[sumo] Streaks No Match For Big Rivalries
jeffand at regent.edu
Thu Dec 2 14:20:51 EST 2010
THE INSIDE GRIP / Streaks no match for big rivalries
John Gunning / Special to the Daily Yomiuri
"I am not yet a wooden rooster"--Futabayama in January 1939, when his 69- bout winning streak was halted by maegashira Akinoumi.
Rank-and-filer Kisenosato similarly ensured that yokozuna Hakuho would have to content himself with being just a "White Phoenix" when he harried the Mongolian out of the ring on day two of the recently completed Kyushu Grand Tournament.
That loss left Hakuho six wins short of Futabayama's amazing record. It also had many in the Japan Sumo Association groaning with disappointment as the year's most positive story came to an end. The hope was that the streak would help ticket sales and increase the numbers of new recruits joining sumo.
The former was never likely to happen in the calendar's lowest-attended tournament. In fact, there were 308 fewer people in attendance for the bout than on the corresponding day last year, when nothing was at stake.
The reality is that, regardless of whether or not Hakuho had broken the record, the impact on ticket sales and new recruits was always going to be marginal.
This is not to say that the yokozuna's run was without benefit.
"I get the impression that the streak has had an effect not just on the sumo world, but on society in general," Shinichi Taira (former juryo Dewataira) told Inside Grip last week. "Since 2007 there has been a succession of scandals, the hazing death of Tokitaizan, the drug issue, the Asashoryu question and baseball gambling. The general public had taken an increasingly dim view of the sumo world.
"Hakuho, though, has given sumo back its dignity and restored it to what it was originally meant to be."
Futabayama's streak also captured the imagination of the public, but it had a far more dramatic and immediate effect on the sport itself. To accommodate increased interest, tournaments were increased in length from 11 days to first 13, and later 15.
The number of rikishi on the banzuke jumped from 271 in January 1936, when the streak started, to 477 when it ended three years later. There was also a huge upsurge in intake, with almost three times as many recruits joining sumo at the end of the streak as at the beginning.
Taira feels that as a result of Hakuho's streak, the number of new rikishi will increase this time as well, but only temporarily. He believes deeper change is needed in the long term and suggested greater use of modern media and the removal of restrictions on height and weight and the number of foreign rikishi.
In the decades since Futabayama dominated, the emergence of great yokozuna rivalries one after another has meant that the public, and indeed the wrestlers themselves, now care less about records than they do about individual rivalries.
That was a view echoed by former yokozuna Akebono.
"If the Hanada brothers [yokozuna pair Takanohana and Wakanohana] were not here, Akebono would never have been born," he said. "I was never worried about winning tournaments or becoming a yokozuna. It was such an intense rivalry that before I knew it I was at the top. I did want to win, but more against the two of them."
It's a theme that remains constant. Hakuho shed tears of frustration and disappointment when Asashoryu retired in February. There was little love lost between the pair, but Hakuho has a deep understanding of sumo history and tradition.
He knew that the loss of his fellow Mongolian meant more than reduced public interest and ticket sales. A yokozuna's place in history is defined by his rivals.
The pressure of being the sole yokozuna is something that Akebono understood.
"Being a yokozuna, especially the only one, there are only records left to get you motivated. The record that Hakuho was going after is probably one of the hardest records to break in sumo or...in any sport, period."
Regardless of what drives Hakuho, the yokozuna is likely to continue his dominance for the foreseeable future.
For his legacy and the health of the sports though, the sooner a strong rival emerges the better.
(Dec. 3, 2010)
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these:
It might have been. - John Greenleaf Whittier
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