With the passing of Tochinoumi on Jan. 29 there are now just 15 surviving active or retired yokozuna.
Sumo’s highest rank has few, if any, parallels in other sports. Perhaps the closest comparison would be an NFL quarterback finding himself inducted into the Hall of Fame while still active, but even then, no football player (or indeed any athlete) is expected to be the living embodiment of their game in quite the same way a yokozuna is for sumo.
The summit of Japan’s national sport is rarefied air. Reaching it takes outstanding performances against the very best opponents, while staying on the mountaintop requires dignity and decorum both inside and outside the ring.
So unique and important is the position of yokozuna that there is a separate independent body whose sole task is to judge the worthiness of those holding, or attempting to reach, the rank.
The intense scrutiny and pressure that comes with being a yokozuna however, generally only applies while a rikishi is active. Once freed of that obligation, it’s no surprise that some former yokozuna have been more than happy to fade into the background upon retirement. It’s likely that very few people who passed Tochinoumi on the street in recent years would have realized that the ordinary looking pensioner with the swept back hair was a former yokozuna.
Foreign sumo fandom, thanks to its exploding numbers in recent years, has a particularly acute recency bias. A huge number of fans outside this country have never seen Asashoryu fight live, never mind Akebono or Asahifuji.
With that in mind here are some facts that you may or may not know about the 13 living former yokozuna.
Kitanofuji, the 55th yokozuna is now into his seventh decade of involvement with sumo. A 10-time Emperor’s Cup winner and stablemaster who raised two yokozuna, the always impeccably dressed Kitanofuji has been the face of televised sumo commentary for the past several decades.
A large portrait commemorating the 56th yokozuna Wakanohana’s perfect 15-0 championship in November 1978 that has hung in JR Ryogoku Station for many years is the only one on the right side as you enter the station. All other portraits are on the left.
Despite fighting in a time when rikishi almost never put their hands on the ground before a bout, the 57th yokozuna, Mienoumi, upon becoming JSA Chairman, instituted a strict “two hands down” policy that resulted in endless false starts and chaos in the ring during the 2008 autumn tournament.
Hokutoumi, the 61st yokozuna is one of only a handful former yokozuna to have the same number of titles as runner-up finishes. Chairman of the JSA since 2015, he is the first-ever member of Takasago Ichimon to hold that position.
Onokuni, who retired 20 years ago, is the last yokozuna to have hailed from the former sumo powerhouse of Hokkaido. As head of the PR dept., he is the JSA member most often quoted in news articles these days.
Asahifuji, the 63rd yokozuna, had a tougher time than most getting to the top of the sumo pyramid. In the wake of the Futahaguro scandal, the JSA became reluctant to promote new yokozuna. Five straight runner-up performances from September 1988, including two where he defeated a yokozuna (only to lose to the same man in a title playoff) weren’t deemed sufficient. A year later Asahifuji finally won back-to-back titles and earned the white rope.
Sumo’s glass ceiling was finally broken in March 1993 when Akebono was promoted to the sport’s highest honor. The 64th yokozuna was first ever foreigner at that rank.
Nephew of a legendary yokozuna and son of one of the most beloved ozeki of all time, the 65th yokozuna Takanohana and his older brother pushed sumo’s popularity to unprecedented heights during the early part of their careers. With legions of young fans screaming with excitement whenever the young stars appeared, the Waka-Taka boom was as close as sumo ever came to Beatlemania.
While his younger brother stayed in sumo and eventually took over their father’s stable, Wakanohana embarked on a very different path after retirement. The 66th yokozuna attempted to forge a second career in football. While a tryout with the Atlanta Falcons didn’t lead to an NFL contract, Wakanohana did have stints in Japan’s X League and with an Arena Football team in the U.S.
After five years as an ozeki, and with three titles to his name, it seemed as if Musashimaru’s career had peaked. The American Samoa-born giant broke out over the next 3½ years, though, lifting nine more Emperor’s Cups, becoming the 67th yokozuna and retiring as the most successful foreign rikishi of all time to that point.
The 68th yokozuna was the first not to hail from the U.S. or Japan. Asashoryu was a tightly wound ball of rage and intensity that dominated opponents both physically and mentally.
These days, the Mongolian legend can often be found lobbing verbal grenades at the current generation of wrestlers on Twitter during tournaments. The Akinori part of his ring name is an alternative reading of the kanji characters for Meitoku — the Japanese high school he attended before turning pro.
Harumafuji, the 70th yokozuna, is an accomplished painter. While active he even had a series of works exhibited at a gallery in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district.
Like a couple of his predecessors, the 72nd yokozuna is a lifelong fan of football. Kisenosato didn’t follow Wajima and Wakanohana in putting on pads after retirement, however. Instead, the man most recently promoted to sumo’s highest rank, turned to the commentary booth and has had stints calling the Rice Bowl — Japan’s national championship game.
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