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Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013
Harumafuji awaits do-or-die fight at New Year Basho
If one thing is causing yokozuna Harumafuji to lose sleep, haunted by an eerie requiem, it is knowing that the powers that be would just as soon banish him from the ancient Japanese sport than have him disgrace the prized yokozuna rank.
Entering only his second tournament at the top of the sumo's highest perch, Harumafuji is already dangerously close to plunging headlong over that precipice to a fate from whence there will be no deliverance: forced early retirement.
With the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament kicking off this Sunday, the Mongolian dynamo must rekindle the same fire that burned so brightly last year when he won two consecutive tournaments with undefeated 15-0 marks to catapult himself to his current hegemony.
"I want to respond to peoples' expectations of me," said Harumafuji ahead of the Tokyo Basho at Ryogoku Kokugikan, which is held annually over the last fortnight in January. "I want to work hard all year, and have a nice present for myself in the end."
After eking out a barely permissible 9-6 record at the Kyushu Basho in November, and becoming the first yokozuna in history to lose his final five bouts, responding to expectations is the least being asked of him; he must also continue to be an able foil to rival yokozuna Hakuho.
The Japan Sumo Association's Yokozuna Deliberation Council, the same body that recommended him to become sumo's 70th grand champion, is now demanding that Harumafuji at least win 10 bouts with the tacit understanding that anything less would be grounds for an involuntary farewell from the raised ring.
"As a yokozuna, you at least have to be able to get double digits wins, or you don't qualify," Takuhiko Tsuruta, who heads the JSA's deliberation council, has said.
At his first practice of the year on Jan. 4, deliberation council member Tanosuke Sawamura did not mince his words, saying, "A small wrestler like Harumafuji has to become a yokozuna of technique. We want him to produce results that will allow him to preserve his rank."
Harumafuji said he was awakened by a nightmare the night before practice. He sprinkled purification salt over his head and shoulders to ward off evil following his sparring session.
"I was just hoping the morning would come quickly. I had a bad dream, so I think it means that something good will happen."
Harumafuji, who caught a cold near the end of the year and whose training has been scant of late, began to pick up the pace in the final week before the tournament.
He went 5-5 against Hakuho, albeit at the perfunctory annual sparring demonstration in front of the deliberation council at Ryogoku Kokugikan on Monday.
But he earned brickbats from one of the JSA's stablemasters for shoving Kisenosato in the face ex post facto, having already sent the ozeki out of the ring in a frontal force out in a practice session at Tokyo's Oguruma stable the following day.
"A yokozuna can't do things like that. This is a contest," said Matsugane, who is a deputy director on the JSA's officiating committee.
The 28-year-old Harumafuji, who at 133 kg is the lightest in the elite makuuchi division, can hardly be blamed for his firebrand style though; he is well-known for lightning-bolt strikes getting out of hand, perhaps his only recourse to compensate for his relatively small frame.
Although feeling the effects of a series of injuries suffered during the Kyushu Basho, including pain in both ankles and a right-calf muscle strain, there can be no excuses after his now-famous debacle.
"If he had produced a good record in his first basho as yokozuna, then things would be easier for him in the second one. This is going to be a tough meet for Harumafuji. He'll have to take off from the start," said former yokozuna Kitanofuji, who works as a sumo television analyst on NHK.
For Hakuho, meanwhile, another milestone is within his grasp as he aims to win back-to-back tournaments and his 24th career title, a feat that would place him in the same company as former yokozuna and current JSA Chairman Kitanoumi.
Baruto, who has been demoted to sumo's third-highest rank of sekiwake after pulling out of two consecutive basho, needs 10 wins to regain his ozeki status but the Estonian goliath has not fully recovered from an injury to his left hamstring.
Expectations are high that ozeki Kisenosato will finally hit pay dirt with his first Emperor's Cup trophy, but he needs to rectify his high posture and minimize his inconsistencies.
Fellow Japanese ozeki Kotoshogiku is still feeling the remnants of a recent cold and a long way from full strength.
Sekiwake Goeido won 11 bouts in Kyushu, setting himself up for a genuine shot at ozeki promotion. He can put himself in the running for consideration with another dominant performance at the Tokyo meet.