He made his professional debut in 1990 and went on to become wildly popular for his incredible wins over wrestlers often twice his size.
“Being a wrestler is no longer an attractive job,” sumo journalist Taro Arai said. “There used to be many patrons who sponsored gyms. They used to buy wrestlers watches, expensive meals, kimonos or give them money.”
“Those kinds of sponsors no longer exist. That has made the life of a wrestler less attractive,” Arai said.
The Japan Sumo Association (JSA) has loosened its height and weight (75kg) requirements in a bid to lure more applicants, but it could be too little, too late.
Some observers say that many of the problems relating to sumo’s image can be traced back to Asashoryu’s rise to top dog in 2003.
The Mongolian’s brawls with rivals in bathhouses were out of place with the sport’s warrior code and he tested the JSA’s patience further when he was caught playing soccer in a Wayne Rooney shirt after handing in a sick note for a back injury.
Asashoryu’s fist-pumping, scowling and growling in the ring were also deemed a serious breach of protocol.
However, criticism of Asashoryu ignores that he kept sumo afloat almost single-handedly in terms of publicity and ticket sales.
“It’s hard to imagine Japanese kids jumping into sumo following foreign wrestlers,” said Arai, referring to there not having been a native Japanese yokozuna since 2003. “Sumo needs a Japanese star.”
Takase agrees that this would help, but also advocates taking pride in the cultural rituals unique to the sport and even returning to basics.
“For example, wrestlers don’t need to be so heavy — thinner is better. This makes for faster wrestlers and more interesting bouts, like with Mainoumi,” he said. “If they abandon the rituals and just fight and go home, all it becomes is a fight. It’s because it has this spirit that it’s sumo — it needs to go back to that.”