Asashoryu's retirement

I've probably started three separate blog entries regarding Asashoryu's retirement from sumo and why it had to happen, but there are just so many talking points and issues at play that I wasn't able to wrap them all up into an entire piece. However, after watching Tiger Woods' press conference last week where he apologized for his actions off the course, I couldn't help but compare his situation to that of Asashoryu's, and once I did that, it made me realize just how nonsensical and unnecessary Asashoryu's retirement was.

Let's keep the focus on the American sports world for now and focus on three individuals who transend(ed) their sport just as Asashoryu did with sumo: Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan.

There's no need to rehash the sins of Tiger Woods since the news is still playing itself out. As for Kobe Bryant, basketball fans have all but forgotten how he okuri-dashi'd a female employee of the hotel in Colorado where he was staying up against the back of a chair in his room so he could deliver the ultimate dame-oshi doggy style. The girl went to police the very next morning claiming rape and prosecutors determined that they had sufficient evidence to charge Kobe Bryant with a crime. It turned out that while Kobe Bryant was ultimately found not guilty of any crime, he was guilty of infidelity and horrible judgment.

So you have to ask yourself the question, why do guys in the position of Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods do what they do? Why do they engage in such seemingly reckless behavior? The reason is because they can, and you probably would too if you were in their shoes. Fame and money give people a sense of entitlement, and then when you become a superstar, everything is just handed to you. You begin to think that different rules apply to you, and you think you are untouchable regardless of whether or not you're married or whether or not something is morally correct. And Tiger admitted as much in his presser last week.

Now, I should make it clear that I do not condone or excuse the behavior of Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods. My point is that when you become a professional athlete, everything is handed to you, and you naturally get the sense that you are above it all. I am a huge sports fan, and as such, I devour as much information from as many sources as I can get it...magazines, newspapers, radio, and television. And whenever I hear someone talk who was a former beat writer for a professional team, they don't go into details for ethical reasons, but they all say the same thing: the general public would be shocked if they really knew what these athletes were doing outside the field of play. Pick your sport and pick your country; it's all the same.

Okay, I mentioned Michael Jordan early on, so how does he play into all of this? It is common knowledge that Michael Jordan was unfaithful to his former wife. It's common knowledge that he fathered illegitimate children while married. It's common knowledge that he had women in every city he visited. It's common knowledge that he was a huge gambler. And while many won't specifically come out and say it, he probably had ties to the mafia as well stemming from his gambling habits.

So what's the difference between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods? Well, the behavior was exactly the same, but the difference with Jordan is there was never that single incident that forced his transgressions into the spotlight to the extent where he was required to appear in court or to the extent where he was required to hold a press conference to apologize for a misdeed. In other words, he never had to go through the public humiliation that Tiger and Kobe had to go through.

I could not help as I listened last week to Tiger Woods apologize to think about Michael Jordan and what he must be feeling like inside because he was guilty of the same things; yet, he never had to publicly confess his transgressions. I think Michael Jordan's emotions were divided in two directions. One side of him felt extreme relief that he didn't have to go through such a public humiliation while the other side of him felt a tinge of guilt because he knew full well that it could have been him had the circumstances been even slightly different.

Alright. Let's turn our attention back to Japan and the world of sumo. I wanted to discuss the situation of those three American athletes because I had the same exact thoughts as we were going through the public trial of Asashoryu just prior to his retirement.

Picture the oyakata sitting around that round table in the board of directors room just after 1 PM on February 4th and tell me that the directors didn't have an emotional conflict brewing within themselves as they discussed the future of Asashoryu because like Michael Jordan, they were guilty of the same sins for which Asashoryu was being crucified. In regards to a sport's top athletes and living life on the edge and to excess, sumo is not an exception, and the Japanese know it. Asashoryu resembled the former Japanese legends more so than anyone else, and there will never be another guy like him. The difference is that the public and media in Japan turned a blind eye to the excesses of their own while they scrutinized Asashoryu's every move for a single reason.

I mean think about it. What good does it do to kick Asashoryu out of sumo? You don't see the PGA holding special councils to discuss what they're going to do with Tiger Woods. You don't have this public outcry from golf fans or the golf media that Tiger Woods should be excommunicated from the sport because he lacks hinkaku. As a golf fan, I want Tiger back on the course as soon as possible. As for the PGA, they want him back as soon as possible because everyone knows that ratings suck when Tiger is gone. And the media? They want him back as soon as possible because the people want to know about Tiger Woods and will purchase more magazines, read more newspapers, and watch more television when Tiger is involved. That is all indisputable.

