Asashoryu floored his critics with a gratifying body blow Sunday, outmuscling fellow Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho in a dramatic championship playoff to win the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament.
Hakuho had the odds stacked against him after a loss on the 10th day to Harumafuji left him trailing Asashoryu by one win heading into the final bout of regulation at Ryogoku Kokugikan.
But he capitalized on a momentary lapse in concentration by Asashoryu and sent him backpedaling out of the ring to leave both yokozuna with 14-1 marks and force a playoff.
However, Asashoryu regrouped and came roaring back in the playoff, shaking and shoving Hakuho out to win his 23rd Emperor’s Cup and deny his opponent a fourth straight title in the process.
“I wanted another crack at him (Hakuho) and in a way I felt a bit more relaxed after losing the first bout,” said Asashoryu.
“I stayed really focused and feel like the old Asashoryu is back.”
Victory marked a dramatic revival in fortunes for Asashoryu, who has endured an injury-plagued six months and missed part or all of the previous three tournaments with an injured left elbow.
The 28-year-old came into the New Year meet with his career and reputation on the line and a dismal showing would have increased pressure on him to bow out of Japan’s centuries-old sport.
“I’m back, Asashoryu has come back,” the teary-eyed yokozuna said after being presented with the trophy by Prime Minster Taro Aso, triggering wild cheers around the arena.
“It’s been a long hard journey back. At one point I didn’t think I would be on this stage and I am glad I decided to wrestle. I’ll keep trying my best.”
In other bouts, Baruto was all smiles after closing with a ninth win, the Estonian giant scooping up Harumafuji by the thigh and plopping him outside the straw bales.
Harumafuji, who dropped five of his first six bouts, finished a roller coaster debut at sumo’s second rank of ozeki on 8-7.
Bulgarian Kotooshu (10-5) claimed ozeki bragging rights by forcing out Kaio (8-7), while Chiyotaikai (8-7) deployed a series of trademark slaps to dismantle third-ranked Goiedo.