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Asa might not have been all there, but Haku certainly was

by Mark Buckton

When yokozuna Asashoryu withdrew from the July 13-27 Nagoya Basho on Day 6, public opinion was largely split.

Official announcements had an injured elbow listed as the reason the Mongolian yokozuna decided to call it quits in week one, although he didn’t appear to be having any trouble with his elbow on the days he did participate. Some sumo-watchers put the injury and subsequent retirement down to a lack of training. Others, however, pointed to a bruised pride.

Would a man once as dominant as Asa be content to see fellow yokozuna Hakuho pull away, undefeated, as he was himself flapped around being beaten by men whom, in earlier days, he would have thrown to the dirt with one?

Given that he had gone down in a Day 1 defeat to the feisty komusubi Toyonoshima (10-5 by senshuraku), and that his decision to pull out prior to his bout with Wakanosato came on the back of a defeat to rank-and-filer Tochinonada (maegashira 3) on Day 5, the winner of 22 yusho appeared a shadow of his former self.

Around the same time of Asashoryu’s exit, there was also controversy swirling around the planned exhibition matches in Mongolia. In short, Asa’s family appeared to be linked to the event in more ways than one. Meanwhile, Kyokushuzan, a former Mongolian sumotori turned politician, got in on the act, to the alleged annoyance of Asa. Naturally, there’s been speculation that Asa’s mind was less than focused the Nagoya basho, and the injured elbow perhaps offered a convenient excuse to pull out.

At any rate, younger yokozuna, Hakuho, refused to let the kafuffle get to him. He took the basho one bout at a time, winning them all, and clinching his seventh Emperor’s Cup — — on Day 13 — for good measure.

Wrapping a fantastic demonstration in front of his wife and daughter, who had made the journey to Nagoya, Hak even had one of the usually conservative English-language NHK guests, known more for his umming and ahhing, gushing over his abilities in the ring when he disposed of Kotooshu (9-6) with an overarm throw at the end of the last fight of the tourney. (The sixth defeat of Osh’s campaign was little more than the sixth nail in a coffin containing his dreams of yokozuna promotion following yusho victory in Tokyo in May.)

In terms of yusho achieved at a comparable point in their respective yokozuna careers, Hak is really starting to impress. He needed just seven basho at the top to reach seven career titles, compared to Asa’s eight basho as a yokozuna needed to chalk up the same number. That figure is more interesting when you figure Asa himself never faced a yokozuna at the top of his game while he made his way up through the rank of ozeki, or in his first four years as a yokozuna. Hak, on the other hand, has reached the top under the watchful eye of the man whose name he is now starting to replace in newspaper headlines — Asashoryu.

Elsewhere at Nagoya, Chiyotaikai, and his latest battle with kadoban status, threw in a few interesting bouts, went 9-6 in the end, was almost resurgent in terms of energy as he put together a first week that impressed many fans. Often blasting foes back with his explosive tachiai, he was up there with the leaders for a spell, 7-2 after Day 9, before the years finally caught him and the home stretch saw him win just two more.

Away from the dohyo proper, but of importance to EU-based fans of sumo, was the decision of a French-run Web site, which had previously showed free reruns of bouts, to start charging an undetermined members fee to view the same. It’s an odd concept, given the NHK origins of the sumo broadcast. It will interesting to see the reaction of the Sumo Association and NHK, especially in light of the recent suspended sentence handed out in Kyoto to a Japanese man found guilty of distributing previously aired TV footage.

Whatever the response, if any, of Japan’s national broadcaster may be, the situation for sumo fans in Europe and much of the world remains dire. Thanks in part to Japanese residents stateside, fans of sumo in the U.S. have various satellite options through which they can enjoy the sport, but at present it is understood the Europeans have no such options, as Eurosport has removed sumo from its programming in recent months.

The market is there; question is, how is going to deliver the product?