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At 3 a.m. on Monday, as most of Japan slept, news started filtering through that yokozuna Hakuho, arguably the greatest wrestler in the 2,000-year history of sumo, had decided to retire.

The strangeness of the timing, and the fact that the grand champion’s friends and family seemed caught off-guard by the announcement, led to a day of swirling rumor and speculation. The stunning news was finally confirmed by Japan Sumo Association officials on Monday evening, much to the chagrin of writers and television producers anxiously hoping to meet their early deadlines.

It was an unusual end to a career — but perhaps a fitting one for a rikishi whose achievements both inside and outside the ring continuously broke new ground.

At a time when baseball player Shohei Ohtani is making headlines around the globe for doing things not seen in a century, it’s worth reminding people that Raiden, Hakuho’s main rival for the title of the most dominant rikishi of all time, started his career in 1790.

Even Hakuho’s most ardent critics can’t deny the fact that inside the ring, the Ulaanbaatar native reached heights previously thought unattainable.

The numbers are staggering: 45 Emperor’s Cups, 16 perfect 15-0 championships (as many as legendary yokozuna pair Taiho and Futabayama combined), 1,187 career wins, 86 victories in one year — twice — and over 1,000 wins in the top division (the only person ever to manage that), in addition to several other marks of note.

If sumo had a Hall of Fame, Hakuho’s 20-year reign could actually be split into several sections that would each be worthy of inclusion.

Yet the most brilliant career sumo has seen almost didn’t get off the ground.

Hakuho's legacy includes 45 Emperor's Cups and 1,187 career wins. | JOHN GUNNING
Hakuho’s legacy includes 45 Emperor’s Cups and 1,187 career wins. | JOHN GUNNING

Twenty years ago, Davaajargal Monkhbatyn, weighing just 60 kilograms and standing at barely 180 centimeters, was turned down by every sumo stable he approached and dejectedly preparing to return to his home country when he received word of a late reprieve.

Miyagino stablemaster, at the urging of Mongolian rank-and-file wrestler Kyokushuzan, had decided to take a chance on the skinny teenager.

Just eight months earlier on the other side of the world, the New England Patriots tried their luck by selecting quarterback Tom Brady with the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL draft.

Both young athletes — virtual afterthoughts in their respective sports — would go on to rewrite the record books and redefine greatness over the following two decades.

Hakuho, like Brady, reached that rarefied upper echelon of elite athletes whose success transcends their sport.

Of course, sumo doesn’t have the exposure of football, basketball or soccer. Hakuho, for all his achievements, will never receive the same kind of global exposure as Brady, Michael Jordan or Cristiano Ronaldo.

However, the yokozuna’s achievements both in and outside of the ring make him absolutely worthy of being measured alongside those global superstars.

Hakuho's first of 45 championship portraits was raised at Ryogoku Kokugikan in September 2006, while the last won't be taken down until January 2027. | JOHN GUNNING
Hakuho’s first of 45 championship portraits was raised at Ryogoku Kokugikan in September 2006, while the last won’t be taken down until January 2027. | JOHN GUNNING

Comparing sumo’s six annual honbasho to the four major tournaments in golf or tennis by multiplying titles in the latter by a factor of 1.5 gives a good illustration of just how dominant Hakuho has been in his chosen sport.

Using that method, Serena Williams’ 23 grand slam titles roughly equate to 35 Emperor’s Cups in sumo — ten behind Hakuho.

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, would be a further five titles back using the same calculation. In golf the difference is even more pronounced: Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major victories would equal 27 titles in sumo, with Tiger Woods sitting on just 23.

In a sport known for violence and one of the most brutal training environments on the planet, success over a sustained period is rare. Hakuho’s longevity at a position that required him to face the best and strongest rikishi each and every tournament is notable. The 84 basho that took place while he ranked at yokozuna represent a 33% increase on the 63-basho tenure of previous record-holder Kitanoumi.

Sumo champions get the honor of having their larger-than-life portraits displayed in the rafters of the Kokugikan arena. There are 32 spaces available, and every four months the oldest two portraits are replaced by those of the two most recent tournament winners.

Hakuho’s first portrait went up in September 2006, while his most recent won’t come down until January 2027. That’s an incredible 21-year span with images of the greatest wrestler of all time watching over the sport’s operational heart.

