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Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Aki Basho 2012: Time for ozeki Harumafuji to step up his game


Special to The Japan Times Online

When the Aki-basho starts today, all eyes will be on one man, and this time it is not yokozuna grand champion Hakuho. Rather the focus of sumo fans throughout Japan and around the world will be on ozeki Harumafuji. Looking to secure a second consecutive championship victory and thereby guarantee his own promotion to the top rank, the 28-year-old Mongolian has been here before — twice — and failed both times.

In 2009 and 2011, in the tournaments following his first and second Emperor's Cup victories, he failed to impress, scoring just nine and eight wins respectively, well off the 14 or 15 that would have seen him considered for promotion.

But things are different this time. Since his perfect 15-0 in Nagoya he has been most noticeable by the ferocity with which he has gone at opponents facing him during almost daily practice sessions.

In particular his repeated visits to stables other than his own to face fellow ozeki Kisenosato, have led to many headlines in the Japanese media.

Going 12-2 against Kisenosato and Sadogatake Beya ozeki Kotoshogiku one day, 6-7 the next in a one-on-one session with Kisenosato, and then openly claiming practice sessions are unrelated to fights during a honbasho has raised some eyebrows.

A return to Kisenosato's Naruto Beya just a day later, and coming away with a 6-4 record against the best Japanese rikishi in sumo today, Harumafuji is clearly hungrier, stronger and by all accounts a lot more mentally psyched for this yokozuna run than his two previous efforts.

He was even seen bringing his injured left ankle into play in almost 60 bouts over two days in his own stable before wrapping up his preparations a couple of days ahead of the start of action.

Hiroko Sato, long-time sumo observer and a university professor specializing in cultural theory, sees this as an indication that he is ready to take his sumo to the next level. "Mentally, he is stronger than ever before, and at the age of 28, this may be his last chance to gain promotion to yokozuna. I am looking for him to go all out in the coming tournament and at least be in the running for the yusho."

He's certainly shown a solid work ethic ever since he first made it to the top division. At that time he was the lightest man in the division, at a shade over 100 kg. A daily regime involving downing multiple liters of milk has seen his weight rise to 126 kg and boosted his ability to overcome heavier opponents while still retaining his always impressive turn of speed.

One factor that does not bode well for Harumafuji, however, involves his past records at the same Tokyo tournament as an ozeki. In the sport's second rank, he has never finished a September basho with double figures.

Of course, there is also someone who will be standing in the way of Harumafuji claiming his second consecutive title: Hakuho.

Having completed his own pre-basho training in the past 48 hours, at an altogether more relaxed pace than Harumafuji, the grand champion will be looking to win his 23rd basho to date, and his first since March of this year.

By taking his 23rd, he will move to within two of his one-time senior Asashoryu on the all-time record.

By winning his first since March, he will snap his worst run since he was promoted to yokozuna back in July of 2007.

While much of the attention will be focused on the Mongolian duo set to do battle at the top of makunouchi, two others to watch in the top flight are Aoiyama and Takamisakari.

Aoiyama is a hugely talented Bulgarian, and equally huge in size at 158 kg, but he has been injured in the run up to the basho so he may not be firing on all cylinders for the first few days.

For his part, Takamisakari, a former komusubi, and long-time crowd favorite, is now at a point in his career that could see him drop out of the second-ranked juryo division into makushita, an unsalaried level of sumo.

Should this happen he will retire and become an oyakata senior at Azumazeki Beya where his career began 13 years ago. He will nominally serve under the stable master, former Ushiomaru, in bringing up the heya's crop of youngsters but will forever remain the clown of sumo for many, and a fan fave for years to come.



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