Last week news of a wild brawl involving sumo wrestlers broke across international outlets. In Japan, the epicenter of the story, the news rocked mainstream culture, giving yet another black-eye to the historic, and sometimes scandalous, sport.
The brawl itself happened in early November at a restaurant-bar in Tottori prefecture. Those involved were Harumafuji Kohei and Hakuho Sho (both yokozuna — the sport’s highest rank) and the younger and lower-ranked wrestler Takanoiwa Yoshimori.
Reports stated that Harumafuji and Hakuho were lecturing Takanoiwa regarding the junior wrestler’s attitude and perceived lack of deference. Supposedly, while this dressing down was happening, Takanoiwa was playing with his phone and not taking the discussion seriously.
It is alleged that Harumafuji, incensed by Takanoiwa’s behavior, attacked the 27-year-old with a beer bottle. Witnesses from the bar claimed Harumafuji repeatedly struck Takanoiwa around the head with the bottle. Varying reports claim that the assault bloomed into an all-out brawl that may have involved an ashtray, an ice pick, and a karaoke machine remote.
The incident saw Takanoiwa admitted to a nearby hospital. Early reports stated Takanoiwa had suffered a concussion, a fractured skull, and a brain fluid leak. However, the severity of these injuries were reported to be less severe in later reports.
The alleged assault made headlines across Japan and the incident was reported to police by Takanoiwa’s stable-master Takanohana (a former yokozuna himself). The Japanese Sumo Association (JSA) also began an investigation. The JSA, who allegedly wanted to deal with the incident in-house, were reported outraged that the alleged assault was brought to the police.
This week, per The Telegraph, Harumafuji has decided to retire from the sport. The 33-year-old had initially apologized for his role in the incident and stepped back from a national tournament, but seemingly that did little to quell the public anger over his actions.
Harumafuji announced his decision to retire at a press conference in Fukuoka. "As yokozuka I feel responsible for injuring Takanoiwa and so will retire today," he said. "I apologize from my heart to the people, sumo fans, the Japan Sumo Association, to supporters of my stable and my oyakata [coach] and his wife for causing such trouble."
"I think it is my duty as a senior wrestler to correct and teach junior wrestlers when they are lacking in manners and civility," continued Harumafuji. "But I went too far.”
Prior to his retirement, Harumafuji was one of the brightest stars of the sport; recognized as one of the greatest rikishi (wrestler) of his generation. The 6’1” and 302lb wrestler was born Davaanyamyn Byambadorj in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. He began his sumo career in 2001.
In 2004 he reached makuuchi (which literally means inside the curtain), sumo’s top division. In 2008 he became only the seventh foreign-born wrestler to reach the rank of ozeki (second only to yokozuna). A year later he won his first championship, the natsu basho (spring tournament). In 2012, after a string of victories over fellow Mongolian Hakuho (who was at the November bar incident), Harumafuji won two tournaments in a row, essentially finalizing his qualification for promotion to the storied rank of yokozuna.
The Japanese Sumo Association, which had recently began to recover from lagging ticket sales, will now hope that Harumafuji’s exit from the oft scandal rocked sport prevents another down-turn in sumo’s popularity.