Suspended for a year, Asanoyama faces cascading series of demotions

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Then No. 8 maegashira Asanoyama receives the “President’s Cup” from then U.S. President Donald Trump after winning the Summer tournament in Tokyo in May 2019.

Ozeki Asanoyama, who showed so much potential for greatness with his classic, two-handed-belt-grabbing style, is paying a heavy price for violating the Japan Sumo Association’s strict coronavirus protocols — suspension for six tournaments and 50% pay cut during the ban.

Asanoyama had frequented hostess bars just prior to and during tournaments, periods when wrestlers are forbidden from going out to public places. When the facts first came to light in a weekly magazine, he lied to the association by claiming the report had no basis of truth, and even tried to hide evidence. Such dishonest actions by an ozeki served to stiffen the punishment.

The scandal came to light in May during the Summer tournament, which Asanoyama dropped out of midway and ended with a losing record. In terms of ranking, that means he will be listed as a kadoban ozeki (with no chance of getting the majority of wins he needs to keep his rank) for the Nagoya tourney starting July 4.

Going forward, the suspension means he will then drop to sekiwake for the Autumn tournament in September, then continue a precipitous drop with each tournament. Down through the maegashira ranks, then through juryo and makushita. By the time he is allowed to return at next year’s Nagoya tournament, he is expected to restart his career in the sandanme division, the third tier from the bottom.

And this is the best-case scenario, assuming nothing else happens before his return.

Asanoyama will be out of the ring for a year. The key to his return will surely be the mental aspect. No matter how hard he trains, he will not get the opportunity to put his power to the test at a tournament.

“It’s all up to him, but it will also come down to whether or not he has an adviser he can trust,” said one sumo elder, surmising that Asanoyama may not have a clear-cut support system.

Personally, I thought one punishment option would have been to immediately strip him of his ozeki status and drop him to the bottom of makushita division. If he was then banned for three tournaments, he would have been eligible to return at the New Year tournament in January as the lowest-ranked makushita. It could have been four tournaments instead of three, but that was for the association to discuss and decide.

There might also be legal issues over suddenly demoting an ozeki to the “black mawashi” level of the unsalaried ranks, but it would also have the effect of giving him renewed determination. Of course now that the punishment has already been decided, all of this talk is moot.

For Asanoyama, it is the moment of truth of a lifetime.