In the late 1990s the Japanese Sumo Association became alarmed about a drop in interest in the sport.
The problem was twofold: Attendance at sumo tournaments was down. And a lot fewer Japanese were entering the sport, in large part because of its grueling training regimen.
One of the strategies the association developed to address the problem was recruiting wrestlers from overseas.
It thought that by scouring the world it could find enough talent to make up for the lack of Japanese newcomers. And it reasoned that the exoticness of foreign wrestlers might be the lure the sport needed to put more fans in the seats.
One of the foreigners who came to Japan with a dream of being a sumo champion was Dolgorsuren Dagvadori, who hailed from a wrestling family in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
Dagvadori, whom the Japanese would give the sumo name of Akinori Asashoryu, would become one of the most outstanding wrestlers in the sport’s modern history – and one of the most controversial.
Now he’s come to Kazakhstan to try to drum up interest in the sport.
I became a sumo fan during my nine years as a journalist in Japan, and I’d love to see young Kazakhs take up the 2,000-year-old sport. Given Kazakhstan’s strength in boxing, wrestling and martial arts, I’m sure the country could produce sumo champs as well.
But Kazakhs who are interested in trying sumo need to know that the sport is about more than strength, agility, technique and fighting spirit.
More than perhaps any sport, it’s also about decorum: upholding tradition and being well-mannered and uncontroversial in the ring and out.
Novice fans may view as ridiculous the notion that the combatants in a sport as fierce as sumo must be well-mannered during the competition – but that’s what the sumo world expects.
Asashoryu found this out the hard way. He was forced to resign from sumo at the peak of his career at the age of 30 for breaking a man’s nose in a brawl outside a bar in Tokyo. It was the last straw for the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, which oversees the affairs of sumo grand champions, or yokozuma, like Asashoryu.
Asashoryu had upset the decorum of the sport by getting into a number of scrapes over the years – but the nightclub fight was too outrageous and too well publicized for the association to ignore.
I hope Asashoryu teaches not only sumo’s skills to young Kazakhs interested in the sport, but also the traditions and decorum they’ll need to succeed on Japan’s challenging tournament tour.
Asashoryu came to Almaty late last month at the invitation of Dauren Mussa, head of the martial-arts promotion organization known as the Bes Qaru – or Five Sports – Association.
The two dropped by Mayor Akhmetzhan Yessimov’s office to say that the sumo champ was willing to help Kazakhstan develop the sport.
The mayor was all for it.
“Supporting and promoting sports is one of our priorities,” said Yessimov, who knows Almaty stands a good chance of winning the Winter Olympics in 2022. “We’re interested in creating various training opportunities in our city, including those in sumo wrestling.”
Asashoryu’s stature would be certain to prompt many young Kazakhs with wrestling or martial-arts backgrounds to try sumo.
He won 25 top-division sumo tournaments, the fourth-best record in the history of the sport.
He had a shot at being atop the rankings if he hadn’t been forced to retire. The Emperor’s Cup leaders ahead of him are Taiho, with 32 titles; Chiyonofuji with 31; and Hakuho, another Mongolian wrestler, with 28.
Although Hakuho is still competing, Taiho has passed away and Chiyonofuji is retired – so their records were certainly within Asashoryu’s reach.
Almost from the start of his career in 1999, Asashoryu’s conduct made many in sumo’s inner circle want to pull their top knots out.
Sumo champions “are supposed to possess hinkaku: a sense of dignity and grace,” the Los Angeles Times’ Bruce Wallace explained in 2008. “That is why there is much muttering about Asashoryu's very un-Japanese exuberance in the ring and his tendency to get into trouble outside it.
“The purists don't take kindly to his fist-pumping victory celebrations, or the way he glares at referees, or how he ends fights with an extra shove for emphasis to opponents already out of the ring. They resent that he uses his left hand instead of the traditional right when he throws salt into the dohyo, the ring, for the ritualized purification before a fight.”
Sumo fans reacted in horror when Asashoryu pulled the top knot of his Mongolian rival Kyokushuzan during a match in 2003. So did the referee, immediately disqualifying Asashoryu.
Asashoryu was angry about a referee giving Kyokushuzan a victory in their previous match, which Asashoryu felt he had won.
“Asashoryu disputed the decision with everyone in sight, glaring down a shimpan (judge) and the gyoji (referees) before squaring up to Kyokushuzan, clunking shoulders and aggressively removing his sagari in disgust,” Chris Guild of Sumo Fan magazine reported in 2010. Sagari are the strings used to hold a wrestler’s belt in place.
The bad blood between the two Mongolians resurfaced three days after the top-knot incident when they fought at a bathhouse where they’d been soaking.
In 2004 Asashoryu got into a near-brawl with his stable master, Uragoro Takasago, over how to divide the money from television rights to Asashoryu’s upcoming wedding.
A longstanding sumo tradition is for wrestlers to give a good chunk of the money they earn in promotions to their stable masters. Since sumo champs are as big a celebrities as movie stars in Japan, the TV rights to Asashoryu’s wedding were worth millions.
Other wrestlers had to hold Asashoryu and Takasago apart during the drunken row, which was so loud that neighbors living near the training facility called police.
Then, in 2007, came the infamous injury-faking scandal.
Sumo is a brutal sport that leaves most wrestlers with a legacy of injuries, and Asashoryu came out of a tournament in May of that year with what doctors diagnosed as a painful elbow injury and a strained back.
The prescription was several weeks of rest, which would prevent him from taking part in the grueling summer sumo exhibition season. Asashoryu decided to do the recuperation back home in Mongolia.
Unfortunately for him, both the Mongolian government and the Japanese Foreign Ministry asked him to take part in a charity soccer match in Ulan Bator with the Japanese star Hidetoshi Nakata.
When video surfaced of Asashoryu running on the soccer field, sumo officials, fans and Japanese journalists pounced, claiming he’d faked his injuries to avoid the summer sumo tour.
The reaction was so vociferous that Asashoryu stopped eating and went into depression.
He later apologized to fans and the Japanese public, but Nakata insisted that Asashoryu was injured.
The elbow injury was so severe that Asashoryu grimaced in pain “as he reached for his plates over dinner,” the soccer ace said.
As for the back injury, Nakata said “it’s hard to imagine that a person who was active enough to just win a yusho (sumo tournament)” would be unable to run around a soccer field.
Many sumo officials, fans and especially journalists were convinced Asashoryu had faked his sumo injuries, though.
The Yokozuna Deliberation Council came very close to throwing him out of sumo. The fact that he was Japan’s only grand champion at the time was certainly a major factor in his being spared.
When Asashoryu punched the guy outside the nightclub three years later, however, there was no saving him – even though the victim refused to press charges.
I’m relating Asashoryu’s trials as a foreign sumo star in Japan not to drag his name through the mud again but to let any Kazakhstan sumo hopefuls know there’s more to becoming a star of the sport than physical prowess.
Decorum really counts.
I’d love to see Asashoryu teaching young Kazakhs how to become sumo stars.
I hope that if he does teach them, he tells them about the mistakes he made that cost him so dearly. Those lessons might help a Kazakh with the talent to become a yokozuna avoid some of the self-inflicted wounds that the champ endured.