Newly retired yokozuna Hakuho and Miyagino stablemaster sat side by side at a news conference at Ryogoku Kokugikan on Friday, reflecting on two decades spent together in sumo.
Twenty years is a long time in Japan’s physically demanding national sport, but 6,000 kilometers away in Hawaii lives a retired high-school teacher whose links to both Miyagino and Hakuho stretch back significantly further.
John Jacques, 77, has led an adventurous life filled with escapades such as sneaking into the athlete’s village at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and spending several months living and training in Miyagino stable in the 1970s.
The New York native — then a coach at Kahuku High School, which has produced well over a dozen NFL players — took on that latter challenge despite already being 32 years old with a history of sports injuries and virtually no experience in sumo.
Legendary Hawaiian wrestler Takamiyama met Jacques at an amateur meet in Hawaii and — impressed with his attitude and background — invited Jacques to immerse himself in the sumo world and take what he learned back to the Aloha State.
“I said, ‘Not me, I’m not a wrestler. We have some really good sumotori in Hawaii,’” Jacques told Inside Sumo.
“But he said ‘you’ve got the right attitude, the college education, you work with kids, you coach football and wrestling. They want you because you bring more to the table.’
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll try that.’ I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.”
So, in the summer of 1976, while many of his countrymen were lost in Rocky Balboa-fueled daydreams of boxing success, Jacques was sweating and bleeding each morning in a sweltering dirt ring on the other side of the world.
One of his toughest opponents during that daily grind was a 16-year-old sandanme-division rikishi by the name of Chikubayama. Jacques remembers the young wrestler being small and light with a “ferocious high-speed tachiai.”
“He fought with amazing speed, balance and surprising moves,” Jacques said. “My chin would bleed each time we fought as he came in so low, fast and powerful.”
Chikubayama would eventually go on to make the top division. Years later, as a stablemaster, he would take a chance on a skinny teenager from Mongolia — a decision that turned out to be one of the most inspired in the history of sumo.
Eight years prior to his daily battles with Chikubayama, Jacques was in Mexico City’s Estadio Olimpico Universitario when Jigjidiin Monkhbat, father of that aforementioned skinny teenager (future yokozuna Hakuho), carried his country’s flag in the Summer Olympics opening ceremony while dressed in traditional Mongolian wrestling attire.
“A buddy and I bought a beat up old truck for $500, built some beds from two-by-fours in the back and drove it all across the United States and down to Mexico for the ’68 Olympics,” Jacques said.
Broke after the journey, the pair went to the Olympic Village to see if they could get in.
Noticing groups of athletes entering and leaving in training gear, Jacques and his friend went back to their truck, put on their tracksuits and — in that far more relaxed era — found themselves simply waved in and out over the next few days by security guards who assumed they were there to compete.
Once inside the village, Jacques was able to enjoy free food and socialize with famous athletes, even taking official transport to venues and diving off the platform with Italy’s three-time gold winner Klaus Dibiasi.
It wasn’t the first time Jacques had pulled such a stunt. As a young man he had said to his father, “I want to live the most crazy life. I want to try everything we’re not supposed to do. I want to break the rules.”
His first opportunity to do so came the night Bob Dylan got the Beatles high in New York. Hours before that legendary encounter, Jacques and two friends donned power company hard hats and jackets and bluffed their way backstage at Forest Hills, claiming there was “a problem up in deck four.” Chuckling at the memory, he added: “We didn’t even know if there was a deck four.”
Leaning into their roles, the self-described “college punks” moved the police in attendance back from wires strewn across the floor and enjoyed seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo from 10 feet away, before fans stormed the stage — forcing the band to make a dash for their helicopter.
Jacques’ fearless outlook eventually led him into the strange and unfamiliar world of sumo, but his background meant he wasn’t wholly unprepared for that experience.
As a student, he played nose guard and offensive tackle on the football team – positions that have significant skill overlap with sumo — while full-contact games without helmets or pads against local teams of miners and prison guards were good primers for the violence and brutality of the sumo ring.
Even so, having cigarettes put out on his bare skin while training was a new experience for Jacques in Japan. Despite ostensibly being in the stable just to acquire skills and knowledge he could pass on to others in Hawaii, the 32-year-old teacher got the full mercilessly ferocious treatment given to regular recruits.
Jacques persevered, however, and earned a rarely awarded sandan ranking from the Japan Sumo Association. Detailed information from pre-internet-era sumo is scattered and incomplete, but the Long Island native may well be the only foreigner ever to have received that honor from professional sumo’s governing body.
While Hawaii was on the cusp of producing a plethora of ōzumo rikishi including Konishiki and Akebono — the first foreigners to ever reach ozeki and yokozuna, respectively — in the early 1970s, four times more Americans had walked on the moon than had experienced pro sumo, allowing Jacques to immediately put his newly gained insights to good use.
The Hawaii that he returned to was a hotbed of the sport. At the time there were clubs all over the islands, a major annual championship and regular visits from Japanese college all-star teams.
Five decades later it’s a much smaller scene, but Kena Heffernan — one of Jacques’ proteges — keeps the fires burning, bringing a team of schoolkids to Japan each year to compete in the Hakuho Cup.
Jacques was also involved with the burgeoning international amateur sumo movement and competed in precursor tournaments to the World Championships.
A traffic accident in 2001 brought an end to the New Yorker’s career, and Jacques is almost wholly retired from the sport these days.
While sumo’s power center may have moved from Hawaii to Mongolia, all foreigners in the sport — Hakuho included — owe their involvement to the trailblazing efforts of men like John Jacques.
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