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Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Hakuho wrestles his way into the history books
By MARK BUCKTON
Special to The Japan Times Online
The 2007 Natsu Basho is over, and it will only ever be remembered for one thing: the 15-0 unbeaten zensho yusho winning record of Mongolian ozeki Hakuho that etched his name forever in the annals of Japanese sporting and cultural history.
On Wednesday, Miyagino Beya, which is in the Midori area of Sumida Ward, Tokyo, just to the east of sumo's Ryogoku heartland, will receive a handful of expected and warmly welcomed visitors representing the the Japan Sumo Association.
Upon entering they will likely be met by the current Miyagino oyakata (Kanechika), the former Miyagino oyakata (Chikubayama — the man responsible for keeping Hakuho in Japan when no one else wanted him), and a young Mongolian born Munkhbat Davaajargal deemed of sound enough mind and body to be promoted to the pinnacle of sumo — the rank of yokozuna.
When promoted, Hakuho will be the first new yokozuna since early 2003 and the fourth foreign yokozuna, following similar promotions bestowed upon fellow Mongolian Asashoryu (active) and the now retired American duo of Musashimaru and Akebono.
Hakuho will be just the 69th man in the history of the national sport of Japan to hold this coveted post. In my own humble opinion, he deserves the rank far more than any of his non-Japanese predecessors in their own "waiting for the knock on the door" days.
Not only has he secured promotion at a younger age (at 22 years, two months) than all of his foreign peers, he is the third youngest yokozuna of all time. The current Rijicho, Kitanoumi (the 55th yokozuna), having been promoted at the tender age of 21 years two months in 1974 and the legendary Taiho (48th yokozuna) reaching the top aged 21 years 3 months in 1961, but he is the first ever from overseas to do so by going unbeaten when it mattered most, by recording a 15-0 record in his promotion clinching second consecutive Emperor's Cup — the last time this happened with the now retired Japanese great, Takanohana in 1994. For the record, neither Kitanoumi nor Taiho even came close.
Finally, on the Hakuho issue, the yokozuna elect announced publicly on Sunday that he will be performing the supposedly cursed Shiranui version of the ring-entering ceremony, following similar usage by an earlier Miyagino Beya great. For many traditionalists, yokozuna using the Shiranui version are often thought doomed to some degree, as premature departures from the sport or less than stellar achievements have been the norm. But it's time for norms to change!
Beyond the crowning of sumo's newest royalty, a few other noteworthy events did actually take place over the past fortnight or so, like the double-digit wins of various sekitori deemed "elevator rikishi" by longer-term fans.
In the senior-most makunouchi division, a huge gap was left by the pre-tourney retirement announcement of ozeki Tochiazuma, the last Japanese to win a title in January of 2006. The latest Japanese wonder boy, Tochiozan, was derailed with a poor 6-9, having come too far too quickly following an 11-4 record last time out. Also, Kisenosato and Homasho both suffered similarly demoralizing makekoshi losing records — 6-9 and 5-10 respectively.
Mongolian Kakuryu, a relative newbie to the senior division, looks like he might already have peaked at maegashira 5 where he did well just to win 6. His elder and better stablemate from Sadogatake Beya man, Kotomitsuki, up at sekiwake, could be on an ozeki run at long long last after a fine 12-3. Russian maegashira 9 Roho threatened to muddy the name of the foreign rikishi again by reacting badly to an opening-day defeat at the hands of Miyabiyama and verbally insulting the gyoji. He eventually calmed down, though, and went 10-5.
In the second juryo division, Estonian Baruto put together an easy 14-1 record as part of his R&R, following demotion from the top flight as a result of absence through injury in March. Teenager Wakanoho, another Russian, put in an impressive 10-5 (albeit with a few too many pulling moves), and old-timer Kaiho, a former komusubi floundering in the second division of late, won 9, lost 6 and could be back in makunouchi next basho.
Makushita was much of a muchness, with several stars of the future shining brightly in the early bouts. However, only the Japanese lads Sakaizawa (5-2 at makushita 1) and Wakakirin (7-0 at makushita 3 and division champion) really put together winning records of note. Both are guaranteed juryo promotion come July.
Sokokurai of China, Yamamotoyama of Saitama Prefecture and Terashita of Ishikawa Prefecture claimed the remaining sandanme, jonidan and jonokuchi divisions. They were all unbeaten at 7-0. Impressive indeed, but a note of special recognition must go to jonidan 87 Ichinoya of Takasago Beya. At the age of 46, he's been called "the world's oldest active rikishi" by one of his more prominent fans. He lost his first three bouts but bounced back to claim a fantastic 4-3 winning record.
It won't last forever but until he does finally does hang up the mawashi, keep your eye on this grand old man of sumo, who's more than twice the age of the 69th yokozuna Hakuho. He is a shining example to all of what can be achieved if you put your heart and backbone into things.