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Ex-sumo wrestler claims bout-fixing is rife

Peter Alford, Tokyo correspondent | October 04, 2008

A FORMER high-ranked sumo wrestler claims only three grand champions in recent times were not tainted by yaocho (bout-fixing) and that a 2006 fight was rigged for a current champion, Asashoryu, to win.

"When I was an active sumo wrestler, 75 to 80 per cent of sumo bouts were fixed, and I did join such practices," Keisuke Itai, who fought in the elite makuuchi division in the 1980s, told a Tokyo court yesterday.

Testifying for Shukan Gendai, a popular news magazine being sued for defamation by the Japan Sumo Association, Asashoryu, and other top-flight wrestlers, Itai named as the only clean recent yokozuna (grand champions) brothers Wakanohana and Takanohana, and Onokuni.

After viewing film of Asashoryu winning in the 2006 Kyushu basho (tournament), Itai called it "an unnatural and impossible bout", in which the loser was only pretending to try.

Also testifying yesterday, the 28-year-old Asashoryu, who dominated sumo between the start of 2003 and mid-last year, denied with a flat "no" ever being involved in yaocho.

Itai also made allegations about sumo bout-rigging eight years ago.

Shukan Gendai published a series of articles last year alleging, among other things, that Asashoryu fixed matches during the 2006 season -- when he unprecedentedly won all six basho -- and that yokozuna Kitanoumi fought a fixed bout with the "Waka-Taka" brothers' father, also known as Takanohana, in 1975.

The magazine, which has long taken a pitiless interest in grand sumo's seedy secrets, is being sued for a total of Y869 million ($10.5 million) but the reputational stakes are even higher. The association is struggling against a swirling tide of scandal.

Recently, three Russian wrestlers were banned for smoking marijuana, after which Kitanoumi resigned as association chairman, and stable-master Junichi Yamamoto is being prosecuted over the bullying to death of a 17-year-old rookie, Takashi Saito -- allegedly at the direction of his stable-master.

Shukan Gendai, one of the four biggest news magazines, is grappling with heavyweight opponents. Kitanoumi and Chiyonofuji, another association director who now goes under the name Kokonoe, are generally regarded as the greatest yokozuna of the past 40 years.

Asashoryu, until a suspension for misbehaviour and injuries began undermining him last year, was approaching their status, having won 22 tournaments at makuuchi level.

Unlike Kitanoumi, Asashoryu is more widely loathed than admired in Japan. The first Mongolian yokozuna, who was last year joined as grand champion by countryman Hakuho, he has persistently flouted sumo customs.

The association's shareholder-members, about 105 former wrestlers who virtually own professional sumo, moved this week to put their house back in order. They appointed Shigeru Ito, a university professor, and former prosecutor Hiroyoshi Murayama, both in their 70s, as outside directors.

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