Sumo star’s meltdown has Japan abuzz |

Sumo star’s meltdown has Japan abuzz

Jim Armstrong
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
David Guttenfelder/APSumo grand champion Asashoryu waits at the edge of the ring at an exhibition sumo wrestling match outside Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine. Asashoryu, the toughest guy in Japan's toughest sport, is said to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown and begging to return to his native Mongolia.

TOKYO ” The TV shows have had a field day, parading out psychiatrists, trainers, pop stars ” anyone who might want to comment. These days, that’s just about everybody in Japan.

Sumo grand champion Asashoryu, the toughest guy in Japan’s toughest sport, is said to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown, holed up in his apartment fighting back tears and begging to go home to his native Mongolia.

Forget political scandal or stock-market jitters, the bad-boy Mongolian’s meltdown is the biggest story in Japan this summer.

For sports fans, it’s bigger than Bonds, bigger than Beijing.

The 26-year-old muscleman was the very picture of strength and confidence just a few weeks ago when he won his 21st Emperor’s Cup ” the coveted prize that hundreds of wrestlers vie for in the six major sumo tournaments held each year.

Then he ditched a summer exhibition tournament because of injuries and was later caught on videotape playing in a charity soccer event in Mongolia. The video, which has been shown almost daily for more than a week, showed the burly Asashoryu wearing sunglasses and smiling broadly as he greeted fans. Appearing quite fit, he was seen twisting and turning on an attempted header.

The Japan Sumo Association came down hard, slapping him with an unprecedented two-tournament suspension and a 30 percent cut in pay for four months.

There are few titles as lofty ” or taken more seriously by the Japanese ” as grand champion.

Like all wrestlers, grand champions are expected to wear kimono when they appear in public, to keep their hair in a well-oiled topknot and to avoid any kind of controversy. But grand champions _ called yokozuna _ are expected to set an even more demanding example of both humility and devotion to the sport.

Skipping a major exhibition tour, especially at a time when the Sumo Association is having trouble filling arena seats, was clearly a mistake.

“For a yokozuna, this was a serious indiscretion,” said Yukishige Isenoumi, a senior JSA official. “Given that a yokozuna should act as a good example for the other wrestlers, this punishment for his action is appropriate.”

What happened next, however, was even more of a shock to sumo fans.

Asashoryu ” known for his bravado in the ring ” went belly up.

Psychiatrist Masaki Honda examined him and said the wrestler was depressed and could be on the brink of a nervous breakdown, reeling from his punishment. He said the wrestler was barely able to talk, and his trainer said Asashoryu was “holding back tears.”

“He seemed extremely haggard,” Asashoryu’s trainer, Takasago, told a news conference after meeting the disgruntled wrestler. “I’ve never seen him in such a state before.”

Even so, sumo officials weren’t easing up.

On Thursday, the association denied Asashoryu’s request to return to Mongolia, saying he could check himself into a hospital in Tokyo if he felt ill.

The fans were generally not sympathetic, either.

“Sumo is not like other sports where all that matters is strength,” office worker Keiko Fujimoto said. “It’s part of Japanese culture, and yokozuna have to set an example for everyone. If Asashoryu can’t understand that or doesn’t want to do it, he should just retire.”

This isn’t the first time Asashoryu has been in trouble.

In January, Asashoryu was accused of being involved in a bout-rigging scandal by a tabloid-style weekly magazine. While the JSA investigated and determined there was no wrongdoing on his part, the damage to his reputation was significant.

He also was involved in a bizarre hair-pulling episode earlier in his career when he yanked the topknot of fellow Mongolian Kyokushuzan during a bout. Hair-pulling in sumo is akin to ear-biting in boxing, and never before had a grand champion lost a bout for resorting to it.

Given this past, many felt it about time the sumo association got tough with the cocky yokozuna.

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