End of an Era: Hakuho to Retire

This is commentary by Andy. The opinions expressed here are mine, and mine alone. Early this afternoon, while I was toying around with the kensho data Herouth shared, this tweet came across my timeline:

I had thought I would have a few more months to prepare for this. Even with the knee injury, he had just won a zensho-yusho. How can we have a transition era if the heir apparent, or any of the up-and-coming generation of wrestlers, cannot defeat him?

Surely he’d show up in Kyushu and, with the benefit of an extra month’s rest, come back and tear things up again, right? But maybe this had been put in motion before the tournament. It gives a little different context to Mainoumi’s suggestion of much the same thing. He may not have known, but others knew. There would be no coming back.

So, as the decade of the 2020s is prone to do, plans get scuppered. I mean, he was supposed to retire months ago, after a glorious Olympic Games. Then COVID threw those plans out the window. He even got COVID and his senpai died of it days before he returned to the ring in July. Then, this past month, his deshi got it, and after another positive test in the stable, the whole group was forced to go kyujo. Add to that the fact that his knees are working on their own timeline, and well, the Boss has decided to hang up his mawashi.

And who can blame him? He comes back and takes an historic 45th yusho, surely with the memory of Kobo on his mind, and when he shouted in celebration he was widely criticized. At this point, I figure he’s just grown weary of the controversies. I mean the “Banzai” controversy was inexplicable. But my favorite was the Harumafuji henka controversy.

Key Questions

Anyway, what’s next? We will surely find out in the coming days and report as the details come out. We know he will become an oyakata and run his own stable. Will it be Miyagino after his stable master retires? As @NaturalEG pointed out to me on Twitter, he owns a separate Magaki kabu. He’s also got the right to use the Hakuho name for five years. Regardless of the name above the door we know he already has a solid crop of recruits ready to tear things up in November, including the new recruit, Raiho.

And what of the Kyushu banzuke? The timing of his retirement — before the banzuke committee meeting to create it — likely means there’s an extra slot in Makuuchi, and therefore an extra slot in Juryo. As Leonid predicts, Kotoyusho might have reason to celebrate.

Squint and you can almost tell there are four former Yokozuna (counting Hakuho) and one current Yokozuna (not Hakuho) on that dohyo.

When will he have his danpatsushiki (haircut ceremony)? There’s quite the logjam of long-haired retirees and the greatest Yokozuna will want to retire in front of a full Kokugikan. Maybe the extra time will give him a chance to do a bit of PR and shift his reputation from the bad-boy of his active days to great coach and recruiter.

Time to Reminisce

Most importantly, however, now is the time to remember his remarkable career. Many fans only know of the Hakuho Era. Whether you define the start as 2007, when he became Yokozuna, or 2010 and the end of Asashoryu’s reign, his 14 years at the top rank of this sport is unchallenged. His 45 Top Division Titles? No one else comes close.

This era has seen its highs and lows, for Hakuho and for the sport itself. Early on, the sport was troubled by yaocho/match-fixing scandals, notably the cancelled March 2011 tournament. Bullying and power-harassment scandals cropped up throughout but Hakuho has been a constant figure throughout, and he helped during the recovery from the catastrophic earthquake, which occurred on his 26th birthday.

As it will be for many fans, I am thrilled to have enjoyed this time. While I first enjoyed watching sumo during the 1990’s with the rise of Akebono, my wife and I attended our first tournament during the turbulent yaocho scandal. The Kyokai put on an exhibition tournament and we decided to check it out. It was a great experience live and I encourage all readers to go watch when they get a chance. Hopefully we’ll see zabuton thrown again, one day.

The picture above was taken using my terrible phone camera when we saw the Nagoya basho. Harumafuji won that one with a thrilling victory over Hakuho on senshuraku. Terunofuji accompanied him on the back of the car for the yusho parade. Remember those? Well, Hakuho is up there, sandwiched between Hakkaku and Kisenosato. The electricity in the atmosphere was palpable, even more than the notorious Nagoya heat. It’s that thrill that I feel every time he got up on the dohyo. Even though I’ve half grown accustomed to his absence over the past year, I will miss that energy.

I will close with my favorite Hakuho memory and my least favorite memory. I enjoyed watching Hakuho for the strength and the immense skill he demonstrated as he dominated nearly every opponent he faced. His skill was only really challenged by Asashoryu and, like many others, I wish that rivalry could have continued for quite a bit longer.

