February 18, 2005

UPSTART FROM ULAN:


He's Put Tradition on Its Ear
: Sumo wrestler Asashoryu isn't so big; he's not even Japanese. But in an ancient sport with a modern crisis, he's lord of the dohyo. (Bruce Wallace, February 18, 2005, LA Times)

At a mere 308 pounds, Asashoryu is not the biggest of the big-bellied men waddling around the dirt ring of this chilly sumo training stable, looking for someone to slam up against.

But he is definitely the baddest.

His opponents look like they were carved from mountains. But Asashoryu cuffs them in the ear and drops them to their knees. He drives his palm into their throats and they recoil. He picks them up by their belts and flings them, their legs flailing, out of the ring.

He toys with fellow wrestlers like a cat playing with a beach ball.

Asashoryu's cream-colored, almost unblemished body is now the sun around which Japan's national sport revolves. Just 24 and still a bit baby-faced, he has won six of the last seven major tournaments since 2003, dominating sumo the way Tiger Woods once did golf.

He is sumo's only reigning yokozuna, top-ranked in a sport that never has more than four yokozuna at a time, a wrestler many call the best Japan has seen in the postwar era.

And he isn't even Japanese.

Asashoryu's real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, and he is Mongolian. Born into a family of wrestlers in the Central Asian country's capital, Ulan Bator, he came to Japan after high school nearly eight years ago, a strong kid with a mean streak and dreams of sumo stardom. He adopted the name Asashoryu, which means Blue Dragon of the Morning, just as a wave of foreigners began shattering the cultural barrier that had long made sumo the most Japanese of sports.

The foreign invasion is revolutionizing sumo, a sport where massive men collide in a short explosion of violence that ends when one of them is thrown from the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body other than his feet. [...]

The Japanese have traditionally expected their yokozunas to show about as much emotion as a Noh theatrical mask — in other words, none. Champions are supposed to possess hinkaku: a sense of dignity and grace. 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.

And they point to a series of incidents that has led some sumo fans and officials to openly question whether Asashoryu should be stripped of his yokozuna status. (Yokozunas are never demoted. If their ability starts to fade, they are expected to retire.)

There was his notorious disqualification in 2003 from a match for pulling the top knot — the carefully combed and pinned hair — of fellow Mongolian Kyokushuzan. Three days later, Asashoryu and Kyokushuzan resumed their argument when they began brawling at a bathhouse where they had been soaking together.

Then police had to be called to Asashoryu's training stable last summer when neighbors reported hearing late-night drunken shouts and threats between the wrestler and his stable master — roughly the equivalent of Kobe Bryant taking it into the alley with Jerry Buss. Newspapers reported that fellow wrestlers had to hold Asashoryu back after the two men started scrapping over the division of spoils from the sale of media rights to the yokozuna's wedding.

Finally, Asashoryu's status as a foreigner received unwanted extra attention last fall when three of his Mongolian relatives who had come to Japan for his wedding stayed on afterward and found factory jobs without getting work permits. They were deported after being swept up in a police raid.

The Japanese press has feasted on such Asashoryu scandals. They nicknamed him "Genghis Khan" and "The Bully from Bator."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 18, 2005 7:46 AM
Comments

Do not be surprised if Japan bars foreigners from sumo, or at least keeps them from becoming yokozuna. In Japanese baseball, it is commonplace for opposing teams and even umpires to conspire to prevent foreigners from winning batting or home run titles.

There have been yokozuna from Polynesia before but they have a different more pleasant 'jolly fat guy' disposition that the Japanese don't mind. A Mongol mo-fo is a different bowl of ramen.

Posted by: Bart at February 18, 2005 8:41 AM

Finally, a sport for Orrin.

Posted by: Peter B at February 18, 2005 8:49 AM

Konishiki, the fattest and most famous wrestler, was from Hawaii, wasn't he?

It'd be sad to see sumo end up like WWF, or that even more ridiculous circus freak-show: modern professional heavyweight boxing.

Posted by: Brit at February 18, 2005 9:05 AM

Brit: I think there have been a couple of Hawiian/Samoan champions.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 18, 2005 11:00 AM

Brit,

Hawaii is part of Polynesia, I couldn't remember which islands they came from.

Posted by: Bart at February 18, 2005 11:49 AM

Talking of Polynesian sport (that old staple of dinner-table conversation), we Brits know all about the Samoans because, despite having a population of less than 200,000, they have a veritable production line of huge, top-class rugby players.

Most of the leading English rugby league teams have at least one Samoan monster in their ranks.

Posted by: Brit at February 18, 2005 12:00 PM

That's Western Samoa. The American Samoans play football at US colleges and in the NFL.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at February 18, 2005 9:48 PM

Extraordinary sporting over-achievement, only matched by those damned Aussies.

All in the genes, of course.

Posted by: Brit at February 19, 2005 5:37 AM

I remember in the bad old days of apartheid when the Springboks played the All-Blacks and got stomped. The joke was the Springboks lost cause they had no Maoris in the scrum.

I think the NFL is like 5% Polynesian.

Posted by: Bart at February 19, 2005 6:25 AM

I remember in the bad old days of apartheid when the Springboks played the All-Blacks and got stomped. The joke was the Springboks lost cause they had no Maoris in the scrum.

I think the NFL is like 5% Polynesian.

Posted by: Bart at February 19, 2005 6:25 AM

Another example of a reporter thinking that because something is new to him, it's new.

Hawaii has produced four top sumo wrestlers, the first way back in the '70s. Traditionalists don't like it, but, contra Bart, most fans do.

Getting him to endorse tourism to Maui was a big coup for the local visitors bureau, even 25 years after he had retired.

You might compare the attitude of the Japanese to American sumotori to the attitude of Americans to, say, Gary Player.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 21, 2005 6:32 PM

The "giant" that Bart was referring to was Akebono, about 6'9" and 500 pounds. He once played basketball at the Hawaii branch of BYU. He was a great yokozuna, but I always rooted for the smaller sumotori like Wakanohana (about 5'9 and 250 lbs). Wakanohana and his brother Takanohana both made yokozuna.

Konishiki was a very large Japanese wrestler. He was EXTREMELY FAT, had knee problems and never made it to yokozuna. But he was extremely popular.

Musashimaru was a Samoan who grew up in Hawaii. Nearly all muscle, not much extra fat, a handsome fellow even if he did only have one enormous eyebrow. He wrestled in Akebono's shadow for a couple years, but eventually reached the yokozuna rank.

Posted by: J Baustian at February 21, 2005 9:01 PM
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