August 4, 2016 2:30 am JST

Japan mourns death of the 'Wolf' of wrestling

NORIO KUDO, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chiyonofuji performed seemingly effortless throws that wowed audiences.

TOKYO -- With a small but steely frame and a slyly handsome face, the sumo wrestler known as Chiyonofuji dominated the ring and charmed a generation of fans now grieving the passing of "the Wolf."

Standing a modest 182cm and weighing 120kg at his heaviest, Chiyonofuji rose to the status of yokozuna, or grand champion, in 1981. His death Sunday, too soon at the age of 61, shocked many even in the sumo community.

An examination following a minor car accident had led to the discovery that the former champion, lately the oyakata, or head, of the prestigious Kokonoe stable of wrestlers, was suffering from pancreatic cancer. He underwent surgery in July 2015 but assured everyone that there was "absolutely nothing to worry about," for the disease had been detected early.

Chiyonofuji was a spirited stable master who retained more than a tad of boyish mischief. Having failed the previous time to win a seat on the board of the Japan Sumo Association, the sport's governing body, he sat out of the January election. His yelling could be heard echoing through the training hall, seemingly meant to fire himself up as much as the wrestlers in his charge.

Head on

As a wrestler, Chiyonofuji's 31 tournament wins place him third in modern sumo history. But what he lacked in physical stature he made up in popularity, achieving superstar status and becoming the first sumo wrestler to win Japan's People's Honor Award, bestowed by the prime minister.

Chiyonofuji got his start with the emerging Kokonoe stable. Then known by his real name, Mitsugu Akimoto, he was scouted by the stable master at the time, a former grand champion born in the same small fishing town on the northern island of Hokkaido.

The young grappler would often dislocate his shoulder performing stupendous throws in which he reached over his opponent's shoulders to latch on to the belt. He overcame his shoulder problems with a daily regimen of 500 pushups, part of a grueling training program that endowed him with a fearsome suit of muscular armor. With an aggressive determination, Chiyonofuji developed a head-on rushing style beyond anything seen in his generation.

Successes such as his winning streak of 53 bouts came mingled with tragedy -- the death of a child. Disappointment lurked in the shadow of glory.

Mentor

Perhaps nowhere did Chiyonofuji push his strength to the limit more than in sparring sessions with Hokutoumi, a wrestler eight years his junior who went on to become a yokozuna and the current chairman of the Japan Sumo Association. Chiyonofuji helped raise him to the level of champion.

The younger wrestler eventually gained the stamina to keep up with the furious rhythm. Their strength was such that the clashing of bodies looked like a playful dance. Never since has the like been seen. Chiyonofuji retired in 1991.

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