And it's the exact same for Asashoryu. On February 24th, Asashoryu landed at Japan's Narita Airport on his way back from a trip to Hawaii and New York. Around the same time, a group of Japan's winter Olympians were also landing in Narita from Vancouver. So where was the media? All gathered around Asashoryu so they could break down his hairstyle, his clothing, and even his eyeglasses. Several days before February 4th, Chairman Tsuruta of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council stated in the press that Asashoryu's departure from sumo would result in at least a 30% drop in tickets sales and ratings. So how can Tsuruta make such a statement? Well, he comes from the Nikkei Times, Japan's benchmark when it comes to the financial world. He's a financial guy and has been his entire career. Who would know better than he? Some foreigner on a sumo chat board who really needs to spend more time looking for girls?

This fear of the effect Asashoryu's departure will cause was inadvertently manifest in the press shortly after Asashoryu's retirement. On February 7th, a one-day tournament (the event was sold out) was held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan that saw Goeido of all rikishi take the yusho. By this time, Asashoryu had already departed Japan and was relaxing in Hawaii, so what was the first headline I saw after the tournament? "With Asashoryu off in Hawaii, a sell-out crowd was on hand at the Kokugikan." The headline doesn't translate well into English, but the nuance was clear: see...who needs Asashoryu?

I had to laugh when I saw that headline because 1) tickets for the event didn't go on sale February 5th, and 2) part of the reason the event sold out was because the fans thought Asashoryu would be there. It's the same mindset that Asashoryu haters maintain (I've had the chats and read the emails...I know what they're thinking) because deep down, they know the sport is going to suffer while on the surface, they think that they can go OJ Simpson and convince themselves otherwise because they want so badly for Asashoryu to become irrelevant. Isn't the pattern here obvious?

What's going to become irrelevant is sumo itself. This is what you can expect to happen the next few basho. Ticket sales and ratings for the Haru basho will be comparable to last year's event. Sumo has been in the headlines enough and there's still the novelty of what sumo will be like without Asashoryu that you shouldn't see a major difference ratings-wise or in ticket sales. Hakuho will take the yusho, and sumo will head back to Tokyo for the Natsu basho and the comfort of Tokyo where from among 14 million citizens and a huge foreign contingent, sumo will once again show comparable numbers to last year's event while Hakuho takes another yusho.

Come Nagoya, the luster is going to start to wear thin. People are going to realize after two complete basho that something is missing. Oh sure, there'll be multiple talking points like Baruto's run for Ozeki or whether or not Goeido will ever pull his head out of his ass, but what really matters in sumo is the yusho...and the Japanese rikishi. Nagoya will fall short of last year's event whereupon sumo will return to Tokyo for September's Aki basho. I don't see how Hakuho hasn't won three straight yusho (more on that in a bit), and I don't see what will be left to keep people interested in sumo. Aki ticket sales and ratings will be down; Hakuho will yusho; and then everyone's worst nightmare will occur: the Kyushu basho. Can you imagine the lack of attendance at that event? The Sumo Association may wish to consider now installing a sweet sound system in the Kokusai Center so they can pipe in crowd noise just to give the effect that someone is there.

The problem is going to be two-fold. First, every sport needs a villain, and you had the ultimate villain in Asashoryu. There was no middle ground with Genghis whatsoever. You either loved him or you hated him. A polarizing figure like that puts fannies in the seats and makes people pay attention regardless of one's allegiance. Rewind back to the late 80's when Vince McMahon struck gold with the World Wrestling Federation. Professional wrestling had been around for decades, but what McMahon did was turn it into a soap opera. And for that you need the bad guys. Now, WWF was scripted of course, but real sports require the same principle to be successful. In the NBA you have two such teams in the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Both of those franchises were so dominant for so many years that you either love them or hate them. There's no middle ground. The New York Yankees in Major League Baseball? The same. The Yomiuri Giants in Japanese baseball? Bingo. And what about soccer? Even I know about Manchester United. What do all of these teams have in common? Money, power, fame, domination, annoying fans (ST in the case of Asa?), and plenty of people who hate them. It's perfect because who doesn't want to see the villains lose once in awhile? You watch the teams and people you hate just for the chance to see them lose. It's human psychology, and Asashoryu gave that exact element to sumo. Without him, you are going to see the consequences.

