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Thursday, May 8, 2008

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

How firm is the reign of the Mongolians?


Special to The Japan Times Online

If asked to name a favorite to win the May 11-25 Natsu Basho at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, not many sumo fans will be looking beyond the obvious yokozuna duo of Hakuho and Asashoryu.

And why should they?

Over the past fortnight of practice sessions, none of the four ozeki have really stood out ahead of the year's second Tokyo basho, although Kokonoe Beya's ozeki, Chiyotaikai, has been putting a lot of practice into his initial clash tachiai as well as his trademark tsuparri thrusting attacks in recent days.

Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu is kadoban once more, meaning that he finished with a losing record last time and anything shy of an 8-7 record this time will see him demoted to sekiwake. Given his lackluster performances over the past few months, there's little doubt that he'll be moving downward.

And then there is Kaio, the perennial old war horse content just to plod on, head down, oblivious to the changing world around him. Having failed to put together the basic ozeki requirement of double figure wins in back-to-back tournaments for almost four years now, he will be under enormous pressure to retire by the time of his home Fukuoka tournament in November — if not before.

Yokozuna Asashoryu, on the other hand, is putting together decent win/loss numbers in his training bouts. He has picked up some lower-back woes for his trouble, but in comparison to his rival compatriot, Hakuho, he has been literally scything through those brave enough to go against him.

Meanwhile, Hakuho has received criticism in some quarters for the noticeable lack of urgency in Natsu preparations, but he has seemingly opted for the low-key approach over the past 12 months so just how ready he truly is will only be apparent come Sunday.

A point to note about the younger of the grand champions: When he stepped onto the dohyo to face his senior at the April 29th yokozuna souken practice session, it was Asashoryu who turned and walked away in front of 6,000 sumo fans. Round one in the mental game goes to the younger man?

As has been the case during these days of Mongolian domination, the Koto-Kise pairing — sekiwake Kotoshogiku and komusubi Kisenosato — will form the backbone of the entertainment as the best two Japanese-born rikishi in the game striving to improve upon their identical 8-7 winning records in Osaka, and force the ozeki into retirement, or at least into exchanging places with them.

In the lower divisions, a pair of future makunouchi men to keep a close eye on are Aran (ms 2) of Mihogaseki Beya and Tosayutaka (ms 1) of Tokitsukaze Beya. The former, a close friend of 19-year-old Russian maegashira 2, Wakanoho, has already put together an impressive 40-9 win/loss* record in seven tournaments as a rikishi. With another kachikoshi, he will find himself in the juryo division - one step on his way to a certain career near, if not in, the upper echelons of the sport.

Tosayutaka (career 38-12) has already sampled sekitori-hood but came up short in Osaka — finishing with a disappointing 6-9. Temporary demotion was his penalty. Not many fans will be betting against him returning to the sekitori ranks for the Nagoya Basho in July.

In the upcoming basho, there will be a record-breaking 22 foreign-born rikishi in the top two divisions. That's something to cheer about, but there's a definite dearth of promising non-Japanese rikishi coming up through the lower four divisions - from jonokuchi through makushita. A handful of Mongolians and the odd Chinese could break into the juryo division over the next year but few, if any, will progress further.

In much the same way as Musashimaru's early successes in the late 1990s signaled the beginning of the end of the American era in sumo, we could now be witnessing a similar fate for the Mongolian era.

Ozeki-turned-TV celebrity Konishiki launched the first real American period in sumo, but never really lived up to expectations. From his debut in 1982 to the retirement of the last American yokozuna, Musashimaru, in 2003, slightly more than two decades had passed.

We are currently around 16 years into the Mongolian period, but in another five years Asashoryu will be well over 30, Hakuho already 28. It's something to ponder as the Mongolian star shines once again at Natsu.

*Note: Non-salaried rikishi in the lower four divisions fight just seven times each tournament whereas juryo and makunouchi rikishi compete 15 times.



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