Natsu Story 1 – Hakuho’s Injured Arm

Something is Amiss…

At the close of the Osaka basho in March, Yokozuna Hakuho injured his right arm in the final match. He was seen gripping the bicep, and wincing in pain. During the yusho ceremony, he was unable to use his right arm to lift the cup, or even the fairly lightweight banner. A subsequent examination by doctors revealed that he had partially torn his right bicep, and the guidance from them was to rest it and “let it heal naturally”.

While this will sound depressingly familiar to sumo fans who saw Kisenosato’s career decay following a similar treatment plan for his pectoral tear, there is every indication that all parties involved were well aware of that failure, and were eager to not repeat it. But in the weeks that followed, Hakuho continues to struggle to train, and finds his right arm to be weak and unsteady. While he did join the jungyo following Osaka, he limited his activities to dohyo-iri. He did not participate in practice matches or keiko.

Hakuho is still not doing any sumo. Says “something is amiss”. Gave 7 minute kawaigari to Enho, but no sumo. He is looking for a way to show up for Haru, but chances of a yusho are slim.

Herouth’s Twitter Feed

At this week’s YDC soken, “The Boss” stayed out of the training area, and sumo fans around the world are right to be worried. Word now comes to us from Herouth that he is undergoing a second examination, and the outcome of that will be a diagnosis for treatment.

He has been saying that his right arm is still not working properly, and is still a source of pain. In all likelihood, we will see Hakuho face a much more invasive repair strategy, that may include surgery to rebuild that muscle, if possible.

This puts Hakuho in a tough spot. Firstly, Tachiai expects that the greatest Yokozuna in anyone’s memory will sit out the Natsu basho, possibly to be hospitalized and treated during the tournament’s 15 day run. This is not the first time that Hakuho has watched a basho from the hospital, and he has proven he can and will train like a maniac to return to competition. But a muscle tear like this will require months of post-surgical recovery, and its unknown how much time the NSK will give him to return to Yokozuna sumo. But the question is – how badly de-conditioned will become with a long recovery? As we saw with Kisenosato, once lost, the balance and strength required to compete at the Yokozuna may not be recoverable.

Hakuho has only recently started working on the steps needed to become an Oyakata, and the end of that process is still many months, if not a year or more away. Being forced to retire before it is complete would cause the greatest sumotori of modern times to be lost to the sport.

Worse yet, Hakuho is a relentless goal-seeker. He has his mind fixed on being front and center for the Olympic opening ceremony next summer, preferably with his two uchi-deshi flanking him. A lengthy recovery from surgery places all of that in doubt. The temptation will be for him to short-cut the recovery, and return to action hoping to meet his goals, or stave off forced retirement. Sounds a lot like Kisenosato’s dilemma will be repeated.

As with any great athlete, situations like this are never very happy, especially coming near the end of their athletic career. We hope that whatever outcome presents itself, Hakuho can stay whole, connected with sumo, and happy.

2019 Natsu Basho Preview

With the Natsu Banzuke published, it’s officially Basho season again! With less than a week until the return of sumo action, here are some of the biggest stories and most pressing questions on the minds of sumo fans this May!

Keep watching until the end for a sneak peek of a new series coming soon.

Hakuho Renouncing his Mongolian Citizenship

Sports media outlets in Japan have been reporting that Hakuho has filed the documents to renounce his Mongolian citizenship with the Mongolian President’s office earlier this month.

Report and video at NHK World

This has been reported in the Mongolian press and from there it spread to the Japanese media. Hakuho was asked to comment on it today, but was very guarded. “I’m surprised it made the news at this early stage. This is a matter relating to both countries, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens. I can’t say anything one way or the other at the moment.”

That is the raw story, and here are my comments on it.

It is clear that Hakuho does not renounce his citizenship because he has something against Mongolia. Quite the contrary. This is simply a necessary step in order to obtain Japanese citizenship, as Japan generally does not allow dual citizenship.

Hakuho has permanent residence status in Japan, and does not need citizenship to live and work there. There are only two main differences between his current status and citizenship. One is the right to vote or be elected, and the other is the right to become a member of the NSK. And I think we can safely disregard the idea that he decided to enter Japanese politics.

Hakuho has been talking about becoming a toshiyori (oyakata) for a long time now. And not just talking – he has taken four uchi-deshi already. Uchi-deshi are recruits scouted by someone who aspires to create his own heya. While he is still attached to his original heya, those recruits also belong to that heya. Once he is eligible to form his own heya, however, his uchi-deshi are allowed to leave the original heya together with him. Hakuho’s Uchi-deshi include Yamaguchi, Ishiura, Enho and the most recent addition, Toma from Okinawa.

