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Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Who to watch at the upcoming Haru Basho
By MARK BUCKTON
Special to The Japan Times Online
Who is going to take a fall in the Haru Basho?
It's a matter of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" for yokozona Asashoryu.
Should the Mongolian yokozuna win the Emperor's Cup in Osaka is he doing so as a result of the recent claims of bout buying? If he fails to take home title number 21 could it be down to the alleged yaocho (fixed bout) system having collapsed under the pressure of media scrutiny?
The classic sumo escape clause of "time will tell" has never been closer to the truth and while the whole fracas has now made its way to the Japanese courts, there will be some with one eye on the bout count and the other on the ease with which he vanquishes his foes.
Yaocho yakking notwithstanding, Osaka may be the venue forever associated with the biggest sumo story of 2007 -- but one that has gone largely unnoticed thus far: Tochiazuma's potential retirement announcement.
While many will hope this will not happen by senshuraku (the final bout), the man born Daisuke Shiga has a rosy future if he does decide to hang it up. He is set to succeed his father as Tamanoi Oyakata when the latter takes mandatory retirement in 2009, he will inherit one of the sport's finest purpose-built and well-staffed heya and he will have three decades to prove himself once at the Tamanoi helm.
At present, ozeki Tochiazuma is preparing for his second basho back after arthroscopic surgery to his left knee, but this 180-cm, 155-kg man faces another "damned if you do/don't" situation. He is a "kadoban ozeki," meaning another (second successive) losing record will guarantee an automatic drop in rank to sekiwake. If he sits it out for needed rest and recuperation, he drops. If he makes a poor go of it, he drops as well. Not many, however, would bet on him suffering that insult again as he is one of the few men to have won each of the sport's six divisions in his time, been a 10-year makunouchi regular and a five-year ozeki with three top division titles to his name. Pride, when push comes to literal shove, will play a massive part if he fails to secure win number 8 by the final day but once more -- "time will tell."
On a more positive note, we have the new sekiwake Kotoshogiku to watch this time out. He will surely benefit from not having to go up against fellow Sadogatake Beya and sanyaku regulars Kotooshu and Kotomitsuki. Given the shaky health of the ozeki above him, there is no reason he can't stay at his present rank. Then again, if he does hold steady, he can expect to inherit the "local boy" responsibility piled on the shoulders of his Japanese peers Kisenosato and the older Homasho.
Another one to watch is Kokkai at maegashira 7. This Georgian rikishi has struggled against the higher ranked foes in the past and in the Hatsu Basho he had all sorts of problems with those smaller and more mobile than himself. Now, though, that he is ranked low enough to avoid the highest ranked men he may use the comparative "break" and experience of trips north on the banzuke to stake a claim for a higher rank in May.
At the foot of makunouchi, one returnee to keep an eye on is Wakanosato. As hard as nails yet with a knee from the same production line as that of Tochiazuma, this Aomori-born wrestle has earned impressive 10-5 & 9-6 records in juryo recently but is lacking the all-important speed factor so necessary in makunouchi. He will never return to the "sekiwakia/ozeki hopeful" status of previous years, but he could still churn out a few decent basho as a maegashira.
Estonian giant Baruto is also near the wrong end of the top division. His participation in the Haru Basho is still tentative at the time of writing, but he has expressed the admirable intention of coming back fully fit rather than doing a halfhearted job just to stay in the top division.
Juryo will once again be a mix of the good, the bad and the disappointing, but Hyogo man Otsukasa at juryo 1, (wrestling on this home turf), will be fired up and local boy Goeido from Osaka is one for the future.
Lower still, in makushita -- highest of the unsalaried divisions -- Russian teen Wakanoho at makushita 2 is back in the black mawashi of the non-sekitori, having suffered a rather pathetic 5-10 in January with one win coming by default and two by hatakikomi slap-downs. He shouldn't have too much trouble dealing with the majority of those in the higher ranks of the third division if on his game but Sakaizawa (also makushita 2) and Ichihara (makushita 4) are both future sekitori and are both vying for juryo slots at the May Natsu Basho so he will have to avoid being too careless -- or slap happy -- in the realm of just seven bouts per tournament.