TOKYO (AFP) — Sumo's top wrestler Asashoryu made an unprecedented court appearance Friday to deny a magazine's allegations that he fixed bouts, one of a string of scandals hanging over the ancient sport.
It marked the first-ever testimony in court by a yokozuna, a grand champion at the top of the sumo echelon, who is expected to be a taciturn role model.
Asashoryu, a Mongolian who is the fifth highest ranking wrestler in sumo history, has long had a testy relationship with the Japanese media and athletic establishment, which consider him too brash.
The Shukan Gendai, a weekly magazine that features sensational scoops, reported in January last year that Asashoryu had paid opponents about 800,000 yen (7,600 dollars) per fight to allow him to win.
"These are complete lies," Asashoryu said in court. "Each match is real."
"I am very sad and disgusted," a visibly agitated Asashoryu said as he glared at the journalist who wrote the article, according to a correspondent for the TBS network who was inside the courtroom.
Asashoryu later told reporters outside the courtroom that he made his case unequivocally.
"I explained things fully, clearly under oath, that we don't have" fixed bouts, Asashoryu said. "I said it loud and clear."
But Yorimasa Takeda, the freelance journalist who wrote the story for the magazine, said that Asashoryu was the liar.
"He's a big liar. I wished he told the real story," Takeda said after the court session.
The sumo association "should drop the case immediately. If they will continue the case, we will fight all the way," he said.
Asashoryu is joined by 31 other wrestlers and the Japan Sumo Association in seeking 660 million yen from leading publisher Kodansha Ltd., which prints the magazine.
Hundreds of people waited from the early morning for the chance to get one of the 62 seats for the hearing at the Tokyo District Court.
The magazine's case was supported in court by Itai, a former sumo wrestler who caused a sensation in 2000 when he alleged widespread bout-fixing during his 1978-1991 career.
Itai, who has said he wants to root out corruption to save the sport, told the court on Friday that up to 80 percent of bouts were fixed.
"When I was around, a yokozuna and a (second-ranked) ozeki would buy a win for about 700,000 to 800,000 yen from other wrestlers," Itai told the courtroom, according to Jiji Press.
Sumo has been rocked by scandals in recent years including the death of a young trainee who was beaten by his master and the expulsion of three Russian wrestlers for smoking marijuana.
Soslan Gagloev, one of the expelled Russians, caused a stir on Monday by saying he would also testify on behalf of the magazine and "tell all" about bout-fixing, drug use and other "evil things" in sumo.
Asashoryu, whose real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, has withdrawn from the past two tournaments halfway through, citing injuries, raising speculation his five-and-a half-year tenure as a yokozuna could be nearing an end.
He was suspended for two tournaments last year after outraging the sumo authority by skipping a provincial non-competition tournament.
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