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Hakuho remains on course to challenge the all-time greats

by Mark Buckton

In the month he turned 24 years of age, Yokozuna Hakuho Sho will leave the city of Osaka, site of the March Haru Basho, an Emperor’s Cup winner for the 10th time.

Already two ahead of fellow yokozuna Asashoryu Akinori at a comparable age, Hakuho is now on track to finish in the top five all-time yusho winners if he remains relatively injury free and can keep going until around his 30th birthday. If his career goes beyond that age, there looks to be little on the horizon preventing him one day surpassing the 32 titles claimed by former yokozuna Taiho Koki, darling of the sport through much of the 1960s.

At present, looking at the age factor, in the sport’s elite just Takanohana (14 by the time he was 24), and Taiho (13 by the same time) outshine the young man from Ulan Bator. Even Kitanoumi (eight at 24) and Chiyonofuji, a late starter who won his first championship just before his 26th birthday, both legends in the modern game, rank behind Hakuho.

Once again defeating Asashoryu though, as he did in January in regulation bouts, Hakuho posted a 15-0 perfect zensho yusho — his third to date — and a number likely to be topped another couple of times in the present year as this yokozuna is getting noticeably better, basho on basho.

Away from the top two, if March, 2009 is to be remembered for anything else, it will be the mediocrity of so many others. From the senior yokozuna Asashoryu who finished with a weak 11-4, through the ozeki; just the two non-Japanese of Harumafuji and Kotooshu managed double figures in the sanyaku part of the top division — and only then by defeating fellow Japanese ozeki Kaio and Chiyotaikai on the final day.

Kaio, as has become the norm in the past few years scraped together his kachikoshi eight wins against the rank and filers, seemed to deem that quite enough and then went on to post a pitiful 1-5 record against his fellow ozeki and yokozuna in the second week.

Comments on the timing of his retirement were less whispered and more demanded in some segments of the crowd in the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, and online many fans of the sport, are now screaming for the five-time yusho winner to call it a day and walk into the sumo sunset.

Yet again finishing lower than the pre-requisite ozeki 10 wins, for the 28th time in what was his 52nd ozeki tournament, the Fukuoka native is in danger of being remembered more for besmirching the rank he has called home for the better part of a decade than having future generations view him as a magnificent wrestler unlucky to never make it to the top rank.

Chiyotaikai, meanwhile, although finishing with a dismal 2-13 record down in Osaka, is perhaps an ozeki worth a dollop more respect than his Kaio-like records would indicate in recent years. Mid-basho he made a comment in which he essentially equated the need to get out there and give it his all before the fans to being a man. This is something so many ozeki over the past few decades would have done well to bear in mind given the tendency to announce a previously unknown injury or the flare up of an existing ailment following a few bad days, and to pull out, leaving ticket-holders disappointed at a missed chance to see their heroes.

Not only did he stay in the tournament until Day 15 giving it his all, along the way Chiyotaikai even earned himself the unenviable record of worst performance by an ozeki in the post-WWII era.

Bizarrely, on the day Taikai was earning the “worst ever” label in his last bout against fellow ozeki Kotooshu of Sadogatake Beya, one English-language NHK commentator announced, that he would like to hit the ozeki with a baseball bat (for his performance and for staying in the basho)! A pun on the surface perhaps, but given the mid-2007 hazing death of a junior rikishi at Tokitsukaze Beya in which use of a baseball bat has been alleged, and the recent court cases surrounding the actions that led to his death, this is a slip of the tongue that those employed by the national broadcaster should try to avoid in the future.

Goeido, in his return to his hometown, and lauded here pre-tourney as one to watch ended with an admirable 9-6 record and should see promotion to sekiwake come his way when the next banzuke ranking sheet is released prior to the May basho in Tokyo.

The other sanyaku man deemed worthy of keeping the proverbial eye on here in Sumo Scribblings — Kisenosato — obviously didn’t read the column, and turned in a dismal 5-10 report card come the final day. Once again he will be demoted to the rank and file although the lack of gumption shown by many upper-maegashira this tournament could result in his fall being cushioned somewhat with a slot in komusubi.

Exactly where Kisenosato ends up depends largely on the promotion of Homasho who went 11-4 at maegashira 7. Had he won 12, he would be a shoe-in for komusubi alongside Kakuryu (10-5 at maegashira 1 in Osaka), but several rikishi finishing above him could delay an appearance in sanyaku for the time being although he will get there one day in the not too distant future.