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Published:February 4th, 2010 13:00 EST

Goodbye, Asashoryu! Sumo will never be the same (for better or worse)

By Geoff Dean

Wouldn`t you know it? Wouldn`t you just know it! I just got tickets, non-refundable tickets, for my whole family for the upcoming February Charity Sumo Tournament. And three days before the tournament Asashoryu, the grand champion and winner of the last official sumo tournament, "retires."

 I put retires in quotes because he was not officially ousted from sumo, although he may well have been if he refused to face-savingly retire. After all, he was still in his prime and more than capable of winning many more tournaments (He was already number three on the all-time sumo winning list). He had come back from some injuries and banishment (he was kicked out for two tournaments for exaggerating an injury) and had become the only legitimate threat to Hakuho, the other grand champion. And now, he was gone.

 His retirement speech was remarkably brief, even in the world of brief sumo speeches. He said, basically, "Thanks to sumo for everything. I retire." End of speech. End of press conference. End of career.

 What had happened? The exact details may never be known but it seems he got in a drunken brawl in a bar during the last tournament. Some reports have him breaking a bartender`s nose, or maybe it was his manager`s, or even a total strangers. He did this, in some rumors, because someone had told him, "Good luck!" Was it said sarcastically? Why was he in a bar, getting sloshed, in the middle of a tournament? Who did he punch? Was he punched first? How hard did he beat the "opponent"? The tabloids have led the way on the story and since this is Asashoryu, the mainstream media has soaked it up and spit it out without much fact-checking. Now, we probably will never know what really happened. 

 This was not Asashoryu`s first run-in with controversy. He was expelled for two tournaments after sitting out a tournament, claiming a leg injury, and then appearing on YouTube at a charity soccer event in Mongolia, in seeming perfect leg and other health. There was talk of kicking him out of sumo at that point, but it was overturned (because his presence drove up ratings?)

 There was another case when he got into a small tussle with a fellow Mongolian wrestler, Kyokushuzan, outside the raised ring. Before that, he was criticized for receiving prize money with the inauspicious left hand (in his defense, he is left-handed but in Japan, that is no excuse) and for glaring at an opponent after a bout, a serious breach of sumo decorum.

 Still, he was a showman in a sport where all too many wrestlers make an art form of blandness, where it is considered top form to give the briefest and vaguest possible answers to all reporters` questions, and where showing any emotion (you know, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the like) is a sign of mental and moral weakness. With him gone, Hakuho assumes absolute dominance of the sumo world and attendance will surely suffer even more.

 I will miss him, for better or worse. And couldn`t he have waited at least another four or five days?