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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Hakusho Part II raises more questions marks


Special to The Japan Times Online

In the run-up to the Osaka Haru Basho, all eyes were on the "Hakusho" pair; a combination of the names of yokozuna Hakuho and Asashoryu that is increasingly being using to describe the recent era of sumo titans.

During the sport's annual sojourn to Osaka, both yokozuna ultimately lived up to the hype, although there were hiccups along the way.

Hakuho, the younger of the duo, lost on Day 4 to an Aminishiki henka — more out of a lack of focus than a lack of ability.

Asashoryu coasted through the first week, casting aside all those he came up against with relative ease.

Then came Day 12, when the Spring Basho became interesting, or — in some eyes — suspect.

Asashoryu was facing sekiwake-returnee Kotoshogiku and Hakuho was set for what should have been a routine bout with the lackluster Chiyotaikai. Neither man should have had much trouble, but astonishingly, before a packed house, both lost. Kotoshogiku went into his bout that day with a semi-respectable 5 win, 6 loss record and pulled off what could be called "the upset of the basho" when he out-muscled "black" yokozuna Asashoryu, and used a combination of girth and brute force to send the winner of 21 Emperor's Cups back over the straw bales.

Bedlam ensued as the crowd erupted and, ignoring repeated stadium announcements asking for restraint, hurled hundreds of zabuton cushions toward the dohyo in the traditional sumo reaction to the downing of a yokozuna.

Just moments before that, the crowd had seen the defeat of the "white" yokozuna, Hakuho, at the hands of Chiyotaikai, but very few opted to part with their zabuton and this spoke volumes about the general attitude toward Asashoryu following his "troubled" 2007.

On Day 13, with the older yokozuna mysteriously losing again to a suddenly resurgent Kotomitsuki and Hakuho defeating Kaio, the scores were neatly level and the stage was set for another final-day showdown: the first back-to-back senshuraku showdown between two yokozuna in well over a decade — only the fifth such scenario in 30 years.

It was around this time that English-language sumo-fan circles were buzzing about the "fortuitous way" in which the basho was set to go down to the wire again. This was, thanks in large part, to Kotomitsuki's atypical performance. While he's usually a "win 'em-all in week one and collapse in week two" kind of wrestler, this time he was a riding a losing streak — 2-6 — when he went up against Asashoryu, a man he hadn't beaten in close to six years. However, he left Osaka with an 8-7 record, having gone 6-1 in the last six days of action!

Whatever the story was behind the journey to the final day, March 23 saw the "Hakusho" face-off. The Sho emerged victorious after Haku's less-than-impressive attempt to force his senior backward and out of the ring was met by a swiftly executed kotenage arm-bar throw. The basho thus ended with Hakuho at 12-3 and Asashoryu winning the yusho with a 13-2 record.

Zabuton flew but once again in numbers well below those seen following the Day 12 defeat of the returnee yokozuna.

Away from the question marks still being pondered, the resurgent trio of Baruto (12-3), Kokkai (12-3) and Tochioza (11-4) all posted excellent scores and will benefit from major boosts in rank on the next banzuke.

The 2-meter plus ozeki Kotooshu, meanwhile, remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. After Day 8, he pulled out due to an injury with a dismal 2-win, 6-loss record, but looks to have lost it mentally. Gone is the hunger that took him to the sport's second rank in record time. Exactly what keeps him in the sport is anyone's guess.

Fortunately, continuing to fly the eastern European flag, is Ossetian teenager Wakanoho (8-7) of Magaki Beya. The maegashira 4 has been on the "one to watch" radar for some time now, and has already surpassed his fellow Russians and lifelong friends — Roho (maegashira 6) and Hakurozan (juryo 2) at comparable stages in their own makunouchi careers.

Joining him once again on sumo radar screens in May will be the best Japanese sekitori pairing in the sport today — Kisenosato (komusubi) and Kotoshogiku (sekiwake). Both scored 8-7 victories with the latter defeating the former on Day 15 and a spectacular throw by Ama in his bout with Kyokutenho gave the Mongolian his own winning record, guaranteeing his rank at sekiwake alongside Kotoshogiku, and once again blocking the way for Kisenosato. At least for now . . .



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