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Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Expectations rise as Natsu nears


Special to The Japan Times Online

With a popular new ozeki in the shape of Mongolian Hakuho to whet appetites and a couple of faithful old Japanese types who were toughening the soles of their feet while he was still a toddler, we have a rather interesting mix of past and present, Japanese and foreign at the rank for the May 7th to 21st Natsu Basho. Add the only Japanese ozeki with a body still capable of advancement and a Bulgarian with a dodgy knee, and predicting the direction this latest yusho might take looks somewhat tricky. Tricky perhaps but deliciously so.

News photo
Winner of sixteen Emperor's Cups to date, sole yokozuna Asashoryu will be aiming for number seventeen starting May 7th.

Indeed, go to the Internet and you won't find many fan sites dedicated to the sport without at least some members openly salivating at what we can expect in the 15 days of bouts starting this coming Sunday.

Hakuho could well have the traditional flop in his first outing at the rank when considering the amount of time he has spent in media interviews, on TV shows and on the road since his promotion in late March. All time spent off the practice dohyo, May 21st and the talk surrounding the Emperors Cup presentation ceremony will be his ultimate judge as to whether or not that was time well spent. Tochiazuma, recipient of some rather fortunate rolls of the "powers that be dice" post-Haru could still move up a slot to yokozuna if he walks away with the Natsu Basho Emperor's Cup it was announced. Big "if" there but not impossible given the physical state of some of his fellow ozeki.

Kotooshu, if he can walk at all, will do well to secure the double digit winning record expected of those at sumo's second highest rank as his knee is still substantially less than 100% and, as Chiyotaikai and Kaio look so much like Chiyotaikai and Kaio, don't expect much there.

The yokozuna however, is a different issue altogether. Hakuho would probably be the favorite for an upset against his fellow Mongolian but still only if Asashoryu is having an off day. Tochiazuma too, if on form, has shown he can match and defeat the yokozuna but to be beaten by anyone else this time out would probably be a case of Asashoryu losing rather than an opponent winning.

Away from the rarified air of sanyaku and down the makunouchi rankings a tad, most will be focused on the Estonian Baruto and the Japanese lad Homasho. Both were in juryo last basho and are now at career high ranks and both, according to my crystal ball, are in for long and distinguished careers; starting Sunday.

Lower still in the top division could well see some interesting tussles to avoid the drop as Tokitsuumi, Takamisakari and Katayama are all men ranked below their abilities. All are likely in for a shot at banzuke boosting promotions come the Nagoya Basho banzuke but things never work out as they should in sumo and juryo could suck down anyone taking his eye off his opponent even for a moment.

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Japanese maegashira Homasho -- one for the future.

Ironically then, as makunouchi looks set to offer so much, Natsu 2006 is probably the least anticipated basho as far as the juryo division goes for quite some time.

The four divisions below juryo are the usual mixed bag of up and comers yet to fully prove themselves and those seeing out their days in the realization that sekitori status and the salary that comes with it will never be theirs. One to keep an eye on for foreign fans, Americans in particular, is Daishoyu. Of both Japanese and American parentage, the teenage Oitekaze Beya rikishi is still in the second from bottom jonidan division but finished the Osaka Haru Basho with an impressive 6-1 record and is set to climb.

Sadly, one face sumo fans won't be seeing at the Kokugikan anymore is that of former Maegashira 1, Kotoryu of Sadogatake Beya. "Katsumi Nakano," as he will again be known, will be returning to a life outside the sport.

Ex-stablemate of Kotoryu and former sekiwake Kotonowaka will be another Sadogatake man with a lot of emotions running through his mind at Natsu. Rather than leaving the sport for good, the man now known as Sadogatake Ooyakata will be experiencing his last basho sat beneath a chonmage. For 22-years, the Yamagata Prefecture native has either been growing or maintaining his "mage" but May 27th will see him returning to a more regular hairstyle and perhaps even trips to the barber following his danpatsu-shiki ceremony -- an event that won't see too many empty seats as this once popular rikishi makes his final appearance on a dohyo.



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