Legends of the Dohyo #6: Holy Grail


Futabayama Yusho
Futabayama, 1939

In January of 2015, Yokozuna Hakuho Sho made history when he won his thirty-third Emperors Cup, surpassing a record established by the legendary Yokozuna Taiho Koki over forty years prior. When he accepted his 32nd championship and drew even with Taiho one basho prior, Hakuho stated that the god of sumo had blessed his efforts on the dohyo. Blessed indeed, as he is one of only a select few to have ever amassed over thirty yusho, and even fewer have one to their name. It is the dream of all rikishi to one day win the yusho and lift the Emperors Cup, the holy grail of Japans national sport. Despite being the most prestigious, sought-after prize in all of sumo, the Emperor’s Cup simply did not exist for much of the sport’s history. Even the concept of the yusho, Japanese for victory, has only been a part of sumo for a third of its existence.

The evolution of the yusho we know today was long and gradual, and dates as far back as the seventeenth century. Before this time, many of the men who defined the pre-yusho era of sumo, such as Onogawa Kisaburo, Raiden Tameemon, and Inazuma Raigoro, received no official championships or recognition besides credit for having the best record of their respective basho. The first semblance of a yusho or prize in sumo is found in the Edo period, when onlookers rewarded their favorite rikishi for winning bouts by by throwing  gifts of money onto the dohyo. Over time, these gifts transformed into more organized prizes and trophies provided for each basho by private financiers and awarded to the rikishi with perfect records. However, as Hikiwake (draws), Azukari (Decisions too close to call), and absences were not considered loses during this period, the rikishi with the most wins was not always awarded the tournament prize. It was also common in this period for several rikishi with identical records to be declared the champion of a basho and receive rewards for their efforts, as playoffs would not be introduced until much later.

Around the turn of the century, in January of 1900, this old system underwent a major change when the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun newspaper company offered a kensho-mawashi as a prize for the rikishi with a perfect record or the fewest losses at the upcoming basho. This development would establish the concept of a singular champion for each basho. The first tournament to declare an official yusho champion was the 1909 summer basho, when Maegashira 7 Takamiyama Torinosuke defeated Ozeki Tachiyama Mineemon. While the system of an individual basho champion was begging to take form, there were still some key differences when compared to sumo today. The most significant of these differences was the protocol for breaking ties. There were no playoffs in sumo during this era, and in the case of two men having identical records, the yusho was awarded to the rikishi with the higher rank. Playoff rules would be incorporated into sumo in 1947 after several controversial decisions saw Higher ranked rikishi being chosen over men below them without consideration for the circumstances of the basho. One such controversy involved Ozeki Hitachiiwa Eitaro receiving the yusho over Meagashira Misugiiso Zenshichi, despite one of his wins coming by default.

The final piece of the modern yusho structure came in 1925 when Crown Prince Hirohito donated a trophy, called the Prince Regent’s Cup, to be awarded to the yusho winner of each basho. Upon Hirohito taking his place on the Chrysanthemum throne in 1926, the trophy was renamed the Emperors Cup, and has remained the physical embodiment of the yusho ever since. From humble beginnings of monetary gifts showered upon rikishi from the common folk, the concept of a yusho unfolded gradually, eventually evolving into a splendid trophy from the highest lord in all the land, the Emperor himself. The yusho has become a milestone achievement, a career-definer, and the holy grail that every rikishi strives for each and every day.

Legends of the Dohyo #2: Paving the Way


Takamiyama3

 

When one looks at the current banzuke, they are sure to find rikishi from all over the world. There are the Mongolians such as Hakuho and Terunofuji, Egypt’s Osunaarashi, the Bulgarian Aoiyama, and Wakaichiro from the United States. Foreign rikishi have become commonplace in Japan’s national sport, but for the vast majority of its existence, sumo was exclusively for those of Japanese heritage. That is, until Takamiyama Daigoro blazed a trial that countless rikishi around the globe have followed to this very day.

Takamiyama Daigoro, birth name Jesse Kuhaulua, was born on the Hawaiian Island of Maui in 1944. Even in his youth, he was known for his enormous size, standing over 6 feet tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds. Despite his impressive stature, he suffered from weak legs and hips as a teenager. He was encouraged by his high school football coach to join a local sumo club to strengthen his lower body. Takamiyama soon caught the attention of several professional rikishi visiting Hawaii from Japan, and in 1964 he accepted an invitation to join Takasago beya. At the 1968 Haru basho, Takamiyama became the first foreign-born rikishi to be promoted to the Makuuchi division. He would go on to have a long and successful career in sumo’s top division, spanning 17 years and a record 97 consecutive tournaments. This record for most consecutive basho as a sekitori stood for twenty-five years until it was surpassed by Ozeki Kaio Hiroyuki in 2009. Although not the most technically proficient rikishi, Takamiyama’s size and strength made up for what he lacked in skill. He regularly used his power to push his way to victory, and on many occasions would merely lift his opponents up and out of the dohyo.

