While the so-called Asashoryu era of complete dominance is a thing of the past, the Hatsu Basho saw the 28-year-old prove there is life in the not-so-old dog yet.
In beating fellow yokozuna Hakuho, a man five years his junior, Asashoryu surprised many and achieved what most thought would be impossible following a 2008 to forget. Winning just one basho last year, a lot of sumo fans and experts were predicting an early retirement. As he has done so often in the past, though, Asashoryu defied predictions, came roaring back (even if his actual performances were less convincing than those in his ’05-’06 heyday) and went into the final weekend ahead of the pack.
In the end, it was down to the wire. His 14-0 record going into the final day meant that he only needed to defeat Hakuho (13-1 before their bout on Day 15) to win outright. Instead, he was thrown to the dirt by his fellow yokozuna and the scores were therefore leveled at 14-1 apiece. In the subsequent playoff, however, he managed to wrap Hak up, force him upright and over the edge to claim his 23rd career yusho, and his first since March 2008.
Eyes welling with tears, Asashoryu made himself presentable in the changing rooms, then returned to the stadium to take in the applause and receive his trophy. He had the added bonus of being presented the Prime Minister’s Trophy by Taro Aso himself. (The oversized silver trophy ended up being a little heavy for Japan’s top politician, and he had to be helped during the presentation by an attendant — to the amusement of all present.)
With the injuries Asashoryu is carrying now resurfacing more often, it will likely be one of his last championships. It is just his third championship in the last 12 basho, but with it, he now moves one ahead of former great Takanohana Koji (22 yusho) and is just one behind ex-Sumo Association head Kitanoumi (24). Only the most optimistic would see him contemplating a challenge on Chiyonofuji’s 31 yusho or the 32 of the greatest yokozuna since World War II — Taiho Koki — a man of Japanese-Ukrainian stock.
Away from the yusho spotlight, boy wonder and newly promoted ozeki Harumafuji was one of a trio of men in the sport’s second tier who managed just eight wins. He did well to reach even that, starting by losing five of his first six bouts.
Tomozuna Beya ozeki Kaio also scraped to eight, winning the requisite number of bouts to let him save his rank. He managed only one victory against men ranked alongside him and above, and that against Chiyotaikai, who in turn secured the magic eight to avoid his own makekoshi losing record by slapping down Goeido on Day 15.
Kotooshu, on the other hand, started impressively by winning eight in the first nine days. He then proceeded to return to his former self — the gangly, ill-at-ease ozeki — losing four of his last six to close 10-5.
Estonian sekiwake Baruto put together nine solid wins and finished 9-6, an identical score to his performance when he debuted at the rank in November last year, although he seemed to lose some steam in the second week. If he can work on his stamina and keep his form, there is nothing stopping him from making the move up to ozeki. (It’s actually a numerical possibility after the next tourney in Osaka if he manages to win 14 or more!)
Particularly lively in the maegashira ranks was 26-year-old Oguruma Beya rikishi, Yoshikaze, despite his 6-9 losing record. The 10 spot promotion to maegashira 2, following his 11-4 record in November, proved too much too soon, but bouts against both yokozuna and all the ozeki should provide him with invaluable experience and make him eager to return to the upper echelons of the maegashira rankings.
Another top-end maegashira in Hatsu Basho, Goeido, 22, will return to the “local wrestler to watch” list for many Japanese, having won 10 and lost just 5 at maegashira 3. He did have a rather poor basho in his komusubi debut in Fukuoka in November 2008, but he should get a second chance in sanyaku when the next banzuke is announced prior to the Haru Basho in Osaka in March.
Down at the foot of the makunouchi division, crowd- and media-favorite Yamamotoyama, a 248-kg native of Saitama Prefecture, made his first appearance in the top flight and had sewn up his first kachikoshi by Day 14, with a victory over juryo man Tosayutaka, by way of a relatively rare kimedashi arm-barring, force-out move. Promotion will follow, as will further media exposure, making the heaviest Japanese ever to perform on the dohyo one to watch in the months ahead.