Hakuho Retires, Becomes Magaki Oyakata

This evening Japan time, the news that we have been anticipating all week was made official: The 69th Yokozuna Hakuho has retired from sumo.

“The Boss” retires with the tremendous career record of 1187 wins and 247 losses as a rikishi, including a top flight record 1093 wins, 45 top division championships (plus 1 from Juryo), 6 special prizes, a kinboshi, and numerous other records. His run of 63 consecutive makuuchi victories in 2010, broken by the future Yokozuna Kisenosato, is bettered only by the legendary Yokozuna Futabayama.

Hakuho was and will remain known for, among other things, his incredible presence and aura in the dohyo, his peerless speed at the tachiai, ability to overwhelm almost any opponent of the several eras of his career with a variety of techniques, his power of motivation to find new records to break and new ways to challenge himself, his dedication to amateur sumo, his community work (especially in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami), his desire to connect sumo to global audiences, and latterly, the remarkable recruiting of new rikishi which he will bring into his coaching career.

Taking all of this into account, it is even more remarkable that Hakuho famously joined Miyagino-beya in a last ditch effort, after the oyakata took him in as a favour to groundbreaking Mongolian sekitori Kyokushuzan. Having been rejected by every other stable he reached out to, the skinny 16 year old was never regarded as a prospect of any sort, making his ascent to the very pinnacle of the sport’s centuries of history all the more remarkable.

Hakuho embraced modern medicine in a bid to prolong his career to the extent that he did, which often also brought him criticism from some within the sumo community who felt he should have retired earlier rather than taking repeated kyujo. This, combined with some cultural faux-pas which saw him in for disciplinary hearings more often than appropriate for a Yokozuna, often brought him scrutiny from those within the Association, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, and some within sumo’s wider fanbase.

We will no doubt spill more words over the coming days, weeks and months over the brilliant (and perhaps even some of the less brilliant) moments of Hakuho’s career. But let’s be clear that while he was an imperfect legend, he was a legend, an icon of his sport, and not only in the conversation for the best to ever do what he did, but it is not hyperbole to put him in the conversation for one of the greatest champions in sporting history. As mentioned in a previous post, John Gunning did a wonderful encapsulation of this in The Japan Times, and it is highly recommended as a read.

Magaki-Oyakata

There had been speculation for years over when his retirement would come, and it was accompanied by the usual announcement from the Kyokai (above). We had debated not only when he would go out, and how. Those who are interested in the Sumo Association stock exchange had debated what elder name he might take, or if he would be allowed to continue as the greatest Dai-Yokozuna had, by using the privileged one-generation ichidai toshiyori.

It felt somewhat inevitable over recent weeks and months, given the controversy surrounding Hakuho’s various activities and performances and the aforementioned blots on his copybook, that “Hakuho oyakata” would not be named among the Kyokai’s members. And so it is that Hakuho will take the Magaki name, as had been rumoured earlier in the year. As the intai has been officially recognised after the banzuke committee’s meeting, it is more than likely that he will make his final appearance on the banzuke for the Kyushu 2021 basho at Yokozuna 1 West.

The Magaki kabu has moved around over the years, but largely has belonged to the Tatsunami/Tatsunami-Isegahama/Isegahama ichimon of which Hakuho’s Miyagino-beya is a member. Upon picking up the myoseki, Hakuho moved it back into the ichimon’s possession from Tokitsukaze beya and ichimon where it had spent the last several years. Its most famous occupant until now has probably been Yokozuna Wakanohana II – who as Magaki oyakata himself, recruited the 73rd Yokozuna Terunofuji before the Yokozuna’s move to Isegahama-beya where he developed and remains today.

In terms of what happens next: Hakuho’s stablemaster and boss Miyagino-oyakata will retire next August at the mandatory retirement age of 65. It is likely that at that stage (or at some point before), Hakuho will takeover the heya as the new shisho. He may choose to rename the stable Magaki-beya, or, as has been done recently at other stables such as Tokitsukaze and Takasago, switch kabu with the outgoing shisho and assume the more prestigious Miyagino name for himself at that time. Rumours are already swirling in the press as we have previously detailed that Hakuho is looking at expensive new real estate for a blockbuster new construction project for the heya. That, combined with his prolific efforts at recruiting, will set the stage for a very eventful opening to Hakuho’s career as an elder of the Sumo Association.

Despite the fact that recruiting and prospect development are often somewhat drier subjects within the sumo world, it would appear that as with Hakuho’s career on the dohyo, the next chapter promises to be anything but quiet. Strap in folks, it’s gonna get interesting.

Congratulations to Yokozuna Hakuho, Magaki Oyakata on the most incredible of storied careers on the dohyo.

