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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Are surprises in store at Haru Basho?


Special to The Japan Times Online

With all eyes on the shenanigans surrounding Asashoryu in recent weeks, Hakuho’s elaborate wedding celebrations in various locations around the country, and a new nationality rule in sumo that essentially limits a stable to one foreign-born rikishi at a time (even if the rikishi does later change his nationality), few have really given any thought as to what might happen down in Osaka starting the end of next week.

Admittedly the possibility of Asashoryu, the winner of the January Hatsu Basho being pulled in for questioning by police over allegations of "less than gentlemanly conduct" with? Joe Public/a club barman/a member of his own staff (depends on the version) could derail coverage of the tourney proper, but for now, it's on with the show — and the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium is the facility putting on that show.

The Haru Basho is the second basho of the year and traditionally marks the coming of spring. As many fans will tell you, the Haru Basho can often produce surprises. Only men in the yokozuna rank have won the past six basho in Japan's second city. However, earlier in the decade two ozeki — the now-retired Chiyotaikai and the still-active Kaio — did win earlier, as did Takatori in March 2000. This is where Osaka earned its reputation as a place for surprises, sine Takatori was maegashira 14 at the time. Even then, a closer look shows the former Futagoyama Beya man to have benefited significantly from the presence in his stable of three of the top rikishi in the sport at the time: Takanohana, Wakanohana and Tankanonami. These were therefore men he would never go against unless for a rare play-off on the final day, and thanks to his rank, he never even faced the serving ozeki during the basho.

Barring that bolt from the Futagoyama blue then, and with one eye on the current banzuke, the only potential victors would appear to be Hakuho, Harumafuji, Kotooshu and — if on form — Baruto.

Many, this sumo writer included, do see Osaka 2010, as Hakuho's to lose with the departure of his Mongolian counterpart at yokozuna. Another Mongolian, Harumafuji, does have a fair shot, of course, and has been known to give the yokozuna real trouble on occasion. Baruto as well could prove to be an obstacle, but the giant from Estonia might well be more focused on his own quest for ozeki promotion. He currently sits on a 21-9 record at sekiwake, following the last two tournaments, and a good 11-4 or better victory this time out will set talk of ozeki promotion on its course.

Meanwhile, the Sadogatake man, Kotooshu from Bulgaria, has put together a run of 11 basho without a makekoshi losing record, and has never had a losing record as an ozeki when he has finished the tournament.? His last — and only yusho to date — was almost two years ago but in recent months he has put on a few kilos and is looking more effective on the dohyo, especially when able to reach behind his foe and maneuver them into a throwing position. That said, he does tire in the second week so if he can pace himself might be one to give the yokozuna a run for his money.

A single rank lower at komusubi, Kisenosato might even find Osaka this year "doable" and it would be a fool who wrote off Kakuryu down at the head of the maegashira ranks — particularly after his 10-5 prize winning tourney in Osaka last year.

Finally, just to round out a look at the potential challengers away from the top ranks, down at maegashira 14 on the East side of the banzuke, in the same spot occupied by Takatoriki exactly 10 years ago, we find the Georgian rikishi Kokkai. Here's a man for whom double digit records — winning and losing — have proven the norm in the Haru Basho in recent years, thus making him a dark horse if ever there were one!



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