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A look back at sumo in 2008, before heading heading into 2009

by Mark Buckton

For many sumo fans looking back at 2008, it will be a year of scandal with yaocho (match-fixing) allegations involving Yokozuna Asashoryu, and also the unfinished case surrounding the death of a young rikishi in mid-2007, still making their way through the infamously slow court system.

While a part of the case surrounding former Tokitaizan’s beating death has been resolved — the three rikishi involved each already being sentenced — the punishment of Tokitsukaze Oyakata has still not been finalized.

As for the yaocho allegations, the case being brought by certain individuals in the Sumo Association against a Japanese magazine claiming that bout-fixing is rife in the sport will apparently wrap up in late March 2009.

Other legal predicaments facing the sumo world center on drug-test findings ejected makunouchi Hakurozan and Roho for alleged marijuana use along with Wakanoho, the Russian teen whose admitted drug use in spring was discovered by police and led to subsequent testing for the drug by the Nihon Sumo Kyokai.

A side issue to this case brought by the dismissed Russian brothers (Roho and Hakurozan) remains unresolved and largely unreported as they push for reinstatement that few think likely any time soon.

The above legal woes notwithstanding, there are actually a few indications that the clouds are clearing above sumo control in Ryogoku. The first ray of light comes in the shape of new ozeki Harumafuji — the man formerly known as Ama.

As 2009 approaches, the Isegahama ozeki is on a roll that has lifted the spirits in sumo fandom at a time many thought things could get no lower. He came within one playoff bout of winning his first yusho in November and he looks to be on course to contend, or at least be near the top, in all basho for the foreseeable future.

Whether or not he makes it all the way to yokozuna is another matter (I think he will), but if he puts together a string of tournaments like he did in 2007, there will be little to stop him, bar Hakuho.

Unfortunately for Harumafuji, the image of Mongolian and foreign-born rikishi remains at something of a low point, thanks to the Russians using marijuana and Asashoryu’s inability to complete three of the year’s six official tournaments. Perhaps it is only fitting then that most see Asa as being already replaced by fellow yokozuna, and fellow Mongolian, Hakuho — the man who took home four of the Emperor’s Cups this year.

Hak really has come of age in the 18 months since his promotion to the top rank and has already won nine championships. At his current pace there is nothing to stop him surpassing Asashoryu’s 22 career yusho to date, and if he can stay injury-free for another three or four years, perhaps even making a push for the records of former greats Chiyonofuji (31) or Taiho (32)

Sadogatake Beya ozeki Kotooshu, of course, took home the May trophy — his first and hopefully not his last. He does have his flaws, particularly against shorter opponents, but put him in the ring with a headful of confidence and a healthy pair of knees and he can throw anyone.

Top of the shopping list in many fans eyes will be a rejuvenation of the upper ranks of makunouchi, with the added bonus of a couple of strong local lads making a push for regular sanyaku slots.

Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku along with Toyonoshima remain the Japanese hopes for 2009, with little other talent capable of consistently defeating the other sanyaku incumbents on the horizon.

Miyabiyama is one who can cause upsets at times, Aminishiki too. But the Mongolian duo of Hakuho and Harumafuji shouldn’t really have too much trouble laying claim to most of the silverware in ’09.

Off the dohyo, despite the woes of the past couple of years, ticket sales are looking good for January. A new ticketing system has been accepted by most fans, and although it involves a period of lining up one day to be given a ticket to indicate your place in the line the following day — to actually buy the tickets — increasing numbers are booking ahead of time, particularly for the weekends.

For sumo in general, so much rests on the court cases. In the eyes of the general public, sumo will take a particularly harsh beating in March if there is any truth to be found in the claims of yaocho.

At any rate, here’s to a better year for sumo in 2009, and happy holidays to all.