TOKYO (Reuters) - Bad boy sumo grand champion Asashoryu has been called many things but it is unlikely being dubbed “porky” will cause the Mongolian to lose much sleep.
When a television commentator recently accused the controversial yokozuna of being flabby, it marked a new low in the hounding of one of the greats of Japan’s ancient sport.
Asashoryu has long been the man people love to hate, his notoriously short fuse having landed him in hot water countless times.
The 28-year-old, who has won a remarkable 23 Emperor’s Cups, has polarized opinion within the strict, cloistered world of sumo with his regular breaches of protocol.
Telling Japanese journalists to “Drop dead” has hardly helped to improve his image but his disdain for the press is perhaps understandable.
There is an undercurrent of xenophobia in the frequent tabloid attacks on Asashoryu, who needed around-the-clock police protection after receiving a death threat earlier this year.
His critics say he “lacks the dignity” to hold the divine-like rank of yokozuna, a line often trotted out by Japan’s conservative press and even members of sumo’s inner sanctum.
“They say they’re protecting sumo,” Japan Times sumo columnist Mark Buckton told Reuters. “It is an easy way to side-step xenophobic accusations.
“The Japanese wrestlers themselves have no concept that there’s any difference whatsoever between them and the foreign wrestlers.”
The Japan Sumo Association would only say Asashoryu’s treatment by the media was “regrettable.”
Sumo dates back some 2,000 years and retains many Shinto religious overtones and Asashoryu’s fist-pumping and growling at his opponents is frowned upon by the powers-that-be.
The criticism conveniently ignores Asashoryu’s impact on an archaic sport that was in steep decline until his wham-bam style gave it a much-needed shot in the arm.
Boxing’s Muhammad Ali growled at his victims, John McEnroe shrieked incessantly at tennis umpires and Michael Jordan snarled at almost everyone he dunked on in the NBA.
Asashoryu is equally as brash and has also had a major influence on his sport. His behavior ruffles feathers but he sells tickets — even in times of financial recession.
He was ordered to improve his behavior following the infamous “Battle of the Bathroom,” when soapsuds flew as he and a rival wrestler exchanged punches during a soak in a communal bath.
Asashoryu was subsequently banned for pulling on a Wayne Rooney shirt and playing in a soccer charity match after having supplied a fake doctor’s note for an apparent back injury.
His suspension triggered a bout of clinical depression and even anti-Japanese demonstrations on the streets of the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator.
Sumo authorities still tut-tut if Asashoryu decides to abandon his traditional kimono for a Hawaiian shirt or pamper himself at a luxury spa resort in his home country.
“Asashoryu hasn’t helped himself. The football ban was silly,” said Buckton. “He’s in a no-win situation.”
Asashoryu’s future has come under intense speculation and fellow Mongolian Hakuho, sumo’s only other yokozuna, rubbed salt in the wounds by winning the recent Nagoya grand tournament.
Calling Asashoryu podgy a week after the collapse of his marriage, even though his 150-kg frame is relatively small for the roly-poly sport, was a low blow, however.
“He looks podgy,” sniffed former wrestler Shuhei Mainoumi before Nagoya. “He doesn’t look as buff.”
Many sumo wrestlers tip the scales at well over 250 kg, some moving with all the grace of Star Wars villain Jabba the Hutt.
Not so the skilful Asashoryu, who shot back: “I’ve proved people wrong in the past and I’ll do it again.”
Editing by Clare Fallon