Troubled yokozuna Asashoryu marked his eagerly anticipated return to the raised ring with an enthralling opening-day win over komusubi Kisenosato at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament on Sunday.
Roared on by the majority of fans at Ryogoku Kokugikan, the 22-time Emperor’s Cup winner regrouped after a nervous start to bulldoze Kisenosato up against the straw bales and stun his crimson-faced opponent with a pair of meaty blows to the face.
Victory helped ease some of the pressure on the yokozuna to put on a strong showing at the 15-day meet after he missed part or all of the previous three tournaments through injury.
Asashoryu is facing calls to bow out of Japan’s ancient sport if he underperforms here and needs to get back to his fearsome best to convince sumo’s hierarchy that as a grand champion he still has plenty left in the tank.
Yokozuna legend Takanohana once sat out seven complete tournaments in succession while other former grand champions Kashiwado, Kitanoumi and Musashimaru have all missed six straight.
But Asashoryu is under extra strain because of run-ins with sumo officialdom for a catalog of misdemeanors both on and off the ring.
In the day’s other key bouts, Asashoryu’s compatriot and yokozuna rival Hakuho also made a winning start, but Harumafuji suffered an upset on his debut at sumo’s second rank of ozeki.
Hakuho began his bid to win a fourth straight meet for the first time in his career with a routine win over komusubi Toyonoshima in the day’s final bout.
But Harumafuji, under pressure to prove his stellar showing in Kyushu last November was no fluke, got lost at the charge and the wrestler formerly known as Ama was quickly shunted out from behind by second-ranked maegashira Yoshikaze.
Hakuho defeated Harumafuji (then called Ama) in a championship playoff in Kyushu after the two tied with 13-2 win-loss records.
Ozeki wrestlers Kaio, Kotooshu, Chiyotaikai all got off on the right foot but Kotomitsuki joined Harumafuji on the casualty list after he was overpowered by sekiwake Aminishiki.
Kaio quickly took control of his bout against second-ranked Miyabiyama and marched him out from behind for the first of eight wins he needs to avoid demotion. Battle-weary Kaio is looking to retain his ozeki status for a record 12th time.
Bulgarian grappler Kotooshu also won comfortably, muscling out No. 1 maegashira Kyokutenho and Chiyotaikai followed suit by flooring Kotoshogiku with a thrust-and-drag technique.
At sumo’s third rank of sekiwake, Estonian giant Baruto made a winning start after easily seeing off third-ranked Takekaze.