By YUKA HAYASHI
TOKYO -- The grand champion of sumo, Japan's ancient national sport, made a surprise announcement Thursday that he would retire as a wrestler after his drunken brawl on a Tokyo street made headlines.
The resignation of the 29-year-old Mongolian wrestler known as Asashoryu is a huge blow to the sport, which has suffered from shrinking fan base and a series of mishaps in recent years. He had just won his 25th national tournament last month and is third on the all-time list of title winners.
"I have caused a lot of trouble for so many people," Asashoryu said at a press conference. "I decided to step down to bring this to a closure."
The resignation of the yokozuna -- the title given to highest-ranking wrestlers -- came after Japanese weekly magazines reported late last month that he had struck a man and broke his nose after a late-night drinking binge. The wrestler said what really happened was "quite different" from those media reports, but didn't give his own account of the incident.
Asashoryu's departure is the latest in the series of embarrassing episodes for the one-proud sumo association, which has been jolted by various scandals recently, from the arrests of marijuana-smoking wrestlers to a hazing-death of a trainee. On Monday, the sumo association was shaken by the surprise election of a self-styled reformer to a seat on its powerful board despite the board's effort to name pre-selected candidates.
Still, mishaps by top wrestlers have long been part of the sumo tradition. In 1987, a 24-year-old yokozuna called Futahaguro was forced to step down after a skirmish in his stable led him to beat the wife of the stable master. In 1949, yokozuna Maedayama lost his job after skipping a match to watch a baseball game played by the San Francisco Seals during the team's tour of Japan.
Asashoryu has repeatedly gotten into trouble, embarrassing the officials of the Japan Sumo Association, the sport's governing body known for its strict adherence to hierarchy and traditional rituals. In 2007, he was suspended from participating in two tournaments after it was discovered that he had played in a soccer match in Mongolia while taking a break from sumo citing injuries. In another case, he was admonished for grabbing the top knot of his opponent during a match.
The association had been investigating Asashoryu's latest mishap during the days leading to his resignation.
Asked to discuss his best memory as a sumo wrestler at the press conference, he said it was beating yokozuna Musashimaru, his arch rival, while his parents watched on the ringside during their visit from Mongolia. "I was so proud of myself," he said wiping tears off with his fingers.
Asashoryu said he didn't have specific plans for what he would do after his retirement but added: "To be perfectly honest, I'd like to take a break for a little while."
Write to Yuka Hayashi at firstname.lastname@example.org