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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Hatsu Basho 2008 — the changing of the guard


Special to The Japan Times Online

Jan. 27, 2008, marked the end of one era of sumo history — and the start of another. As the New Year tournament champion went through the lengthy prize-giving ceremony, one call rang out above all others in the Ryogoku Kokugikan: ''Thank you Hakuho, Hakuho thank you.''

Asashoryu, the man who returned from exile in Mongolia at the end of 2007, had long since retreated to the changing rooms after his defeat in the final bout. The crowd hurled their purple cushions as much in celebration of Asashoryu窶冱 defeat as in appreciation of Hakuho窶冱 victory, and although far from a spent force, Asa reigns supreme no longer. His true glory days are now firmly a part of sumo history and the present belongs to a younger, arguably better man.

Clearly the Japanese fans' favorite, Hakuho is the man of the moment, and at just 22 years old he could end up eclipsing 27-year-old Asashoryu窶冱 tally of 21 titles to date. (At a comparable time in his career the older Mongolian had secured only four top division titles; Hakuho has six thus far.)

However, while indications are that Asashoryu has peaked and is in for a much tougher time from now on, he did help put bums on seats and many days saw larger than usual crowds skipping work to watch the action live. The Nihon Sumo Kyokai announced that seven of the 15 basho days were sell-outs, but whether or not the early 2008 enthusiasm for sumo continues into the March Osaka tournament and beyond will depend upon the public窶冱 desire to see Asashoryu face possible defeat, day in and day out.

At times, the venom directed at the older of the Mongolian yokozuna was shocking. When he lost to the young Kisenosato on Day 2, the Naruto Beya man from Ibaraki became an instant national hero and the roof almost came off the stadium; Hakuho dumping him on the dohyo on the final day left sumo窶冱 mecca in need of structural repair. Obviously, most of the audience were there solely to see the drawn-out public execution of the one-time king of sumo.

Many will see Asashoryu's return and 13-2 record as a triumph following his time sitting in a mud bath in Mongolia, but in focusing on just one wrestler, people may have missed the real story behind the 2008 Hatsu Basho — the subtle and largely ignored changing of the guard.

That story is about the half dozen or so wrestlers of the younger generation reaching makunouchi and juryo career highs in January.

Leading the bunch rank-wise is Goeido who, despite ended with a losing 5-10 record at maegashira 3, managed to down ozeki Kotomitsuki, as well as two former holders of the sport窶冱 second rank. The future seems bright for the Osaka man, and this tournament will have been a valuable lesson. Fellow Sakaigawa Beya man Toyohibiki also defeated some of the most experienced men in the sport窶冱 senior division, although he also finished with a losing record (6-9).

The jury is still out on whether Russian Wakanoho (10-5 at maegashira 10), in his second makunouchi division tournament, will make it to sanyaku or not. He is certainly big and strong enough for makuuchi. But his awful first-week slap down and backpedaling shenanigans leaves doubts about whether he is mature enough for makuuchi. Time is on his side as he is still legally a child in Japan, but the past year has seen him resort to side steps and slap downs in almost half of his bouts, which should make him easy pickings for the higher-ranked foes he will be pitted against next time out.

Ichihara — at the foot of the division — had a fair basho and should be happy with his winning 8-7 record, even though he tired in week 2 after reaching the mid-way point with a more impressive 5-2 record.

When promotion to the top flight is discussed in the next few days you can bet the names of four juryo men will come up: the division winner, Tochinoshin (12-3), who displayed some very impressive sumo; Tamawashi (10-5 at juryo 13); Sakaizawa (9-6 at juryo 3) and also the lightweight, 111 kg Hoshihikari (9-6 at juryo 5). They will reach the makunouchi division sooner or later and will probably replace a few of the older, ailing men still hanging out in its lower echelons. It's a subtle but unavoidable changing of the sumo guard, man by man, sekitori by sekitori.

Want to chat about the latest basho and sumo in general? Drop by The Japan Times Sports Chat page tonight, Jan. 29, where I will be on the keyboard 8-9 p.m.



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