Sat, Jul 12, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Sumo world outraged by hair-grab disqualification

AP , TOKYO

Japan's venerable old sport of sumo wrestling is a pretty macho endeavor. Two big, burly guys pair off in a ring and try to either knock the other one down or out. To win, wrestlers slap their opponents, push them, throw them to the ground.

But pulling hair?

For the first time ever, a wrestler ranked at the very top of the sport has been disqualified for grabbing a fistful of his opponent's topknot and yanking him down to the dirt -- and Japan is duly scandalized.

"Topknot grabber, unheard of," read a typically judgmental headline in the nation's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri. Like several other major newspapers, it ran a picture of the unprecedented foul on its front page yesterday.

"A first that has sullied the honor of sumo's highest rank," blared one tabloid, a photo of the hair grab covering its entire front page.

At the center of the fracas is grand champion Asashoryu, a fiery, heavily muscled 22-year-old from Mongolia who is arguably the best wrestler in the ring today.

In the final bout of the day on Thursday, he was matched against a lower-ranking wrestler, Kyokushuzan, who is also from Mongolia.

After a barrage of powerful thrusts that had his rival reeling, Asashoryu inexplicably grabbed Kyokushuzan's hair and yanked him down.

The judges immediately called him for the transgression and ruled Kyokushuzan the victor. It was the first time a grand champion had ever lost a bout because of a foul, let alone been called for something as embarrassing as pulling hair.

"He showed a complete lack of class," said fishmonger Toshikazu Sudo, likening the foul to boxer Mike Tyson's infamous ear-biting incident. "If you forget about the rules, it's just a free-for-all."

Asashoryu, who had been upset by Kyokushuzan the last time they fought, said he did not intend to break the rules.

"From beginning to end, I was just trying to win," he said.

But as the uproar over the foul indicates, the Japanese take their sumo etiquette quite seriously.

"Sumo these days is very rough," said Hiromi Sato, a shopkeeper in Tokyo. "I think he was in trouble and thought grabbing hair could help him win."

Though disqualified Thursday, Asashoryu was allowed to continue wrestling in the current 15-day tournament, which is being held in the city of Nagoya in central Japan. The tournament ends on July 20.

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