Despite Jason’s stated disappointment with the result, I enjoyed Hakuho’s cheek with his decision to henka Harumafuji on senshuraku in March 2016. Kisenosato was waiting in the wings, hoping for a playoff and a chance to claim his first title. But Hakuho put his hands in Harumafuji’s face to force his eyes closed for a split second as he ducked out of the way. It was brilliant. Even Harumafuji saw the humor in it as he’s laughing while flying off the dohyo.

Henka are always controversial and no henka is quite the same. Nor is it always obvious when a henka actually happens. Harumafuji’s sidestep-and-spin tachiai is an example. But this henka from Hakuho, for me, anyway, demonstrated that for all of his skill, and all of his strength, he’s sure got a lot of head games to play, too. I abhor expectation, stereotypes, and entitlement and that move – the henka – breaks boundaries…until it becomes predictable, like it does sometimes with Aminishiki, Chiyoshoma, or Ishiura. When it’s reserved for those times that no one expects it, it is wonderful.

It’s for that reason one of the biggest self-inflicted wounds he suffered was after losing to Yoshikaze in 2017, thinking he deserved a mono-ii. Everyone in the sumo world was saying, “take your bow, and come back tomorrow.” One of the best things about sumo is the sportsmanship. Maybe this is where I feel entitled. The defeated rikishi rises to the dohyo accepts his loss, shows respect to the victor, and comes back to fight again. Of all the little controversies through the years, this was the one where I still cringe.

Looking to the Future

The next chapter of Hakuho’s career will not be all roses, I’m sure. But it will be great and I’m eager to see what happens. We’re in the midst of that transition period Bruce has long talked about, and this will be the line of demarcation for many. What will the era of Terunofuji look like?

15 thoughts on “End of an Era: Hakuho to Retire

  1. The GOAT. Not sure how else to put it.

    Always changing, always adapting, never settling on just one way to compete… When you consider that the word henka simply means change, then for Hakuho, every match was a henka. I wish him all the best!

  2. I’m still trying to realize the news.

    I mean, it was comming eventually quite soon. We were all acknowledging that. Hakuho was clearly hinting at a possible retirement for months and well over a year. Do you guys remember the “suposed” threat he issued a long while ago to Enho (was it early 2020 or 2019, i don’t remember which one) that, if he was to not obtain a kachi-kochi in his next basho, he would retire. (Telling in a way his pupil to get his head together and start putting more effort in his sumo, or else !)

    Even if it was probably just an empty threat, it was probably obvious to everyone and to Hakuho himself that he didn’t have much year of sumo left ahead.

    I especially thought it was it after his last match on day 15 back in march 20219 after he beated Kakuryu to won his 42 yusho, but at the same time, gravely hurted his right arm (tearing some muscle) to the point where he couldn’t even lift any cups or the winner’s banner at the ceremony at the end. (Ghost of Kisenosato’s same ending scared me for month back then.)

    But despite that, and quite a number of kyūjō, he still gave us a few more basho and 3 more emperor cup!!!!

    Anyway, even if we were preparing ourselves, i think there was no avoiding it that this news it a super huge bomb in the sumo world. A ground shaking earthquake that will probably make a huge tsunami for the weeks and month to come. I think the impact Hakuho had in the sumo world will stay unrivaled for generation and genaration to come, maybe even never match.

    There is so many memories of match i’ve seen where his prowess on the right astonished me. It’s impossible to remember them all. There is one still i think that will always be engraved in my mind, it’s his bout againts Okinomi (my men from Shimane-Ken ?! :P ) back in november 2015, day 7.


    When i saw Hakuho, that invincible force of nature, getting for once pushed totaly and completly at the edge of the tawara by an Okinomi that seemed unstopable in this bout, my mouth was completly open and dry when i was seeing him struggling with all his might to stay inside and not being pushed over the bale. And then, out of nowhere, like a divinely and godly power descending from the heaven on him, he manage pull that ultra rare and impossible “Yaguranage” !!!! LIFTING Okinomi like a monster by his belt and pushing/passing him over his own shoulder to the outside of the ring, behind his back.
    My jaw completly dropped back then while my mind was obliterated. After that, i was thinking “that man his not human. He’s a demi-god of sumo of some sort.”

