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Wednesday, March 8, 2006

HARU BASHO PREVIEW

Tochiazuma or Hakuho to shine in Osaka?


Special to The Japan Times Online

Just four days off now, the March 12th to 26th Haru Basho looks like being the make or break tournament for Tochiazuma of Tamanoi Beya in Tokyo's Adachi-ku.

News photo
Ozeki Tochiazuma goes up against visiting Iwakiyama of Sakaigawa Beya during an early morning practice session at Tamanoi Beya in this file photo from December.

As the sport's only Japanese ozeki with a real chance of now making yokozuna or even of seeing out 2006 in style, this is it -- crunch time!

Put simply, no yusho in Osaka and he sees no ceremonial white belt, for the rank of ozeki will be the pinnacle of a career that promised so much more early on. Irrespective of all the talk flying around Internet sites on whether he'd be promoted without the yusho itself but with an otherwise exceptional basho, you would not get many replacing mouth with money in support of this outcome.

A rank down at sekiwake we find Mongolian Hakuho in need of a solid double figure winning record to move up to ozeki and not many would bet against this. Possibly in for a dose of yokozuna revenge for the arm injury he inflicted on Asashoryu in January, whatever figures Hakuho does post come the 26th, he is one to watch long term. The 20-year-old, 21 on the 11th, will make ozeki sooner rather than later and you'd not find many willing to stake their shirts on him not sitting alongside Asashoryu one day at the top of the pile.

Required focus on the two the majority of fans will be watching thus complete, on we move to a mixed bag of things to look out for:

Kaio and Chiyotaikai, both ozeki, both long past their prime and both looking at a slide down the rankings if things don't go their way. Thing is, they have both been in the same position so many times before that only the stars know what is in store for these two. For the pair to still be in competitive sumo come November's Kyushu tournament would be a miracle in this humble writer's eyes and for Kaio to make yet another comeback from the brink with his injury riddled body as it is will be difficult to say the least. I am sorely tempted to bring that November Kyushu tournament comment forward six months.

Kotomitsuki, stable mate of Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu and chap known for frequenting the sanyaku ranks without serious intent to go further will probably have another 'enough to hang around at rank a bit longer' tournament but nothing special. Sadogatake's top dog for so long, 'Mitsuki is definitely playing second fiddle to a 204-cm European these days.

A division lower, in Juryo, many fans will be keeping an eye on the trio of Mokonami, Homasho and the Estonian giant Baruto -- ranked at Juryo 3, 5 and 11 respectively. As Baruto looks to build on his Makushita Division championship in January, he will be hoping for a repeat of his successful trip up to Juryo last September but without anything similar to the appendix deciding it wanted out problems he suffered in November's Kyushu tournament that saw him sliding back to Makushita. Don't expect any of these men to sit around in Juryo for much longer as all are more than capable of learning enough to make them regulars a division higher. What they do once there remains to be seen.

Off the dohyo expect another no-show by Governor Ota of Osaka as women are still a sore point with some when it comes to presenting the trophy her office awards -- given that it must be done atop the sacred earthen mound and all.

For those not able to get to Osaka, NHK's English language play-by-play men will thankfully still be with us despite some worries that emerged online as to whether or not the national broadcaster would consider chopping the English version this year. Guest appearances will still be limited but for now rest easy -- grandma and her maple syrup are safe from the wolves.

Attendances will be a worry as always for the Nihon Sumo Kyokai but perhaps Tochiazuma's shot at yokozuna will bring in a few more. Coupled to Hakuho's ozeki run and Kotooshu's ever increasing popularity, the usual comments about full house banners being lowered while large portions of the audience appear to be in the restrooms, could possibly (but only possibly) take a break.

For now, enjoy the basho and look for some post basho comments on The Japan Times Online sumo page soon after the Emperor's Cup goes home with, with, with . . .

Mark Buckton covers sumo for The Japan Times Online as well as being Editor-in-Chief of the online Sumo Fan Magazine. Look for articles just before and after each honbasho as well as a column in the quieter months between basho.


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