I imagine even regular readers don’t often see the giants of Japan’s sumo world profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and I’ve never, ever seen anyone compare any rikishi to Leonardo DiCaprio—until now. (Either the Titanic or the iceberg that sunk it is a more likely comparison, but I wouldn’t want to jinx anyone, especially not the genial giant featured in this WSJ vignette.)
As the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament gets underway in Tokyo, the spotlight shines on Baruto, the rising star aficionados hope can give a lift to the scandal-plagued national sport.
This is the first time for the Estonian-born wrestler to compete as an ozeki, sumo’s second-highest title. Having gotten off to a strong 4-0 start, his fans hope he could soon vault into the top ranks of yokozuna, making him the first European to reach that exalted status.
The 25-year-old’s relatively trim (for a sumo star) figure, and glamorous looks have drawn comparisons in the Japanese press to Leonardo DiCaprio. His inspiring story, including a rise from hard labor on a rural Estonian cattle farm, is well-known. “Baruto” means “Baltic” in Japanese.
The rapid climb of the clean-cut Baruto — nee [sic] Kaido Höövelson — comes at a moment of need for the struggling sport. Earlier this year, grand champion Asashoryu resigned suddenly after tabloid reports of a bar fight, just the latest in a string of embarrassing reports about the Mongolian in recent years.
Before that, other wrestlers were arrested for dope-smoking, and there was a hazing death. The fan base has been shrinking, and fewer young Japanese are taking up the sport, with its extreme discipline and hierarchy at odds with the comforts of modern Japan.
Here are a few more details from Japan’s Daily Yomiuri, which profiled the newly promoted ozeki before the May tournament got underway.
“When he first came here he had problems with the food,” the stablemaster said. “One of the wrestlers told him that as a foreigner he wouldn’t like natto. Baruto simply filled a huge bowl and ate the lot. It didn’t do him much good but I was impressed that he didn’t like to lose or give up.”
A former nightclub bouncer and judo champion, Baruto has more than repaid the faith shown in him since arriving from Estonia.
After making his debut in May 2004, he became the first wrestler in 43 years to win the juryo division with a perfect 15-0 record when he triumphed at the 2006 Spring Basho.
On March 31 of this year, he was promoted to the sport’s second-highest rank, having won 35 bouts in the previous three tournaments.
UPDATE: Baruto started strong but lost several bouts during the second week of the tournament. On Day 13, the sole yokozuna, Hakuho from Mongolia, clinched victory with a record of 13-0. Behind him, at 10-3, is the Russian Aran. Behind him, at 9-4, are the giant Estonian ozeki Baruto, the diminutive Mongolian ozeki Harumafuji, the lanky Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu, and the Mongolian Hakuba, who made his debut in the highest division in January. Not one Japanese among the leaders!