Former Yokozuna Akebono and former Sekiwake Takamiyama said their good-byes to the late Ushiomaru (Azumazeki-oyakata). Both Hawai’ian greats have strong connections to Azumazeki-beya. Takamiyama fought under Takasago beya but upon retirement received the Azumazeki kabu, opening the stable which would be home to Akebono. Takamiyama reached retirement age in 2009, passing the baton to Ushiomaru.
Since being hospitalized from his own health issues, updates on Akebono’s condition have been rare but we are very happy to see him. Judging from the comments and tweets I’ve seen about this news the sentiment is shared throughout the sumo fan community.
It is wonderful to see Akebono, especially since there is rarely any news on his condition. On a personal note, a very little known fact: Akebono was one of our very first Twitter followers and I still remember freaking out, and the startled look on my wife’s face when I realized it was actually him. This fanboy got into this awesome sport to begin with by watching Akebono highlights on ESPN. (Long before gigabit streams in HD.) Hosted by Larry Biel, they would show half-hour digests of a whole tournament…and with that taste, I was hooked. We extend our best wishes and all hope to hear more good news on his recovery.
Our friends over at GSB have created a survey (link here and in the embedded Tweet below) to learn more about rikishi popularity. We all know Ikioi is the greatest but NOW is when you fill it in to a survey and see it actually reflected in data. As people may be aware with the Tableau dashboards around the website, Leonid’s prognostication and the encyclopedic knowledge of Bruce, Herouth, and Josh, we love data. Metrics are good. Sometimes it’s just because they make pretty pictures but often there are interesting things to learn. Mostly, I just like pretty graphs that move when I click and I expect the numbers will shift quite a bit next year when Terunofuji returns to Juryo…and hopefully Makuuchi soon after!
Seriously, though, who wouldn’t love a stats-based approach to running a heya? Even if it is just my armchair heya? I’m particularly interested in the heya popularity data.
The Empire Strikes Back is always the best Star Wars movie, and Terunofuji is Lord Vader. When he beat Kisenosato…or perhaps when he beat Kotoshogiku…and knelt to accept his kenshokin, was anyone else struck by how his oicho-mage evoked Vader’s kabuto-inspired mask? Or maybe it was the evil of the victory…I dunno. He’ll always be Vader to me and now he’s back! Dun, dun, dun…
Wow. Post-basho delirium is in full swing. (Send help.) Thank God for that amateur tournament in a few days.
USA Sumo has announced that tickets are now available for the 19th Annual USA Sumo Open, which will be held on Saturday March 23, in Long Beach, CA.
The event, which coincides this year with the Haru honbasho in Osaka, consists of several weight categories (for both men and women), as well as a more traditional “Openweight” championship. This latter category is more in line with the type of competition of which most sumo enthusiasts will be familiar, with competitors of any size able to take the crown.
The event has been increasing in popularity, with NHK’s Hiro Morita having been dispatched to the States to cover the event last year for the Japanese broadcaster. Many sumo fans (and some Tachiai readers!) were able to meet one of the voices of Grand Sumo on that occasion – though it is unclear whether NHK will again have a presence, or how much of a presence they will have – given that the event falls in 2019 during one of the six main basho.
If you have not been able to make it to Japan for a tournament however, and have been looking for an opportunity to see live sumo – check out the tickets on offer at USA Sumo’s website. While the level of competition is obviously much different to the professional sumo that we cover here on the site, tickets start at a more affordable $25 (although ringside seats do approach the prices at Kokugikan).
The current men’s openweight champion is Russia’s Konstantin Abdula-Zade, and the reigning female openweight champion is the local favorite Mariah Holmes of California. USA Sumo has produced the following video of highlights from last year’s competition (although if I had to choose, I’d probably pick Abema TV’s choice of AK-69’s “Guess Who’s Back” as the better hype music):
In today’s modernized sumo, foreign rikishi have become as much a part of the sport as mawashi, stables, and salt throwing. Wrestlers from across the globe now compete in every level of sumo, following a trail blazed for them by the American born Jessie Kuhaulua, better known as Takamiyama Daigoro. Having broken the Gaijin barrier, Takamiyama opened the minds of the Japanese to the idea of foreign rikishi competing in their national sport. Yet his influence on sumo only went so far. While the notion of non-Japanese wrestlers was becoming more welcome in Japan, the idea that one of them could reach the lofty heights of Ozeki, or more importantly Yokozuna, was still preposterous. But this belief only served to light a fire under the young Samoan-American Saleva’a Fuauli Atisano’e, who was determined to pick up where Takamiyama left off and show Japan that a foreigner could be every bit as worthy of sumo’s most prestigious ranks.
