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Hak chalks up another, but a rival appears on the horizon

by Mark Buckton

Following an outstanding performance at the recent Kyushu Basho, the sport of sumo has a new prince named Ama. Early this week he will receive an official visit from representatives of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai notifying him of his promotion to the rank of ozeki.

Ama’s promotion comes on the back of a splendid 13-2 record after 15 days of action, coupled with 10-5 and 12-3 performances in July and September. As a benchmark, 33 wins or so, accumulated over three successive tournaments while at the rank of sekiwake are seen as a prerequisite for promotion to ozeki. The quality of the sumo performed is another consideration and in all areas, Ama’s report card this year has been stamped with a well deserved A+.

The fact that he even pushed Hakuho, the sport’s lone yokozuna of note, to the very end, losing only in a play-off on the last day after beating the Grand Champion earlier in the tournament, only added icing to the cake.

Those making the decisions on such promotion were no doubt convinced early on of the 129-kg man’s potential and had already made up their minds well in advance of his appearance on Day 15 for his scheduled match against Estonian Baruto. It was a bout he won in the blink of an eye, against a foe almost 50 kg heavier and 13 cm taller than himself.

Soon after this, he could have claimed his first Emperor’s Cup outright had not Hakuho taken his foe, Kotomitsuki (9-6), by the scruff of the neck and thrown him to the earth like a rag-doll to set up the playoff.

Interestingly, yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki-elect Ama had been pushed to final day by a name few would have seen as capable of challenging for a top flight trophy — Yoshikaze — the Oguruma Beya man ranked as a low maegashira ending with a very impressive 11-4 record, a Fighting Spirit Prize for his efforts, and practically guaranteed promotion.

Other fighters ending with good kachikoshi winning records included Baruto at sekiwake (9-6); Kisenosato at maegashira 4, who should be a shoo-in for komusubi next basho with his 11-4 record; and also former ozeki and recently wed Miyabiyama, who put in a solid 10-5 showing.

Predictably, Goeido suffered in the meat-grinder rank of komusubi and ended with a 5-10 record, three of his wins coming in the last few days against tired opponents.

Down in the second ranking juryo division, another Mongolian — Shotenro of Musashigawa Beya — was making waves. A long-time occupant of the lower divisions, the juryo 9 man won a full dozen of his 15 bouts to claim the division championship.

The above reasons for fresh hope in the makunouchi division, with the majority relatively young wrestlers looking to shake up and reinvigorate all areas of the salaried divisions must, however, be tempered by a dose of reality.

Should ozeki Kaio (1-3-11 in Kyushu) do the honorable and step aside now, a breath of fresh air could blow throughout the upper echelons of the sanyaku ranks, with all those below potentially fighting harder to fill the way blocked by the once great man from Tomozuna Beya.

A retirement announcement remains a decision that only he can make. He has won a grand total of just 43 bouts this year — of 90 possible. In a perfect world, his oyakata would have had word with him, and we’d be looking at the top of sanyaku being dominated by action atop the dohyo. Instead, basho in, basho out, sumo fans are subjected to reports about Kaio’s back, his lack of ability to move forward, or whatever else as reasons to not expect much before each tourney.

It has been over four years since he was literally handed an Emperor’s Cup in the absence of credible yokozuna or ozeki opposition. Add this to a pitiful last three years that have seen him achieve the minimum ozeki standard of double figures (just twice in 18 tournaments), and it is mystifying why he is still hanging on.

The end of 2008 should be about celebration. We have a new, young and very healthy ozeki who looks like he can really challenge Hakuho for the foreseeable future and even fill Asashoryu’s shoes one day, but as with 2007, and even 2006, it is more about wishing for those past their prime to realize it, step aside and let someone else get on with it.