TOKYO (Reuters) - Amid tight security following a death threat against him, firebrand sumo grand champion Asashoryu buried doubts over his future with an emotional comeback win at the weekend.
The controversial “yokozuna” beat fellow Mongolian grand champion Hakuho in a playoff to capture his 23rd Emperor’s Cup and exorcise his demons following a turbulent 18 months.
“I‘m going to become president of Mongolia!” a tearful Asashoryu told reporters after Sunday’s triumph. “But I‘m not done in sumo yet.”
Police patrols around Asashoryu’s Tokyo gym had been introduced after a death threat was posted on the Internet before the start of the New Year tournament in Tokyo.
The 28-year-old’s future had already been the subject of intense speculation after a series of injuries, illness and a bizarre ban for playing soccer while supposedly injured.
But after being jolted in a regulation loss to Hakuho that left both men with 14-1 records, Asashoryu smashed out his fierce rival in an electrifying playoff to silence his critics.
“I‘m back,” Asashoryu said after his first major victory in almost a year. “Asashoryu has finally returned. This win feels a lot different to all the others.”
Asashoryu’s 10-year sumo career has been far from smooth.
His notoriously short fuse and frequent breaches of protocol have angered sumo authorities and divided public opinion about his presence in the ancient Japanese sport.
He was once involved in a bathtub bust-up with a rival Mongolian wrestler before his promotion to yokozuna after insults were exchanged during a post-fight soak.
Other controversies followed but his suspension for playing in a soccer game in August 2007 was the final straw for many sumo elders, and sparked a bout of clinical depression in Asashoryu.
He fled to Mongolia and finally returned from lengthy treatment at a luxury spa resort, apologizing for his actions and promising to mend his ways.
His behavior continued to raise eyebrows after he spent 10 days living in a tent in the freezing Mongolian mountains as part of his rehabilitation for elbow and back injuries last year.
Asashoryu’s “boot camp” last October involved hunting and cooking wild animals, including boar and wolves, and plunging into icy rivers to prepare for his return to sumo.
Despite the debates triggered by his latest comeback, Asashoryu offered an olive branch to the Japanese public after his victory on Sunday.
“It’s been a long road back,” he sobbed. “At times I didn’t think I could make it. But I love Japan. I‘m Japan’s yokozuna.”
Editing by John O'Brien