Comparing the Great Ones: The Lasting Impact of Generational Athletes

Hakuho-Gretzky Final

Today marks one week since the end of the 2017 Kyushu basho, and while most of the post-tournament media has centered around the unfortunate retirement of Harumafuji, there are still several stories to be covered as we move on from Fukuoka. One such story is the milestone 40th yusho win by Yokozuna Hakuho Sho. In a post last week, Bruce summarized Hakuho’s decorated career by comparing him to several of the worlds most talented athletes. While all of these comparisons are accurate, when I explain the Dai-Yokozuna to my non-sumo friends and family, there is only one man whose achievements in his respective sport are equal to those of Hakuho: The Great One, Wayne Gretzky.

While sumo and hockey couldn’t be more different, there are striking similarities between the careers of Hakuho and Gretzky. For starters, both men began their professional careers in their late teens, with Hakuho having his maezumo tournament at 16, while Gretzky made his first WHA appearance at the age of 17. It took less than seven years for each of them to achieve the top prize in their respective sports, with Hakuho earning his first yusho six years after his debut and Gretzky winning The Stanley Cup in his fifth season. But the most comparable characteristic Hakuho and Gretzky share is the lasting impact they have had on their sports. As the most dominant athletes to ever compete in sumo and hockey respectively, Hakuho and Gretzky have accumulated an impressive array of achievements and accolades. While Gretzky holds the records for points, goals, and assists in hockey, sumo’s records for most yusho (40), zensho yusho (13), career wins (1064), and top division wins (970) belong to Hakuho. With such colossal records as these, and with no athlete past or present coming close to equaling them, the legacies of these two men may never be surpassed. As the Wayne Gretzky of sumo, Hakuho’s impact on Japan’s national sport will be felt for decades to come.

So what does this all mean to sumo fans moving forward? Well, as a hockey enthusiast, I’ve learned of several realities one must come to terms with when their favourite sport is dominated by generational athletes such as Hakuho and Gretzky.

1. Hakuho’s records will go unbroken for a very long time
The majority of Gretzky’s records were set in the 1980’s, and since then no player has come close to breaking them. They have stood for over 30 years, and sumo fans could see Hakuho’s records stand just as long, if not longer. Hakuho may be a once in a lifetime athlete, but a bit of luck also played a part in his success. He has remained relatively injury-free for much of his career and staying in fighting form for so long allowed him to set the bar to such a high degree. It will take another generational athlete with a similar set of circumstances to come close to rivaling Hakuho’s legacy.

2. Second is the new first
Since Gretzky’s time, there have been a select few who have made runs at his records. The only active player within sight of these lofty achievements is Jaromir Jagr, who despite playing well into his forties, still trails Gretzky by a staggering 937 points. Despite being the ultimate second fiddle, Jagr is considered one of the all-time greats of the sport. Much in the same vein, as Hakuho’s achievements rise further and further out of reach, many a Yokozuna’s career will be defined by how close they can get to his records. Sumo’s future legends will be those who can surpass Taiho’s 32 yusho mark, or Kaio’s 1047 career wins, and end their careers nearest to Hakuho.

3. Future greats of the sport will be compared to Hakuho
It is no secret that a changing of the guard is poised to take place in the world of Sumo. Many veterans will soon begin to leave the fighting to younger generations, and new stars will emerge to take their place. Much like every standout NHL rookie has been called the next Gretzky, sumo’s great rikishi of tomorrow will undoubtedly be compared to Hakuho at every milestone. Hakuho will be the measuring stick upon which every future Yokozuna will be judged, for better or for worse.

Love him or hate him, it is undeniable that Hakuho’s achievements will remain a part of sumo’s rich tapestry for years, if not decades, to come. He is The Great One of sumo, the Gretzky of rikishi, and the most dominant Yokozuna of all time. Hakuho has climbed to the top of the mountain, and it will take a hell of a man to knock him down.

24 thoughts on “Comparing the Great Ones: The Lasting Impact of Generational Athletes

  1. This may be a too simplistic comparison. Goalies are much, much better now than in the 70’s and early 80’s. Goalkeeping changed with Patrick Roy. Protection and pads got bigger. It is now very difficult to match Gretzky’s productivity now. Mario Lemieux was just as good as Gretzky but got Hodgkin’s at the prime of his career. Sumo rules haven’t changed much – but diet and medical technology has produced bigger, fitter, and stronger athletes. Rikishi now are in general bigger than in 70s and 80s except for the odd Konishiki and Akebono. In my opinion, the accomplishments of Yokozuna Hakuho are matched by those of another current athlete – Lionel Messi.

    • There are some very good points there, and while I don’t follow soccer, I’m sure Messi is another great comparison for the Boss. My main point was to shed some light on what the future of sumo will look like once Hakuho retires, and I found Gretzky’s lasting effect on hockey to be the best comparison to get is point across.

      Also, as a Canadian, using hockey to explain sumo to my Canuck friends and family tends to work pretty well!

      • Just that Messi never won a world cup and thus never stood at the ultimate pinnacle of his sport.