Making a Case For The End of “The Transition”

Everything goes in circles. Photo credit @nicolaah

No matter how you feel about Hakuho (which seems crazy even to write), the sumo world is absolutely rocked not only by his retirement but the manner of it: out on his own terms, no matter how many veiled – thinly or otherwise – “encouragements” he had received, and at the top, unbeaten in his final tournament, and with almost every meaningful record you could wish to have.

It seems impossible to eulogise Hakuho’s career now (although John Gunning has been first out of the blocks with an unsurprisingly strong effort as usual). The debates about the content of his sumo and what to make of his controversial legacy and what it means to be a champion will wait. 

What we can instead eulogise, in my opinion, is the end of a period of transition we’ve been discussing for the last few years. Or at least the end of the transition “out” of what was, as we now move “in” to what will be. While a handful of others from Hakuho’s era are still standing in some diminished status, he is the last meaningful domino to fall. And without his enormous presence casting a “will-he/won’t-he” shadow over literally every tournament – to say nothing of his other adversaries of the era: for example Kakuryu, whose own “should I stay or should I go now” drama was mostly informed by something as tedious as immigration paperwork – the next period can now finally begin in earnest.

Yokozuna Terunofuji of course has his own story, formed out of his battles with himself, and his own body, and it is right that he can set the tone for what is to come over the next few years. Whether or not his body can withstand the pressures of Yokozuna sumo for more than that is up to some substantial debate, but it is clear that he will be the wall that new talents will have to knock down. It seems reasonable to expect that for the next 2 years anyway, this will be the case.

It’s a clean time for the change, because everything below the Yokozuna is now up for grabs. There are no Ozeki runs in play, though Mitakeumi’s throughly uninspiring 9 wins from this tournament could eventually have meaning with a solid-if-unlikely 11+ in the next basho. We’ve seen it before. But while two enormous impediments in the shape of Hakuho and also Asanoyama have now been removed, the famous flat-track bully can’t seem to get it together to best his current score consistently enough to go to the next level. That the challengers from this recent tournament were all veterans unlikely to leave the rank-and-file does not speak incredibly well for the health of the division as a whole.

Relative newcomers like Kiribayama, Kotonowaka and Hoshoryu seem likely to have something to say about the shape of san’yaku to come, but it remains to be seen whether they can be more than this generation’s Okinoumi or Myogiryu or Endo. If there’s another rikishi who might be primed to take another step it could be the 26 year old Meisei, off the back of 8 consecutive winning tournaments. While he has a lower ceiling than the mercurial talents I just mentioned or even than those above him on the banzuke, he’s shown more consistency than any of them, as well as the ability to pull off upsets.

It’s also time to be honest about the state of the remaining veterans. For the Aoiyamas, the Tochinoshins, the Tamawashis, the Takarafujis… for sure their records may be informed by their various injury issues but the reality is that they are also of diminishing ability due to age and mileage. It’s probably fair to ask if we’ll see Takayasu in san’yaku again. Kaisei stated (credit to Kintamayama) during the basho that he simply had less power in his body with each passing year. Myogiryu’s face on senshuraku told us everything we need to know about his future: he knows that he would never have a better chance to win something. He’ll be 35 before the next basho. These guys may have, while the top division is a shadow of the quality it was five or more years ago, the chance to run into this kind of tournament one more time, but the reason for that is likely due more to the ability of the competition than their own ability to meaningfully challenge.

The new era is not going to take shape quickly. While there are interesting prospects, there are very few “can’t miss” talents banging down the door. A number of big prospects have fizzled recently atop Makushita (Roga, Oshoryu, Hokutenkai, etc.) and even for the next tournament, the Juryo promotees will be journeymen or slower moving college rikishi in their late 20s. Abi will almost certainly be the only Makuuchi promotee under 30 in the November tournament, and we know what he is already. It appears that there will be plenty of intriguing backing singers for this next era, but the identity of the frontmen is still very much in question.

One of the reasons why the debates about the content of Hakuho’s sumo and what to make of his controversial legacy and what it means to be a champion will wait is that, well… we’re going to have a lot of time to discuss it. If the new era starts now, and we don’t know what it’s going to be, then we can look at what was in better detail in the cold light of day where there is no more Hakuho. Well, no more Hakuho on the dohyo anyway, as rumours already swirl about a new $17M heya in swanky Nihonbashi. We can think about how all of that stuff from this past era made us feel, and what we want the next era to be. And hopefully as we analyse all of that, names will surface and performances will materialise that allow us to dream a bit again. 

While there is no Takanohana-defeating-Chiyonofuji moment here to provide the kind of punctuation mark that a satisfying transfer of power deserves, and the vacuum created by the absence of fond names can be a bit dispiriting, it feels like we can approach the next basho, the next year, and the tournaments and years to come with a renewed focus on the excitement of what could happen.

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?

