KYUSHU BASHO

The safe money goes on Asashoryu

by Mark Buckton

In November, 1957, a maegashira ranked near the foot of the makunouchi division went 15-0 to claim his first ever yusho. His name was Tamanoumi, a 34-year-old Oita man, and his name goes down in history as the winner of the first official Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament.

Will his modern-day Oita counterpart, ozeki Chiyotaikai, follow suit? Or will Emperor’s Cup glory at the 50th basho to be held in Kyushu be bestowed upon Fukuoka native and hometown ozeki Kaio? We’ll have the answer soon, but you won’t get many hardcore fans of the national sport willing to wager on this pair.

Kaio is still suffering back pains and is carrying another obligatory kadoban label, which puts him in danger of demotion should he do worse than 8-7 this time out — thanks to a makekoshi losing record in September.

Chiyo does have a better shot at the trophy but a limited one nonetheless. He has improved his sumo over the last couple of basho but still tends to fade in the second week, so a victory from this pusher-thruster (who is Hokkaido-born yet Oita-registered — sumo is full of quirks) would be almost as unexpected as that seen in 1957 when Tamanoumi pulled the rabbit out of the hat.

A more serious contender, Hakuho, is looking less and less likely to compete in Fukuoka. Although he is still officially “in” at time of writing, he could end up missing out all together, thanks to what we hear is a stubbed toe now held together with a bolt of sorts.

Other names at the top of the banzuke include Tochiazuma (winner of the 2003 basho here) and Kotooshu (winner of lots of TV commercial contracts but not much else so far) and, of course, Asashoryu (winner of three titles in Kyushu). Tochi has a shot — as long as his battered and bruised body holds out. Kotooshu has yet to prove himself worthy of his promotion to ozeki and during 2006 hasn’t really shown the form needed to be fully respected at rank. Asashoryu, meanwhile, is Asashoryu. Kyushu is yet again his tournament to lose.

A smidgen lower we have the 20-year-old komusubi Kisenosato and, with an outside chance, sekiwake Miyabiyama, that is if lightning strikes twice. Kokkai, also komusubi, has long-standing elbow trouble and too much to repair technique-wise just yet . . . and no one else comes to mind.

Consider this: Only one non-ozeki/yokozuna has won this tournament in the last decade — Kotonishiki back in 1998. As he was a maegashira 12 at the time, it was a phenomenal achievement, considering that he was coming off of an earlier 5-10 performance, and the win served well in capping a career spent flitting up and down the upper makunouchi ranks. The current banzuke has Ushiomaru and Tosanoumi at the same maegashira 12 rank, but we won’t go there.

Truth be told, whatever happens, Kyushu is the annual wind-down and rarely grabs the attention of the nation like the other basho do. Right now, one eye is on Christmas, the other on New Year.

Various sekitori in the top two divisions and rikishi throughout the four lower divisions have their own reasons to do well and secure decent promotions before the Hatsu Basho in January. However, even after a year of great sumo, with Asashoryu steadily edging upward in total “yusho won” tables and a new batch of relative youngsters all vying for lower sanyaku slots as they wait for the aging ozeki trio of Kaio, Chiyotaikai and Tochiazuma to retire, there is not that much to get excited about this November.

Juryo is dominated by its lack of hot-rodders scything through the opposition and is now something of an R&R hangout for those contemplating retirement or one last shot at the top division. Aomori-born Wakanosato is a case in point. A former long-term sekiwake-cum-eternal-ozeki-hopeful, he is currently on the edge of a precipice at his lowest rank in years at juryo 11 — all thanks to a very dodgy right knee. A makekoshi or even another absence in Fukuoka will likely see him retire.

So, with limited options to consider regarding title contenders, it might be a good idea to turn your attention to the sumo crowd down in Kyushu and, in particular, the geisha!

For those in Japan watching NHK or, if overseas the Nihon Sumo Kyokai webcast, keep an eye on the crowd just behind the dohyo during the makunouchi bouts and you’ll see half a dozen or so long-in-the-tooth geisha types. These women are regulars at the sumo but if you see them still sitting there at the very end of the days proceedings, the musubi-no-ichiban featuring yokozuna Asashoryu, consider yourself lucky, as they almost always melt away prior to the finale. How they vanish I have no idea as I just don’t ever recall seeing them leave. It may be just me blinking at the wrong time, but if anyone gets a shot of them slinking out, send it in.