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Sunday, Jan. 8, 2006

Can Kotooshu stop Asashoryu?

Kyodo news

The image of the silent but deadly giant whose hobby growing up in Bulgaria was baking cakes soaked in caramel fudge must be reconciled.

News photo
Ozeki Kotooshu is looking to end yokozuna Asashoryu's record winning streak of seven tournament titles when action gets under way at the New Year Basho in Tokyo.

The man has soared sumo's ladder faster than any wrestler in history. He is endowed with physical attributes unrivaled in the elite makuuchi division.

But the question of steely nerves and coolness under fire remains. When push comes to shove, can newly promoted ozeki Kotooshu actually win a championship with classroom bully Asashoryu lurking, once again, ominously in the wings?

Unlike the fiery Mongolian grand champion, who will be aiming for an unprecedented eighth straight Emperor's Cup when the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament kicks off Sunday, Kotooshu seems to lack the one critical element necessary to destine him for legendary status.

Killer instinct.

Taiho definitely had it. Chiyonofuji, Kitanoumi, Takanohana and all of the great yokozuna of yore possessed it.

If it exists somewhere beneath his fluffy surface, Kotooshu must let it out in its full fury at the Jan. 8-22 meet at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan Arena.

Anything less would be an insult to the yokozuna, who despite losing twice to Kotooshu last year (and beating him five times), still views him as far from a finished product.

"I want to test my strength against the new ozeki," Asashoryu said with a cheeky laugh before kicking off training at the end of the year in December. "I'm looking forward to the challenge. I'm not looking at a mountain far off in the distance but right at the rocks lying at my feet."

Kotooshu, who went 11-4 at the Kyushu meet in November, became the first European to reach ozeki status, and his meteoric rise to sumo's second-highest rank after just 19 meets is the fastest since 1958, when sumo switched to the current system of six tournaments in a year. Asashoryu held the previous record of 22.

Last September, Kotooshu blew his chance for a championship title when he squandered a two-lead cushion before he was handed an emphatic defeat by the yokozuna in a playoff.

Critics argue that Kotooshu lacks real guts, owing much of his success to his towering 204-cm frame and a well-developed overarm technique that he relies on heavily, especially when pushed to the ring's edge.

Although he beat Asashoryu in July by the slimmest of margins, Kotooshu finally showed something resembling fierceness when he defeated the yokozuna with a solid victory on the 13th day in November.

But Asashoryu, who became the first man to win all six titles in a year and posted a record 84 wins with just six losses in 2005, manhandled the newly crowned ozeki in a pre-tournament training, slamming his opponent to the clay in several warmup matches.

"I don't feel any pressure at this basho. I felt tons of pressure last meet," said Kotooshu, referring to his run at ozeki, adding, "The basho itself is more important than my practices."

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