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Yokozuna Hakuho fulfills duty as role model for sumo world

Hakuho responds to fans' cheers as he leaves the ring after winning against ozeki Takayasu at the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament on July 21, 2017. This was Hakuho's 1,048th win, making him the lone record holder for most career wins. (Mainichi)

After a long and thrilling bout with new ozeki Takayasu on July 21, yokozuna Hakuho recorded his 1,048 win, becoming the lone record holder for most career wins.

"I'm twice as happy about today's victory compared with yesterday's," the smiling yokozuna said after the match on the 13th day of the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament at Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium.

Of Hakuho's 1,048 victories, a striking 760 -- or 73 percent -- were recorded after he rose to yokozuna, a rank that is as illustrious as it is a burden, since yokozuna are expected to win every match. He has held the top rank for the past 60 grand sumo tournaments, and the rate at which he has won as yokozuna, calculated by dividing his wins with his bouts (including both no-shows and losses), is over 88 percent. This comes out to an average of over 13 wins in every 15-day sumo tournament.

In Hakuho's first banzuke (ranking) appearance in the lowest jonokuchi division at the 2001 Summer Grand Sumo Tournament when he was 16 years old, he lost more bouts than he won. Even through his period in the makushita division, the third highest division, he never clinched a championship. He made a dramatic turnaround, however, in the 2004 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, in which he competed as a new wrestler in the juryo division, sumo's second highest division. Making full use of his flexibility, he won nine bouts. Since then, he has achieved winning records, or more wins than losses, in the 75 tournaments in which he has competed in all 15 bouts. The current Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament is his 81st as a top division wrestler, and he is a top-runner for the championship.

Hakuho came to understand that he was a leading figure in the sumo world following the 2010 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament. Yokozuna Asashoryu, also from Mongolia, had retired, and for 15 tournaments, starting with the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament that year and ending with the 2012 Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament, Hakuho fulfilled his duty as a role model as the only yokozuna in sumo. It was a period in which the very survival of sumo had been called into question. A series of scandals, including one involving sumo wrestlers betting on baseball games, had been exposed, and in 2011, a sumo match-fixing scandal led to the cancellation of the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament. Then, on March 11 that year -- Hakuho's 26th birthday -- the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck, triggering the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.

As the only yokozuna in sumo, Hakuho won 10 championships, and achieved 63 consecutive wins, just six short of the top record left by the late Futabayama. Some 60 percent of tickets to the 2012 Summer Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo hall in Tokyo went unsold, attesting to the falling popularity of sumo, but Hakuho carried out his duty by continuing to win. He accepted the occurrence of the Great East Japan Earthquake on his birthday as "fate," and has continued to perform ring-entering ceremonies every year in areas hit hardest by the disaster to pray for their swift recovery and reconstruction.

The late Kitanoumi, who was the chairman of the Japan Sumo Association at the time of his death, said that Hakuho was capable of winning the championship 40 times. Hakuho's 39th championship is now just within reach. With his eye on competing in the sumo ring until the Tokyo Summer Olympics set to take place in three years, Hakuho continues to play a leading role in sumo.

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