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Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2007
Hakuho notches another as the ozeki raise eyebrows
By MARK BUCKTON
Special to The Japan Times Online
This year's Kyushu Basho, which ended Sunday, saw Hakuho stride through the muck and grime to claim the fifth title of his career with a 12-win, 3-loss record. When push came to shove, his class shined through. Hakuho, who is looking more and more like the second coming of the great yokozuna Futabayama, kept it simple, did his thing and quietly dominated the majority of his bouts. He was able to step up a gear when need be, and wasn't one to lose his concentration too often. "Hak" probably knows the weaknesses he must address in the coming year if Asashoryu comes back at full force. For now, his flaws can be put down to relative youth and over-enthusiasm, when he should be trying to be more patient
Ozeki Kaio, on the other hand, is a wrestler who has been trying our patience.
At the time of writing, he has made no announcements regarding his long overdue retirement, which means that come the New Year's tournament sumo fans will be faced with more reports of his dodgy back, lack of balance and the routine excuse of "need to take the tournament one day at a time."
Can this man not take a hint? He has had a marvelous career as an ozeki, taking home the Emperor's Cup five times. Now, though, he is unquestionably past his golden years. Competing in 2008 will only add pity and confusion to the already mixed emotions of his fans; appearing in the first tournament of the new year will be at best embarrassing, at worst, humiliating.
Fortunately, for the sake of the ozeki rank, two of his three peers put in decent showings in Fukuoka with Chiyotaikai almost going all the way after clearly deciding not to read the script.
Many sumo fans were focused on the 170-kg, 197-cm Estonian Baruto, a low maegashira-ranked rikishi who, until Day 13, had a realistic chance at yusho. The always cheery giant, though, was duly put in his place and blown off the dohyo by the aging and ailing ozeki Chiyotaikai. Given his limited top-flight experience, Baruto's progress was indeed impressive. His failure to make the cut on the final weekend was indicative of the mental hurdles he has to overcome before he can take a place as a regular in the upper maegashira or sanyaku ranks.
Chiyotaikai, for his part, remained in the yusho race until the final day of action with only his Day 14 loss to the eventual yusho winner, yokozuna Hakuho, separating himself and the champ. Chiyotaikai's curious absence through injury was announced just hours ahead of his final bout of the tournament (against fellow ozeki Kaio). The absence handed Kaio a largely undeserved ninth victory and reignited an old sumo debate on whether rikishi who have already secured winning records "lay one down" for friends in need of a kachikoshi-securing eighth win or statistical respectability. Kotomitsuki's (then on 9-4) Day 14 loss to Tomozuna Beya's Kaio (then on 7-6), followed by a brilliant win for the Sadogatake man over the 22-year-old, in form, yokozuna Hakuho on the final day, only added to the fuel to a debate likely to burn for years to come.
Overall, though, Kyushu 2007 was a basho of consolidation and of shoring up the foundations upon which solid careers are built. Five of tomorrow's stars turned an unnoticed corner by going kachikoshi in-sync and raked in all three of the prestigious special prizes for good measure. In addition to Hakuho and, if he stays around long enough after his return later this week, Asashoryu, the future stars who came of age in Kyushu are, in rank order: Ama, who finished 10-5 in Fukuoka and winner of his second Outstanding Performance Award for his victories over the yokozuna and three ozeki as a komusubi; Kotoshogiku, another komusubi, who went 9-6 and bagged the Technique Prize; Kisenosato (9-6) at maegashira 2; Goeido, at maegashira 6, who petered to a disappointing 8-7 finish after a 6-1 start; and maegashira 16, Baruto, who finished 11-4 and walked away with the Fighting Spirit Prize.
The big news from juryo, as predicted here pre-tourney, was Ichihara of Kise Beya (even if the division title was actually claimed by someone else). Ichihara is a man from whom you will be hearing a lot more over the coming years and the 170-kg former amateur finished his first ever sekitori basho with an excellent 13-2 record, only losing out on the silverware after a closely fought play-off bout with the 24-year-old Sakaizawa of Onoe Beya.
Finally, for those wondering what happened at the 2007 Amateur Sumo World Championships in Thailand held on Nov. 18, the International Sumo Federation (ISF) hasn't released any results.
Unofficial reports indicate a much weakened field of athletes compared to recent years, and only 28 of 85 member nations competing. If correct, it will probably further doom the chances of amateur sumo making it into the Summer Olympics.