Yokozuna Hakuho’s sudden retirement sent shockwaves through the world of sumo last month.
The legendary wrestler may have been absent for most of the past two years, but his continued ability to dominate the competition when taking part in tournaments ensured that there was an intimidating presence atop the rankings, and presented a formidable psychological barrier to any rikishi with ambitions of grandeur.
Without Hakuho, the task of maintaining sumo’s natural order becomes the purview of new yokozuna Terunofuji. The powerful veteran showed he was up to the challenge by claiming a fifth Emperor’s Cup in September, but with his 30th birthday just over a month away, and an extensive injury history, it remains to be seen just how long the Isegahama stable man can sustain his current level of performance.
Certainly, the abrupt removal of the most dominant rikishi the sport has ever seen opens up all title races in the near term as Terunofuji, for all his excellence, is just one wrestler, and the drop-off in level below him is significant. The chance of seeing another spate of first-time champions has increased with Hakuho’s departure.
Outside the ring, the yokozuna’s retirement has both immediate and long-term implications. For the Japan Sumo Association, the lack of a headline rivalry has to be concerning. Early reports on the upcoming November tournament in Fukuoka indicate ticket sales for the event are going extremely slowly — even taking into account COVID-19 enforced seating reductions and that particular location’s historically poor attendance numbers.
Hakuho, of course, will play a role in attempting to remedy the situation as he settles into recruiting and coaching future generations of stars.
The yokozuna’s retirement does, however, introduce an additional consequence for the wider sumo community.
Autographed handprints (tegata) are the sport’s most distinctive and desirable form of memorabilia. For fans and collectors alike, getting hold of tegata of their favorite rikishi can often be an involved process, but one that brings a special kind of reward.
Handprints are a uniquely authentic souvenir. Unlike, say, home run balls in baseball, which the player in question may have never actually touched, or a quickly scribbled felt-pen signature on a generic item of clothing in other sports, there is an intimacy that comes with having the imprint of every line in a man’s hand alongside his personal calligraphy on your wall.
In addition, genuine handprints are never sold, but instead given to supporters and friends as thank-you presents. Rather than simple merchandise designed solely to raise money for the athlete or team, a tegata’s purpose is to deepen the connection between rikishi and fans.
In sumo, tegata are normally made only after promotion to the jūryō division, and it’s common practice for wrestlers to stop making them once retired.
After an initial batch is made upon becoming sekitori, how often or how many handprints a rikishi makes is up to the individual themselves.
Invariably, when a popular or great yokozuna retires, prices for their tegata at online auction sites see a spike as production ceases but demand rises.
Fans wishing to hold onto a piece of history also means retirements invariably bring a sudden drop in the number of handprints available.
Even so, prices for tegata — or indeed any authentic sumo item — pale in comparison to those seen in other sports.
The most expensive piece of sporting memorabilia ever sold is the original copy of The Olympic Manifesto signed by Pierre de Coubertin, which went under the hammer in 2019 for almost $9 million.
That, of course, was an extreme case for something that has no parallel, but numerous items from the early days of baseball have fetched seven-figure sums over the years.
Those prices have normally come for items associated with Babe Ruth — an almost mythical figure in that sport.
Sumo has similarly fabled champions from centuries past, but their memorabilia can be acquired for far less.
Babe Ruth jerseys, bats, rings and signed contracts have sold for millions of dollars, while a keshō-mawashi (an ornate apron style belt) worn by 32-time champion yokozuna Taiho has sat unsold online for months priced at only $4,700.
Even among contemporary legends, the price disparity between sumo and North American sports paraphernalia is striking. Tegata of Hakuho or recent yokozuna can be acquired for less than one-twentieth of the price of those created for merchandising companies by basketball players Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
As with Super Bowl or other championship rings, rare and special items in Japan’s national sport also reach the open market on occasion, but in almost every case the listed price is a fraction of what it would be in the United States.
Sumo has a wide range of merchandise available, everything from posters and t-shirts to rikishi-branded curries and other foodstuffs. Over the past five-to-six years in particular, the range of items available has continued to grow as the merchandise market matures.
The sumo trading card market has, like its contemporaries in other sports, seen an increase in prices throughout the pandemic, as fans found themselves at home with more time to spend on their collections.
Tegata, though, still hold a unique significance for most fans. As well as being a tangible link to the past, autographed handprints allow the kind of intimate connection with athletes not often found in other sports — and at a price that puts them within reach of ordinary fans.
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