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Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004
Tochiazuma poised for promotion
Could make yokozuna with win in New Year tourney
With yokozuna Takanohana and Musashimaru both bringing the curtain down on their injury-interrupted careers in 2003, saucy Mongolian Asashoryu is the last man standing at sumo's summit heading into the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament.
But when the 15-day meet kicks off at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan on Sunday, all eyes will be firmly fixed on ozeki Tochiazuma, who is gearing up for a second shot at promotion to sumo's ultimate rank of grand champion.
The 27-year-old, who failed in his initial bid for yokozuna promotion in the spring of 2002, will also be carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders as he aims to become the first Japanese wrestler to reach the top rung of sumo's ladder since Wakanohana achieved the feat in 1998.
Tochiazuma beat Asashoryu to clinch his second Emperor's Cup with a 13-2 record on the final day of the Kyushu tournament last November and an identical showing in Tokyo will guarantee him yokozuna status.
The Tamanoi stable grappler, who has been concentrating on building up his stamina and strengthening his lower body since last autumn, has been razor sharp in practice and looks a good bet to be there or thereabouts as the New Year meet winds down.
He cannot afford any early slip-ups, however, as anything less than 13 wins will not be enough to meet the requirement for promotion set by the Japan Sumo Association.
"Of course, it depends on what his performances are like, but let's say his chances of promotion will be minimal if he cannot chalk up more than 12 wins," JSA chairman Kitanoumi said.
Sensibly, Tochiazuma has avoided making any bold predictions when asked how he thinks he will fare in his quest for glory.
"Yokozuna? I haven't given it any thought. I'll just be wrestling the same way I would at any other tournament," he said.
Komusubi Wakanosato presents a potential stumbling block on the opening day of the meet, but it is favorite Asashoryu who will be the biggest obstacle in Tochiazuma's path to success.
The bully from Ulan Bator will be looking to exact swift revenge for his defeat in Kyushu, not to mention divert the unwelcome headlines his latest antics outside the ring have attracted.
Asashoryu's failure to attend the funeral of a former head of his Takasago stable and his tardiness in starting training have once again raised questions about his conduct as a yokozuna.
Stablemaster Takasago blasted Asashoryu, who missed the funeral because he had returned to his homeland without notice, for "lacking common sense," while one Yokozuna Deliberation Council member said it is "possible that we may urge him to retire" if he does not change his ways.
With his ozeki rank on the line, Kaio came through with flying colors in Kyushu with 10 wins and looks fit enough to mount a serious challenge of his own, while in contrast Chiyotaikai has not looked good in training, but cannot be ruled out of contention.