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Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009

Hakuho rules roost


By GUS FIELDING
Kyodo News

Displaying a ruthless streak that would have had Genghis Khan applauding from the ringside cushions, Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho put Asashoryu in the shade to emerge as sumo's new "Daddy" in 2009.

News photo
Top dog: Hakuho (right) has eclipsed fellow yokozuna Asashoryu this year. KYODO PHOTO

Silent but deadly, Hakuho extinguished Asashoryu's fireworks in Sunday's final bout at the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament to wrap up a year in which he notched a remarkable 86 wins against just four losses, passing the record of 84 set by Asashoryu four years ago.

Over the course of 2009, the calm, soft-spoken 24-year-old has won three titles, two of them with flawless records, and was in the thick of the title race in the other three tournaments before succumbing in championship playoffs.

In winning his 12th Emperor's Cup in Kyushu, Hakuho also tied one of his idols, yokozuna great Futabayama.

"Before and during the (Kyushu) tournament I was on top form mentally, technically and physically," said Hakuho. "It was a very satisfying 15 days and I think I have achieved something pretty special.

"By being in title contention on the final day I think I carried out my responsibility as a yokozuna. It was a great way to wrap up the tournament."

"Next year I want to fulfill my obligations just like I have this year," said Hakuho, adding his long-term plan is to reach 22 titles to match yokozuna legend Takanohana.

Although Hakuho proved to be the dominant force, Asashoryu's contribution to a sport rocked this year by drug offenses, a death threat and a six-year prison term meted out to a stablemaster over the physical abuse of a 17-year-old wrestler that led to his death in 2007, should not be overlooked.

No tournament is quite the same without sumo's enfant terrible and the colorful yokozuna's comeback at the New Year meet was a great success.

Ticket sales and television ratings showed a marked increase as Asashoryu's winning run continued and on the final day he served up a satisfying body blow to his critics with victory over Hakuho in a playoff.

The teary-eyed yokozuna announcing to the crowd, "I am back. Asashoryu is back!" and triggering wild cheers around the arena has to be one of the year's enduring images in the sport.

Asashoryu also won in September at the autumn basho before fading down the stretch and finishing 11-4 in Kyushu. Harumafuji, another Mongolian, won his first title at the summer meet in May.

"I think Hakuho has found me out. I have to consider (a new fighting style)," said Asashoryu after the Kyushu meet. "I just have to keep taking positive steps forward. I'll be aiming to win four titles at the very least next year."

No Japanese-born wrestler has won the Emperor's Cup since now-retired Tochiazuma in January 2006 and that does not look like changing anytime soon.

Kisenosato, tipped by many to be Japan's next big hope, has failed to live up to expectations. Ozeki Kotomitsuki is not getting any younger and Kaio and Chiyotaikai are both spent forces.



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