We’ve been talking a great deal about the collapse of Japanse MMA. Since PRIDE was driven from network television in 2006 because of a scandal linking them to the yakuza criminal underworld, MMA has nosedived in popularity in Japan. But that’s nothing compared to the spectacular fall from grace experienced in recent years by Japan’s oldest and by far most prestigious combat sport: Sumo wrestling.
The top sumo of the past decade Asashoryu Akinori retired from the sport at age 30 after allegations of a nightclub assault capped off a controversy filled career. He had successfully won a lawsuit against the Japanese tabloid Shūkan Gendai (the magazine that brought down PRIDE) which had accused him of fixing bouts.
Other sumo had been accused of smoking marijuana and gambling. These last charges led to Japan’s NHK network dropping live coverage of the Nagoya Sumo tournament for the first time in 50 years. The New York Times even did a full-length feature story on the scandals of sumo:
On Sunday, the Japan Sumo Association, the sport’s governing body, announced the firing of a top wrestler and a stable master – a powerful coach who controls a cluster of wrestlers – for betting on professional baseball games in a gambling ring run by organized crime. Two other stable masters were demoted, and 18 other wrestlers were barred from competing in the next tournament.
This came after an apparently unrelated scandal two months ago over the sale of tickets for prized seats at the foot of the sport’s raised dirt ring to around 50 members of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest crime syndicate. The seats allowed the gangsters, known as yakuza, to be clearly visible during television broadcasts of the bouts, a brazen display that sumo experts said was aimed at cheering up an incarcerated syndicate boss watching from prison.
Facing a public outcry, the association has warned that the sport, which claims to date back at least 1,300 years, must clean up or perish. On Sunday, a dozen hulking wrestlers, wearing traditional kimonos, bowed deeply in apology before flashing cameras.
Sumo had already been shaken in recent years by scandals over marijuana use, the fatal beating of a 17-year-old novice wrestler and media accusations of bout-rigging. But the current scandals are widely seen as bigger than anything that came before because they involve such a large number of wrestlers, not to mention gangsters.
The scandals underscore the degree to which sumo, an insular, tradition-bound world long shielded from scrutiny by its special cultural status, has fallen out of step with changes in the rest of Japan. Many Japanese were appalled to learn that members of the sport actually seemed to be increasing their ties to mobsters at a time when the nation has striven to distance itself from its once thriving underworld, which until recently was a tacitly accepted presence here.
Sumo experts and former wrestlers say the sport was driven into the arms of organized crime by cash problems caused by a decline in attendance and corporate sponsorship. In short, critics say, sumo has proved to be yet another Japanese institution that is unwilling or unable to adapt to the changes brought by the nation’s economic decline.
Now Asashōryū has formed an MMA camp. Here’s Sergio Non:
An official with World Victory Road says Asashoryu has started an MMA team for athletes from his native country of Mongolia, according to the Nightmare of Battle. World Victory Road runs Sengoku Raiden Championships, one of Japan’s two leading MMA brands along with K-1’s Dream organization.
Dream and Sengoku have been open about their interest in Asashoryu as soon as he announced his retirement from sumo in February, following his latest controversial episode in a career rife with them.
Sumo athletes generally have not done well in MMA competition, but none as talented or accomplished as Asashoryu, who was just the third non-Japanese in sumo’s long history to become a yokozuna, the sport’s highest rank. A surprisingly quick and agile 330-pounder, he ranks third on the all-time list for tournament wins at the top level of sumo.
Head Kick Legend has more:
The MMA world has been trying to get a grip on Asashoryu for quite a while now, and while it still isn’t certain if he’ll himself step into the ring, having his name associated with SRC is a huge boost for them for the time being. The money right now is just on Asashoryu focusing on management of Mongolian fighters. The fighter he is “sending” to SRC is Jadamba Narantungalag, a K-1 MAX and DREAM veteran, who will face off with Akihiro Gono who is apparently dropping to 155 lbs for the first time in his career.
I’m not going to get my hopes up that Asashoryu will step into an MMA ring, but it is exciting that he’ll be involved with the sport and that he’ll be recruiting fighters from Monogolia into MMA. Mongolia has an interesting martial arts tradition with its own style of wrestling.
As for sumo itself, the closest the sport has come to MMA success is via association with former UFC light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida whose sumo training is credited for his success at defending and getting take downs.
But if any sumo were going to do well in MMA, my money would be on Asashoryu. He was both somewhat small for the sport and incredibly strong. More about him and videos of some of his bouts in the full entry.
Asashōryū was a relative lightweight early in his career, weighing just 129 kg (284 lb), in 2001, and relied on speed and technique to compete against often much heavier opponents. However, he gradually put on weight and by 2010 was about 148 kg (326 lb), right on average. In his later career he tended to confront his opponents head on with the intention of out-muscling them. In training, he was reported to do multiple repetitions of biceps curls with 30 kg (66 lb) dumb-bells, and whilst in the gym withNHK commentator Hiro Morita in 2008 he reportedly bench pressed 200 kg (440 lb). He had an intense approach to keiko (training), and some high-profile wrestlers avoided training with him, fearing injury.
Asashōryū’s favoured techniques according to his Sumo Association profile were migi-yotsu/yori, a left hand outside, right hand inside grip on his opponent’s mawashi(belt), and tsuppari, a series of rapid thrusts to the chest. His most common winning kimarite throughout his career were yorikiri (force out), oshidashi (push out),uwatenage (outer arm throw), shitatenage (inner arm throw) and tsukidashi (thrust out). He used 45 different kimarite in his career, a wider range than most wrestlers. In July 2009 he defeated Harumafuji by an “inner thigh throw” or yaguranage, a technique not seen in the top division since 1975. His trademark, however, was tsuriotoshi, or “lifting body slam”, a feat of tremendous strength normally only used on much smaller and weaker opponents. In 2004 Asashōryū twice dumped the 158 kg (348 lb) Kotomitsuki using this technique.
Asashōryū’s brothers are active in other combat sports: Dolgorsürengiin Sumiyaabazar is a mixed martial arts fighter, and Dolgorsürengiin Serjbüdee, a professional wrestler, competes in New Japan Pro Wrestling under the name Blue Wolf (after the Mongolian Blue Wolf legend). All Dolgorsüren brothers have strong backgrounds in Mongolian wrestling (Khapsagay).
I couldn’t find anything else about his brother’s MMA career.
The most well known sumo to have an MMA career was Akebono Taro who has compiled a combined 1-12 record in MMA and kickboxing. Here’s his last match, an ignoble loss to Giant Silva at K-1 Dynamite!! 2006:
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