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Sunday, March 14, 2004

SPRING GRAND TOURNAMENT

Asashoryu heavy favorite in Osaka


By DAVE HUESTON

OSAKA (Kyodo) In a performance to rival "The Terminator," yokozuna Asashoryu proved he was literally unstoppable in January as he went undefeated at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament to capture his fifth Emperor's Cup.

News photo
Yokozuna Asashoryu is the man to beat at the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka after winning the New Year Basho with a perfect 15-0 record.

The 23-year-old Mongolian brawler, who became the first grappler to win all 15 bouts since yokozuna Takanohana achieved the feat in 1996, will be aiming to show that his new reign of dominance is no fluke when the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament kicks off Sunday.

What is becoming painfully clear is that the four ozeki, led by Tochiazuma and Kaio, are no match for the powerful, dexterous and speedy grand champion, who demolishes opponents with machine-like precision.

Adding salt to an already festering wound, Tochiazuma, who won the Kyushu tourney last November and needed 13 wins last time out to be considered for promotion to sumo's ultimate rank, lost to Asashoryu on the final day of the Tokyo meet and finished with a lackluster 9-6 record.

It is doubtful that Tochiazuma will possess the wherewithal to exact his pound of flesh from the yokozuna come crunch time during the 15-day meet at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium.

Kaio, who was 10-5 in January, appears to be the only ozeki with a shot at spoiling Asashoryu's parade for a second consecutive victory as he professes to be in top form but the odds are still with the yokozuna to have the last laugh.

Meanwhile, ozeki Chiyotaikai, also 10-5 last time out, decided to bite the bullet and wrestle this time despite still suffering from an injured left calf muscle, and is not a likely contender for the title.

"It's not just me, the other ozeki are having difficulties with some aspect of their sumo. I'll just do my best, and if I can't make it, I'll do the sportsmanlike thing (and pull out)," Chiyotaikai told reporters ahead of the Osaka meet.

Musoyama, who missed part of the New Year meet due to injury, will need to focus all his energy reserves on posting the necessary eight wins to keep his ozeki rank. The Musashigawa-stable ozeki has won only one title in his 11-year career.

Returning from surgery on both elbows, Kotomitsuki finished runnerup to Asashoryu with a 13-2 record in January.

But the sekiwake is still smarting after the grand champion slammed him to the dohyo like an underclassman pip-squeak in their bout in January.

Wakanosato, who has spent 14 successive tournaments as a "sanyaku" wrestler -- the three ranks below yokozuna -- is still a strong candidate for ozeki promotion but he needs to notch at least double digits wins at the Osaka meet.

Newly promoted komusubi duo Kakizoe and Shimotori are the dark horses -- both young bucks at 25 -- who possess some strength to topple wrestlers in the upper echelon.

Shimotori faces Asashoryu on the first day of competition and is hoping to snap a 0-4 losing streak against the grand champion.

The failure of the ozeki regime to mount a serious challenge against Asashoryu, coupled with the absence of a Japanese yokozuna since Takanohana retired in January 2003, has led to sumo's flagging popularity in recent years.



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