Meet Hakuho Sho, the greatest sportsman you’ve never heard of

BySachin Kalbag
May 14, 2018 12:07 PM IST

In the world of sumo wrestling, one man stands the tallest. And he is not known by many outside Japan. Meet Hakuho Sho, who takes the stage this Sunday in Tokyo

On the evening of July 21, 2017, a 6 ft 4 in, 156 kg man entered a clay-and-sand wrestling ring in Nagoya, Japan, hoping to make history. Facing him was a 6 ft 1.5 in, 182 kg man whose only wish for the bout was that he shouldn’t lose.

Hakuho Sho performs the ‘dohyo-iri’ ring purification ritual ahead of a bout in 2017.(The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Imag)
Hakuho Sho performs the ‘dohyo-iri’ ring purification ritual ahead of a bout in 2017.(The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Imag)

The former was Hakuho Sho, a Mongolian-born sumo wrestler, who, if he won that day, would cross 1047 career wins, making him the ‘winningest’ sumo wrestler in history. His opponent that day was Takayasu Akira, a half-Japanese half-Filipino rikishi (the Japanese word for sumo wrestlers) who had been promoted to ozeki, or champion – the second highest title in Sumo – only two months earlier.

At 31 degrees Celsius, it was a warm Friday by Japanese standards. But the full capacity crowd at the city’s Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium did not mind. They wanted to witness something memorable, be part of history.

A profusely sweating Hakuho entered the fighting arena to the audience’s roar.

Both fighters – wearing their customary deadpan expression – went to their respective corners and drank the chikaramizu, the power water, and wiped their mouths with the chikaragami, the power paper (a mandatory ritual in grand sumo competitions).

Then, they did the shubatsu, or a purification ritual in which salt is sprinkled on the dohyo, the revered sumo wrestling ring. Once inside, both men squatted, clapped their hands, showed each other empty palms to signify they are not carrying any weapon, rose, raised their right legs as high as they could and then stomped them as loudly as they could on the ring to drive away the evil spirits. They repeated this twice; the last time, when they were separated by inches by the shikiri-sen, the starting lines where sumo wrestlers crouch before the inevitable tachi-ai (the initial charge) when they lunge at each other with the strength of two lions in combat.

A few common Sumo terms
Sumo’s greatest charm is its strict adherence to millennia-old rules and terminology. The sport and the terms associated with it are as much a reflection of Japanese history and culture as they are of the exploits of some of the greatest sportspersons the country has produced.Sumo is a simple sport, and the objective is for wrestlers to make your opponent touch the ground with any part of the body apart from the feet, or force him out of the dohyo or ring. Here are some common sumo terms you should know in case you decide to watch it:
  • Banzuke: Ranking of sumo wrestlers before a tournament, just like a grand slam tennis tournament would release its seeds. The banzuke is written in exceptionally beautiful calligraphy and released 13 days before a tournament begins.
  • Maegashira, Komusubi, Sekiwake, Ozeki, Yokozuna: The five ranks of sumo’s top division called makuuchi. Yokozuna is the highest rank in the sport, and wrestlers with that honour are often among the most respected people in Japan.
  • Gyoji and Rikishi: A gyoji is a referee, while rikishi is the Japanese word for sumo wrestler. An alternative word for a top division rikishi is sumotori.
  • Shiko: A basic (but tough) sumo exercise where each leg in succession is lifted as high and straight as possible and then brought down on the ground with immense force. This is done to chase demons away from the ring. In training, rikishi are expected to do the shiko hundreds of times in a row.
  • Shikona: The ring name for a wrestler in the juryo (second) and makuuchi (top) divisions.
  • Shimpan: The ringside judges. There are five for each bout, and are called into play when there is a doubt with a gyoji’s ruling.
  • Kimarite: Winning techniques in a bout. There are 82 official kimarite. Though sumo is seemingly easy and simple, the complexities in the winning techniques are formidable and it takes years to master them. The most common kimarite are yorikiri, oshidashi, yoritaoshi, hatakikomi, uwatenage, and okuridashi.
  • Tachi-ai: The initial charge by the two wrestlers.
  • Mawashi: An elaborately-worn yet plain loincloth. Top-division wrestlers can wear silk mawashi during competition.
  • Kinboshi: A rare victory by a maegashira rank wrestler over a yokozuna. This results in a salary bonus that lasts until the rikishi retires.

Sumo is nothing if not a series of rituals devised close to 2000 years ago, and formalised for professional competition during the Edo period (1603-1868) in Japanese history.

