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Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009

Time for Asashoryu to put up or shut up


By GUS FIELDING
Kyodo News

No longer crowing like a cock on a dung heap, Asashoryu has arrived at the last-chance saloon.

Yokozuna Asashoryu
Back to the wall: Yokozuna Asashoryu, who was plagued by injuries last year, is faced with the reality that his sumo career could soon be over. KYODO PHOTO

With a victory at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo, back will come the trademark smile-cum-scowl, the swagger and the nonchalance that irks and amuses sumo watchers in equal measure.

Blow it and there is unlikely to be any time added on for stoppages in Asashoryu's illustrious career that has been blighted by out-of-the-ring shenanigans.

Having missed part or all of the last three tournaments due to injury, Asashoryu heads into the 15-day meet getting under way in Tokyo on Sunday knowing a below-par performance will increase the pressure on him to bow out of Japan's ancient sport.

And the volatile wrestler's form in his recent sparring sessions is far from encouraging.

The once-dominant "Bully of Ulan Bator" has been pushed around in training and he admitted earlier this week that he was struggling to regain form ahead of the basho.

"I have a serious amount of catching up to do. I got wiped out today," Asashoryu said Wednesday after winning his last practice bout after dropping six in a row against compatriot and fellow grand champion Hakuho.

Asashoryu has made an 11th-hour decision to fight and his dealings with the quote-hungry media have revealed the weight of the burden he will be carrying at Ryogoku Kokugikan.

"Exactly how many times are you going to ask me that," Asashoryu barked at reporters when asked Thursday whether or not he would be making his comeback.

Asashoryu sat out an entire tournament for the first time because of injury at the Kyushu meet last November after withdrawing midway through the previous two events.

At 28 years old, however, he is still young enough to revive his fortunes and add more Emperor's Cup trophies to the 22 he has proudly held aloft on the sacred clay surface.

Yokozuna legend Takanohana once sat out seven complete tournaments in succession, while other former grand champions Kashiwado, Kitanoumi and Musashimaru have all missed six straight.

It is Asashoryu's repeated run-ins with sumo officialdom for a slew of misdemeanors, though, that have led many to call for him to step down early if he underachieves this time around.



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