But even 150-kilogram men aren't indestructible. In 2002, Takanohana missed seven consecutive tournaments due to a knee injury. He made an impressive comeback last September, but after losing last week to an opponent he would once have chomped like sashimi, he knew it was time to hang up the loincloth. "I have no regrets," he told the press. Maybe, but sumo's notoriously conservative overlords might, as Takanohana was the only active Japanese yokozuna. The most Japanese of sports may crown as its next champion a Mongolian named Asashoryu. Tsuneo Watanabe, the head of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, said: "I pray Takanohana's retirement isn't symbolic of Japan's decline." In a country that seems to be shrinking every day in every way, there may be no Japanese sumo who can fill Taka's immense legacy.
In sumo, the term yokozuna means "grand champion," and few yokozunas were grander—inside and outside the ring—than Japan's Takanohana, who announced his retirement from sumo last week. From his start as a gangly 15-year-old phenom wrestling in his father's stable, Takanohana quickly grew to dominate sumo, winning his first championship at the record age of 19 and earning the coveted title of yokozuna at 22. When he wasn't shoving overmatched opponents around like a human bulldozer, Takanohana—together with his older brother, Wakanohana—charmed the nation with his good looks and pop-star persona. "Taka" had the bluest of sumo blood (both his father and his uncle were high-level wrestlers), but it was his superstar celebrity outside the ring—the magazine covers, the celebrated love affairs, the lurid tabloid details—that humanized the highly traditional sport. "He gave sumo a facelift, a new image," says Akebono, a yokozuna from 1993 to 2001. Sumo wrestlers were just like normal people, he proved, give or take a hundred kilos.