Born in the breezy paradise of Oahu, Hawaii in 1963 to Samoan parents, Saleva’a Fuauli Atisano’e never dreamed of becoming a sumo wrestler. In fact, he knew nothing about the sport save for one thing: that a Hawaiian named Jessie Kuhaulua had made it big in sumo, and even won their trophy. Little did he know that a chance meeting in 1982 with that very same Hawaiian, now going by Takamiyama, would have a profound impact on his life. Upon meeting Atisano’e, Takamiyama saw great potential in the hulking eighteen-year-old, whose six foot tall four hundred pound frame meant he was already bigger than some of the sports top stars. Despite not knowing a thing about sumo, the young Atisano’e jumped at the offer to journey to Japan to seek the same fame and fortune that Takamiyama had achieved. Joining Takasago Beya, Atisano’e quickly impressed his Oyakata, who saw the same natural talent in the young American that Takamiya had seen. To encourage him to live up to his potential, Takasago Oyakata gave Atisano’e the shikona of Konishiki Yashokichi, the very same shikona used by the sports 17th Yokozuna.
Making his professional debut at the 1982 Nagoya Basho, Konishiki used his impressive size and strength to overwhelm all who faced him on the dohyo, and he entered his third Basho not only undefeated but with two lower division Yusho under his belt. Konishiki’s rise up the Banzuke was remarkably quick, and he reached the Juryo division by November of 1983, having only suffered seven losses along the way. Much like before, the American rikishi dominated his competition, and after winning back to back Juryo Yusho, Konishiki entered the Makuuchi Division at the 1984 Nagoya Basho, just two years after entering sumo. Konishiki made major waves at the ’84 Aki Basho and finished in second place for the Yusho with a 13-2 record, which included kinboshi wins over Yokozuna Takanosato and Chiyonofuji. This remarkable performance earned Konishiki a massive promotion to Sekiwake for Kyushu. An injury, however, compelled the young American to pull out on Day 11, costing him his spot in the San’yaku. Over the next two years, Konishiki would claim the Jun-Yusho and earn promotion to Sekiwake on three separate occasions, but injuries would curtail any hopes of an Ozeki run each time.
While Konishiki was finding tremendous success on the dohyo, cultivating a positive reputation outside the ring proved to be far more challenging. The big American was extremely bright, and his early dominance served made him confident and unafraid to challenge the Kyokai status quo. This attitude lead many to typecast Konishiki as arrogant. Coupled with the way he used his might to “bully” his opponents out of the ring, many Japanese, non-sumo fans included, believed Konishiki was invading their traditional sport. As such, they began to refer to him as “the black ship,” drawing comparisons between the American-Samoan rikishi and the ships used by the American navy to force Japan to open its borders in the 19th century. Konishiki did little to help dissuade this reputation, often coming off as brash and ignorant of sumo customs in interviews. In one such case, the American rikishi was asked if he would defeat the yokozuna in the upcoming basho. Rather than the standard response of “I will do my best” he brazenly responded with “bring it on.” In another interview, when asked what sumo meant to him, Konishiki impatiently responded with the phrase “kenka, ja nai”: it’s a fight, isn’t it? While Konishiki may have been trying to describe the combative nature of the sport, his use of the word kenka, typically associated with street fights, served to only sour impressions of him. Konishiki had strayed from the accepted script, and as a result, his reputation had suffered.
Although opinions of Konishiki may have been at a low, his continued strong performances meant nobody could ignore him. After returning from injury for the third time at the 1986 Aki Basho, Konishiki began a remarkable run that saw him secure five consecutive double-digit records and two more Jun-Yusho. But most importantly, after three hard-fought years in Makuuchi, Konishiki’s efforts had finally secured his promotion to sumo’s second-highest rank, cementing his place in history as the first foreign Ozeki. If his rise to Ozeki had surprised sumo traditionalists, his 1989 November Yusho shocked them. For the first time in sumo’s thousand-year history, a gaijin was knocking on the door of Yokozuna-ship.
End of Part One
Konishiki (left) vs. Takanosato (right), Aki Basho, 1984.