It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Asashoryu. He was going to win 30 tournaments; maybe break Taiho’s career record of 32. He and Hakuho were going to fight for the Emperor’s Cup for at least two more years. They were going to be the greatest yokozuna combination in history, igniting arguments for years over who was better. Or, at least, that’s the way it seemed on the evening of September 29, 2009.
On that evening Asashoryu came to a party I was hosting at Tableaux in Daikanyama. I was throwing the party for no reason other than that I could. Standing outside the restaurant checking over the guest list, I saw Asa coming down the stairs. He had won the autumn tournament just two days prior and he looked every bit a champion. Now, proper Tokyo behavior dictates that when a celebrity appears in public everyone engages in quiet, restrained observation. I absolutely disregarded this, applauding and shouting “Asashoryu, champion! Yokozuna, champion!” He came forward smiling, extending his hand. I thought: I got him, he’s coming to my party. But it was not to be. With a few meters between us, his handlers stepped in and directed him to his birthday party in the neighboring room.
Fast forward one year and a week to last Sunday: Asashoryu held his danpatsu-shiki, the ceremony for cutting off the rikishi topknot — the final step in ending a sumo career. I have attended retirement ceremonies for Terao and Musashimaru, and know that this one was, despite all efforts, awkward. Rikishi retire when they’ve had enough or their bodies are spent. This wasn’t the case with Asa and you couldn’t help but feel that the JSA had been profoundly unfair – if not to Asa, then to sumo and its fans. The man wasn’t allowed to fight until he was finished. Rikishi upon retirement are often told, “otsukare sama” – but as Koki Kameda, the former WBC flyweight champion and one of the 380 who paid their respects by taking a snip at Asa’s hair, pointed out, you couldn’t say that to Asashoryu because he wasn’t tired and he wasn’t finished.
Though it shouldn’t have ended this way, perhaps, this was the only way that it could have ended. The man was too wild, too unpredictable for the sport and the institution of sumo. On his way out after his topknot was cut, he bowed and put his forehead on the dohyo. He stayed there for a moment, then kissed the clay and cried, finally. It was dramatic, unexpected, and powerful – so appropriately Asashoryu.
The unexpected was the only thing we could expect of him, from his rapid rise to yokozuna, followed by eight years of volatile domination, to his abrupt fall. It was a roller-coaster ride and a lot of fun, usually.
He was the kind of guy who two years ago declared a golf day for all of his fellow Mongolians – just before a tournament. Of course, the tabloids screamed foul over the incident, hammering Asa, though Hakuho went along, too. He wore baggy shorts in Hawaii and a business suit in Mongolia (yokozuna should always be in a yukata). He made a photo book that displayed him with “ponytail hair”, as the wide shows called it, rather than a proper topknot.
Then there was the great Mongolian Soccer Scandal of 2007. Slowed by an elbow injury and a stress fracture in the lower back, Asa skipped a promotional sumo tour of Japan, and went back to Mongolia to recover. There he ran into his friend Hidetoshi Nakata, the Japanese international soccer star, and agreed to play in a game promoting Mongolian youth soccer. It made for wonderful television — displaying his agility and speed that, at 6 feet and 360 pounds, made him so formidable. It’s no use explaining that stress fractures are commonly tolerated by athletes, such U.S. football players, and many are able to perform at a high level despite the pain. Never mind. He was accused of faking injury to get out of the tour and was banned for two tournaments. He had to wait nearly six months to fight again.
These moments of bad behavior took a toll on his relationship with the JSA. So when he was accused of assault last January, the question was not if, but when he would be forced out.
We will never know what really happened that night, when after drinking heavily, Asashoryu took a bar owner for a ride. The owner had “organized crime connections” as the media politely phrased it, and he claimed that Asa had punched him in the nose. He may have. Asa claimed not to remember much of the evening. But if there was an argument and a confrontation, then why did Asa’s driver tell investigators that he saw no physical trouble between the two? And why was Asa at that club — what was the his relationship with the owner? As with so many things relating to organized crime, regardless of the country, there are more questions than answers.
The incident, besides giving the JSA a reason to finally kick out Asa, provided impetus for breaking its ties with yakuza. (Kotomitsuki’s betting scandal also helped.) The JSA loved that he brought fans back to sumo, but his behavior was beyond the pale. In his first two tournaments as yokozuna, his confrontations with fellow Mongolian Kyokushuzan — pulling his opponent’s topknot, engaging in a stare down — now seem mild in light of what followed.
While I agree that you need to abide by the rules of the game and Asa sometimes did not, I also found him refreshing in a sport that had become dull. Yokozuna throughout the 90s were giants that relied on their weight as much as their skill. For much of 2001 and 2002, the reigning yokozuna — Musashimaru and Takanohana — were injured and should have retired well before they did. Both personalities were restrained to the point of blandness. Then Asa came along and made things interesting because he so lacked the façade of yokozuna. He laughed; had fits of anger. It was all there.
Of course, sumo doesn’t need victors screaming as they do in free-fighting, but the JSA has to recognize that rikishi are people and they are trained to fight, albeit within the rules, and they aren’t saints. They drink too much and often do remarkably stupid things. They cause accidents while driving cars despite being banned from driving (Kyokutenho). Sometimes, they even accidentally kill pedestrians while driving (Toki). They violate the Japanese cannabis law (Wakanoho, and several others). And they get into confrontations with a variety of people (too numerous to recount here). The JSA has to come into the modern world with its governance and draw up a contract and a code of conduct. Further, the JSA needs to recognize that it is an international organization (it has been for at least 20 years) and take steps to deal with foreign rikishi in a fair manner, rather than increasing restrictions on them. This is particularly important now that Kaio, the aging ozeki warhorse, is the sole high-ranking Japanese rikishi.
If these changes occur, then Asashoryu, the man too wild for the JSA, will have had a hand in not only bringing fans back to sumo, but also in pushing the JSA into the modern world. These accomplishments, at least, will make something lasting of his career, which now seems so fleeting.