In addition to his success on the dohyo, Takamiyama became a celebrity throughout Japan. His massive size, bushy sideburns, and jovial personality made him incredibly popular with fans, and he regularly appeared in advertisements until it was banned by the Sumo Association. The crowning achievement of his career came at the 1972 Nagoya basho when Takamiyama became the first foreign-born rikishi to win a yusho. To congratulate him on his victory, President Richard Nixon sent a letter that was read aloud after the presentation of The Emperor’s Cup. This marked the first time English was ever spoken on the dohyo. In addition to his yusho, Takamiyama was awarded 11 sansho special prizes and earned 12 kinboshi victories throughout his career.

In 1982, Takamiyama was given a heroes welcome when he returned to Hawaii. During this trip, he met a young Saleva’a Atisano’e, later known as Konishiki Yasokichi. This meeting would inspire the future first non-Japanese Ozeki to begin his sumo career. In 1984, at the age of 39, a debilitating elbow injury forced Takamiyama to end his career. Having become a Japanese citizen, he joined the Sumo Association and started his own stable, Azumazeki beya, the first foreigner to do so. His most promising student, Chadwick Rowan, would go on to become Akebono Taro, sumo’s first foreign-born Yokozuna. With his fighting days behind him, Takamiyama passed the torch to his fellow Hawaiians, Konishiki and Akebono, both trailblazers in their own right. They would, in turn, pass the torch to a generation of rikishi from across the globe, each of whom owes a debt to their forerunner, Takamiyama, the man who paved their way.


Takamiyama (left) vs. Asahikuni (right), Nagoya basho, 1972.


Links:
http://sumodb.sumogames.de/Rikishi.aspx?r=4050
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takamiyama_Daigor%C5%8D

Legends of the Dohyo #1: The Unbreakable Record


Futabayama

In the world of sport, there are a select number of records so substantial, set by athletes who transcended their sport, that they are considered unbreakable. Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857 career points, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak, Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive games played. All great records, all thought to be unbreakable. Yet there is one record that may genuinely never be bested: Yokozuna Futabayama Sadaji’s 69 consecutive wins.

At the age of fifteen Futabayama entered the world of sumo, making his Makuuchi debut five years later in 1932. His meteoric rise up the banzuke from mid-Juryo to Meagashira 4, an unusually large promotion, was the result of many of the sports top stars going on strike due to demands for reform within the Sumo Association. Desperate for talent, The Association put their faith in the young Futabayama. Their faith was well founded, and it did not take long for him to find success in the top division. In March of 1936 Futabayama won his first yusho at the rank of Sekiwake with a perfect 11-0 record. As a result of his impressive zen-yusho victory, Futabayama was awarded the rank of Ozeki for the following tournament. As an Ozeki, he would go on to win both bashos in 1937* with perfect zensho-yusho records and became the sports 35th Yokozuna.

At this point in his career Futabayama had garnered a great deal of public attention. Spectators eagerly attended tournaments to see just how long the Yokozuna could stretch his winning streak. Capitalizing on this popularity, the Sumo Association extended the number of days each basho ran from 11 to 13 and eventually to the 15-day tournaments we see today. Futabayama continued his winning ways with an additional two zensho-yusho in 1938. His streak would come to an end on the eighth day of the 1939 Haru basho when Futabayama, who was ill with dysentery, was finally defeated by future Yokozuna Akinoumi Setsuo. Although his undefeated record had been capped at 69 victories, Futabayama continued to find success in his career. He went on to win another six more yusho and opened his own stable in 1941 while still an active rikishi, an act now forbidden by the Sumo Association. After his retirement in 1945, Futabayama revealed that he had been robbed of his sight in one eye as a child, making the incredible achievements throughout his career even more impressive.

Since setting the record for most consecutive wins, many other great Yokozuna such as Taiho and Chiyonofuji have tried and fallen short of surpassing Futabayamas most enduring legacy. In 2010, Yokozuna Hakuho became the closest in modern time to breaking the record. Believing himself to have been born to eclipse Futabayama’s achievement, Hakuho fell just six wins short of drawing even with his Yokozuna predecessor. If the greatest rikishi of our time could not overcome Futabayama’s record 69 consecutive wins, Then it can truly be said to be unbreakable.

*During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s only two basho were held each year


Futabayama (left) vs. Akinoumi (right), Natsu basho, 1942.


Links:
http://sumodb.sumogames.de/Rikishi.aspx?r=3763
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futabayama_Sadaji