan’s national sport, but for most of the last two decades it has been dominated by Mongolians.

From November 2002, when Ulaanbaatar native Asashoryu won his first Emperor’s Cup, to January 2016, when Kotoshogiku broke a 10-year title drought for Japan-born rikishi, Mongolian wrestlers claimed an astounding 81 of 88 championships.

Asashoryu and Hakuho accounted for the lion’s share of those, but Harumafuji, Kakuryu, and Terunofuji also won titles.

So too did Kyokutenho. His triumph in the May 2012 tournament was an emotional moment for many people, not only because of his age, (at 37 he became the oldest first-time winner) but also because he was part of the initial group of six Mongolians that had come to Japan in 1991 to do sumo, and his struggles helped create a path for many of his countrymen to follow.

Also part of that first wave was Kyokushuzan. The Oshima Beya man had a solid 14-year career, but his greatest contribution to the sport was undoubtedly convincing the Miyagino stablemaster to take a chance on a skinny 15-year-old in 2000 after virtually every other stable had rejected him.

That kid, of course, turned out to be the greatest rikishi of all time.

Hakuho has not only shattered almost every record of note, but the veteran carried the sport alone for years and has always displayed a deep knowledge of and respect for sumo traditions — a few recent missteps excepted.

With only one foreigner allowed per stable and most of the available slots already filled, the flow of talent from the land of Genghis Khan has slowed, but with Asashoryu’s nephew Hoshoryu having just turned 20 and already within striking distance of promotion to the juryo division, don’t count on Mongolian dominance ending with Hakuho’s retirement.