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Rising giants and falling champs in the autumn basho

by Mark Buckton

The Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament started under a cloud, with three Russian wrestlers freshly kicked out of the sport for drug use, but by the final bouts on Sunday sumo was enjoying clearer skies. With Musashigawa — former yokozuna Mienoumi — at the helm of the sport, the future looks brighter.

On the opening day of the tournament, the new chairman of the Sumo Association stood atop the dohyo for the first time, faced the fans and the massed ranks of television cameras, and pledged to improve the inner and outer workings of the nation’s de-facto national sport.

One of the earliest effects of the leadership change was on show daily. Referees and ringside judges began cracking down on matta (false starts). The sloppy tachiai have been slipping into the sport over the past few years, but they slowly made way for the proper two-hands-down version demanded by the sport’s rules and, as a result, the number of sidestepping, slap-down victories took a nosedive.

By the end of the tourney the 69th Grand Champion, Hakuho, was holding his eighth Emperor’s Cup after a solid 14-1 performance, suffering only a Day 5 defeat to Japanese rikishi Kisenosato.

Fellow yokozuna Asashoryu (5-5-5), so long the undisputed top dog in the sport, withdrew on Day 10, citing a painful elbow. With four defeats in the first nine days (his Day 10 defeat came by default when he failed to show), it was the first time he has lost so many bouts so early on since July 2003 when still a new yokozuna.

Rumors of his possible retirement circulated but faded as quickly as they emerged. For now, it looks as though he will be resting and hoping to be back in form for the November tournament in Fukuoka. If he makes it, a decent 12-3 or more will be vital if he is to keep the retirement whispers from turning into shouts.

Asashoryu has won just one basho since the middle of 2007. In the same period, his fellow yokozuna has bagged four, meaning that even the most ardent of Asa’s fans have admitted he is on a downward slope.

A Mongolian with rising fortunes is Ama. The feisty sekiwake has been near the top of makunouchi for close to four years now, but he has really come into form recently. His 12-3 this time, coupled to a 10-5 showing in Nagoya in July, means that anything above a 10-5 in Fukuoka will almost certainly see him promoted to ozeki for the start of 2009. As one of the division’s lightest men (129 kg), Ama has learned to put his speed to use since his November 2004 makunouchi debut, but he has never shied away from in-your-face, head-on, big-man sumo when needed.

One big man for whom little-man sumo will never be possible is Baruto. At almost 2 meters tall and a whopping 177 kg, the Estonian is a man mountain even by sumo standards. He fought his way back from 2-7 to eke out an unexpected 8-7 winning record in his first outing as a komusubi — a rank sometimes referred to as the “meat grinder” since wrestlers at this level usually start tournaments against the ozeki and yokozuna, and suffer predictable fates.

The two makunouchi Georgians, Tochinoshin and Kokkai, secured last-day winning records to the delight of their flag-waving fans in the stadium, while Osakan rikishi Goeidoo turned it on for the Japanese fans. He finished at 10-5, with defeats to the big names in the last few days killing his hopes of winning, but he ensured that he’ll be fighting the next tournament under a much brighter spotlight — perhaps from the sanyaku ranks.

A division down, much of the pre-tourney chat centered on the 252-kg giant Yamamotoyama of Onoe Beya, and the largest-ever sekitori debutant did not disappoint. A collapse in the home straight meant his initial 8-1 score became a still-admirable 9-6 by the end of the meet.

Yamamotoyama was, however, overshadowed by an up-and-coming Russian named Aran. Fighting out of Mihogaseki Beya in just his second juryo basho, Aran clinched the division title with a 12-3 score that will see him promoted to the top flight. Post-basho chat on the sumo discussion boards has focused on his tendency to win by backward-moving, slap-down sumo — half of his victories came via such a move — and he will need to address this quickly as the men in the sport’s top division will not fall for this trick day after day.