    With the years, i really became a fan of Hakuho. Even if there was also many other Rikishi i like. It’s true that as time passed, there was some really great things i liked about Hakuho and will remember. And some others that i would hope to forget. Hakuho, even if he will be remembered as being the Great Of All Time, he was still a normal human being. And certainly wasn’t perfect. He also had a few bad habit that he picked along the way. (his faceslap and harite for exemple.)
    And like Andy said above, his reaction after Yoshikaze’s match back in 2017 was perhap also the cringiest moment of him i can remember.

    But in the end, i only wish that people will mostly remember him for all the good things he did in his sumo carrer. And especially, his incredible prowess at this sport. Hakuho was litteraly in my mind a pure “tactical Genius” on the dohyo. Not only incredibly strong, but a ring-sense like no other and a immensely wide range of tactic and technic. This is i think why he could stay for so long at the top of his generation, un-challendged.

    He also contributed so much outside of the ring on being such an incredible ambassador for the sumo in general. (Like for example, his Hakuho Cup. An organisation that is forging new young recruit for the sport and assuring that Sumo has a future in the new young generation that are to come) And for that, i think the japaneses and sumo elders aren’t maybe acknowledge and respect him enought for that.

    In summary, Hakuho will finaly retire with a Zensho Yusho, after overcomming and beaten his predecessor (Asashoryu) and outlived 3 other Yokozuna (Harumafuji, Kakuryu and Kisenosato. (Wonder if there was any other Yokozuna who did that!) and retire unbeaten. Unlike usualy other Yokozuna, the “Lion King” will leave his throne without any young pretender housting him of his seat of power. Having outlived any opponent that tried to dethrone him and leaving an empty vaccum of young rikishi that will fight now to fill the emptiness he has left behind. (Terunofufi is the first one who seem to have took that empty throne. For now.)

    That’s the feeling all that situation is giving me right now.

    • Loved seeing the yaguranage, thanks for the link. Sumo DB has it used only three times this century.

      Asashoryu used it once in his career, defeating Harumafuji while Hakuho sat on-deck. (July, 2009, Day 13)

      Those were some great rivalries.

    • I agree with so much of this. I lost track of the number of times my jaw hit the floor watching this warrior find new ways to win. A demigod or at least truly Yokozuna blessed by the kami of sumo.
      I think he dug so deeply into himself in that final match for the Zensho that he found he has absolutely nothing left to give.
      Thank you Dai Yokozuna for everything you have given to this mysterious, unendingly fascinating sport.

  3. It is a privilege to have seen Hakuho wrestle. GOAT forever! I wish him the best in his future endeavors!

  4. Andy, the piece you wrote — strictly BRILLIANT! Well said, sir! Hakuho place in sport’s history — let alone Sumo history — is UNCHALLENGED. His accomplishments may never be DUPLICATED. Here’s a young man that came from another country that is landlocked and has a low-level economy, but what a TREMENDOUS & GIFTED athlete that Mongolia produced! He came to Japan and not only MASTER this sometimes brutal sport, but play the game, kicked plenty of asses, and took no prisoners in his quest to be the BEST of ALL TIME!

    If indeed this is it for Hakuho — and he no longer mounts the hallowed dohyo at either the Ryōgoku the Kokugikan, Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium or the Fukuoka Convention Center ever again, then I say — take a bow, good sir! And I hope the standing ovation is very LOUD and very LONG!

    Like you said Andy, the next chapter may not be all roses for Hakuho, but I do look quite forward to seeing what seeds he plants, and nurtures, and blossoms out of his garden.

  5. This is my favorite bout of his, in the third tournament I ever watched.https://youtu.be/R-uYMfRwypA

    I was just so amazed at the agility he showed; it really shows the athleticism rikishi have.

    Plus, the look on his face at the end of the bout is priceless.

    • Oh yeah!!!

      I remember that one Benito…
      The greatest “Escape artist” match that was ever done! (Well, at least one of the greatest, for sure!)

      Hakuho sure had that little smug smile at the end of that match. Who else would blame him for that. We also all had it while looking at the result of that match. We all KNOWS (him included) that he got away with that one by littleraly STEALING that victory out of the grasp of Takarafuji.

      I would have even be akward if he hadn’t had any reaction at the end of the match and stayed with a stone face, crouching to get his reward and kesho prize from the gyoji. When emotion were too high, Hakuho knew how to show that he is still human while still showing respect to his opponent and the tradition of the sport.

