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Taiho, 72; champion sumo wrestler used skill, not girth

Taiho (left) during a performance in 1967 in Tokyo. His 32 championships are the most in the ancient sport’s history.

Kyodo News

Taiho (left) during a performance in 1967 in Tokyo. His 32 championships are the most in the ancient sport’s history.

NEW YORK — Taiho, widely considered the greatest sumo wrestler of postwar Japan despite the fact that he weighed scarcely more than 300 pounds, died on Saturday in Tokyo. He was 72.

His death, of heart failure, was announced by the Japanese Sumo Association.

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Mr. Taiho, who made his debut in the mid-1950s, dominated his sport until the early ’70s. Standing about 6-foot-1 and weighing about 220 pounds at the start of his career, he was a sylph of sumo, relying on skill more than heft to win matches.

Later on he competed at about 320 pounds, a figure that was then unremarkable and is today, in an era when sumo wrestlers can exceed 500 pounds, negligible.

A ruggedly handsome man adored by a generation of Japanese women and girls (Emperor Hirohito was also said to be a fan), Taiho retired in 1971 with a career record of 746-144-136.

Mr. Taiho, whose Japanese name was Koki Naya, won the Emperor’s Cup 32 times, a record that still stands. The cup, an immense silver trophy awarded to the champion of ­sumo’s top division, has long been the most coveted prize in Japanese sports.

The son of a Japanese mother and a Ukrainian father, Mr. Taiho was born Ivan Boryshko on May 29, 1940, in Russia’s Far East on Sakhalin Island. Sakhalin was colonized by both the Soviet Union and Japan; at the end of World War II, the Soviets gained control of the island and Ivan and his mother were repatriated to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s major islands.

His father, an anti-Communist who had fled his homeland for Sakhalin after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, was apparently arrested. The family never learned his fate; years later, touring the Soviet Union as a sumo star, Mr. Taiho reportedly sought his father’s whereabouts to no avail.

He began his sumo career in 1956 and soon took the ring name Taiho, which roughly translates to ‘‘Great Phoenix.’’ In 1960, when he won his first Emperor’s Cup at 20, he was thought to be the youngest champion in sumo’s 2,000-year history.

The next year Mr. Taiho became a yokozuna, or grand master; at the time he was the youngest sumo wrestler to do so. Other highlights of his career include a 45-match unbeaten streak in the late 1960s.

After retiring, Mr. Taiho ran his own sumo stable. At 36 he had a stroke, but he recovered with intensive rehabilitation.

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