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Saturday, March 8, 2008
Who can steal the limelight from the Mongolian princes of sumo?
By MARK BUCKTON
Special to The Japan Times Online
A little over a week ago, the Nihon Sumo Kyokai announced its rankings for the upcoming Haru Basho in Osaka.
As expected, Hakuho retained his slot on the slightly more prestigious eastern side of the banzuke, while fellow Mongolian Asashoryu headed the western rankings.
Rightly or wrongly, yokozuna shenanigans linked to Asashoryu continue to dominate the sport — aided by reports that he told a Japanese reporter to "go die." He was photographed traveling back to Japan in a Hawaiian aloha shirt and shorts, a cultural no-no for a man supposed to appear in kimono when traveling or on official business.
Hakuho, meanwhile, can do no wrong, speaks little, behaves discreetly as a good sumotori should, and it appears the only thing he is missing in recent media pics is a white steed rearing on its hind legs.
As far as Osaka goes then, the stage is set for a battle between the Prince of Darkness and the Prince of Light, the ill-mannered Asashoryu versus the well-mannered Hakuho.
Both are looking sharp in pre-tourney practice sessions down in Osaka, Asashoryu particularly so, but with Hakuho going after his third consecutive title and second in a row in Osaka, he remains the man to beat. Should Asashoryu fail to take home the silverware, he will have gone winless in four successive yusho races — something we haven't seen since 2002, when he was a sekiwake.
Fans the world over will be hoping for another senshuraku (final day) showdown.
Out to spoil the fun will be a group of lower sanyaku and upper maegashira men more than capable of beating either of the Grand Champions. Of particular note are the "K" men, Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato: solid rikishi with another decade in the gas tanks if they can avoid serious injury.
Twenty-four-year-old Kotoshogiku, who is returning to sekiwake after being boosted a rank on the back of an excellent 9-4-2 finish (including time missed in the second week due to injury) as a komusubi in January, was last at the rank for the same tournament 12 months ago when he went 7-8. This is a different year, however, and Kotoshogiku appears to be a different man of late, with enough experience under his belt that an 8-7 or perhaps even a 9-6 would be something of a disappointment.
Young Kisenosato, the 21-year-old from Naruto Beya, finished with a dismal 6-9 record last March. However, having knocked off Asashoryu in January of this year on his way to a solid 10-5 record, he will be aiming for a new career high of sekiwake come May.
Both wrestlers, in addition to fellow promising twentysomethings in the upper maegashira and lower sanyaku slots, Ama (sekiwake) and Kakuryu (maegashira 1), are honing up their skills in anticipation of an ozeki slot becoming available. These are all still occupied by either tired old men past their use-by dates (Chiyotaikai, Kaio and Kotomitsuki) or Kotooshu, the one-time media darling from Bulgaria for whom the required ozeki double figures have materialized in just two of the past 12 tournaments — once with the help of an automatic win in which his opponent failed to appear.
Appearing lower down the division will be a trio that could soon be snapping at the heels of the "K" men: Goeido (m8), Tochiozan (m12) and Sakaizawa (m15). Goeido will be going into his "home" Osaka basho out to make up for his 5-10 in January. He was clearly ranked too high then, with it being only his third outing in makunouchi, at m3. This time should be different. Tochiozan had a brilliant 11-4 at Osaka Basho 2007 — his first makunouchi basho — but he's had a tough year since. Hopefully his gritty, hard-fought 8-7 in January will mark the proverbial turning of the corner. Meanwhile, Sakaizawa has jonokuchi, makushita and juryo titles to his name and has won a shade under 80 percent of his bouts. He has hit the big time, and it'fs time to be tested.
Also keep an eye on Tosayutaka, who will be making his first-ever appearance in the sekitori ranks as a juryo rikishi. The Tokitsukaze Beya man is sitting in exactly the same "juryo 12 west" spot on the banzuke as a January Hatsu Basho juryo debutant — Tochinoshin — the man who would win the division in his first try. Will history repeat itself? Given Tosayutaka's 32-3 win/loss record to date, which includes 30 consecutive white circles indicating a victory, and the speed with which he has made the salaried ranks (just five basho), it very well could.
In other sumo news: Former yokozuna Musashimaru, last seen on the dohyo in November 2003, indicated recently that he will not be opening his own stable. The winner of 12 titles, Maru is apparently uninterested in all the responsibility such a move would entail and would rather remain a coach — a slot he currently fills at Musashigawa Beya.