To become a toshiyori, one must have Japanese citizenship. And one must have it by the time one retires from active sumo. Get the citizenship a day after you have filed your retirement documents – and it’s too late.

However, due to the strong sense of patriotism most Mongolians share, and Hakuho especially so, due to being the son of a national hero, he has been putting it off. His father’s death last year removed one obstacle, at least as far as filial piety is concerned. However, he did not make the move in the months that followed.

All this inclines me to believe that he determined to start the process only when he feels his retirement is imminent or at least highly likely. That is, I believe the fact that he has taken this step now means that he is preparing to retire soon, or at least acknowledges a strong possibility that he will have to.

Of course, we are not talking about forced retirement due to any scandal. Even if any of the little things that he does that annoy the NSK so much drive them to force him to retire – he wouldn’t be needing that citizenship in such a case, as of course he wouldn’t be able to continue as a member if that happened.

So my own interpretation of the situation is that the injury he suffered at the end of Haru basho, snapping his coracobrachialis at the tendon it shares with the biceps, may be at the bottom of this move. He has opted not to have surgery for it. Although he says that this should not affect his ability to grab a mawashi, he knows full well that a Yokozuna can only avoid retirement by winning 10 bouts or more every basho, and there is a limit to the number of kyujo he can enjoy – especially if there is no prospect of improvement following them. I believe he hopes he can still win those 10 bouts for a while yet, but he is sensible enough not to bet his future career on it.

Update on Hakuho’s Injury

The Haru Jungyo – regional tour – started today with a dedication dohyo-iri and competition at Ise Grand Shrine, Mie prefecture.

Hakuho took this opportunity to answer media questions about his injury. As it turned out, he was diagnosed with a tear in the coracobrachialis, an inner muscle located near the short head of the biceps. This is a rare injury.

The Yokozuna says that the tear in this muscle should not prevent him from grabbing the mawashi or doing tsuppari, but flexing his arm “Popeye” style, gives him discomfort. His doctors presented him with a surgical option, but he decided against it, as “it takes too much time”. Instead he opted to rest the muscle.

He plans to consult with his doctors again in the days to come. However, he is not resting at home, but will continue the regional tour with the rest of the sekitori. Currently he is not participating in bouts, and at Ise he performed dohyo-iri and “the senshi vow”.

Update on Hakuho’s Injury

As you have all probably seen, Hakuho injured his arm in his match with Kakuryu on Haru Basho’s senshuraku. Injured to the extent that he could not lift the emperor’s cup and had to be assisted.

We may hear very little about this injury and his status, as the sumo world tends to be secretive about these things. Hakuho tends to be slightly more open about the state of his health, but only when he deems it appropriate. For example, in his post-yusho interview he revealed that he hurt his knee again on day 8 (fighting Tochiozan) and had to do day 9 and 10 on painkillers. In real time he was mum about this.

So at the moment, this is what we know: the injury is probably a muscle tear. It’s not clear whether complete or partial. The morning after the injury he has been able to lift the arm somewhat, but not to lift a glass of water.

Araiso oyakata – the former Kisenosato – wrote a basho summary for Sponichi, and had this to say about Hakuho’s injury:

The worrying part is the injury to his arm. I was on duty maintaining order during the yusho parade, and it must have been seriously painful, for him to say to me “It’s torn. Hurts, doesn’t it”?

I have my own experience with torn muscles. If the injury is grave, it becomes hard to produce power with it – it may drop to 80%, 90%.

The yokozuna has been able to bring himself back from his knee injury to a yusho-winning level, so he knows how to take care of himself, but this is a worrying development.

Araiso oyakata, Sponichi Annex

At first the media reported that the Yokozuna will undergo further examinations. But in his morning interviews, it turned out he did not visit the hospital. “I was told this injury may be healed through rest, so I’m going to take a break from sumo for a while and rest it”. He also said he will decide whether to join the Jungyo in a few days.

This statement from him is quite worrying, as a muscle tear needs to be treated soon after injury or the window of opportunity will be missed. Furthermore, I would have expected him at least to go to hospital and be thoroughly checked – undergo an MRI, at least.

To sum up:

  • Possible muscle tear.
  • Currently unable to lift even a glass of water.
  • If he was checked by professionals, it was not at any facility that offers imaging.
  • Currently resting his arm and hoping it will improve.

Tachiai will keep monitoring the situation and we will update you on any changes.