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Sunday, March 9, 2003

Asashoryu going for 3rd straight


By DAVE HUESTON

OSAKA (Kyodo) A yokozuna debutant has never won the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament.

News photo
Asashoryu will make his debut as yokozuna and be the heavy favorite to win the Emperor's Cup at the Spring Grand Tournament in Osaka, beginning Sunday.

That's all about to change if scrappy Mongolian Asashoryu has his say-so when the meet gets under way at the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium on Sunday.

Still on a euphoric high after brawling his way to two successive championship titles and promotion to sumo's ultimate rank, Asashoryu is showing no signs of retreating from the fray.

"All I need to do is stick to my brand of sumo," said Asashoryu.

With the withdrawal of yokozuna Musashimaru, who is still recovering from wrist surgery, Asashoryu's victory in Osaka would appear a virtual lock barring an unforeseen meltdown in the first bouts of the 15-day event.

He stands on the dawn of a new era of sumo as the lone yokozuna at the Osaka basho after the sun set on the brilliant career of yokozuna Takanohana who retired in January.

After notching outstanding 14-1 records in two straight tournaments, the 22-year-old from Ulan Bator would appear the odds-on favorite to claim the coveted hardware, accomplishing a feat yet to be achieved by a newly promoted yokozuna since the spring meet started half a century ago.

Indeed, Asashoryu's only true enemy at the March 9-23 tournament could be himself.

Ozeki Tochiazuma will sit out due to an injured shoulder and the remaining ozeki brass are all struggling to mount comebacks. They are the first to admit their newfound respect for their former ozeki nemesis.

"Yokozuna Asashoryu attacks from both the right and left side, so he is very difficult to handle," said ozeki Chiyotaikai, who must notch eight wins to keep his rank after sitting out the New Year tourney with an arm injury.

Ozeki Kaio, who missed the last two basho after tearing a tendon in his right arm, said he was also impressed with Asashoryu's explosive growth.

"He has become so much sharper as a wrestler it's amazing." Kaio must also win eight bouts in Osaka to maintain his ozeki status.

Kaio and Chiyotaikai will both need to remain healthy if they expect to challenge Asashoryu while Musoyama, who finished with a just-passing 8-7 mark in January, will also need to make his presence felt to derail the juggernaut.

One concern for the new yokozuna could be a sore right shoulder, which sidelined him for three days of practice in Osaka. Asashoryu, however, insists he will make a fast recovery and keep his laser-like focus on winning his third straight title.

"If I try to practice too much with this sore arm it wouldn't be good at all. The most important thing is my focus. Since I'm young, I'll recover quickly.

"I'm sure I will have a good bout against Tosanoumi on the first day," said Asashoryu, who beat the newly promoted komusubi on the first day of the last two tournaments.

Should the Mongolian warrior be victorious in Osaka, he will become the first grand champion to win three consecutive titles after former yokozuna Takanohana claimed four straight in 1996.

A refreshing surprise in the chase for the title could be Wakanosato, who impressed in going 11-4 in January to return to the rank of sekiwake.

He will take a big stride toward securing promotion to ozeki if he can notch double-digit wins and spoil Asashoryu's hopes of becoming the first of 10 yokozuna debutants to claim the spring title.

Kotomitsuki, who underwent surgery on his left elbow after going 9-6 in January, is savvy enough to compensate for his poor fitness but fellow sekiwake Takanowaka will sit out the meet with damaged knee ligaments.



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