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Opinion The greatest figure in sports, maybe ever, just retired. You probably haven’t heard of him.

Mongolian-born sumo grand champion Hakuho Sho reacts after defeating then champion Terunofuji at the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament to win his 45th victory in the tournaments, in Nagoya, Japan, on July 18. (Kyodo News via AP) (AP)

The championship came down to a single, decisive 20 seconds. At 36, the undoubted greatest of all time had just returned after injury and infection with covid-19. His knees hurt. The sport’s governing body seemed to want him to retire. Facing him was a larger man still in his 20s, also with something to prove, his knees taped up so tightly it looked like he had a cast on each leg. Both men had perfect tournament records to that point. They pounded their fists into the clay and rushed forward. They pushed, slapped and spun each other around the ring. They grabbed each other’s belts. Then the veteran secured his opponent’s right arm, swung him around and threw him to the ground.

Hakuho Sho, the greatest sumo wrestler ever — and possibly the most accomplished figure in any sport, ever — pumped his fist and emitted a victory yell as he ended the July tournament. This was an unusual display of emotion.

Sumo’s overseers strictly regulate wrestlers’ behavior, in and out of the ring. Shinto ritual infuses the sport, from the labor-intensive building of the dohyo — the clay mound on which wrestlers fight — to the throwing of salt into the ring before bouts, to the hand motions wrestlers make as they acknowledge their victories. The highest-ranking wrestlers, like Hakuho, enter the ring with two attendants, then perform a ceremonial dance before they fight. Participants, particularly those at the top, must maintain a certain dignity. Fist pumping and yelling are neither common nor encouraged.

Was Hakuho overcome with emotion after triumphing against tall odds? Or did he know this was his last day as a competitor? The sumo world got its answer Monday when news came that Hakuho had officially retired, after 17 years in the sport’s top division. You probably haven’t heard of this 6-foot-4-inch, 350-pound Mongolian. But you should have, because few human beings have so thoroughly mastered their craft the way Hakuho did.

It is hard to overstate what he accomplished. Hakuho was the Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic of sumo, all in one man. He was a Yokozuna — the sport’s top rank — for 14 years; there have been only 73 ever. After winning his first tournament in 2006, he claimed the Emperor’s Cup in 45 of the 80 tournaments in which he competed. He was the runner-up in 18 more. For comparison, Kakuryu Rikisaburo, the other Yokozuna in the ring toward the end of Hakuho’s career, won a mere six tournaments — in part because he had the misfortune of overlapping with Hakuho. Hakuho won 13 more tournaments than the second-winningest wrestler ever, Taiho Koki, who retired in 1971.

Many sumo wrestlers specialize. Takakeisho is a pusher-thruster; Tochinoshin is a belt-gripper; tiny Enho is an acrobat; Ichinojo overpowers people with his massive size. Hakuho combined size with finesse and smarts, and he could seemingly do everything well. Then he started sitting out tournaments with injuries. Then he got covid.

Hakuho came back in July, and he used mental weapons. In one bout, Hakuho put some distance between himself and his adversary, stood up and waited for the 29-year-old Tobizaru, who somewhat annoyingly brands himself “The Flying Monkey,” to make a move. Once Tobizaru engaged, Hakuho grabbed his belt and threw him to the ground.

And in a fight against high-ranking Shodai, he started at the very edge of the ring, a bizarre choice in a sport in which the goal is to stay inside a 15-foot circle, but one that confused his opponent. Hakuho explained that he started where he did to protect his ailing right knee. He was like a pitcher who lost his fastball but learned how to hurl such filth at the plate that it hardly mattered that the balls were traveling slower.

I have always found it hard to justify holding such strong feelings about sports figures. Why is it so sad when the great ones retire? Why, indeed, do humans devote so much time and energy to simple games that test proficiencies useless outside a baseball diamond, a football field or a dohyo? Part of the allure is seeing people perform some arcane skill exceptionally well, an inspiring display of natural talent and years of practice.

But people also care because sports are delightfully unpredictable. Maybe a baseball team can start its season 19-31 and come back to win the World Series. Maybe Federer, at 40, will finally win his 21st major title. Even if he doesn’t, how will his continuing presence scramble tournament draws? As long as Hakuho was an active wrestler, he would continue writing his saga, and in July he proved once again it would be interesting.

As with all else in sumo, there is a ritual performed when a wrestler retires: the ceremonial cutting of the wrestler’s top-knot. As Hakuho’s hair is shorn, countless alternative histories will terminate. There is nothing left to speculate about, and there is no more doubt. The Hakuho era is definitively over. All good things …

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