Hakuho’s Retirement: The Best Ever?

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Recently Yokozuna Hakuho retired from sumo. The record books will tell us that he is probably the greatest ever. The introduction on Wikipedia provides the key points:

Hakuhō Shō (Japanese: 白鵬 翔, born 11 March 1985 as Mönkhbatyn Davaajargal is a retired professional sumo wrestler (rikishi) from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Making his debut in March 2001, he reached the top makuuchi division in May 2004. In May 2007, at the age of 22, he became the second native of Mongolia, and the fourth non-Japanese overall, to be promoted to the highest rank in sumo, yokozuna.

In 2009, he broke the record for the most wins in a calendar year, winning 86 out of 90 bouts, and repeated this feat with the same record again in 2010 when he established the second longest winning streak in sumo history. He also holds the record for the most undefeated tournament championships at sixteen, which is eight more than any other sumo wrestler in history.

He was the only active yokozuna from 2010, following the retirement of his rival and fellow Mongolian Asashōryū, until 2012 with the promotion of fellow Mongolian Harumafuji. In March 2021, he became the only active yokozuna once again following the retirement of his rival and fellow Mongolian Kakuryū until the promotion of fellow Mongolian Terunofuji 4 months later.

In January 2015, he broke Taihō’s long-standing record by winning his 33rd top division championship, the most in the history of sumo. He holds the records for most wins in the top division, achieved in May 2016, and most career wins, achieved in July 2017. He was the longest-serving yokozuna of all-time, having surpassed Haguroyama’s record in 2019, and fought his 1000th bout as a yokozuna in July 2020. He acquired Japanese citizenship in 2019.

Hakuhō retired from professional sumo at the end of September 2021, closing out a 20-year career in the sport. Sumo commentator John Gunning noted that Hakuhō left an unmatchable legacy, while a columnist for the Washington Post called him the “greatest figure in sports, maybe ever.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakuh%C5%8D_Sh%C5%8D

I was never a particular fan of Hakuho. I always found him too aggressive and un-Yokozuna like (I actually would prefer it if sumo would go back to history and get rid of the Yokozuna rank and give it as an honorary title for great Ozeki when they retire). But, there is no doubt he was an amazing rikishi.

Recently, NHK World did a documentary about Hakuko, The Pride of Yokozuna: Hakuho’s Lone Battle. This is currently available online (until December 2022) and I watched it with interest. I have to admit that the documentary did help to change my views on Hakuho a bit. I can now see that the particularly aggressive side of Hakuho coincided with when I started watching more sumo on NHK World again and came – as the documentary points out – when Hakuho was facing particular challenges. Some of those challenges would not happen if the Yokozuna rank didn’t exist & so it was easier for top rikishi to continue for longer careers. Having said that, the fact that Hakuho could sit out so many basho as Yokozuna probably allowed him to go for many more years that would have happened otherwise… but perhaps he wouldn’t have had the injuries & other issues had he not had the pressure to compete as Yokozuna.

I’m glad that I managed to see Hakuho at least once during my short trips to Japan (though I think he may have lost on the day that I took the following picture). I really don’t think we will see another riskishi who was so close to sumo perfection in many ways.

Looking forward, although I think it is likely that – barring injuries – Terunofuji will dominate this year, I expect sumo to continue the current exciting period. With so many more characters in sumo and many young new stars emerging (Wakatakakage is my favourite), I think we are in a golden period not seen (in my view) since the mid-80s through to the mid-90s.

For other posts related to sumo click this tag link or see the following posts as examples: Sumo – Asageiko and Reflecting on the Closure of the Azumazeki-Beya. Sumo also features in my novel FOUR and will be part of my study on Visual Packaging Culture.

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