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Sunday, Jan. 7, 2007

NEW YEAR BASHO

Asashoryu vies for 20th Emperor's Cup

Kyodo News

On the 800th anniversary of his empire's birth, Genghis Khan is surely smiling down from the heavens on his modern-day firebrand protege, who traveling from his native Mongolia has all but conquered the land of sumo.

News photo
Yokozuna Asashoryu (right), accompanied by No. 5 maegashira Takamisakari, demonstrates "dohyo-iri" on Friday at Meiji Jingu before the upcoming New Year Basho that starts on Sunday. KYODO PHOTO

Like the legendary warrior whose vast empire stretched from Southeast Asia to Central Europe at its peak, grand champion Asashoryu continues to hold the biggest stick with no end in sight to his domination as he aims for his 20th Emperor's Cup at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, which kicks off Sunday.

Asashoryu is gunning for his fourth straight title at the 15-day meet getting under way at Ryogoku Kokugikan and hopes to become only the fifth wrestler in sumo's history to reach the milestone of 20 title victories.

While yokozuna legend Taiho holds the record of accomplishing the feat in 57 meets from his debut, Asashoryu is on pace to do so in just 49 basho since starting sumo. He is on a 16-bout winning streak with five undefeated title victories under his belt.

"I had to sit out the summer meet (with an elbow injury) but I overcame that and was able to make a comeback title win (in July). This was an invaluable experience for me," said Asashoryu.

"In the new year, I want to make more goals and keep my pace strong to make it another good year. I'll start fresh," said Asashoryu, who will clash with Russian komusubi Roho on the opening day of the meet.

Though nursing a right shoulder injury, the yokozuna is still the red-hot favorite to take home the tournament hardware but could face some interesting challenges in 2007, especially against resurgent Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu.

After recovering from chronic knee problems, sumo's "David Beckham" appears to be in his best fitness in over a year and has a fighting chance of finally winning his first Emperor's Cup.

"My knee has improved a lot. It's at about 80 or 90 percent," Kotooshu said after winning three out of four bouts against Asashoryu in training before the start of the new year. "I had a rough year in 2006 because of the injuries. But now I'm in a good groove and I'm moving well."

As for Mongolian ozeki Hakuho, who makes his return back into the fray after his injury layoff from a broken toe, an uphill battle awaits him as he faces demotion for the first time since his promotion to sumo's second-highest rank last March.

"If I just perform my style of sumo, I won't get a losing record," said the 21-year-old Hakuho.

Although he appears to have his sights firmly set on another run at promotion to sumo's ultimate rank in 2007, Hakuho's resilience will be tested and his ability not to crumble under pressure will prove vital.

"My first goal will be to get my second title victory. Then I will shoot for yokozuna," Hakuho said.

Ozeki Tochiazuma has decided to wrestle, although he is still recovering from surgery on his left knee, while little can be expected from ozeki Chiyotaikai, who has been slack with training, or 34-year-old ozeki Kaio.

Twenty-year-old komusubi Kisenosato is sumo's rising star and will aim to be in the title race while posting at least double-digit wins.



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