Now the second issue that will plague sumo is Hakuho's domination. I mean, Hakuho has dominated already WITH Asashoryu around, so what is going to change now that Asa's gone? Let's look at some numbers.

34 of the last 36 basho were won by Asashoryu or Hakuho. That number may now be 35 of 37, but you get the point. Take the lesser threat to yusho (Asashoryu) out of that equation, and then what do you have? When I say that Hakuho should win 11 of every 12 yusho, I may actually be understating it.

In the last two years, the combined Ozeki have managed to win 13 or more bouts in a basho just three times. And I'm sure the numbers would be worse but I only bothered going back two years. Of those three occasions, an Ozeki took the yusho twice. That number is significant because Hakuho's average basho is 14-1. Even if Hakuho has a less than average basho finishing 13-2, what are the chances that someone else will finish 13-2 as well? Then in order to yusho, Hakuho would have to lose the playoff bout. The odds go down even further...unless it was against Harumafuji (wink, wink). Some may say "well what about Baruto?". What about him? His 12-3 efforts are still gonna fall short regardless of his rank.  34 of 36 means it has been either Asashoryu or Hakuho for six years!  Now you remove one guy and expect anything different?  It only strengthens Hakuho's position.

When you consider all the numbers, how can you say that Hakuho won't yusho on average of five times per year? I actually had someone email me and tell me that Hakuho would only win about eight out of every 12 yusho. Why? Because that's the way you want it? Oh, OK. I take back everything I've ever said up to this point. Of course there was no reasoning or logic to back his statement up, and as much as I dig into things myself, I just don't see how anything other than a major injury to Hakuho would allow anyone else to yusho more than once a year. You thought Asashoryu's run of seven straight was boring? You ain't seen nothing yet.

Alright. Let's take all of this full circle and draw it to a conclusion. If it's obvious that Asashoryu was forced out of sumo for the same character and behavior exhibited by his Japanese peers of the past, then why drive him out, especially if it's going to hurt the sport?

Sumo's board of directors gave you the answer when they determined the amount of Asashoryu's merit bonus paid out when prominent rikishi retire. The press had been speculating for more than a week as to what the amount would be, and they constantly raised the point that it'd be a slap in the face to the newest director (Takanohana) if Asashoryu's amount was higher than Takanohana's. Why would that be a slap in the face?

Because in the eyes of the Japanese, Asashoryu has inferior blood running through his veins. Japan could not accept the possibility that a Mongolian rikishi would hold that which is most sacred in their sport: the record. It's as simple as that. Yusho and the Japanese rikishi. That's what's important to sumo. The Sumo Association could not stop Asashoryu from surpassing Takanohana's 22 yusho, but they'd be damned if they let him beat Takanohana in something they could control, that final payout of hush money...er...uh...the merit bonus.

And all of this didn't just start with the latest controversy nor did it have anything to do with the whole soccer controversy. Even before then I blogged on the subject just after Asashoryu had achieved his 20th yusho. I immediately saw panic in the press and much of the population, and I pointed it out at that time. We humans love round numbers, and once Asashoryu hit #20 in record time, something had to be done about it because the very nature of Asashoryu's being gave them the necessary ammo (something Hakuho doesn't provide, which should make things interesting in four years).

Now, Asashoryu's critics and SOME of the Japanese population will tell you that Asashoryu lacked hinkaku and was thus unworthy to hold such a prestigious record let alone earn his living atop the dohyo. Makiko Uchidate was galled by the Yokozuna stating in the end, "I respected him as an athlete but not as a Yokozuna." It all comes down to racism with the excuse on the surface attributed to that beloved word, hinkaku. A term that was resurrected to fit Japan's agenda in regards to Asashoryu.

It's like at the end of the Shawshank Redemption when after 40 years in prison, Otis Redding (Red) appears before the parole board and some young dude in a suit asks him, "do you feel you've been rehabilitated?". Red's response was classic.

Red: "Rehabilitated?... Well, now, let me see. You know, I don't have any idea what that means."

Parole Officer: "Well, it means that you're ready to rejoin society, toŚ"

Red: "I know what you think it means, sonny. To me it's just a made-up word. A politician's word, so that young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie and have a job. What do you really wanna know? Am I sorry for what I did?"

