As Hakuho approaches 2015’s third tournament, he is the heavy favorite to win again and further distance himself from Taiho, the legendary yokozuna. He surpassed Taiho in January, winning his 33rd Emperor’s Cup with a perfect record (his 11th time to do so and another record), and added to that in March with 34th. And on and on he goes – alone, without anyone to stand with him on the dohyo for more than a handful of seconds.
In sumo, where champions are determined after a 15-day tournament, there is a tendency for the top yokozuna to dominant for years with hardly a challenger — Taiho in the 60s, Kitanoumi in the 70s, Chiyonofuji in the 80s, and, from early in this century, Asashoryu. For four years, Asa appeared to be on track to erase every record that had come before him. Then Hakuho arrived, becoming yokozuna in May 2007. It was a pinnacle moment for sumo — two of the best ever, perhaps The Two Best Ever, competing in their prime.
That was how it was to be: Asa and Hakuho meeting at every senshuraku, the ultimate day of the tournament, from here to eternity, neither able to dominate the other.
Reality can play hard with our dreams. Asa was forced into retirement in 2010, leaving the Asa-Hakuho rivalry as one of those great unanswered questions of sports. Ali had Frazier, and they resolved the question in three huge battles. And Asa had Hakuho. And then, suddenly, Hakuho had no one.
If Asa and Hakuho were near equals, they were also magnitudes beyond the other rikishi. Hakuho has been alone at the top of the mountain for five years, and not a single challenger has appeared. Harumafuji and Kakuryu are good yokozuna, but they are of this earth. Hakuho is not. He is simply without peer and will likely remain so for some time. His 30 years old, and relatively young physically because he has had few serious injuries. Other than being thrown by an opponent, falling is one of the primary ways to be injured, and Hakuho almost always wins and never falls.
Hakuho’s solitary pursuit of perfection is in some ways more difficult than if he had a rival. This is his only challenge and it has sustained him thus far. As I watched him shed tears in 2010 over Asa’s retirement, I wondered how lonely it would be on that mountain top. Rivalry is a great motivator for a champion, and yet he has had to go on alone.
As for Asa, a TV documentary aired in December with Reiko Yokono, the noted sumo journalist, finding him healthy, if not entirely happy. He’s laid off alcohol, which was his greatest weakness as a rikishi and a person. He’s running several businesses and supporting most likely the next yokozuna – Ichinojo. He’s moved on. But he knows, what we know, what Hakuho, and the Japan Sumo Association know — that the question of What If? will remain unanswered.