FUKUOKA – With sumo reeling from the tragic hazing-related death of a teenage junior wrestler and grand champion Asashoryu still out on punishment back in his native Mongolia, the ancient Japanese sport has definitely seen better days.
But business as usual kicks off with the start of the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament Sunday, while sumo itself continues to deal with one of its biggest crisis ever.
Mongolian Hakuho, the only other grand champion, is the hot favorite to win his fifth overall Emperor’s Cup after taking home the honors at the autumn basho in September.
Meanwhile, Asashoryu, a winner of 21 career titles, will miss his second consecutive meet due to suspension after he claimed injuries, only to be filmed enjoying a game of soccer at a charity event in his homeland.
Asashoryu suffered a mild case of depression after his suspension, but is on the road to recovery and is expected to be ready to wrestle at the New Year basho in January.
Though the focus will turn to the raised-ring for the 15-day meet at Fukuoka Kokusai Center, questions still abound surrounding the death of Tokitaizan (Takashi Saito) and why sumo’s top brass dragged its feet in bringing the case to light.
Though Saito died back in June, expelled former stablemaster Tokitsukaze only admitted recently to striking the 17-year-old in the head with a beer bottle and allowing his charges to whale at Saito with a metal bat during practice.
Moreover, police are apparently still building a case against Tokitsukaze and the others involved on charges of manslaughter. Thus far, no arrests have been made.
Back in the ring, all eyes will fall on Hakuho, who went 13-2 in collecting his fourth title at the autumn meet in September. He only matched up against wrestlers in the second-tier juryo division in pre-tourney practices here but his stamina is expected to carry him all the way to coveted hardware.
Veteran ozeki Kaio, meanwhile, will be wrestling in front of his home fans with his rank on the line for a record 11th time and the injury-plagued 35-year-old appears to be on his last legs.
He is still suffering from a left thigh injury after pulling out of two consecutive tournaments and a first-day defeat would only hasten his inevitable retirement.
Ozeki trio Kotomitsuki, Chiyotaikai and Kotooshu could present a challenge in the title race but with all three ailing from various injuries the smart money is on the yokozuna.
Kotomitsuki went 10-5 in his ozeki debut in the autumn and still has not rid himself of his habit of cracking under pressure. He also fell ill with gallstones in October and hurt his right ankle.
Chiyotaikai is nursing a cold and Bulgarian lumberjack Kotooshu, who scraped by at 8-7 last time out, has aggravated an old injury to his right knee. Keeping pace with Hakuho for the three might be next to impossible.