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Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Will two of sumo's top dogs retire at Kyushu 2009?


Special to The Japan Times Online

Kyushu 2009 will, if for nothing else, be remembered as the tournament in which the old warhorse ozeki Kaio breaks former sekiwake Takamiyama's long-standing record of 97 basho in the sport's top flight. For Kaio — Kyushu will be number 98.

Most will realistically predict the tournament going the way of yokozuna Hakuho or Asashoryu, and there are of course the usual niggling injuries to both in the run up to the action starting on the 15. Challenges could come in the form of a resurgent Harumafuji who has been going great guns in training, or the less prolific Kotooshu, if on his own game. Estonian Baruto, following on from his blistering 12-3 in September might be another to watch if he has added a few more techniques to his brute-force backed arsenal.

Being Fukuoka, however all eyes will primarily be on local boy Kaio and his record-breaking 98th.

One fact many seem to have overlooked in lauding the 98 though is his drop into the juryo division a long time ago, having made an initially poor 4-11 debut at maegashira 15 during the summer 1993 tourney. This drop, albeit for a relatively short period of three basho, does mean he still only equals Hawaiian Takamiyama in the "consecutive" basho in the top division list.

Regardless of the standard "I'm not thinking of records — I just want to do my own brand of sumo" line trotted out by many wrestlers when asked about the numbers, the chance to take both consecutive and overall records is being looked at by some as reason enough for Kaio to force himself through another couple of tourneys in early 2010. If he succeeded, by next March and the Osaka tournament, he would be the first ever rikishi to have reached 100 basho in the senior-most division.

As a winner of five Emperor's Cups (but none from the past five years) and by hanging on for dear life, the Fukuoka native has seen once proud ozeki numerical records slip to "fair to middling." Proof of this lies in his 55-career basho in the sport's second rank, and a 36-16 win/loss ratio that is impressive — until viewed closer.

Of the 39 winning tourneys he has enjoyed, just 22 have seen him achieve the minimum ozeki standard of 10 wins (per tournament) and an amazing 16 of his sub-par basho have come since he last won the title in September 1994, in what equates, overall, to an ozeki standard being secured in a mere 22 of 55 basho at rank!

The bells have thus been tolling for some years now and are only getting louder. Hopefully this time the Tomozuna Beya ozeki will hear them, bow to his fans and call it a day.

Another rikishi many sumo writers and fans are looking at to retire down in Kyushu is Kokonoe Beya ozeki Chiyotaikai. Winner of three yusho and a whole bunch of runner's up "jun-yusho" his last Emperor's Cup victory came almost seven years ago. Results as varied as 11-4, and 3-12 (when most in his rank would withdraw from a tournament citing injury) and five jun-yusho since he last took home the silverware have left him with a sliver more admiration in the fan's eyes than his ozeki cousin from Tomozuna. Record breaking in his own right, Chiyotaikai will be competing in his 14th kadoban* ozeki tournament — more than indicating the overall lack of success given his own 60-plus basho at rank.

Although originally from Hokkaido, he is listed as a native of Oita in the north of the island of Kyushu thanks to a "don't ask don't tell" policy that could in part help revive flagging U.S. interest in sumo; twins brought up in America who have now entered the very bottom of sumo's ladder to much aplomb. (Look for a report on the latest American — or partial American — entrants in the post-basho Sumo Scribblings.)

The big question in sumo, as we travel down to Fukuoka each year though, has now become "Will they or won't they?" Many fans of yesteryear still relish the chance to see the ozeki eke it out as long as possible, but I'm not among them.

For far too long sumo authorities have allowed these pair to limp along as if they were pensioners pulling a shopping trolley full of injuries, living off past tales of derring-do and dohyo successes.

The next generation in and around sumo have been knocking on the door for years, awaiting their turn in the limelight so, for Kaio and Chiyotaikai, as great as you once were, maybe it's time to let them do their thing.

*A kadoban ozeki is labeled as such after failing to win the majority of bouts in the previous tournament and risks demotion to sekiwake if he fails to achieve a kachikoshi winning record when "kadoban."



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