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Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008

Hatsu Basho '08 — Asashoryu's make-or-break tourney

Special to The Japan Times Online

Come 5:45 p.m. next Sunday, all eyes in Japan are expected to be on one man: returnee yokozuna Asashoryu. After almost half a year away from the dohyo, the bad boy yokozuna will begin the Hatsu Basho in Tokyo, and the majority of viewers could well be cheering for his opponents.

Whatever else happens, the first Grand Sumo Tournament of the new year is all about Mongolian-born Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, the centerpiece of a media circus since mid-2007. He's a man with a career to salvage and his future is quite literally in his own hands. Convincing wins and staying in the title race until at least the final weekend will ease the pressure — for a while. Anything less and the hounds will be out baying for his retirement.

Practice-wise he has been far more active than fellow yokozuna Hakuho since the New Year break and thus far we have neither seen nor heard of the "cold-cum-sniffles" he usually has the week prior to his first bout. Doing the rounds and "lending his chest" to several of his subordinates, Asashoryu looks in fine fettle on the practice dohyo with worries over "ring rust" proving empty thus far.

Beyond the soap opera, however, who else is worthy of a glance over the coming 15 days of action?

European fans will be keeping an eye on Bulgarian sekitori Kotooshu, though his prospects aren't particularly bright. As the tallest man in the sport, at a whopping 204 cm, he has had more than his fair share of trouble with the (relatively) small guys he faces. Coupled with a long-term leg injury, his lackluster stint as ozeki may be coming to an end. Facing kadoban status meaning that anything lower than an 8-7 kachikoshi winning record will result in automatic demotion from the sport's second highest rank. The big man from Sadogatake Beya will have to see out a full tournament in which all the top dogs are expected to be present and fighting fit from the start. For the first time in his career, Kotooshu will be going kadoban with two very hungry and capable yokozuna on the prowl.

While th Bulgarian tries to dodge demotion, Mongolian sekiwake Ama has his eye on a promotion as he pushes for 10 or more wins to push for an ozeki ranking on the back of three impressive tournaments in sanyaku. His previous two outings at komusubi, both ending 10-5, earned him a pair of Outstanding Performance awards.

Also of note are a crop of young rikishi who've skyrocketed up the rankings.

Ichihara, the 170-kg former amateur, at maegashira 16, almost leapfrogged the whole juryo division, spending just one basho there, finishing with an excellent 13-2 record and only missing the title after a play-off loss. The Kise Beya man is dripping sumo credentials and should have a decent outing in his first tournament as makunouchi. He will, however, be up against some of the most experienced foes the sport has to offer.

Another relative top-division newbie, half a dozen ranks higher, is Wakanoho. While I've had high hopes for the Russian, he has gotten by with too many lucky wins while backpedaling, in a sport where glory is bestowed upon those who move forward.

Higher still, Goeido, of Sakaigawa Beya, is in only his third tournament in the makunouchi division but has already made the upper maegashira ranks where he is positioned alongside former sekiwake Tochinonada, at maegashira 3. Given his still limited experience, he will have to impress to achieve kachikoshi but will be desperate to go 8-7 or better to be in, or at least near, the sanyaku ranks when the Spring Basho is held in his hometown of Osaka in March.

Another Eastern European to watch out for is Tochinoshin of Kasugano Beya, who is just scraping in near the bottom of juryo, on the back of a winning record in November. The amiable 20-year-old from Georgia has lost only 15 of 70 career bouts to date and will benefit greatly from the full slate of 15 fights he'll be fed in Tokyo. (Those ranked in the third makushita division and below compete just seven times per tournament.) If a somewhat troubling right elbow/forearm injury does not flare up, look for him to approach the top of the division by summer and perhaps even make it into the top flight later on in the year.

Finally, Happy New Year to the readers of Sumo Scribblings — and here's to better times for sumo this year than last. I hope you get a chance to join me for an online chat on The Japan Times Online. The chat, which kicks off tonight, will be held from 10 p.m. JST on the Tuesdays before, during and after the basho. Drop by if you'd like to talk about sumo.

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