        • Hakuho doesn’t hold the most unbelievable records in sumo either. All 6 yushos in a single year? Nope. 69 consecutive wins? Nope. On the other hand, you can’t fault Messi for Higuain missing a golden goal in the world cup final. Messi is an individual dominating a team sport with 11 people. Hakuho on the other hand, merely has to take care of himself in an individual sport. It is easy to argue that Messi’s accomplishments are even greater than Hakuho’s.

          • Hakuho did manage to hold all six yusho titles simultaneously, I doubt he’s too fussed that it didn’t happen within the arbitrarily defined calendar year.

          • I struggle a bit with the Messi comparison simply because while Messi broke records – his career has overlapped with another singular talent in Cristiano Ronaldo.

            If you’re not a supporter of Barça or Real or Argentina or Portugal (or United I guess), it is easy to see how the careers of the two have been linked and intertwined from a very young age, and both have put up staggering, staggering numbers. Perhaps had Asashoryu not ended up retiring prematurely we might have had at least a more similarly long term rivalry.

            I quite like the Gretzky analogy. Sometimes the impact is not just in terms of the records and the numbers (which Hakuho and Gretzky have), but also cultural. Hakuho and Gretzky were the undisputed kings of their sport during their time (point taken on Lemieux, but he did get sick and that undoubtedly affected his influence from a cultural perspective), and for Hakuho it will be interesting to see how long he looms over the sport after he is gone.

    • I’m not sure that Messi is an apt example. There is, at the very least, a sizeable minority who would say that his contemporary Cristiano Ronaldo is the better player. On the other hand, I am from England where Ice Hockey is marginally less popular than tiddlywinks and even I know who “The Great One” is.

  2. You can compare any atheletes.
    But there is only one who achieved greatness with his butt cheeks hanging out for all to see.!!

  3. Another comparison is to consider that Gretzky has more assists,1963, than anyone else as points, 1921 (Jagr). Next in line is Messier with 1888 total points. Hakuho is only 78 wins from having more makuuchi wins than anyone else has total wins.

    He’s a truly remarkable athlete.

    Interestingly with his power, balance and speed I wonder if in another universe, he’s a Lemieux caliber hockey player…

      • Indeed. Elite athletes can compete in many different sports.

        What makes Hakuho so plausible for other sports like the NFL and NHL (and Rugby as well) is his height, power, balance and agility. Large men tend to be powerful but often lack agility and balance. Smaller men don’t usually have the power. It’s unusual to have a high level of all of those things.

  4. It’s tough to make a perfect analogy between a great player of an individual sport vs. a team sport. A better comparison might be with Serena Williams in tennis. To me the comparison is with Tiger Woods, except that Tiger is not what he was (on the other hand, Hakuho couldn’t last into his forties at this level, either!)

  5. Well, if we look into motor sports then another figure comes to mind: Michael Schumacher, of Formula 1 fame. Wikipedia lists his accomplishments as:

    Most World Championship titles, at 7, with Juan Manuel Fangio coming second with 5. Incidentally, the title is awarded once a year and so his total could translate to 42 yusho, almost the same as Hakuho’s current total;
    Most Grand Prix wins, at 91, with Lewis Hamilton coming second at 62;
    Most fastest laps, at 77, not far off double (!) of Kimi Raikkonen coming second at 45;
    Most races won in a single season, where at 13 he is joint 1st with Sebastian Vettel. He is also joint 3rd and joint 8th on the same list;
    Plus he features on a number of other top 10 Formula 1 records list. For example, if you ever find yourselves in a pub quiz, it may come handy to know that he has been in the lead of a race for a total distance of over 24,000 km.

    And apparently they called him “statistically the greatest driver the sport has ever seen” on official Formula 1 website, but the link is now dead.

    • I think this is a good comparison, since it is a non-team sport (well there’s the car support team, but only one person in the actual race) with a direct competition between individuals format like sumo. Also with a relatively strict rule set and similar progression in both driver physio training and technology over the years.

      Hopefully Hakuho will stay well away from the ski slopes in the future. Still makes me sad. :/

      • Oddly I am liking Asashoryu more now as I watch old basho videos to get some of that cheerful sumo feeling back. Makes sense since I enjoyed McEnroe as a kid, cause it felt like tennis judges were the most boring and arrogant officials ever.

        • I have began to like Asashoryu recently because his Twitter account is very entertaining. That volatile temperament continues strong, and together with horrible Japanese spelling it’s very endearing.

          “What’s with all the badmouthing?”
          “Just don’t follow me at all!”
          “Oh dang, I have 232K followers…”


          • His Twitter sounds like when Hideki Kamiya used to cuss out random people in English. :) Asashoryu posts some amusing stuff on FB as well. Too bad I know zero Mongolian, so his videos are a stream of “yep those are words” in cold looking environs.

            He’s going to wrestle people televised on New Year’s Eve for a cash prize? Wonder how that is going to go…

      • Yeah – i wasn’t happy with that comparison but it was late and I couldn’t think of an equivalent- still can’t! Guess he’s got a uniquely Hakuhoish temperament 😀


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