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Thursday, Oct. 17, 2002

Ozeki Asashoryu a quick study

Staff writer

One of the most gut-wrenching experiences Asashoryu has had to bear in his 22-year life didn't happen anywhere close to the sumo ring. It had nothing to do with adjusting to the hierarchical life of a sumo beya either.

News photo

Listening to the humble-yet-ever-smiling Mongolian ozeki speak, one would never guess Japanese is his second language. But he says he's gone through rough times in Japan because of the language barrier.

And it will be a cat-and-mouse chase to see if the Takasago beya rikishi masters the Japanese language before he does the sport. Because, quite frankly, he's working his way up the sumo ladder at an awfully scary pace.

After becoming the fastest wrestler ever to reach the second-highest sumo rank, Asashoryu went 10-5 in his first basho as an ozeki in the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament. It only took him 22 basho since his January 1999 debut to climb to sumo's second-highest rank.

"Once I went to pick up the (Takasago) oyakata (stablemaster) at the airport and he introduced me to his wife," recalled Asashoryu at a recent media gathering in Tokyo. "He said, 'This is my okami.' I couldn't believe him because I thought he said 'ookami' (wolf). I later learned that in sumo, everyone refers to the oyakata's wife as an 'okami.'

"I also saw an interview videotape of myself when I was in high school. I was embarrassed to see myself speak. I thought I was watching a drunk.

"My toughest experience? . . . I guess coming to Japan with nothing as a 17-year-old and not knowing a word of Japanese. They can be smiling at you and at the same time saying bad things about you. That was tough. But I'm sure I'll have many more of those moments."

On the dohyo, Asashoryu, whose Mongolian name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, exhibits a mean streak on his tachi-ai (face off) and quickly attacks with a variety of weapons once he grabs his opponent.

Formerly a sumo wrestler in Mongolia, Asashoryu reacts instinctively to each situation. Of the 10 wins in the Autumn basho at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kogukikan, Asashoryu won with eight different techniques -- from uwatenage (upper-hand throw) to sotogake (a tripping of the opponent's outer foot), a trick more often seen in judo.

Standing 185 cm and weighing 137 kg, Asashoryu is somewhat smaller than the average wrestler. He said he was advised by his family, famous in his native land as an elite Mongolian wrestling clan, to practice twice as much as his peers to grab the upper edge.

"My family always told me the more I practice, the stronger I will be," said Asashoryu, whose father reached the sekiwake rank in Mongolian sumo.

One of Asashoryu's three brothers, Dolgorsuren Sumiyabazar, wrestled in two Olympics (2000 and 1996) for Mongolia.

"From my high school days, when I started sumo in Japan, I kept thinking how I can win my bouts."

According to a recent magazine article, it was those days at Meitoku Gakuin High School, in Kochi Prefecture, when Asashoryu was bullied for his grab-only Mongolian style of sumo. And after climbing to ozeki several years later, Asashoryu is taking revenge on his stable's younger "brothers."

The article accused Asashoryu for being a classless 22-year-old, using one of his "brothers" as the bull's eye for his hobby -- air guns.

Asked if the allegations were true, he said, "I didn't do it. None of the things written about me in that report are true.

"In high school, there wasn't any 'ijime' (bullying) either. . . . I'm 22 years old, so I guess I'm still a kid."

Watching compatriots Kyodozan and Kyokushuzan climb the ranks in Japan through the NHK telecasts in his native land, Asashoryu was inspired to follow the same path.

And although he wears a happy-go-lucky smile, Asashoryu is a fierce competitor, to say the least.

He hates to lose more than anyone -- and the national audience witnessed that up close.

After losing to yokozuna Takanohana despite controlling their bout on the 11th day of the Autumn tournament, Asashoryu walked back along the "hanamichi" (walkway to the dohyo) and three times, he cursed at himself -- loud enough for NHK to catch his words.

"It's a battle. It doesn't matter how close I was (to beating Takanohana), a loss is still a loss," he recalled. "My style of sumo is to shove the other guy out of the ring."

After winning eight straight at the latest tourney, Asashoryu seemed on course to take the next step toward promotion to yokozuna.

But he said he caught a slight fever and lost concentration, dropping four straight before he gathered himself to finish with double digits in the win column.

Of course, the next goal for the Mongolian is sumo's premier rank, yokozuna.

Asked if marriage -- which is somewhat of status symbol as one reaches the top rank -- was one of his next priorities, Asashoryu said there's too many lessons still to learn in the ring.

"I'm still 22 and there's many more basho ahead," he said. "I don't mind if it's a Mongolian or a Japanese woman. I like Japanese women. The two look very much alike (in facial structure).

"I can't say I love Japanese women," he smiled, "but I do like them a lot."

Let's wait and see how fast he masters this one.

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