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Sumo bad boy Asashoryu melts hearts
Mongolian sumo grand champion Asashoryu is the self-styled bad boy of Japan’s ancient sport, a man who once yanked a rival’s hair before picking a soapy bathtub fight with the same opponent and later being accused of smashing the same wrestler’s car mirror.
To many seasoned sumo observers, he lacks the dignity required to hold sumo’s elite rank of “yokozuna”. To others, he is simply eccentric.
The 28-year-old has polarised Japanese opinion to the extent that he made his latest comeback from injury at the New Year’s tournament in Tokyo amid tight security following a death threat posted again him on the Internet. He could have been forgiven for walking away, returning to Mongolia with his riches and never returning.
But in a twist even Hollywood scriptwriters would have struggled to conjure, Asashoryu returned with a bang to win his 23rd Emperor’s Cup at the weekend, silencing critics and exorcising his own demons after a turbulent 18 months.
His future had already been the subject of intense speculation after a series of injuries, illness and a bizarre ban for playing soccer while supposedly injured.
“Asashoryu has finally returned,” he blubbed after his first major title in almost a year in an Oscar-calibre speech only slightly dampened by the sight of his giant 150kg frame wrapped in the tradiional sumo loincloth. “I love Japan. I am Japan’s yokozuna.”
His notoriously short fuse and frequent breaches of protocol have angered sumo authorities and divided public opinion about his presence in the ancient Japanese sport.
His suspension for playing in a soccer game in August 2007 while out of action for injury was the final straw for many sumo elders, and sparked a bout of clinical depression in Asashoryu.
His behaviour continued to raise eyebrows after he spent 10 days living in a tent in the freezing Mongolian mountains as part of his rehabilitation for elbow and back injuries last year.
Asashoryu’s “boot camp” last October involved hunting and cooking wild animals, including boar and wolves, and plunging into icy rivers to prepare for his return to sumo.
All was forgiven after his emotional comeback win, made sweeter by beating fellow Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho in a nerve-tingling playoff, completing a remarkable catharsis.
Whether Asashoryu has, in fact, turned over a new leaf only time will tell. But Sunday’s triumph, and his tearful speech, should guarantee a stay of execution.
Photo credits: Mongolian grand champion Asashoryu (L) lifts compatriot Hakuho out of the ring to win the New Year grand sumo tournament in Tokyo January 25, 2009. REUTERS/Kyodo; Mongolian-born grand sumo champion Yokozuna Asashoryu performs the New Year’s ring-entering rite at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo January 6, 2009. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon