'Bad Boy of Sumo' Beset by Woes

Last month, officials banned Japan's top-ranked sumo wrestler from two major events for his bad attitude and other violations of the sport's strict code. Commentator Murray Johnson explains the fascination with Asashoryu, "The Bad Boy of Sumo."

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If politics in Japan have been plagued by scandal, the disgrace is nothing compared to what's been going on in the world of sumo.

(Soundbite of a sumo wrestling match)

LYDEN: The sport has suspended Japan's top-ranked wrestler, a Mongolian who goes by the name of Asashoryu. He's accused of various violations of the strict sumo code, including pulling an opponent's hair bun and appearing in public in a business suit instead of the tradition kimono. And there's worse - much worse according to Murray Johnson, an Australian broadcaster who's one of the top Sumo commentators on Japanese television.

Mr. MURRAY JOHNSON (Sumo commentator): He actually demoralizes his opponents, like kneeing people after the match is already won and pushing them after the decision has already been made. He's also have been involved in a few indiscretions in terms of attacking vehicles, et cetera, when angry, and kicking walls. He's also been accused of not paying - in fact, he didn't pay taxes.

LYDEN: This has earned Asashoryu the nickname of The Bad Boy of Sumo. His mental state came into question. And a doctor sent by sumo's ruling body diagnosed him with depression. Asashoryu was sent to a spa in his home country of Mongolia. Some sumo watchers suspect the diagnosis was motivated by other forces. The fan base for sumo in Japan has waned while Asashoryu, a foreigner, holds on to the championship.

Mr. JOHNSON: They would like a Japanese at the top. The two men at the top are both Mongolians. The tradition is maintained but the traditional followers have probably fallen by the way side because people at the top are not Japanese.

LYDEN: The sumo world now wonders if Asashoryu can make a comeback. Murray Johnson believes he'll first need to offer a public apology for his actions.

Mr. JOHNSON: I think he will come back. He's got that drive, and he didn't just get through the initial embarrassment of having to apologize and fight his way back in - it won't all be forgotten, obviously, because this sort of things, they haven't happened before. So if he comes back, he'll come back to the first tournament in January. It'll be very interesting to see what the crowd reaction is to him appearing for the first time after this debacle.

(Soundbite of sumo wrestling match)

LYDEN: Murray Johnson is a sumo commentator for the Japanese NHK Television Network. He spoke to us from his home in Tokyo.

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