It wasn’t just in the record books that Hakuho excelled. From early on he was a student of the game and read extensively about the history of sumo. As yokozuna he often made subtle changes to his dohyō-iri (ring entrance ceremony) to pay tribute to the styles of previous legends.

Long a student of the sport, Hakuho wore a gold mawashi belt inspired by Wajima after matching the former yokozuna with a 14th title at the 2010 Summer Basho. | KYODO
Long a student of the sport, Hakuho wore a gold mawashi belt inspired by Wajima after matching the former yokozuna with a 14th title at the 2010 Summer Basho. | KYODO

Nods to sumo’s past abounded in Hakuho’s career. He wore a Wajima-inspired gold mawashi belt when reaching 14 titles — the number won by that former yokozuna — and actively tried to use signature moves such as Wakanohana’s yobimodoshi (pulling body slam) throw and Futabayama’s go-no-sen technique of taking of an opponent’s best shot at the initial charge.

Outside the ring, Hakuho led the way in the wake of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Three months after that disaster he was in Tohoku performing a dohyō-iri and attempting to lift the spirits of the people in the region. Hakuho would make several return visits to the region and helped fund some of the rebuilding efforts.

Being the only active yokozuna during the gambling and match-fixing scandals of a decade ago meant Hakuho also had to shoulder the burden of being the face of the sport during one of its darkest periods. With grace and poise, the young champion helped lead sumo back to respectability.

Hakuho celebrates with his parents after receiving a Technique Prize at the 2005 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament. | KYODO
Hakuho celebrates with his parents after receiving a Technique Prize at the 2005 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament. | KYODO

Sumo’s global explosion in interest over the past five years has meant that many newer fans abroad only know Hakuho as a domineering, rough and oft-absent wrestler who seems to play by his own rules. The truth, of course, is that the veteran yokozuna’s late career “heel turn” is simply a combination of trying to compensate for declining physical abilities and an effort to keep things personally interesting in a sport where he had already achieved everything possible.

Widespread understanding of that fact was clear immediately following the reports of Hakuho’s intention to retire, as posts in Japanese, English and Mongolian lamenting the decision flooded social media. Broken hearts and crying emojis were prevalent as fans expressed disappointment about not being able to see anymore bouts between the departing yokozuna and the fast-rising Terunofuji.

The latter man is now the sole occupant of sumo’s mountaintop, but were it not for Hakuho and his father, Terunofuji may never even have come to Japan or taken up the sport in the first place.

Then-ozeki Hakuho celebrates his first top-division title with supporters, including father Jigjidiin Monkhbat (front right), after the 2006 May Basho at Ryogoku Kokugikan. | KYODO
Then-ozeki Hakuho celebrates his first top-division title with supporters, including father Jigjidiin Monkhbat (front right), after the 2006 May Basho at Ryogoku Kokugikan. | KYODO

Japan’s newest and 73rd yokozuna isn’t the only one whose path into sumo was — at least partially — facilitated by Hakuho, the 69th to wear the white rope.

Former collegian wrestler Ishiura was persuaded to turn his back on a role in the Hollywood movie “The Wolverine” and turn pro, while one of sumo’s biggest rising stars, Hokuseiho, only became interested in the sport as a small child after a chance meeting with Hakuho.

The yokozuna’s influence on wrestlers extends far beyond the 215 men he has met in the ring. The Hakuho Cup has become one of the biggest and most important underage tournaments in the world and provides a rare opportunity for elementary and junior high school aged children from outside Japan to compete at a high level.

From vying for ozeki promotion with Bulgarian Kotooshu in 2004 and 2005 to one of sumo’s more intense and legendary rivalries with fellow Mongolian Asashoryu in the latter half of that decade, Hakuho had already reached great yokozuna status by the start of the 2010s. It would be another six years before his title-winning pace started to slow down, but even in his decline Hakuho won more silverware than three of the four yokozuna promoted after him did, or have done, in their entire career.

His stats and numbers will be marveled at for decades to come, but the way that Hakuho led sumo back into the light after carrying it through its darkest period is arguably his greatest contribution to the sport.

Although the yokozuna’s time as an active rikishi has drawn to a close, Hakuho’s influence pervades modern sumo, something for which Japan’s national sport should be very grateful.

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