The Big Fight

Once the gyoji or the referee gave the go-ahead, Hakuho and Takayasu charged with a force that could lay a regular person flat for hours. But Sumo wrestlers are trained their entire life to stand up to these attacks. The fight had begun. In the first two seconds, Hakuho moved to the right, momentarily disorienting Takayasu. The ozeki quickly regained his balance. Hakuho went straight for Takayasu’s chest and throat – a pushing-thrusting move that was a distinct change in tactics for the man who usually goes for the mawashi, or the ceremonial loin cloth worn by the rikishi, to defeat his opponents. Takayasu did not give up, and for a brief four seconds came up with a counter attack that made Hakuho lose his balance. But Hakuho’s hand-eye-leg coordination is supreme. He regained his balance faster than Takayasu did, and forced him to slip back. Hakuho saw a chance. He lunged again, using his left leg as a fulcrum and his right leg as a lever to move his torso in an elegant, yet forceful curve like an Olympic shot put thrower would, and pushed Takayasu over one last time. The ozeki fell in a heap on the clay-and-sand dohyo, where he stayed down for a few seconds, a defeated man. It had taken Hakuho exactly 18 seconds to effect one of the greatest moments in sumo history, and one that established him as the GOAT, or the Greatest of all Time.

Hakuho Sho (right) pushes Takayasu Akira to achieve his record 1,048th career win during the Grand Sumo Nagoya Tournament at Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium in Japan, on July 21, 2017. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Imag)
Hakuho Sho (right) pushes Takayasu Akira to achieve his record 1,048th career win during the Grand Sumo Nagoya Tournament at Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium in Japan, on July 21, 2017. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Imag)

Eighteen seconds is a long time in a sumo bout. Most fights don’t last more than a few seconds because of the sheer energy required to push a corpulent opponent out of the ring or throw him down. It is for this reason that sumo wrestlers tend to be large, even though more weight does not necessarily mean you are assured of victory.

Striking A Balance

Hakuho, for example, has maintained his weight between 154-156 kg for close to a decade, and is supremely fit. Ishiura Masakatsu, a lower-ranked wrestler in the top division, is a mere 116 kg, and uses his light weight to move around the ring like a hare.

A prevalent myth about sumo wrestlers is that they are unfit because they are obese. This is not the case. Sumo wrestlers have more or less the same amount of body fat as a common European or Asian male, even when their body mass index tends to be closer to 40, categorised by doctors as “morbidly obese”. The reason for average body fat content in sumo wrestlers is their extreme exercise regimen. Much of a sumo wrestler’s body fat is stored right under the skin (subcutaneous fat), unlike ours, which is stored at the centre, around the stomach, torso, hips and the back (visceral fat). Sumo wrestlers lose almost all of their body fat during a day’s exercise, only to regain it by overeating (they consume more than 10,000 calories every day) and sleeping immediately after a meal. The cycle continues until they retire, when they change their diet to return to normal weight. Depending on how dedicated and fit you are, a sumo wrestler can fight competitively for even two decades. Takekaze Akira, for instance, is 38, and has been fighting professionally since 2002 and as an amateur before that.

Hakuho, 33, is a master of maintaining the delicate balance between weight gain and flexibility. Most sumo wrestlers can even do the horizontal leg split, despite their bulk because they are taught to do the shiko, an exercise in which you lift your legs sideways as high and straight as possible. A rikishi is expected to do the shiko close to 400 times a day. Try it.

Of late, though, Hakuho has got injured around his toes, and has missed a few tournaments in the last 18 months. Today, May 13, Hakuho returns to the Ryoguku Kokugikan, Japan’s premier sumo stadium in Tokyo, to challenge 41 other rikishi and win his 41st yusho (championship title), another unprecedented record. A honbasho (grand sumo tournament) is held every two months from January to November, and begins on the second Sunday. Hakuho, a yokozuna or a grand champion, has almost every conceivable sumo record to his name: most top division championships (40 so far), most undefeated championships (13), most consecutive championships (7), most career wins (1066 and counting), most top division wins (972 until May 12, 2018), most wins in a calendar year out of a total of 90 (86, twice), most tournaments as yokozuna (64 and counting). The only major record he does not hold is that of the longest winning streak. Sumo legend Futabayama Sadaji, who became a yokozuna in 1937, won 69 matches in a row between 1936 and 1939. Hakuho came close with 63 – all in one year – but has been unable to (so far) overtake Futabayama’s achievement. He is tied with Tanikaze Kajinosuke, though, who was sumo’s fourth yokozuna in the late 18th century.

