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Pounds equal prizes

by Mark Buckton

There are several topics of note coming out of the upcoming Grand Sumo Tournament in Nagoya.

One is the need for reflection on the tragedy of the young Tokitsukaze wrestler, Tokitaiza, who died ‘ter a severe beating before last year’s basho. The case against his stable master and fellow wrestlers, however, is still ongoing in the notoriously slow law-courts, as is the tug-o-war between the Sumo Association and Education Ministry regarding modernization of the establishment charged with running the national sport.

Another, more obvious talking point is the popular Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu, as he pushes for that second consecutive Emperor’s Cup and possible promotion to yokozuna.

But what of the winner of last year’s tournament — Asashoryu — and his recent choice to up his weight? The likelihood of Asashoryu continuing his four-year run of the mid-summer central Japan championships is under threat, but more for reasons of girth than greatness.

With a dodgy knee just a week ahead of the start of the tourney, the 202-cm “Osh” has more on his plate than weight issues to ponder. On the other hand, Asashoryu, at 185 cm, will be appearing on the Nagoya dohyo at a career-high weight of 152 kg. This is around 12 kg heavier than the weight he carried as a 22-year-old yokozuna, and 45 kg more than when he first entered the sport in 1999.

Having served as a yokozuna for five years since the spring of 2003, he has seen his once overwhelming domination of makunouchi division sumo whittled away in recent months by a group of increasingly bulky sanyaku and upper maegashira regulars, as well as by Hakuho (156 kg), his equal in rank.

With a lone Emperor’s Cup to Asashoryu’s credit in the year since he last left Nagoya, some have been quietly speculating that he needs to do more than rely on natural talent. Quite simply, at this stage, he needs to eat more.

As in professional football — both soccer and American — top-flight sekitori approaching the beginning of the end of their careers have often resorted to Mother Nature and her imposition of increased girth to help them through the bouts they’d once be expected to win at a stroll. For Asa , if he wants a shot at more titles in Nagoya or anywhere over the next couple of years, the solution is becoming increasingly clear: put on the pounds, keep them on and let them work for you.

Numerous examples of this can be seen in sumo history, of once unbeatable yokozuna getting to the stage when the wins are harder to achieve and titles start coming with less frequency. What do they do? Add ballast and let the bulk soak up more of the effort, keeping the technique and natural talent for the wettest of rainy days. (Let me note one exception to the rule: former yokozuna Chiyonofuji, who signed off weighing 126 kg with 31 titles to his name.)

Even at 152 kg, Asashoryu, with 22 championships to date, isn’t close to the heaviest rikishi in makunouchi, and still far away from the top weights posted by household names such as Takanohana (161 kg at his last active weigh-in; winner of 22 titles) and Kitanoumi (166 kg, 24 titles).

Of course, Asa has often been able to call upon a degree of speed and technique that was missing in the games of these former wrestlers. Be that as it may, though, it really has come time for Asa, in his quest for yusho #23, to let his chopsticks and waistline play their part, and ask the local Nagoya delicacies to follow suit.

Ao Back-to-back championships as an ozeki usually leads to promotion to yokozuna, but Kotooshu’s first title, coming on the back of a losing record at the rank in which 10 wins are the ideal each tournament, has led to some concern about those charged with making the final call.

You can chat with Mark Buckton about sumo from 10 p.m. on July 8, 15 and 22. See The Japan Times Sports Chat page for more details.