Neil Leifer’s iconic image of Muhammad Ali towering over a defeated Sonny Liston in 1965 is widely considered to be among the greatest sporting photographs of all time.
Shots of yokozuna Hakuho roaring triumphantly over a prone Terunofuji last Sunday evoked immediate comparisons to that seminal photo, and captured a moment arguably just as significant in Japan’s national sport.
The veteran’s victory was one for the ages. An incredible return from an injury-wrecked year, capped by a powerful assertion of dominance over sumo’s man of the hour.
A few days into the Nagoya tournament it became clear that there was ever only going to be one bout that mattered. Even in a sport as unpredictable as sumo, Hakuho and Terunofuji clashing on the final day with everything at stake seemed predestined.
The inevitable collision, when it happened, didn’t disappoint. From the long pre-bout stare down that ratcheted up the tension, to the opening elbow blast and subsequent wild face slaps, the championship decider was eye-wateringly intense from start to finish.
Hakuho’s release of emotion at the conclusion, while criticized, was reminiscent of a similar outburst by another yokozuna two decades ago.
Takanohana’s May 2001 “demon face” — pulled after downing Musashimaru to win the title — also drew tuts of disapproval. The fact, however, that a plastic figure of the yokozuna bearing that exact expression went on sale in the Kokugikan soon afterwards showed that while dignity may be an admirable trait for grand champions, in sumo — as in many walks of life — it’s those moments when norms slip and humanity breaks through that resonate the most.
Hakuho’s roar of relief and joy last Sunday came as the yokozuna added yet another chapter to the most decorated career the sport has ever seen.
At this stage the Mongolian born legend’s numbers almost defy belief.
A 45th Emperor’s Cup puts the Miyagino stable man just two championships away from having as many titles as Asashoryu and Takanohana combined. That’s a stunning stat in itself, but it’s not even Hakuho’s most impressive.
In going undefeated through the 15 days of action — something that the 36-year-old, in a ringside interview, said he hadn’t thought possible at his age — Hakuho now has the same number of perfect championships (16) as Taiho and Futabayama (eight each) combined. Prior to Hakuho’s ascendancy, debate over the greatest rikishi in history generally centered on those latter two men.
Achieving a perfect 15-0 championship is one of the hardest feats in sumo. Doing so adds ¥1.2 million ($11,000) to a wrestler’s annual salary for the rest of his career, while a regular championship only increases the amount by ¥720,000 ($6,550).
Kakuryu, Kisenosato, Akebono and Wakanohana are among some of the yokozuna who never managed to go 15-0, while prior to Asashoryu’s victory in January 2004, a perfect record hadn’t been seen in the top division for eight years.
Hakuho now has more undefeated championships than great yokozuna like Wajima, Kitanofuji and Musashimaru have total titles.
The yokozuna’s return to and exerting of dominance over his sport calls to mind Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot in 1998 that sealed a second three-peat for the Chicago Bulls.
For many years now, names like Jordan, as well as Wayne Gretzky, Pele, Saori Yoshida and Michael Phelps have been the only true comparisons when it comes to Hakuho: Athletes whose achievements are so great that they have essentially transcended their sport.
So commanding was Hakuho in Nagoya that the retirement which appeared all but inevitable just a month ago now seems to have been forgotten about entirely. Many had assumed that once Hakuho had fulfilled a long-held desire to play a role in the Olympics he would call time on his career.
However, the yokozuna mentioning the fact that he is just one victory away from 900 wins as a yokozuna in his championship interview would seem to indicate that he intends to return in September.
That won’t be good news for pretenders to the crown, but it does give the man that Hakuho defeated on the final day in Nagoya a shot at revenge.
Terunofuji’s stunning run came to an end as the Isegahama stable wrestler fell one win short of becoming just the fourth rikishi in the past quarter century to win three straight championships.
The 29-year-old gets the ultimate consolation prize, however.
On Wednesday, the Japan Sumo Association confirmed Terunofuji’s promotion to grand champion.
In becoming the 73rd yokozuna, he has completed the greatest comeback in the history of sumo.
Just over two years ago, after plummeting down the rankings because of injury-enforced absence, the massive Mongolian lost in a division playoff in sumo’s fifth tier. Even as he clawed his way back up the banzuke rankings, Terunofuji struggled so much against far weaker opposition that many commentators openly wondered why he bothered continuing at all.
At that stage it seemed as if the veteran was exposing himself to daily suffering for little possible reward. With a body stripped of muscle tone and grimacing in pain every time his knees were forced to take the strain of moving backward, Terunofuji’s bouts were hard for supporters and friends to watch.
Making it back to the paid ranks seemed like a pipe dream. Anyone predicting multiple championships and promotion to yokozuna would have been accused of indulging in ridiculous fantasy.
Yet here we are. Yokozuna Terunofuji, fresh off two Emperor’s Cups and a 14-1 effort with the only loss coming to the greatest wrestler of all time.
Sumo fans are already salivated over the prospect of a rematch on Sept. 26.
Paging Neil Leifer.
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