Sumo: Hakuho leads march of new Mongolian warriors
Tokyo: Hakuho returned to his corner for a third time to grab another fistful of salt, his face a picture of concentration, his eyes narrowed and focused as a packed Ryougoku Sumo Hall bristled with anticipation.
He turned, tossed the granules high into the air and made his way back towards the centre of the dohyo (ring), slapping his thighs and pumping himself up as he completed a centuries-old pre-bout ritual.
Opposite the Mongolian-born yokozuna (grand champion) stood, somewhat fittingly, Japan’s top-ranked wrestler Kisenosato, the last barrier between Hakuho and a history-making triumph.
Seconds later, Hakuho fended off his opponent’s initial barrage of slaps and pushes before planting his feet, seizing the momentum and forcefully marching Kisenosato out of the ring for his 13th straight victory in the New Year Tournament.
Haukho allowed himself a smile and nodded knowingly. His 33rd Emperor’s Cup was won with two days to spare, sumo’s chronicles had been rewritten and his quest to surpass legend Taiho’s all-time tournament victories record was complete.
The 29-year-old’s landmark triumph on Friday evening was also the starkest reminder yet that the most Japanese of sports had become the domain of Mongolian wrestlers both in the ring and now the history books.
Sumo had been practiced by only Japanese competitors from its first organised basho (tournament) in the 17th century until a little more than a hundred years ago, when foreign-born wrestlers began to participate.
The first wave of overseas powers had a distinctly Polynesian flavour with Takamiyama laying down a marker for Hawaiian-born wrestlers in the late 1960s, before Konishiki rose to prominence two decades later and Akebono became the first foreign yokozuna in 1993.