Ross: Rachel claims this is her favorite movie.
Chandler: Dangerous Liaisons.
Ross: Her actual favorite movie is?
Joey: Weekend at Bernie’s.
The above exchange, which came during one of the most famous scenes in the decadelong run of TV juggernaut “Friends,” laid bare the artistic pretensions of the character Rachel Green.
The coffee shop waitress’ aspirations toward a more refined sensibility (while covertly enjoying lowbrow comedies) reflects a similar duality found among fans of Japan’s national sport, and one that was perfectly embodied in the career of newly retired yokozuna Kakuryu.
Hinkaku — a kind of stoic dignity and aloofness — is considered an integral part of what it means to be a yokozuna. The almost impossible to quantify trait is also regularly used as a stick by the media and general public to bash grand champions who fail to live up to such romanticized ideals.
Over the past century the actions, both on and off the dohyo, of numerous yokozuna have drawn public condemnation and elicited sharp rebukes in the press for bringing dishonor to a position unlike any other in sports.
Kakuryu by contrast, charted a mostly serene course through sumo’s often treacherous straits.
A paragon of virtue, the 35-year-old maintained a calm demeanor and soft-spoken low-key approach throughout his term.
The irony, of course, is that such close adherence to the ideals of sumo is a major reason why Kakuryu never reached the levels of popularity enjoyed by fellow Mongolian-born yokozuna Asashoryu, Hakuho and Harumafuji.
At its heart, sport is about drama and conflict.
The highs and lows, and heroes and villains of athletic endeavor are what draw people in.
Dreaming of flying while your feet are in the dirt is human nature. Inside every Rachel Green-esque sumo fan who espouses the virtues of hinkaku, is a person secretly thrilled at the sight of Hakuho and Asashoryu squaring up to each other in the ring after a bout.
Kakuryu’s nature never allowed him to play the black hat role, and his style of sumo, and gradual ascent to the top, also meant that he flew under the radar for many.
None of that, of course, detracts from the man himself or what he achieved. The very fact that a skinny 16-year-old kid with no athletic background or grappling experience could come to Japan, master the language to a degree previously unseen among foreign wrestlers and ascend to the peak of what is one of the harshest sporting environments in the world is a testimony to his efforts.
Kakuryu’s lower profile shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a lack of popularity within the sport either.
In two decades in and around sumo I’ve yet to hear anyone say a bad word about the former yokozuna. Quite the opposite. Rarely does a rikishi elicit the kind of effusive praise from his peers that Kakuryu did. Interactions with fans similarly tend to result in the person in question’s estimation of the man rising significantly.
Never blessed with outstanding natural abilities — his former stablemaster’s first impression was that he’d make a better hairdresser than rikishi — Kakuryu took a studious approach to sumo. From early on, video became a large part of his preparation. Re-watching old fights, Kakuryu would tailor his tactics to the opponent on any given day. While successful, that could result in bouts that appeared boring to the casual observer. Kakuryu’s tendency to move backward and use pull downs also went against the grain of what is considered good sumo. Without understanding the method behind his approach, the Mongolian appeared limited to many sumo watchers. While his youth and results hinted at sekitori-level potential, reaching ozeki, never mind yokozuna, seemed such an outlandish prospect for much of his career that it was rarely discussed.
That, of course, proved to be an oversight. Kakuryu continued to develop and refine his sumo throughout his career until finally he was at a point where, when healthy, he was a match for even the great Hakuho.
Despite that, and even taking into consideration the fact that he retired with a reputation unblemished after a solid two-decade career, Kakuryu’s overall results in the ring mean he is more likely to get a page instead of a chapter in the sumo history books.
Of the 27 other yokozuna promoted since the introduction of the six-tournament-a-year system in the 1950s, 13 have won more titles than Kakuryu and 12 have won fewer — with two on an equal number. Being slap bang in the middle seems fitting for a man who was usually very good but rarely outstanding or terrible.
A keen basketball aficionado, Kakuryu may have dreamed of having a Michael Jordan-like career as a kid in Mongolia, but his equivalent in that Chicago Bulls’ dynasty was definitely Horace Grant — an excellent player in his own right but not a name that instantly comes to mind in the way that Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman do.
Kakuryu, like Jordan, won six championships, and had a hard time saying goodbye. It was a full 368 days after his last victory when the yokozuna finally admitted his position was untenable. The Michinoku stable man clearly wanted to go out on a better note than the failed leg sweep loss that constituted his final action in the ring, but few athletes ever get the send-off they desire, and hanging on longer would likely have brought the shame of a retirement recommendation from the Yokozuna Deliberation Council.
Of course, delays in the naturalization process played a major role in Kakuryu’s reluctance to call it a day. A rikishi cannot take up an elder name or remain in the Sumo Association without Japanese citizenship. There is a bitter irony in the fact that the yokozuna was being lambasted for damaging sumo by refusing to retire, when the very reason he was holding on was so that he could remain in the sport after hanging up his mawashi and guide the new generation of wrestlers.
Kakuryu’s temperament seems ideally suited to that role and there is widespread expectation that he will have a successful career as a stablemaster. The yokozuna’s popularity within the sport and the deftness with which he navigates Japanese social mores, also makes Kakuryu a good bet to become the first foreign-born head of the Sumo Association at some stage in the future.
He may have been overshadowed by his contemporaries in terms of wins and titles, but no one came close to Kakuryu when it came to exemplifying the noblest aspects of sumo.
The fact that he will remain in the sport and help lead it into the future should be a massive source of comfort to everyone involved.
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