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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Hakuho for yokozuna or Asashoryu to block his path?


Special to The Japan Times Online

In the days leading up to the May 5th Yokozuna Soken training session at the Ryogoku Kokugikan the Japanese media was abuzz with things sumo.

News photo
At a news conference on May 7, ozeki Tochiazuma of Tamanoi Beya makes his long-expected retirement announcement. KYODO PHOTO

Top of the pile was Kyokutenho's rear-ending of a stationary vehicle. It was an accident he readily took responsibility for but as a naturalized Japanese citizen and the man in line to become Oshima Oyakata, he might see any punishment that threatens to push him too far down the rankings as a trigger for another major retirement announcement.

Yes, "another" announcement, as ozeki Tochiazuma of Tamanoi Beya finally made his long-expected intai retirement announcement yesterday. Health reasons have been deemed the primary cause behind the retirement of this three-time winner of the Emperor's Cup whom so many people had pinned domestic hopes upon. It could be that his departure at this juncture might just trigger a landslide. With Azuma'gone from the sport's second highest rank, and it only being a matter of time before he is joined at the oyakata dinner table by Kaio and Chiyotaikai, sumo will soon be left with no real Japanese trophy hopes — mid- or long-term.

Another retirement as of yet unannounced but expected nonetheless is that of Fukuzono of Izutsu Beya, a makushita rikishi at present but a one time juryo rikishi under the name of Tsurunofuji in the mid-'90s. Fukuzono is the cousin of both his own oyakata, the former sekiwake Sakohoko, as well as Shikoroyama Oyakata (former sekiwake Terao), and while a makushita retirement would not normally make much of a ripple in the English-language press, his expected June 3rd retirement ceremony in the room beneath the main stadium in the Kokugikan will bring down the curtain on half a century or so of on-dohyo dealings of a truly historical sumo family — the Fukuzonos of Kagoshima.

Still in the game, but just, is Toyonoshima. He was absent from the Saturday Soken after a little too much "Asashoryu attention" earlier in the week necessitated a hospital visit and, at time of typing, the chances of this diminutive 168-cm, new komusubi participating in the Summer Basho do not look good. As a result, Kochi native Tochiozan at maegashira 4 may well receive some premature "Japan's future hope" hype. He logged a very impressive 11-4 record in his makunouchi debut basho back in March but this time out it will be a stretch for him to reach his kachikoshi.

Homasho is another who can expect media attention, and while he is a magnificent rikishi on his good days, he is already a little too old to be a long-term hope for the local fan base. He will get to sanyaku sometime in the near future and ranked at maegashira 1 this time out will have no better opportunity. A dodgy right elbow, well strapped during the recent public training session, remains an unknown factor although in his bouts on the day it didn't appear to be bothering him too much.

Irrespective of driving gaffes and departures from the dohyo, when the first calls of the gyoji come on May 13th, it will be a case of all eyes on ozeki Hakuho. The man some have compared to Showa Era yokozuna legend Futabayama will again be gunning for sumo glory as he tries to secure his second consecutive Emperor's Cup and, with it, automatic promotion to the rank of yokozuna. I believe he will do it this time and that we are looking at the sport's 69th yokozuna in the making. Whether history will judge him a truly dominating yokozuna in future decades and even centuries may be up to the sumo gods and superstition rather than his own physical and mental abilities.

As ever, Asashoryu will be looking to add to his own tally of trophies and prevent his fellow Mongolian from securing promotion but he will carrying his own injured left elbow and shoulder, judging by the attention he has given it recently. Add this to a recent tendency to let his anger take control with a subsequent loss of concentration on occasion and we may be seeing the yokozuna hitting a rocky patch — one that will only aid Hakuho's quest for top-dog status.

A glance lower for other names to keep an eye on at Natsu Basho brings into focus two of juryo's foreign contingent — both Russians. For Hakurozan of Kitanoumi Beya, Natsu will show whether or not he has the mettle to last as an effective makunouchi-level sekitori following demotion post-Osaka. The competition will be just as hard at the top of juryo with a lot of experienced guys ranked around him as he tries to bounce straight back. Of particular interest (if it happens) will be a bout against fellow Russian Wakanoho, a lifelong friend of Hakurozan's family back in Southern Russia. Regardless of Russian vs. Russian going ahead or not, keep an eye on Wakanoho as this youngster is definitely one for the future.



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