Rehabilitation Officer: Well, are you?

Red: "There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here; because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that left. I gotta live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So go ahead and stamp your forms, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit."

Well said, Red. Hinkaku? It's just a bullshit word. In the last 21 years of my direct dealings with Japan and all facets of its culture, I can't recall a single incident where the word hinkaku was ever used outside of sumo and its use of the word to defame Asashoryu. Now, I'm sure someone could Google the term and find where someone has used it outside of a reference to sumo, but I dare anyone to find it used in the context of describing athletes involved in a contact sport, especially one with as violent a nature as sumo. It's as contradicting as the recent headline I saw on Yahoo just before the Lympics pictured at right. I didn't know it was possible for male figure skaters to "diss" each other.  I wouldn't exactly use a word coined in the hood when referring to a spat between two dudes who perform in frilly blouses with sequins for a living.

After Asashoryu made the formal announcement that he would retire, he allowed NHK to place a reporter and cameraman in his car as he left the Kokugikan, and the most repeated phrase out of the Yokozuna's mouth: "Kono michi shika nakatta."

Translated it means that there was no other path to take. And there really wasn't. Regardless of how wrong and bullshit the double standard applied to Asashoryu was, that's still the way it was, so all it took was a night of heavy drinking where Asashoryu made a bad decision under the influence.

Asa could have fought a forced retirement because no crime was committed and the Sumo Association's own investigation found no evidence, but had he lost, his name would have further been soiled and the Association wouldn't have made that final payout to him.

Asa could have accepted another punishment thus keeping him in sumo, but it would of had to have been harsher than the one two years ago where he was forced to sit out two basho under house arrest. He obviously didn't want to go through that again.

We don't know exactly what negotiations took place in that meeting because you had a Yokozuna who wanted to stay and an organization who needed him around, but the very "standards" upon which the Association is founded and which will ultimately bring it to its knees (I'll blog on that in due time) dictated that there was no other path to take. And everyone knew it. I've read where the Yokozuna Deliberation Council was ready to call for Asashoryu's retirement, but that's a powerless body with no authority. Ultimately, it was up to the Sumo Association, and leading up to the meeting, you could clearly sense that the tide was turning in Asashoryu's favor making the Asashoryu haters extremely nervous. But in the end, there was no other choice, especially if Asashoryu wanted to keep his legacy intact and more importantly if he wanted to walk away with that eventual payout that totaled upwards of $3 million US not to mention the freedom to go where he wants, do as he pleases, and give the Japanese media the finger with no percussions.

In the end, Asashoryu accomplished enough. He surpassed Takanohana and Kitanoumi in the record books, he pissed off plenty of people in the process, and he got fat doing what he was meant to do on this earth. He stated after his retirement that he was at peace with his decision. He knew as well as I knew that the record was not his to obtain, so why fight it? In the end, he retired as the people's Yokozuna. You don't think so? Just wait until tickets go on sale for his retirement ceremony scheduled for October. And speaking of his danpatsu-shiki, even now there is a movement in the press to come up with a legitimate excuse for the Sumo Association to disallow the ceremony to take place. Why? Because it will be an event that celebrates the Yokozuna's legacy. I mean, how does holding a formal danpatsu-shiki for the Yokozuna disgrace sumo? It doesn't. It just sticks in the craw of racist bastards who don't want to see an inferior Asian (in their eyes) raised on a pedestal. Regarding that incident in January, the victim never filed charges with police, and the Yokozuna has already settled with him; yet, the media is still implying that Asashoryu's troubles aren't over and that the police want to talk to him. The media has learned that if they repeatedly imply an untruth in their articles, there will be plenty of sheep who will eventually accept that untruth for something it isn't.

I mean, who has more credibility right now? Asashoryu? Or an organization who can't even hold an election without an individual feeling as if he is obligated to retire after voting his own conscience (Kobo) and where people who don't do (vote) as they're told are labeled "criminals" by a director on the board? Exactly how does the recent board election exemplify hinkaku, and why am I the only one pointing out an obvious double standard?

But I understand that it's a no-win situation, and so does Asashoryu. So, farewell my friend, and thanks for the ride. You will be missed by all, especially by those who don't want to admit it. A hole has been created in sumo that won't be filled for years if ever. And whatever remains to be written about you and your legacy, never fear. I will always be here to defend it and set the record straight. Yokozuna Asashoryu...one of the greatest ever.

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