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Friday, March 9, 2007

Asashoryu looks set for Osaka tourney


By GUS FIELDING

OSAKA (Kyodo) Unfazed by recent match-fixing accusations, lone grand champion Asashoryu is focused, fighting fit and ready to leave another trail of destruction in his wake when the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament kicks off in Osaka this weekend.

Asashoryu joined an elite group of yokozuna legends by capturing his 20th Emperor's Cup in January but bout-rigging claims in the tabloid-style weekly Shukan Gendai threatened to overshadow the Mongolian magician's achievement at the New Year meet.

The Japan Sumo Association, Asashoryu and 16 other wrestlers responded by filing a lawsuit against the magazine's publisher for defaming them in the articles and now the yokozuna is just concentrating on getting back to business on the raised ring.

"If people want to make a big fuss (about the match-fixing reports) then they can. I'm not letting it get me down," said Asashoryu. "I am focused in training and just have to do what I have to do."

"After 20 (Emperor's Cups) comes 21 and I will be putting pressure on myself the way I would if I were gunning for my first championship. The fans in Osaka are passionate and really get behind me and that provides me with an extra incentive to try even harder," added Asashoryu.

Following in the footsteps of Taiho, Kitanoumi, Chiyonofuji and Takanohana, Asashoryu became only the fifth wrestler to reach a milestone of 20 titles with a 14-1 mark in Tokyo.

The bully from Ulan Bator looks a safe bet to make it 21 and extend his winning streak to five tournaments although fellow Mongolian Hakuho, the only wrestler to pose any kind of threat to the yokozuna's dominance last year, is back to full strength and could cause an upset.

Hakuho returned from injury with his ozeki rank on the line at the New Year tourney, but the 21-year-old posted a solid 10-5 record and will be hoping for a repeat performance of last year's spring meet, when he went 13-2 as a sekiwake before losing to Asashoryu in a championship playoff.

"I've been strong on the attack and also wrestling well defensively. Naturally I'll be aiming to produce good results," Hakuho said after a recent practice session.

Despite a slow start and an unremarkable 9-6 record last time out, Kotooshu cannot be ruled out and the Bulgarian ozeki is eager to claim his maiden victory at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium.

Chiyotaikai was the only ozeki apart from Hakuho to post double-digit wins at the New Year meet but, like Kaio, is frustratingly inconsistent and both are unlikely to be in the mix as the tournament draws to a close.



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