By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
Sumo yokozuna Asashoryu retired Thursday amid the fallout from a late-night drinking session in which he reportedly hit a man and broke his nose.
“I will retire,” a tearful Asashoryu said after meeting with sumo officials who were preparing to hammer home their own decision on the grand champion’s future in the coming days. No doubt a shocking turn of events, though there was speculation that he would certainly face some sort of stiff penalty.
After all, this is the Bad Boy of sumo we’re talking about here. A guy who has been involved in a series of mishaps over the years that has cast a bad light on Japan’s ancient sport. A guy who’s been at the forefront of yokozuna firsts.
In 2003, he was the first grand champ disqualified from a bout when he pulled an opponent’s topknot. Four years later in 2007, he became the first grand champ suspended when a video of him playing soccer in Mongolia surfaced days after he skipped a goodwill tournament citing injury.
“I am taking responsibility for having caused so much trouble,” he said Thursday. “I have caused a lot of trouble for so many people. I decided to step down to bring this to a closure.”
It’s very likely that last line can be translated into “avoid the shame of a third strike,” which of course would be the next step in his career progression—being the first yokozuna expelled from Japan’s treasured, iconic sport.
“I have no regrets about sumo,” he added. “There was a big difference about what was reported in the media about the incident and what actually happened.”
As the media has explained his most recent episode, the Mongolian wrestler, whose birth name is Dagvadorj Dolgorsuren, was accused of assaulting a man after drinking in downtown Tokyo, right smack dab in the middle of the New Year sumo tournament. The story became a bit shady when Asashoryu’s manager came forward claiming he was the one attacked, then a few days later a worker at the nightclub Asa was partying at came forward, with, you know, a broken nose and face lacerations.
The craziest part about this whole thing is that Asashoryu is one of the greatest sumo wrestlers of all time. Only two wrestlers—Taiho with 32 and Chiyonofuji with 31—have more titles than Asa’s 25. And he just won that last one less than three weeks ago.
While the average sumo wrestler retires when he enters into his 30s, Asa, at 29 years of age, was showing very little sign of slowing down. Sure, he hadn’t beaten compatriot Hakuho over their last few matches, but Asa’s 25th Emperor’s Cup proved he was still better than most all the rest.
There really isn’t any comparison, other than perhaps Michael Jordan, and I’m talking second-retirement MJ. But even Jordan didn’t dominate basketball as much as Asashoryu has sumo. Jordan has six rings, but so does Bob Cousy. So does Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So does Scottie Pippen. Hell, there’s plenty of other guys who have more. Bill Russell. Sam Jones. John Havlicek. Robert Horry. Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Still, Jordan is the closest example of a guy walking away from everything at, or close to the height of his success. Of course, MJ didn’t have the public relations issues that Asa’s had despite being a notorious gambler, carousing at a Woodsian level, and hitting not one, but two teammates during practice.
Which brings me to a very main point that seems to have been overlooked thus far.
Japan’s ancient pastime, over 2,000 years old, prides itself on reverence for tradition. Tradition is a Japanese pastime all on its own and in sumo has meant an extreme reluctance to let foreigners into the fold. And while it’s been slow to let in, it’s been extremely fast in kicking out.
More than a year ago, two popular Russian sumo wrestlers, Roho and Hakutozan, were handed lifetime bans for testing positive for marijuana, a drug that is legally being sold in over 200 dispensaries in the greater Los Angeles area.
Japanese sports have shown a hardline in punishing disruptive athletes, especially foreigners. Daniel Rios, Luis Gonzalez (not that one) and Rick Guttormson of the NPB were all suspended for banned substance abuse.
Here in America, a pro athlete can: run dog fighting rings (Mike Vick); admit to cheating and forever sullying perhaps the greatest American sports record of all time (Mark McGuire); charge the stands and punch a fan (Stephen Jackson); smash in a teammate’s face and end his career (Bill Romanowski); sucker punch a guy from behind and break three of his vertebrae thus ending his career (Todd Bertuzzi); and commit vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (Donte Stallworth)—and after undergoing some sort of a punishment in the form of monetary compensation and/or a suspension, can be reinstated to play in the sport he loves.
Compare those acts with pulling hair, lying and skipping a tournament (that didn’t even count) and getting into a bar fight, and well, Asashoryu’s offenses don’t seem so offensive at all.
I mean, look how many strip club/bar fights Adam “Pacman” Jones got into, one in which he shot off his gun. And yet, how many opportunities did the NFL give him? How many chances has John Daly gotten? How many failed drug tests have their been in baseball and how many of those guys are still playing in the Majors? And without question, the PGA will welcome Tiger Woods back with open arms despite the epic embarrassment it has undergone thanks to his wayward, uh, putter.
In America, it’s all about second chances.
In Japan, it’s all about not messing up that first one.
“He felt compelled to resign for misconduct which was inexcusable, and the board accepted it,” Japan Sumo Association chairman Musashigawa said in a statement.
While I am in no way trying to uplift a guy who obviously has a severe problem with alcoholism and who assaulted another person, I would like to pose the question, how many American athletes would have walked away without being dragged out?
Mongolian newspapers are saying that Japanese sumo officials had pressured Asa into retirement for fear that he would break sumo legend and former yokozuna Taiho’s record. I think there’s enough precedence in Japanese sports (Tuffy Rhodes not getting any pitches when he tied Sadaharu Oh’s 55 home run record) that these allegations have some legs to stand.
But, I won’t go there.
The record books will show that Asashoryu’s 25 titles are third most all time. He recorded the second most wins in a single season (84). He also has some positive firsts. He is the first wrestler to ever win all six sumo tournaments in a calendar year. And he is also the only sumo wrestler to win seven consecutive tournaments.
At the press conference Thursday, Asashoryu said his best memory in sumo was beating grand champion Musashimaru when his parents made their first trip to Japan to see him wrestle.
“That was my best moment,” Asashoryu said, wiping away tears. “I’ve been under a lot of mental stress and right now I want to get some rest.”
Who knows, after Asa rests up, maybe he’ll give soccer a whirl…
Jordan Ikeda is the Rafu sports editor. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.