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Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Life in the old dog yet: Asashoryu picks up number 24


Special to The Japan Times Online

What better way could there possibly be for a sumotori to celebrate his birthday than to be presented with the Emperor’s Cup, having earlier the same day picked up his 24th basho in a career that will, statistically, always be regarded as one of the best in sumo history?

On Sunday afternoon, Asashoryu also received the Prime Minister’s Cup from the country's new leader, PM Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan. The ceremony reminded us that nothing lasts forever. As the LDP recently gave way to the DPJ after decades of almost uninterrupted power, someday Asashoryu too will have to relinquish his power.

As any regular Japanese media watcher will know, Asa is a man who has been hounded by scandals over past few years. However, by posting a 14-1 record over the 15 days of action, and then defeating fellow yokozuna Hakuho in a play-off at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, Asa answered his critics and got a big dollop of icing on his cake.

While he has now taken his career yusho tally to 24, this was the 29-year-old's first championship since January, and only his fourth in the time the sport has had two yokozuna going head to head over the past 14 basho.

Thus, the Fukuoka Basho in November will be seen as something of a proving ground for the Mongolian's stamina; back-to-back titles would certainly set up a great exit into the sunset.

Meanwhile, Hakuho must be feeling incredibly depressed. Although he literally blew away the older man at the outset of their first head-to-head on the final day, come the play-off he appeared nervy and somewhat over-cautious.

His resulting defeat not only left Asashoryu tied for third place on the all-time yusho winners list, alongside former yokozuna Kitanoumi, it also left Hakuho looking at a relatively meager maximum of three yusho for the year, should he perform up to par in November. Normally this would be an admirable performance for anyone else, but given Hakuho's canter up the yusho-ranking charts, it's not the kind of form he will want to be carrying over into the post-Asashoryu era of 2010 and beyond.

At any rate, Hakuho shouldn't have to worry much about competition from ozeki Kaio, who yet again managed to slip past the finishing post with a below-par ozeki 8-7 score. While he was expected to put in at least 10 solid wins and to compete for the yusho, Kaio’s fifth consecutive 8-7 has left many speculating that the Fukuoka Basho will be his last — enabling him to bow out before his hometown fans in Kyushu. Sadly, he has not put in 10 wins in a basho for over two years, and it is doubtful he will even come close in Kyushu.

It should be noted that minutes after Kaio's powerful dispatch of fellow ozeki Kotomitsuki of Sadogatake Beya, the wags were out on at least one English-language sumo site commending Kaio’s foe for his ability to "play along" and essentially lay one down for the older man when a kachikoshi winning record was on the line. It's a common claim often made against some of the aging ozeki apparently too willing to help friends in need, but why is it that given the huge numbers of men passing through the sumo ranks every year, no one has come forward with cold, hard evidence? Think about it.

Back in the realm of reality, both sekiwake put in less-than-stellar performances and Kisenosato (7-8) and Kotoshogiku (6-9) will once again enter the elevator for a trip to a lower rank where they will try to refocus their sights on November.

Indeed, only the Estonian Baruto (12-3), at the rank of komusubi, looks like he could be worrying the yokozuna in the near future, but Izutsu Beya man Kakuryu in upper maegashira, with his own 11-4 record might also be looking to upset the top rankers come their next honbasho meeting.

In terms of up and comers, only Goeido at maegashira 5 posted a similar score in the lower ranks with an impressive 10-5, although it is always nice to see old-timers such as Bushuyama, Wakanosato and Hokutoriki post double figure winning results toward the back end of their own respective careers — proving that there may be more than one old dog with life in it yet.



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