Aug 16, 2023, 06:28AM

The Work of a Sumo Prodigy

Hakuōhō Tetsuya is the real deal.

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For Japan, the sumo wrestling ring—the dohyō—is more than just a sporting venue. It’s the sacred battleground where giants grapple in the name of honor, tradition, and country. In the post-Kisenosato era, the Land of the Rising Sun yearns for another homegrown hero, a yokozuna who won’t bow out quickly due to injuries. Another Chiyonofuji, the epitome of sumo grandeur.

Entering this scene is Hakuōhō Tetsuya, a native-born prodigy with the makings of a yokozuna, carrying on his broad shoulders the hopes of an entire nation. Born as Ochiai Tetsuya on August 22, 2003, Hakuōhō has stirred the sumo scene since turning pro in 2023. Nicknamed the "Reiwa Monster” in the hope that he’ll come to embody the sporting spirit of the country’s Reiwa era—which began in May 2019 with the installation of Naruhito as the 126th Emperor of Japan—the young bruiser swiftly ascended to maegashira 17, in the sport’s highest division, following an impressive streak of victories in the jūryō division.

Hakuōhō's love for sumo was kindled in his early childhood, sparked by a children's tournament at his elementary school. However, the journey to glory wasn't smooth. Despite a promising start, he almost quit after a grueling training session at Tottori Nishi Junior High School. Yet, inspired by senior sumo wrestlers, he persevered, found his passion, and soon experienced victory at various national championships.

Yet, Hakuōhō's path to professional sumo wasn’t without hurdles. A shoulder injury threatened to derail his career, leading him to work at his father's metalwork machinery company while he healed—and he continues to deal with nagging shoulder problems. Nevertheless, his resolve and dedication paid off when he won the All Japan Corporate Sumo Championship, gaining eligibility to enter professional sumo as makushita 15, in the sport’s third-highest division.

Hakuōhō’s sumo career gained traction at Miyagino stable, where his seemingly unstoppable winning spree led to an unprecedented promotion to jūryō—the first in nine decades after just one third-division tournament. The young prodigy experienced his first professional sumo loss in March 2023. Unfazed, he leveraged it as a learning experience. His tenacity bore fruit when he ascended to the rank of jūryō 8 in May 2023, despite narrowly losing the jūryō championship to Gōnoyama—a 5’9”, 340-pound wall of mass who represents another native-born hope for yokozuna (another seeming shoo-in for the coveted rank, Hidetora Hanada, has instead decided to pursue a football career at Colorado State).

After his promotion to maegashira 17 in June 2023, Hakuōhō set a high bar for his first top division tournament, aiming for 12 wins and the Outstanding Performance prize—and he almost got there, with 11 wins and sanshō awards for Technique and Fighting Spirit. His first top-division match was a victory over Aoiyama, marking the start of a successful run that included wins over seasoned veterans.

Hakuōhō's technique mirrored the adaptability of the Sentinels in disgraced director Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, as he seemed to incorporate the strengths of his opponents. Whether overpowering the formidably hirsute Takayasu or outmatching the quick-footed Abi, Hakuōhō demonstrated his diverse skill set. Even in the face of defeat, his resilience shone through, showing remarkable balance and determination as he held the line against the seasoned Hokutofuji, who was in first place and gunning for the championship.

Sumo is often referred to as a triad of “shin-gi-tai” (mind, technique, body)—a principle thought to define the complete martial artist—and Hakuōhō's early foray into the world of sumo has proven that he not only possesses these three pillars but embodies them to their fullest potential.

The first and arguably the most crucial element in this triad is “shin”—the mind or spirit. For Hakuōhō, the concept of mind extends far beyond mere determination or willpower; it serves as the beacon guiding him through the rigorous and often unpredictable world of sumo wrestling. The teenager's impressive maturity, especially for his age, is a testament to the resilience and mental strength that underline the essence of “shin.”

Given the pressure of being a young star in a sport that's woven deeply into the cultural fabric of Japan, Hakuōhō's ability to maintain a relaxed demeanor in the face of high-stakes competition is truly remarkable. Whether sharing a light-hearted moment with Sumo Prime Time host Hiro Morita or having a chat with Hoshoryu, who’d just ended his title dreams, Hakuōhō's infectious smile is never far from his face. This innate capacity to stay grounded amid the ebb and flow of the high-pressure sumo landscape points to an inner strength that transcends physical prowess.

Moving onto “gi”—technique, Hakuōhō’s performance during his debut at the top division paints the picture of a wrestler with a versatile skill set. His impressive winning streak, including victories over high-ranked competitors, showcased a range of techniques that left spectators and critics alike in awe. Each win served as a testament to Hakuoho's technical prowess, showcasing his ability to outmaneuver and outsmart opponents at every turn.

Perhaps the most memorable of these victories was his bout with Nishikigi, a title-chasing veteran who was having a career-best tournament. Nishikigi launched a powerful initial charge, immediately putting Hakuōhō on the back foot. However, demonstrating composure beyond his years, Hakuōhō stayed firm on the bales and managed to turn the tide. With an exquisite combination of a feint and a leg hook, he unbalanced Nishikigi and claimed a breathtaking victory. The precision and timing of this move provided a perfect display of Hakuōhō's technical mastery, highlighting the immense potential of the young sumo.

Lastly, “ai”—the physique. Hakuōhō's imposing physical presence is impossible to ignore. While he may not tower over his contemporaries in terms of height or weight, his solid and wide upper torso sets him apart; the appropriate freestyle wrestling comparison would be the legendary Iowa and Oklahoma State heavyweight Steve Mocco, who made up for a lack of height with extraordinary width and bone density. There’s a tangible sense of raw power emanating from Hakuōhō's robust frame, making him appear as if he had been carved out of stone.

Furthermore, Hakuōhō's comfort in and out of the ring, in tandem with his inherent charisma, suggest a wrestler well-prepared to handle the challenges of stardom in Japan's national sport. His ability to adapt to different circumstances, whether it's facing a more experienced opponent or interacting with a nationwide audience, demonstrates his readiness to embrace the demands of his burgeoning sumo career.

Hakuōhō's trip to the top echelons of sumo wrestling is a compelling narrative of talent, determination, and grace under pressure—a story that foreign viewers can easily follow thanks to an efflorescence of excellent YouTube channels devoted to covering the sport, up to bootlegging complete footage of major tournaments. His performance during his debut in the top division has set the stage for a promising career, marked by a dazzling blend of spirit, technique, and physique.

As the 19-year-old navigates this demanding path, Japanese partisans and foreign fans like me will eagerly scrutinize his development. Barring injury—a major hazard, to be sure, given how it short-circuited Kisenosato’s run at the top and appears likely to prevent the stout Takakeisho from ever reaching yokozuna—Hakuōhō appears destined to become a future legend in this history-saturated, legend-obsessed sport.


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