Mongolian Hakuho tied sumo legend Taiho’s record of 32 Emperor’s Cup wins on Sunday to send shockwaves through Japan’s ancient sport.
The 29-year-old grand champion matched the haul of the man widely regarded as the greatest “yokozuna” of the post-war era by bulldozing his way into the history books at the Kyushu tournament.
Hakuho blasted out countryman Kakuryu to reach a landmark likely to trigger renewed soul-searching among sumo traditionalists following an influx of foreign wrestlers dating back to the early 1990s.
“There are no words to describe how I feel,” Hakuho told Japan’s NHK Television. “I’ve achieved this record because the spirit of Japan and the sumo gods have accepted me.”
Taiho, born on the far northern island of Sakhalin to a Japanese mother and an ethnic Ukrainian father who had fled the Bolshevik revolution, won his 32 tournaments between 1960 and 1971.
Hakuho, born Munkhbat Davaajargal, has earned praise from officials and local media for helping restore dignity to sumo following a series of scandals that have tarnished the reputation of the roly-poly sport, said to date back some 2,000 years.
Accusations of illegal betting and links with crime syndicates, drugs busts and the bullying death of a young wrestler have rocked the closeted world of sumo in recent years.
A flood of hulking wrestlers arriving from Hawaii and the Pacific islands to Eastern Europe and North Africa has also caused much hand-wringing among sumo officials as it struggles to match the glamour of baseball and football in appealing to young Japanese.
But Hakuho has dealt remarkably well with the pressure, exacerbated by the antics of fellow Mongolian Asashoryu — sumo’s pantomime villain — who won 25 Emperor’s Cups before retiring in 2010 after being accused of breaking a man’s nose in a drunken brawl outside a Tokyo nightclub.
Asashoryu infamously provoked a bathtub brawl with a rival and was banned for forging a doctor’s note for a back injury, only to be caught on camera playing football in a Wayne Rooney shirt, testing the patience of sumo’s inner sanctum to the limit with his breaches of protocol.
Hakuho, however, has been careful not to ruffle feathers, eschewing Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses in favour of the traditional kimono, mindful of the decorum expected of a yokozuna in a sport retaining many Shinto religions overtones.
“Fifteen years ago I was a skinny kid weighing just 62 kilos,” said Hakuho. “Nobody imagined I would come this far. But I won’t rest on my laurels, I will keep striving to improve.”