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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Catwalks for the King, a shot at glory for his underlings


Special to The Japan Times Online

With the Spring Basho less than two weeks away now, sumo fans might be forgiven for thinking something is amiss given the lack of any real news coming out of Osaka.

Yokozuna Asashoryu on the catwalk of Shibuya Girls Collection
Playing hooky: Yokozuna Asashoryu gestures from the catwalk of Shibuya Girls Collection, held March 8 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo. CHRISTOPHER JUE PHOTO

The vast majority of rikishi have been in their temporary lodgings for about a week now, and most continue to plug away, quietly preparing themselves for the upcoming tourney.

Not suprisingly the media attention is focused on the two yokozuna: Hakuho and Asashoryu. The former has, as always, started slowly with a less-than-strenuous series of morning practice sessions thus far, although he always intensifies in the days before the action kicks off, with several days of full-on training against other top rankers. Hakuho, in this way, is old school. He prefers to let his sumo do the talking. With eight of nine career top-flight championships coming in the last two years, his modus operandi is perhaps one that his juniors should imitate.

Asashoryu, as always, is being criticized for his lackadaisical attitude as shonichi (opening day) nears, and several oyakata have spoken publicly about his lack of motivation and effort. Lazy or not, the Mongolian came back from an awful 2008, winning only the Haru Basho last March, to claim the first Emperor's Cup on offer in 2009, at the Hatsu Basho in January.

Par for the course, Asashoryu's preparation for the Osaka tournament did take an odd twist on March 8, when he took a quick trip back up to Tokyo to participate in a fashion show aimed at teenage girls called Shibuya Girls Collection. Dressed in an oversized schoolboy's uniform and Fanta T-shirt, he seemed more than happy on the catwalk, plugging a TV commercial he recently appeared in for the soft drink.

Back in Osaka, at a career high in the sanyaku ranks, is the 22-year-old Kisenosato. A deserving sekiwake at least four times in the past couple of years, it has only been the performance of others above him and a reluctance on the part of sumo authorities to increase the size of the rank* between komusubi and ozeki that has prevented him from progressing.

In his being situated alongside another relative youngster, the 24-year-old Baruto of Onoe Beya, there is some excitement and anticipation that we could be looking at the early makings of ozeki of the future. Baruto is theoretically already on an ozeki run, having won 18 bouts in the last two tournaments. Thirty-two or so victories over the space of three consecutive basho as a sekiwake is the usual criteria for consideration to be promoted to the sport's second rank, so a career-best 14-win tourney in the makunouchi division would initiate talk of promotion, but the quality of his sumo is still lacking.

A large man at over 170 kg and 192 cm, Baruto still has difficulty dealing with faster, smaller foes. While his size alone should help take him to ozeki one day, the wise money would be on Kisenosato. The Ibaraki native has learned his trade under the watchful eye of Naruto Oyakata, a former yokozuna, and has now served his senior division apprenticeship. Along the way, he's picked up four special prizes and a pair of kinboshi victories over a yokozuna (one each against Hakuho and Asashoryu). His career performances against the five ozeki meanwhile stand at 40 wins to 52 defeats overall, in what is an impressive record for one still so young.

Just one rank lower is another 22-year-old, Goeido of Osaka, who is returning to his hometown in the rank vacated by Kisenosato. Given his age and abilities he demonstrates, he should be another to watch. Goeido has already had one trial run at komusubi last November, but went a dismal 5-10. He reversed that score earlier this year, however, defeating two ozeki and one sekiwake (Baruto), and won a special prize. His reward was to be given his own shot in the meat-grinder komusubi rank of sumo's upper ranks where anything approaching a winning record is considered fantastic at this point in his career. If he returns from Osaka to Sakaigawa Beya in northern Tokyo with a kachikoshi winning record under his belt, it will certainly be an achievement that will set tongues wagging about the next generation of super sumo.

*There are no set rules on just how many ozeki, sekiwake or komusubi it is possible to have. However, in recent years, the Sumo Association has seemingly kept to a policy of no more than two sekiwake, which has led to komusubi with winning records remaining komusubi instead of being promoted.



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