Ringside with sumo wrestling superstar Hakuho

Ringside with sumo wrestling superstar Hakuho

Japan’s beloved national sport belongs to a Mongolian with big ambitions, big appetites, and a big heart

Mongolian sumo wrestler Hakuho can't help but stand out in the crowd. But this may be a good thing for the celebrity athlete, because if Hakuho wants to restore interest in Japan’s national sport, he is going to need to be noticed.

It hasn’t been an easy path for the man born Monkhbatyn Davaajargal in his native Mongolia 24 years ago. "When I first came to Japan I was 15 years old. I spoke no Japanese, and I did not know my way around, so the world of sumo was very tough for me at first," says Hakuho.

"I had to learn to endure and as a result of not giving up, I am here today.”

Sleeping as important as eating

Hakuho, however, soon proved himself. Just six years after making his professional debut, he achieved the highest rank in sumo -- yokozuna -- in May of 2007. He is the fourth non-Japanese and second Mongolian to be awarded the title.

The secret to his success is as simple as he is humble: "Practice hard, eat a lot and get lots of sleep."

Hakuho has certainly followed his own advice -- at least the eating portion. He weighed a mere 136 pounds when he arrived in Tokyo in 2000, but eventually bulked up to his current weight of 300 pounds.

The wrestler also committed himself to the traditions of a sport -- in the face of a backlash from purists who expressed concerns in recent years at the lack of young Japanese wrestlers coming through the ranks.

Manly men

"The way my hair is shaped into a top-knot symbolizes the soul of sumo, and I consider it a tremendous honor to wear it," says Hakuho. "The world of sumo is founded on tradition, culture and heritage, and I hope to be able to perpetuate that."

Asked why sumo remains relevant and popular in a country that is famed for its addiction to modernity and the latest high-tech gadgets, Hakuho jokes that it is because, "The wrestlers are all very manly."

After a little more consideration, he adds, "I think us wrestlers are viewed as being both strong and gentle. We have to be strong in the ring but very gentle outside.

That is the ideal image of a sumo wrestler and the spirit of the warrior. There is a beautiful spirit in the world of sumo; it is a very moving sport and that is what people are drawn to."