Japan's sumo grand champions stamped and clapped under cloudy skies in a New Year ritual at a Tokyo shrine on Monday, as fans of the ancient sport wondered whether "bad boy" Yokozuna Asashoryu had really changed his ways.
Asashoryu returned to Japan in November from his native Mongolia offering bows and apologies after being banned from two tournaments for playing soccer back home when he had said he was too ill to wrestle.
The 27-year-old behemoth's behavior angered fans of a sport where ritual and respect for tradition are sometimes as important as who wins the brief bouts between nearly naked giants.
Wearing only their elaborate ornamental "mawashi" loincloths and the heavy belts of braided white rope that mark their status, Asashoryu and rival Hakuho, also from Mongolia, performed a ring-entering ritual, squatting, clapping and stamping in carefully choreographed moves.
The crowd saved their biggest oohs and aahs for the often controversial Asashoryu, calling his name and shouting as he lifted each massive leg and then brought it thundering down.
The 150 kg (330 lb) Asashoryu, whose real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, was promoted to sumo's highest rank of yokozuna in 2003 and has won 21 of the sport's major tournaments, the Emperor's Cups.
But his short temper and breaches of protocol have often landed him in trouble, although the severity of the punishment and flood of criticism last year prompted some to suspect a dash of xenophobia. Sumo has not had a Japanese yokozuna since 2003 when the popular Takanohana retired.
Some fans still doubt Asashoryu's apology last year was sincere.
"I don't have a very good impression," said Yasuaki Sakiyama, 71. "Maybe it's because he isn't Japanese. After all, this is Japan's national sport."
Others were more sympathetic. "I heard him say he really loves Japan, so I think if he tries hard from now on, that's fine," said 50-year-old Rutsuko Sawada.
Asashoryu, who has said he hopes to make a new start this year, will have a chance to prove himself in the first tournament of 2008 from January 13-27.
(Reporting by Takanori Isshiki; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Hugh Lawson)