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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2008

All eyes on Asashoryu as he returns to dohyo

Kyodo News

After a two-tournament suspension was lifted last November, Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu will make his long-awaited comeback as the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament kicks off Sunday.

The 27-year-old Asashoryu, who returns to the raised ring for the first time in three meets, appears more determined than ever to show that his layoff was merely a driving force to refocus his efforts into the sport he loves.

Will he be ready?

Compatriot and rival yokozuna Hakuho is seeking his third straight Emperor's Cup title (sixth overall), but Asashoryu has made it quite clear to his junior that he is still the head honcho, despite Hakuho's outstanding run at the end of 2007.

At a general viewing training session held by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council earlier this week, Asashoryu was quick at the faceoff and overpowered Hakuho to win five out of seven bouts.

His ability to counterattack his rival when pushed near the edge was particularly impressive.

"I'm glad I was able to wrestle in front of the deliberation council for the first time in a long time," said Asashoryu, who will be shooting for his 22nd career title at the Jan. 13 to 27 meet at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan.

"I wanted to train against him (Hakuho). I think we had a good training session, but for sure the actual meet will be different," he said.

Different can only spell trouble for the 22-year-old Hakuho. A title win for Asashoryu would place him in a tie with former yokozuna great Takanohana for fourth on the all-time list.

Asashoryu, who was punished last August for faking the extent of his injuries to get out of participating in a summer exhibition tour, was lauded by most for his power-packed training performance, although deliberation council member Makiko Uchidate had a few choice words for sumo's perennial "bad boy."

"I focus on viewing wrestlers who are still active," said Uchidate, who has said she considers Asashoryu already retired since he got into hot water by playing in a charity soccer match in Mongolia last summer when he was supposedly injured.

However, Katsuji Ebisawa, head of the deliberation council, was for the most part satisfied with Asashoryu, who went a remarkable 21-3 against his makuuchi opponents at the viewing.

Critics point out that training and the actual meet are two different beasts, but there is no denying that Asashoryu is poised to make a run for the title at the 15-day meet.

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