  6. I’m proud to have my Hakuho tegata hanging on the wall! I feel privileged to have been able to watch him over the last several years. There may never be another champion as great.

    Coincidentally, just before I saw the news of his retirement, I had just finished watching the day 15 match for Terunofuji as he took the cup. I’m not making this up. I thought to myself, “Huh. If Hakuho were to retire, that would mean that Terunofuji would not have beaten another Yokozuna in his entire comeback run.” In fact, other than is loss to Hakuho on the final day in July, he never even faced a Yokozuna since re-entering the top division. He won his 1st basho back, but both Hakuho and Kakuryu were out. His next win Hakuho was out and Kakuryu had retired. Then in his 1st and only match against a Yokozuna post comeback, he lost.

    Not trying to take anything away from Terunofuji, but I’m sure he would have liked to face Hakuho again.

    There’s really only one positive I can take from this announcement (and really, it’s been like this for the last several bashos) and that is that the yusho is pretty much always up for grabs these days. It could be anyone in the top division from the top to the bottom. When Hakuho was at his peak, that just wasn’t the case. Even in the tournaments he DIDN’T win, it was usually someone from the top that did. It does make for some excitement!

    Best of luck to him in the coming years. As I said before, it was a privilege to have been watching during his reign as the greatest the sport has ever seen.

  7. Everything I wanted to say about Hakuho (and sumo), but nobody asked. Sorry Andy, you can remove this comment.

    When comparing athletes from different eras, the old champions are in the lost position. However in sumo it may not necessarily be the case, because of the sport’s conservatism and traditionalism. Still I think Hakuho is the best of all times and statements like from Konishiki, who said that in his time Hakuho wouldn’t even be a sekiwake, though have some valid points, are greatly exagerrated.

    But comparing Hakuho with global sports superstars, which John Gunning is very fond of, is also exaggeration. Sumo is a niche sport with very few people competing (most unpaid) and no money in it, while e.g. football (soccer) is played by millions, watched by whole world (without US) and top player transfer fees are in hundreds of millions of euro. The competition is much greater than in sumo. I genuinely wonder how would Hakuho fare if the sumo was competed at that scale. Would he made top division? Maybe.

    European or American culture is about individuality, but Asian is about subordination. But you cannot be a true challenger and at the same time be timid and submissive. That’s why so few Japanese rikishis have “the mentality”. Imagine for example Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson in sumo. They would be expelled in a flash. So instead sumo is full of Shodais and Ichinojos (i very like them both), obedient and withdrawn. And Hakuho was one of only few wrestlers with the guts. One can see it in his stare downs before the fights or for example in challenging the system, like after mentioned fight with Yoshikaze, which was matta. In Europe you can appeal, you have your rights, but in sumo you are expected to bow down and go away. Sorry, I am European and I am not buying the sumo values of being submissive.

    Also I am not enthusiastic of “doing my brand of sumo”. Sports are about finding tactics and counter tactics. If you have only one way of fighting it’s easy to counter you. So Hakuho brought that higher level of competition to sumo. Without him and other yokozunas of the past, like Harumafuji or Kakuryu, everything is going to be more boring.

    Hakuho was criticized for the face slaps, but I heard him saying that the slaps are intended to prevent head collisions. I never root for any rikishi, even Endo or Kakuryu, not saying about Hokutofuji, that goes head first in the tachiai. For me it’s like a doping – it gives you advantage at the cost of your health in later life. And Hakuho understood that if sumo is to be an intellgent sport you need to protect your head.

    I am still surprised by his sudden resignation. Since I am watching sumo regularly he was always there.

  8. We’ve seen plenty of stats illustrating Hakuho’s utter dominance, but here’s one more set. Hakuho finished 65 basho as Yokozuna. In these 65, he took the yusho 42 times and the jun-yusho 17 times. That’s 59 winner or runner-up finishes out of 65 completed tournaments (91%). He recorded double-digit wins in all 65, going 15-0 15 times, 14-1 22 times, 13-2 ten times, 12-3 ten times, 11-4 six times, and 10-5 just twice.

      • Just for comparison, Ozeki Kisenosato finished 31 basho. One (1) yusho, but 11 jun-yusho, 24 basho with double-digit wins, the rest 9-6 with one 7-8 (and arguably he didn’t finish that one, pulling out on day 15).


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