TOKYO -- Japan's ruling body for sumo wrestling Tuesday dismissed claims that the sport was rife with bout-fixing, saying it had found no evidence to back up the accusations by a former wrestler.

Officials said they questioned 18 wrestlers who had been named by former sumo star Keisuke Itai as involved in wrongdoing."We found nothing to back up what he said," said Tokitsukaze, a former wrestler and chairman of the Japan Sumo Association. "The wrestlers vehemently denied the allegations. Itai's claims are untrue."

Itai, who retired as a highly-ranked wrestler in 1991, set off a media frenzy in Japan earlier this year by announcing that many sumo bouts are fixed and acknowledging he intentionally lost many of his own bouts. He named some of those he said were involved, saying he hoped to revive flagging interest in the sport with a thorough cleansing.

All those he named -- including top Hawaiian wrestler Akebono -- were individually questioned by lawyers and sumo association elders, Tokitsukaze, who like many wrestlers goes by only one name, told a news conference Tuesday.

Some 2,000 years old and with roots in Japan's indigenous Shinto religion, sumo is, along with baseball, the country's most popular sport.

It is fought one-on-one by athletes trying to wrestle each other down or out of an elevated clay ring. Purity is all-important, and the ring is blessed by priests and purified with salt before each bout.

Still, the latest scandal is not the first time sumo's image has been sullied.

Four years ago, in a series of tabloid articles, Itai's stablemaster, the former wrestler Onaruto, talked about wrestlers who smoked marijuana, cheated on their taxes, hung out with gangsters, joined in orgies and frequently lost matches for money.

Officials denied it all. But shortly afterward, three members of Japan's top sumo family were hit with back taxes for failing to report more than $3.8 million in income.

Today, Tokitsukaze pointed out that in 1996 Itai had denied Onaruto's claims about bout-rigging. The sumo association head said that should show Itai cannot be believed.

"I think most people will realize what happened and will recognize the facts," he said.

The association, however, will not sue Itai as it once suggested since such action would take up wrestlers' time by requiring them to appear in court, said Tokitsukaze.