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Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Hakuho the benchmark for Hatsu Basho


Special to The Japan Times Online

2011 is now upon us. The first tournament of the year — the Hatsu Basho — begins on Jan. 9 running for 15 days before the Emperor's Cup winner is decided on the 23rd.

Yokozuna Hakuho, barring injury, will win it.

Never before in recent times has there been so dominant a yokozuna heading into the New Year. Yes, Asashoryu was good. Admittedly Taiho back in the '60s and early '70s was unstoppable in his prime, but with Hakuho in the early 21st century there is something else, what the French might term a certain "je ne sais quois."

A television show in late December revealed the name Hakuho was only permitted as a shikona (fighting name) after removing the 木 from 柏 (read "Haku" and the first character in the fighting name of former yokozuna Kashiwado — 柏戸)which, when read in combination with the 大鵬 (of the shikona for the aforementioned Taiho) became 柏鵬 (read "Hakuho"). Out of respect for the period in the mid-late '60s thus titled the 柏鵬 period when Kashiwado and Taiho were at their prime, it was decided the new 15-year-old modern-era Hakuho wannabe would not be permitted to use such a hallowed combination of kanji characters for his own ring name.

Perhaps now the Sumo Association would, were Hakuho to request it, allow the same characters to be used. Amendments in the characters used in shikona is a common occurrence in sumo, and few would argue against him not having earned this particular pair of kanji.

That Taiho was the only man the current yokozuna approached, crouched before and listened to at the yokozuna practice session (as reported on here in Sumo Scribblings on December 29th) spoke volumes. The now 69-year-old in a wheelchair and Hakuho are almost neck and neck on the yusho ranking table at the same age and their mutual respect is well known.

Many an oyakata lined the route Hakuho took from the stadium entrance to Taiho. He seemed to notice none — including the Heisei Era legend Takanohana, who sat to Taiho's immediate right.

Like Taiho, in the period spanning 1962-1967, Hakuho today is, in so many ways, the man to beat.

Unlike other high profile non-Japanese born rikishi who have opted to take Japanese nationality — Akebono (the 64th yokozuna) and Konishiki (former ozeki), Hakuho's low profile off the dohyo, his demeanor on it, and his tendency toward the secretive in his home life have already endeared him with the majority of sumo fans.

Undoubtedly, behind the scenes, he will be facing some pressure to change his nationality to Japanese. Few Mongolians have thus far opted for such a course of action. Kyokutenho at maegashira 6 is the man with the highest profile to switch passports — a move he took to one day succeed to the title of Oshima Oyakata, as only Japanese nationals are eligible to call themselves stable masters.

In all likelihood Hakuho will one day take a Japanese passport. He is far less of a public figure in his home country than Asashoryu, and far less controversial here in Japan, a plus in many eyes.

When he does, there will still be those baying at the moon for a Japanese yokozuna of equal ability to the recent Mongolians and Americans, but little by little the now 25-year-old from Ulan Bator is winning over the naysayers bemoaning the lack of any credible local-born competition.

Add to this the majority of foreign fans with an intimate knowledge of the sport favoring Hakuho's personality and yokozuna-like demeanor over Asashoryu almost without exception, or indeed any other recent grand champion with perhaps the exception of home-born Takanohana, and this man really can do no wrong in the eyes of most.

In the time since Hakuho has risen to the upper ranks of makunouchi, he has thus far emerged victorious in 17 Emperor's Cups in which he has competed. His own benchmark during his ascent was Asashoryu who took 20 trophies in a similar timeframe, but in doing so never once faced another yokozuna. Hakuho was up against a yokozuna in his prime from the moment he entered the top flight.

His future is in his own hands of course but we are currently witnessing sumo history in the making. Don't blink.

And so, MB's predictions for 2011 — at least 4 yusho for Hakuho, probably 5, and not impossible all 6, with Baruto or maybe Harumafuji pulling one out of the hat should the stars line up, and these potential yokozuna somewhere down the line get their act together.

Kaio will finally retire.

Kisenosato will continue to annoy his fans with flashes of brilliance, undone by moments in which daydreaming gets the better of him and his natural talent merely serves to keep him at the top end of makunouchi.

And, of course, the up-and-comer to watch for in 2011 — Azumaryu Tsuyoshi — from Tamanoi Beya. Aged 23, ranked higher than the yokozuna at the same point in his own illustrious career, he is a Mongolian from the same town as Hakuho, and one set to benefit from the expertise of his stable master, former ozeki Tochiazuma — the last Japanese to win a yusho.



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