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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Normal service resumed at the Nagoya Basho


Special to The Japan Times Online

Hakuko, Sumo's 69th yokozuna, overcame his first-ever official yokozuna bout with a convincing yorikiri win against fellow Mongolian Tokitenku of Tokitsukaze Beya. Following that impressive start, however, he flipped on the auto-pilot switch and glided out week one. Stumbling several times in the second week, with losses to Kotomitsuki and the ozeki pair of Kotooshu and Chiyotaikai, he slipped out of title contention before a senshuraku loss to senior yokozuna Asashoryu. He ended his first basho at rank 11-4. Be warned, though, as this is a man only getting better, a man still raw and relatively unpolished, the best has yet to come.

Yokozuna Asashoryu, the sport's numero uno in recent years, bounced back from a two-tourney title drought. Although he lost on the opening day, he never looked back and finished the basho 14-1 to claim his 21st Emperor's Cup to date.

Sekiwake Kotomitsuki was the Japanese headline-maker this time out and went undefeated for the first 10 days before finally succumbing to Asashoryu with the eyes of a nation watching. As the local Aichi boy approached the final weekend, still in the running for the trophy, things were looking good — until the arrival of his now-routine tendency to crumble under pressure sometime in the second week.

It wasn't his usual face-in-the-dirt "Grand Collapse" this time, though, as he was eventually awarded his 4th Fighting Spirit Prize and 7th Technique Prize. It was a more refined "title in sight and merely one lower-ranked rikishi to defeat" kind of failure.

That "lower ranker" was Kisenosato. Mitsuki's timing was off, Kise was fired up and the man a decade younger than the ozeki-in-waiting dealt his fellow Japanese a blow from which he will never recover. It is unlikely that Kotomitsuki will ever again come so close to winning an Emperor's Cup.

His eventual 13-2 record was, however, an extraordinary achievement for a 31-year-old who received only a "slim to none" chance of going further, according to one NHK commentator. Along the way, he equaled a personal best score set in September 2001 when he claimed his only yusho to date. Remember, though, that of the 12 men ranked above him, seven failed to secure winning records: Three of four ozeki didn't complete the tournament and one of two then-yokozuna (Takanohana) missed all 15 days.

In terms of sumo history, he will forever be remembered as Ozeki Kotomitsuki after promotion is confirmed tomorrow -- this is if he actually retains the Kotomitsuki shikona fighting name. Many are now expecting him to take the name Kotozakura II, which pays homage to the man who brought him into sumo: the sport's 53rd yokozuna, Kotozakura Masakatsu.

Meanwhile, Mitsuki's stablemate, ozeki Kotooshu, stands 203 cm tall and weighs in at 148 kg. As the senior European in terms of rank, however, he remains a puzzle wrapped in an enigma by sticking with his "little man sumo" far too often. Too many close calls against lower rankers and too many sidesteps at the initial clash have hollowed out predictions of yokozuna promotion and subsequent glory. Like Kotomitsuki, "Osh" may well end his career without an ozeki yusho if nothing changes.

Unfortunately, none of the upper maegashira really stood out, bar Kisenosato at maegashira 6 and, in week one, Homasho of Shikoroyama Beya. Kisenosato, from Ibaraki near Tokyo, put in a solid 11-4 after going 1-2 in his first three days and again proved himself capable of some magnificent sumo. He may have turned the corner this time, after a rough start to the year, and he should be at the very top of the maegashira ranks, or even in a komusubi slot, come the Aug. 27 Aki Basho rankings release.

As a much more tried-and-tested warrior than the last time he appeared in the upper echelons, "Kise" is without a Japanese equal at present. He is, many hope, the One, the homegrown lad set to restore some local pride.

Near the foot of makunouchi, Toyohibiki did live up to the "exciting" tag he received on these pages pre-basho by finishing 11-4. Whether or not he will now suffer the traditional "makunouchi jinx" and pick up the almost standard losing record in his second tournament in the division remains to be seen.

Juryo was claimed by Iwakiyama of Sakaigawa Beya with a 12-3 record. His second career title in the division was guaranteed after a final day play-off against Kyokutenho and fellow Sakaigawa man Goeido.

The second division's promising young Russian — Wakanoho — went 8-7 but only just! In week one, he clocked up 6 wins but with half his eventual victories by slap-downs as he motored backward, the only way he will prove more than a flash in the makunouchi pan is by learning to move forward. He is still in his teens so time is on his side, but the habits of pull-'em-down-slap-'em-down Russian wrestling may prove hard to break if he hasn't done so already.

Rounding off the other four divisions of professional sumo (and giving those believing in superstitions one to ponder as the following were all ranked on the eastern side of the banzuke):

Makushita went the way of Irumagawa Beya's Isobe (ms 19e). The Sandanme title was picked up by Minami (sd 92e) of Onoe Beya after a play-off and surely it helped lighten spirits at the beya after Baruto's Day 2 exit and Satoyama's dismal 2-13 record. The Jonidan championship was claimed by Tosayutaka (jd 57e) from Tokitsukaze Beya while sumo's lowest division - jonokuchi - saw former makushita rikishi and Nagoya native Tokitsukasa (jk 16e), another Irumagawa man, walk away a winner.

* * * * *

In an update from an earlier column about amateur sumo attempting to make it into the Olympics, it has now been learned that in July the Tokyo-based International Sumo Federation (IFS) was not considered for a place among the officially recognized Olympic sports, due to a rule change on admittance to the IOC family. The IFS will retain its provisionally recognized status, according to officials at the International Olympic Committee and the Association of Recognised IOC International Sports Federations, but must wait until at least early August 2008 for another shot at full recognition.



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