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October 10, 2021

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The ‘rikishi’ who shattered sumo’s records

Mongolian Hakuho’s retirement from sumo wrestling ends a career in which he shattered just about every record in the storied Japanese sport, which has gripped his imagination since childhood.

During his two decades on the dohyo — the ring where sumo wrestlers battle — the 36-year-old broke records for everything from number of grand tournaments won to victories in a single year.

He racked up 1,187 career wins, though one record did elude him: His 63 consecutive tournament victories are just short of the record of 69 set in the 1930s.

Born Munkhbat Davaajargal, Hakuho was the son of a champion Mongolian wrestler who won his country’s first Olympic medal in 1968.

The young Hakuho’s father wanted his son to become a judoka, but his interests were elsewhere.

As a youngster, he devoured Japanese sumo magazines, dreaming of becoming like the powerful rikishi (sumo wrestlers) he saw on their pages.

At the age of 15, weighing a paltry 62 kilograms, he arrived in Japan in 2000 to follow in the footsteps of his idols.

But he was turned away by most stables, known as heya. No one wanted someone “as pale and skinny as me,” he recalled in his autobiography published in 2015.

Just as he was on the verge of returning to Mongolia, he managed to persuade a trainer to take him on, and in March of 2001 he entered the dohyo for the first time.

His trainer gave him the name “Hakuho,” the second character of which refers to a bird in Chinese mythology, and was part of the name of legendary sumo wrestler Taiho, who dominated the sport in the 1960s.

Hakuho plunged into the world of keiko, the daily morning training sessions of sumo wrestlers. And, fortified by the traditional chanko stew of the sport, he gradually began to assume the form of a traditional wrestler.

In time, he weighed in at 158 kilograms while standing 1.92 meters tall, and was elevated in 2007 to sumo’s top rank of yokozuna.

Training the next generation

For years, he had a fierce rivalry with his fellow Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu, and the pair dominated the sport for around a decade.

Asashoryu’s retirement in 2010 left Hakuho alone at the pinnacle of sumo, and in January of 2015 he won his 33rd tournament and claimed the record for most successful champion, held previously by Taiho.

But his domination wasn’t to everyone’s liking, with some sumo fans and members of the sport’s governing body complaining about his bravado on the dohyo and triumphant gestures.

In late 2017, he was shouted at after he contested the result of a match — an almost unthinkable move in a sport where fighters are supposed to show no emotion, much less protest a decision.

“It’s clear that he has not understood anything about the spirit of Japanese sumo,” declared former sumo wrestler turned commentator Mainoumi.

With little left to prove and having accumulated injuries, Hakuho was seen less in the dohyo in recent years, missing several tournaments and being chastised for doing so.

He was left alone in the yokozuna class after the retirement in March of Kakuryu, and appears to have timed his departure from the sport with the arrival of new blood.

In July, fellow Mongolian Terunofuji was elevated to yokozuna — “a new rival,” Hakuho declared.

The legendary wrestler’s future will involve training the next generation, and he became a Japanese citizen in 2019 — a requirement to run his own stable.

He is already involved in scouting and training new talent through the Hakuho Cup, a tournament founded in 2011 that brings Japanese and foreign children together to wrestle in front of the sport’s greats.

Several of the young wrestlers he has taken under his wing have already become rikishi at high levels.




 

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