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?

Abi hands in intai documents

Japanese press reports that Abi has handed in his intai documents, according to Shikoroyama oyakata.

The board convenes on August 6th to discuss his punishment, and will also decide whether or not to accept his resignation. However, the chances of it not being accepted are said to be slim.

Tochiozan Bows Out

There have been several retirements since we last saw action in Osaka. Sokokurai and Toyonoshima called it quits back in March but in the past week, Seiro and now Tochiozan have handed in their retirement papers as well. He debuted in 2005 with an unbroken stint in the top division that lasted from 2007 to November of 2019. A poor 3-12 in Osaka meant he was listed in Juryo again this tournament, for only the second time since Hatsu 2007.

“I coulda been was a contender”

Tochiozan hailed from Kochi-ken and rose very quickly through the lower ranks and into makuuchi within two years. He peaked at Sekiwake, a rank he held 11 times, including four in a row during an unsuccessful Ozeki run in 2015. That Ozeki run came when the division was a bit top heavy with three Yokozuna and four Ozeki. He claimed 6 kinboshi during his long career, including three from Kisenosato and one each from Kakuryu, Harumafuji, and the GOAT, Hakuho. He was predominantly successful as a pusher-thruster but was certainly dangerous on the belt as well.

As Herouth reports, his retirement from the ring is not a retirement from sumo. He will continue as coach under the name Kiyomigata (清見潟). I wonder if he will seek more talent from his Shikoku home.

Toyonoshima announces his retirement

The NSK official Twitter, as well as most of the sports outlets in Japan, report that the highly popular Tokitsukaze beya veteran, Toyonoshima, has announced his retirement, and will now become Izutsu oyakata.

Toyonoshima was ranked Ms2e for Haru and expected to gain back his sekitori privileges (and income) with a simple kachi-koshi. Sadly, that kachi-koshi didn’t come, and his 2-5 result was certain to send him below the promotion rank on the Natsu banzuke.

When that result became clear, Toyonoshima asked the press to give him some time to consider his options. He said he was more or less ready to quit, but his daughter wanted him to press on.

We sometimes refer to short-stature rikishi like Ishiura, Terutsuyoshi and Enho as “pixies”, and marvel at their ability to maintain high rank and fairly impressive results in Makuuchi. But Toyonoshima and his 170cm have been there long before them. Toyonoshima reached the rank of Sekiwake several times, and raked in 5 jun-yusho, 10 special prizes and 4 kinboshi during his 18 year career.

As Izutsu oyakata, he intends to continue serving at Tokitsukaze beya.