TOKYO -- A sheep herder is quickly closing in on the all-time record for sumo tournament victories. Not bad for a guy who was called "Bean Sprout" when he first came to Japan.
Hakuho, already a grand champion, on Jan. 27 won his 28th career title. He is within striking distance of the record 32 Emperor's Cups won by Taiho, widely considered the greatest sumo wrestler of the 20th century. The 28-year-old Hakuho has come a long way from the grasslands of Mongolia, where he developed his athleticism (and appetite).
Born Munkhbat Davaajargal, Hakuho grew up in Ulan Bator but spent a month every summer with his uncle on the Mongolian steppe. This was no lazy vacation. He put in long days on horseback, herding sheep. When he was not staying up at night to watch for wolves that could threaten the flock, he slept in a portable hut, called a ger. Water had to be fetched from a well.
On feast days he would stuff himself with mutton from sheep cooked whole, washing it down with fermented mare's milk, called kumis.
"Without those experiences," Hakuho said, "I could never have become a grand champion."
Hakuho also came from the right stock. His father, Munkhbat Jigjid, was a renowned champion in Mongolian wrestling and competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as a freestyle wrestler. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Jigjid won a silver medal.
At age 15, Hakuho left his well-to-do household and moved to Japan with the goal of training at a sumo stable. The first order of business: add some muscle and weight to his 175cm-tall, 68kg frame.
Hakuho initially balked at unfamiliar Japanese foods, particularly seafood -- a rarity in landlocked Mongolia. He had particular trouble stomaching seared, sliced bonito. This changed thanks to a tour through Kochi Prefecture, on Japan's southern coast, where freshly caught bonito were seared and served on the spot.
"Thanks to that experience, I overcame the fish barrier," he said. "Now my favorite food is raw fish."
Sashimi is one thing. Anko, a sweet red bean paste common in Japanese desserts, is another. "I hate that pasty texture," Hakuho said. The champ is more of a chocolate or cream puff man.
Hakuho's first official bout was in March 2001. The early years were humbling ones, as they are for all newcomers to the sumo scene.
"I did all sorts of chores back then," he recalled. "Sometimes watching the big communal stew pot, other times answering the stable phone."
As time went by, though, Hakuho grew more accustomed to stable life and began to rise through the ranks. In late 2003, he was promoted to makushita, sumo's third-highest division. Still, Bean Sprout lacked the necessary heft.
Hakuho struggled to hold his own against the more powerful makushita wrestlers. He badly wanted to be stronger. At meals, Hakuho would complement the protein-rich stew that sumo wrestlers eat with eight heaping bowls of rice. Then, after a nap, it was off to a restaurant with senior stablemates, where he would devour 10 plates of meat.
In four months, Hakuho gained 25kg. With this extra bulk, he ascended to the jyuryo division at age 18. He needed only two jyuryo tournaments to make the leap to the big show -- the makuuchi division.
In May 2006, Hakuho found himself on the cusp of his first tournament victory. All he needed to do was win his bout on the final day of the 15-day event. The night before, he was so nervous he could not eat or sleep. His father, however, led by example -- though perhaps not consciously.
Jigjid had come to see his son secure title No. 1. He was staying at a hotel near the sumo hall in Tokyo. Hakuho joined him, but tossed and turned all night.
As dawn began to break, a thought occurred to Hakuho: His father had been loudly snoring away. This realization "relaxed me enough to finally get some sleep," Hakuho said. He won his bout. A year later, he reached the pinnacle of sumo -- the rank of yokozuna.
Now, with Taiho's record in sight, the Mongolian is also eyeing another goal that would make his Olympian father proud: demonstrating sumo at the opening ceremonies of the 2020 games in Tokyo.