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Anticipation tarnished by tragedy before Nagoya basho

by Mark Buckton

At a time when sumo fans were excitedly anticipating the first tournament since late 2003 that boasts two yokozuna, tragedy struck: In late June, a 17-year-old rikishi died after a training session.

Niigata native Takashi Saito, known as Tokitaizan and ranked Jonokuchi 39, was a member of the famous Tokitsukaze Beya for a matter of just week, having been introduced to sumo fans in an official “unveiling” ceremony at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in May.

It was reported that Tokitaizan said he felt unwell at approximately 12:30 p.m., was taken to a local hospital and died a little under two hours later. What’s unusual is that most wrestlers at jonokuchi (sumo’s lowest division) finish practice by 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning at the latest – especially in heya with several sekitori-ranked grapplers such as Tokitsukaze. Tokitaizan, though, was still being put through his paces at around midday.

The incident is currently under investigation by the Aichi Prefectural Police and while at least one autopsy has been performed, no official findings from the police have been announced. An initial hospital report apparently indicated heart failure as the underlying cause of death.

Allegedly Tokitaizan was, at some time, burned by lit cigarettes, and if that is the case, one can only hope that arrests will be made swiftly and the guilty parties are punished. Injuries common to a very hard and physical contact sport have already shown on the autopsy, but deliberate torture has no place in any sport.

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On the dohyo, all eyes will be on Hakuho as he attempts to emulate just three of the post-1958 (six basho a year) yokozuna by winning his first basho at the top rank. If you’re the superstitious sort, his shikona does not bode well, given that his predecessors all had names beginning with a T – Taiho (1961 and winner of his first two yokozuna basho), Takanosato (1983) and Takanohana (1995).

He will also have Asashoryu attempting to stop him making it three in a row as well as the rest of the sport’s top rankers on their own quests to be the first to defeat the new yokozuna. However, I suspect that Asashoryu may be entering something of a barren spell due to rather hush-hushed arm or elbow injuries.

A rank down, Chiyotaikai will set a new longevity record, with this being his 51st basho at ozeki, while at sekiwake, local Aichi man Kotomitsuki will be pushing for a good 12 or 13 wins (or better) to try to secure his own promotion to ozeki. Interestingly, at these uppermost sanyaku ranks, non-Japanese outnumber their hosts.

Closer to the foot of makunouchi, the exciting Toyohibiki (maegashira 14 west*) of Sakaigawa Beya is making his top flight debut as stablemate Iwakiyama drops to juryo. Meanwhile, at similar ranks, noted returnees to the division we should all keep the proverbial eye on include the hugely talented Estonian Baruto (maegashira 14 east), potentially the next yokozuna if he can keep his lower limbs free from injury, and the 34-year-old former komusubi from Hakkaku Beya, Kaiho (maegashira 15 east). Sadly, this Aomori man, who has somehow clawed his way back from an awful leg injury, won’t last long in the division even if he does secure a winning record this time out and might well opt to bow out at the top some time soon.

Sakaizawa will appear in juryo in Nagoya for the first time as will sumo’s 13th Mongolian sekitori to date, Hoshihikari. One name that won’t be called to fight in the second ranking division is that of Takamifuji of Azumazeki Beya due to his sudden retirement following exposure of gambling troubles.

Upper makushita is again about Ichihara (makushita 1) and whether or not he secures promotion.

Another to watch near the top of the highest non-salaried division will be the 196-cm Yoshiazuma of Tamanoi Beya at makushita 4. Tamanoi’s alpha male, following the retirement earlier this year of ozeki Tochiazuma, is now in his 30th year so while he might have left it a little late but he has recently appeared more consistent . . . though as a Tamanoi Beya neighbor, I have a bit of a bias.

* The rankings are traditionally divided into numerically identical ranks but split “east” and “west,” with the “east” ranking considered slightly higher to the west.