More than anything else, though, he is feared. His contemporaries prepare for weeks to face him, and his sheer presence in the ring has lesser wrestlers show nerves. Sumo wrestlers hardly show any emotion, but the next time you watch a Hakuho bout, take a look at his opponent’s eyes. He has been doing this since 2007, when he was promoted to yokozuna, the greatest honour a sumo wrestler can aim for. In the 2000-year history of the sport, there have been only 72 yokozuna. Hakuho was the 69th.

His exploits in the ring are as significant as those of tennis great Roger Federer, sprinter Usain Bolt, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher, swimming legend Michael Phelps, footballers Pele and Diego Maradona, boxer Muhammad Ali, basketball superstar Michael Jordan… well, you get the drift. In Japan, Mongolia, and across the sumo-loving world, Hakuho is the greatest there was, there is, and there will be. In India, though, where sumo is hardly watched, Hakuho is almost unknown; he is the greatest sportsperson you have never heard of.

“It’s not easy to become a yokozuna,” says Jason Harris, a Japan-based American fan of sumo who runs a YouTube channel dedicated to the sport. “Harder still to stay being one year after year and perform well consistently when everyone is gunning for you. So it takes incredible will – the desire to be the best and then keep being the best... when you are a yokozuna, it’s about leading by example - upholding the dignity and pride of being the best and setting the example for all the other wrestlers around you.”

A top division wrestler has to fight a maximum of 90 bouts in a year – that’s one every four days, on average. The grind is relentless. Grand sumo tournaments are held six times a year, each lasting 15 days. In between these events, a wrestler is expected to participate in the jungyo, or a series of travelling exhibition matches often treated as training opportunities before the main tournament. Top division wrestlers are also expected to do fund-raising tours for their stables or heyas, appear on television, and take part in any event ordered by their stable master or oyakata. And then, there’s the daily training which begins at 5 am.

Washington, DC-based Andy Martin, who, along with several other contributors, runs, a popular English-language blog on sumo says of the yokozuna, “(Hakuho’s great qualities are) Skill, consistency and (above all) durability. For about eight years straight, he was never injured. Recently he’s started to get some issues with his toes but he has been reliably dominant for so long. He goes beyond yokozuna status to “Dai-Yokozuna”, truly a great Yokozuna, if not THE greatest.”

A Legend Is Born

Hakuho isn’t his real name, though; it is only his wrestling name or a shikona. His birth name is Mönkhbatyn Davaajargal, and he was born to a famous father in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. Jigjidiin Mönkhbat is a wrestling legend in Mongolia, and the country’s first Olympic medal winner (he won a silver at the 1968 Games). He was the Mongolian equivalent of yokozuna, and held the title of Darkhan Avarga, or Invincible Champion. When Mönkhbat died in April this year, Hakuho went to Mongolia for the funeral where his father was given state honours. It was nationally televised, and wrestling fans across the country were in mourning.

Though his father wanted him to pursue basketball, Hakuho wanted to go to Japan and become a sumo wrestler. At 15, his father sent him to the land of the rising sun on the invitation of Davaagiin Batbaya, another Mongolian wrestling legend who pioneered his country’s foray into sumo. But bad news awaited Hakuho in Japan; he was way too light, the stablemasters told him. He weighed just 62 kg. It was only when Kyokushuzan (Batbaya’s sumo name) intervened and wrote to a stable master that he was inducted into the Miyagino stable (one of the 50-odd heyas or residential sumo schools), where he has remained since December 2000. At the heya, Davaajargal was given the shikona Hakuho, meaning The White Peng (a Chinese mythological bird). Such was Hakuho’s determination that it took him just three months to make his professional debut at the Osaka honbasho, held every March. Though he started out as a trainee whose primary responsibility was to cook food for others and clean the rooms, in just three years, he reached Makuuchi, sumo’s top division and defeated yokozuna Asashoryu, the first Mongolian-born yokozuna and another all-time great (see box). Three years later, he became a yokozuna – the 69th – defeating Asashoryu several times along the way. The baton had passed.

On The Decline

There have been only three more yokozuna since Hakuho became one, and two of them were Mongolian – Harumafuji Kohei was anointed in 2012 and Kakuryu Rikisaburo in 2014. Both Asashoryu and Harumafuji had to retire on account of their involvement in two separate physical assault incidents.