An Ikioi Moment of Reflection

As good a time as any to bust out this old edit I did for Andy years ago…

As you may have seen or heard elsewhere, Ikioi retired last week.

This isn’t the post to do a comprehensive post-mortem on his career, I don’t really have the ability to eloquently summarise that right now or the patience to get “whatabouted.” Instead, the retirement of Ikioi instead makes me think about the passing of time with sumo, life, etcetera and so on. So, I want to talk about that. 

Ikioi was my favourite rikishi. I said that many times on this site, in podcasts, in interviews with other folks throughout the sumo world. There was something special and unique about him, even in the beginning, when I started following sumo, before I knew anything. At that point I think he was the only single kanji name in the top division, and he had a strange but powerful, relatable shikona.

Ikioi was all over the place. When I started watching the sport, he could just as soon rattle off 9 wins in a row as he could lose 13 or 14 in a tournament. He was a kinboshi threat, would go crashing into the dizzy heights of the san’yaku and be sent swiftly crashing back out of it.

His sumo was so intense. I always called it heavy metal sumo. For sure, that was partially influenced by my theft of that term from association football and that term’s association with the beloved manager of my beloved club. But it applied here. Ikioi only had one speed, which was all the way on.

A lot of rikishi say that their will is to do “forward moving sumo.” This is the only way that Ikioi ever really operated. From the tachiai he would rush in, grappling or thrusting or with a big right hand to the mawashi, normally with an attempt to just overwhelm the opponent, and dominate. Did he win? More often than not. Well, one time more often than not as his career 546-545 record would indicate. But it was the approach that was the exciting thing.

For sure, some of his mannerisms in the dohyo seemed to be influenced by my other great sumo love, Hakuho (even if his results certainly were not). There’s not really much denying that. As the iron man, he was ever present in the top division, famously never missing a day of work. Our friend Kintamayama described him at times variously as a “walking ambulance” or “walking hospital” owing to the state of the many bandages covering him and the challenges he often seemed to have in his latter years even entering and leaving the dohyo, always gingerly and sometimes with a grimace.

The first time I ever interviewed someone for this site, John Gunning explained the concept of shin-gi-tai: heart, technique, physique – the three qualities you need to be successful at sumo. It’s no good if you just have one or even two of them. To be great you need to have all of them. I’ve watched sumo at this point for many years (not as many as some, longer than others), and no one epitomises heart to me like Ikioi. Of course he had the physique to be successful in the top division and he sometimes displayed the technique to back it up, but it was his heart that kept him in matches he had no business winning, and it was his heart that kept him coming back onto the dohyo when his body clearly didn’t agree.

It has been said that of the three, perhaps that’s the most important quality.

I haven’t been in Japan for a while now. It’s hard to say I miss the basho experience because the experience that exists now isn’t the one that I and so many other readers of this site have had. So it’s not that I miss going to a basho, but I miss moments, like the one I had meeting the follower of Ikioi who showed up to Kokugikan in a Hanshin Tigers jersey and walked around the upper bowl of the arena for an entire afternoon holding up his Ikioi cheer sign.

A well known Ikioi fan graciously allows Tachiai to take his photo at Kokugikan in 2019

I have a deep love for the city of Osaka and there is just no replicating the atmosphere that the fans of that city provide to one of their own during the Haru basho. I was lucky enough to witness this in person several times for Ikioi. The Kansai experience is not for everyone it must be said, but I’ve often said it’s my favourite place to watch sumo and for me, watching this guy in that place was often the best part of all of it.

The worst part for me here isn’t the retirement, it’s the manner of it. And I don’t mean an injured guy dropping into Sandanme while the Kyokai works out a myoseki shuffle before he can retire. It’s that an Ikioi was robbed of that last appearance in front of hometown fans, much like a Kotoshogiku never got to make a final appearance in front of supporters in Kyushu. Those places would have provided the best backgrounds for these long serving veterans to make their final bow, to say nothing of long-serving lower rankers whose most passionate support, perhaps even the support that helped to keep them going, might have come from one of the regional basho.

We recorded some podcast content for Tachiai the other day, and Bruce remarked that much of this incredible class of the 00s has now ridden off into the sunset in their blue jackets as the wave of retirements of that generation of rikishi gathers pace. Just as the sumo world doesn’t stop, that progression through the ranks from rookie to retiree doesn’t happen in isolation – it’s hard not to think how the world has moved and changed around us as well. Of course, there will be another great generation soon, maybe we’re seeing the start of it now. If you’ve got a favourite rikishi, enjoy it. If you haven’t, maybe you and I will find one from this new generation soon. And let’s hope this mad world gets back to normal soon so that we can have special moments in our temples of sumo again.

Anyway, here’s that video of the main man hawking an iron, if you haven’t seen it. Enjoy.