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Sunday, Jan. 9, 2005

Kaio still has shot at promotion


By DAVE HUESTON

Will ozeki Kaio finally claim the yokozuna prize that has slipped through his fingers more times than he cares to remember?

News photo
Ozeki Kaio is hoping victory in the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament will gain him promotion to yokozuna.

The question has been entertained ad nauseam since his promotion to sumo's second highest rank in September 2000. Four years and counting, and still ozeki at 32? The math is not reassuring.

But as the wrestlers ready themselves for another 15-day pounding when the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament kicks off Sunday in Tokyo, Kaio, like it or not, will be the centerpiece of the unfolding drama along with yokozuna Asashoryu.

After winning the autumn title with a 13-2 record in September last year and finishing runnerup to Asashoryu with a 12-3 record at the Kyushu meet in November, 13 wins or a sixth Emperor's Cup victory would be more than sufficient for Kaio's coveted promotion.

Standing ominously between him and glory, however, are Asashoryu and a number of bloodthirsty wrestlers including 19-year-old rising star Hakuho, who are just as determined to claim the tournament trophy for themselves.

In a practice just days before the New Year tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan, Kaio, though no longer suffering from chronic back pain, won only 16 of 25 bouts in sparring matches with other wrestlers, noticeably losing to rank-and-filers Roho and Kakizoe.

"I will use all of my power and fight my brand of sumo. That's all," said Kaio, who won just seven of 12 bouts against relegation-threatened ozeki Chiyotaikai in pre-tournament warmups.

Sumo elders of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council were wholly unimpressed, one snapping, "Don't lose to the lower ranks!" another remarking, "As you can see, his performance is not good."

But Kaio could benefit from a seemingly debilitated Asashoryu, who took a week off from practice at the end of the year to travel back to his native Mongolia and came down with a high fever just days before the meet.

"It won't help if I over-exert myself and ruin my health," said Asashoryu, who had his first practice of the New Year on Thursday.

In fact, Asashoryu, who will be aiming for his 10th career title, appeared unconcerned about his slow start, which is reminiscent of when he went 9-6 at the autumn meet for his worst performance and only title defeat in 2004.

"It doesn't matter who my opponent is. Bring it on! I have two days left so just watch and see. I'll show you," Asashoryu said after mixing it up with 21 opponents.

The 24-year-old hopes to join sumo greats Taiho, Kitanoumi and Chiyonofuji as the only wrestlers to win the New Year meet three years in a row since the establishment of the six-tournament system in 1958.

As bad luck would have it, Asashoryu faces compatriot Hakuho on the first day.

The newly promoted komusubi claimed the Outstanding Prize with a 12-3 record, handing his mentor Asashoryu one of his only two defeats when the yokozuna took the title in Kyushu.

Meanwhile, sekiwake Wakanosato has a solid shot at ozeki if he can post at least 12 wins, which would make him the only wrestler in the elite makuuchi division to record a total of 33 wins in the three tournaments leading up to his promotion to the second highest rank.



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