When Kisenosato Yutaka, a Japanese national, became the sport’s 72nd yokozuna in January 2017, there was both a sigh of relief among the Japanese, and also celebrations. Several rikishi in the current Makuuchi division are non-Japanese, with fighters from Bulgaria, China, Mongolia, Georgia and Brazil dominating proceedings. Osunaarashi, a wrestler from Egypt, retired recently. Baruto, who reached the ozeki rank in 2010, is Estonian.

The truth is, sumo does not hold the same respect it used to in the past, thanks mainly to a 2011 match-fixing scandal that traumatised the entire nation. Twenty-three sumo wrestlers were held guilty of match fixing and expelled. The March tournament that year was cancelled, the first time since 1946 when a stadium could not be rebuilt in time after World War II. There is also rigidity in the adherence to rules dating back thousands of years.

The Sport That Marked The Origin Of Japan
There is no definite timeline to the origin of sumo wrestling, but legend has it that it dates back to the beginning of Japan itself. According to Kojiki, Japan’s oldest existing chronicle on ancient myths, the first sumo bout was between the deities Takemikatzuchi and Takeminakata. In his scholarly paper on sumo, Icelandic researcher Prof SM Sigurbjörnsdóttir says Takemikatsuchi was sent by the gods above to get the loyalty of Ōkuninushi and his sons. Takeminakata was one of them. "He challenged Takemikatzuchi to a trial of strength, a sumo bout, where Takemikatzuchi won. The outcome of this sumo bout is said to have marked the origin of the Japanese race, its supremacy in the islands of Japan was established with this victory," says Sigurbjörnsdóttir.

Since then, sumo has dominated Japanese culture, and became its national sport in early 20th century. There are other myths about sumo’s origin, but it was not until the 8th century AD that it took the form we see today. At the time, it was seen mostly as a martial art, and Samurai warriors were often the proponents of the sport. Interestingly, the Japanese martial art of jujutsu is said to have originated from sumo.

Professional sumo, as we see today, was formalised only during the Edo period (1603-1868) when the royals and the nobles began to patronise the sport and wrestlers started receiving payment for their effort. Many of sumo’s exquisite and elaborate rituals, practised even today, originated during this time.

Sumo wrestlers always had a special status in Japanese culture, and those with the title of yokozuna (grand champion) – the highest rank in the sport – become superstars, just like record-breaking cricketers in India. The Emperor’s Cup, for which the six honbasho (grand tournaments) are organised every year, is easily the most coveted sporting prize in Japan.

Since the mid-1980s, though, sumo began dwindling in popularity, and football and baseball began to rise as spectator sports. The 2011 sumo match-fixing scandal, which traumatised Japan and led to the sacking of dozens of wrestlers, is something that the country is yet to fully recover from. However, for last four or five years, the sport has seen a revival – both in stadium attendance and television ratings. This revival has coincided with the rise of yokozuna Hakuho Sho, considered to be the greatest sumo wrestler of all time, and who is still playing.

For instance, in a recent minor tournament, the male mayor of a city collapsed while on the dohyo. A group of female paramedics rushed to help him, only to be scolded by the referee to get off the ring. Women are not allowed in the sacred wrestling ring, and the gyoji’s reaction generated an international furore, leading the sumo association to apologise. Despite the seemingly anachronistic rules, both the association and its fans are unwilling to change.

Says Moti Dichne, an Israel-based fan who runs the popular Kintamayama sumo channel on YouTube, “I am a purist and against any change. These are not rules. That is the main thing that foreign fans and media are missing. They are tradition. It’s a big difference, and it is difficult to explain. That said, if the Kyokai (the association) decides to change the traditions, I would agree to anything they do. We are spectators, not part of the machine.”

In between the scandals and a drop in popularity (Japanese youth are taking to baseball, tennis, rugby, and football and ignoring sumo mostly due to its relentless rigour), Hakuho seems to be waging a lone battle to bring sumo to the top of Japanese consciousness. He has even announced that he will take up Japanese citizenship once he retires so that he can become an Oyakata – a sumo elder who can also run a stable.

Today, when he returns to the ring after a brief injury-led hiatus, Japan – and the universe of sumo fans – will look forward to another championship victory. It will likely rekindle the Japanese passion for the sport. Hakuho knows he owes it to himself, his fans, and his adoptive country. But more than anything – and he knows this too – he owes it to posterity.

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