Takamiyama Daigorō

Takamiyama (born 16 June 1944 as Jesse James Wailani Kuhaulua in Hawaii, U.S.) is a former sumo wrestler, the first foreign born rikishi to win the top division championship (in 1972). His highest rank was sekiwake. His active career spanned twenty years from 1964 to 1984, and he holds a number of longevity records, having fought more top division bouts than any other wrestler. He is also the first foreign born wrestler ever to take charge of a training stable, founding Azumazeki stable in 1986. His most successful wrestler was fellow Hawaiian Akebono who reached the highest rank of yokozuna in 1993. He retired as a coach in 2009.

Early life

Kuhaulua was born in Happy Valley, Maui to parents who were mostly of Hawaiian descent. Due to his impressive height of 6 foot 2 inches (189cm) and 280 pounds (127kg), he was recruited as a tackle for the Henry Perrine Baldwin High School football team. His football coach noticed that he had weak legs and hips, and recommended that he train his lower body through sumo, a sport popular among the local Japanese-American community.  He joined a local amateur sumo club and it was there that he was spotted by visiting professional sumo wrestlers from Japan.  He was eventually recruited by the head coach of Takasago stable, former Yokozuna Maedayama.  After graduating from Baldwin High School in Wailuku in 1963, he left for Tokyo on February 22nd, 1964 to join Takasago stable as a new recruit.

Sumo career

Takamiyama made his professional debut in March 1964. He achieved sekitori status in March 1967 when he won promotion to the second highest juryo division. He reached the top makuuchi division five tournaments later. He had an exceptionally long top division career that spanned from January 1968 to January 1984. For many years he held the record for having competed in the most tournaments as a top division wrestler, at 97. (In November 2009 this record was broken by Kaio.) He also holds a number of other longevity related records such as completing 1231 consecutive matches in the top division, and 1430 top division matches in total.

He won a total of twelve kinboshi (gold stars awarded for maegashira wins against a yokozuna), a record which stood until Akinoshima surpassed it in the 1990s. His first kinboshi came in only his second top division tournament against Sadanoyama, who had won the previous two tournaments but suddenly retired just two days after losing to him. His final gold star came ten years later at the age of 35, against Kitanoumi in September 1978 – only the third the yokozuna had been beaten that year. Takamiyama also won eleven special prizes, or sansho for his performances in tournaments.

The highlight of his career came in July 1972 when he won the tournament championship with a 13-2 record – the first foreigner ever to so so. Ranked at maegashira 4, he lost only to Kotozakura and Takanohana and defeated Asahikuni on the final day to finish one win ahead of Takanohana. A congratulatory letter from US President Richard Nixon was read out by the US Ambassador to Japan at the presentation ceremony, marking the only time that English has been officially spoken on the dohyo.

Following this victory he was promoted to sumo’s third highest rank of sekiwake. He was to hold this rank a further seven times, but he was ultimately unable to score ten wins or more in consecutive tournaments and so was never able to reach the ozeki ranking. Nevertheless, he paved the way for other Hawaii wrestlers such as Konishiki and Akebono. His final appearance in the sanyaku ranks was at komusubi in September 1982 at age 38, making him the second oldest postwar sanyaku wrestler after ex-ozeki Nayoroiwa.

Due to his exceptionally large size – he weighed over 200kg as his peak – and trademark sideburns and bright orange mawashi, Takamiyama was an instantly recognisable figure to the Japanese public, even amongst those who did not regularly follow sumo. He appeared in several television commercials before the practice was banned by the Sumo Association. His great fighting spirit, and his determination to never miss a bout no matter what injuries he might a carrying – a Japanese character trait known as gaman – were much admired.

Retirement from sumo

Takamiyama’s goal had always been to fight until the age of forty, but a serious elbow injury sustained in November 1983 caused him to fall to juryo, and in May 1984, facing certain demotion to the third makushita division, he announced his retirement after twenty years in sumo. He was just a few weeks short of his fortieth birthday. He became a member of the Japan Sumo Association, with the name Azumazeki. To do so he had taken Japanese citizenship in 1980.

He subsequently opened his own training stable, Azumazeki-beya, in 1986, the first and so far only foreign born former wrestler to do so. Akebono became the stable’s first sekitori in 1990, and became the first foreign born yokozuna in 1993. One of Azumazeki’s stated goals after this was to coach a Japanese wrestler to the top division, and this was achieved in July 2000 when the popular Takamisakari made his makuuchi debut. He was later joined by Ushiomaru, who in 2009 took over the running of the stable when Azumazeki reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty five.

His farewell party at a local hotel in Tokyo on 6 June 2009 attracted 1000 guests, including Akebono and Konishiki. A congratulatory letter from US President Barack Obama was read out.

Fighting style

Takamiyama’s technique was somewhat rudimentary (his eleven sansho awards did not include a Technique Prize). His two most common winning techniques were yori-kiri and oshi-dashi. Being exceptionally strong he regularly won by kime-dashi (armlock force out) and tsuri-dashi (lift out). His balance was suspect, as his long legs meant he was rather top-heavy with his centre of gravity too high. As a result, he was often prone to being thrown by lighter, more agile opponents. Two lightweights who he often had trouble with were Asahikuni and Washuyama.

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