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Natsu beckons as Hakuho and Asashoryu prepare to go head-to-head

by Mark Buckton

In the fortnight ahead of the annual Natsu Summer Basho, there is always something of a lull in the sumo world.

The springtime tours are over, and with Natsu and the warmer, humid months of summer beckoning, the only thing to do is train to get in shape for the upcoming tournament. This, many of the rikishi in the top flight set achieving about roughly two to three weeks ahead of the first day of action, and while it permits those close enough to Tokyo the chance to see the fighters in their home setting during morning practice, with the exception of a single day of public practice on April 29, little else has been heard of many of the rikishi.

Once the banzuke ranking sheet has been released ahead of the basho, all the rikishi know at which position they will be fighting. Personal targets are set — be it with one eye on halting a slide down the ranks for some, or continuing on an upward path for others.

Most, regardless of rank or exact placement in the six divisions, will be looking for the bare minimum kachikoshi winning record to secure promotion; all bar the two men at the top of the pile that is — the yokozuna pair of Hakuho and Asashoryu who can go no further, can never be demoted and must always look at fighting for pride and to uphold the honor of the rank.

Both have a title to their name already this year, so with Natsu the third of six held annually, one will be looking to stick his nose in front — at least for 2009. At present the wise money would be on Hakuho. Although he did suffer a couple of defeats in the April 29th open-to-the-general-public yokozuna soken at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, in those he won he did so with such dominance that at times he left his opponents looking as if they belonged to another division entirely. He is thought to be suffering from the effects of a cold right now, but when a young man of such conviction gets into the ring, it is highly unlikely he will hold that up as an excuse should he lose one or two.

Asashoryu, meanwhile, a man who has made the sniffles something of a tradition pre-tourney in the past few years, went undefeated in the public training session to the approval of the welcoming crowd, but little reliable information has been heard regarding his training since. He is still in the position of controlling his own destiny and having to prove himself against Hakuho, pretender to his own crown of early-21st century sumo dominating force, and the younger man’s better record at a comparable time in his own career indicates this is a battle unlikely to end anytime soon.

That said, Asashoryu has silenced many of his more outspoken critics since his return to the ring in late 2007, after a period of suspension, but talk has emerged in the domestic press of his marriage being on the rocks. How this will affect his performance come Sunday and down the stretch is as of yet anyone’s guess, but for such a committed family man, the 15 days of action that culminates on May 25 could prove a little too much should the tales of an imminent break-up be true.

Looking to get back into contention for a title, and ranked just below the two yokozuna will be Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu. As one of only two ozeki with a real future at the rank — the other being Harumafuji — and the only man bar the Mongolian duo to actually walk away with the Emperor’s Cup in the past three-and-a-half-years, the 203-cm giant announced his impending marriage during Golden Week and so will be wanting to do well for his bride-to-be. A dark horse given his lackluster run of 9-6, 8-7, 8-7, 10-5, 10-5 since his May, 2008, 14-1 triumph, he will be looking to combine the joy of the moment with the anniversary of his first top flight success so will be one to watch.

Ozeki Harumafuji is another to keep an eye on. He did, of course, turn in a less than impressive kachikoshi 8-7 in his first tournament at the rank in January, and followed it up with a 10-5 in Osaka in March, but he has slowly been putting back together the skills that brought him this far. Notwithstanding his miserable four day run of defeats at the start of the January tournament, the spark that saw him blitzkrieg his foes while at sekiwake seems to be returning and it will only be a matter of time before he is listed as a basho winner.

Lower still, but only just, Goeido came of age in Osaka to great aplomb. Native of the city, he went 9-6 at the rank of komusubi and will be a favorite of many in the Kokugikan during his first basho as a sekiwake where he will be trying to string together a few good basho to be considered worthy of a move up to ozeki in the future. In his current rank he will face many of the top dogs in week one and could even, if Osaka and victory over three ozeki and two sekiwake there is anything to go by, even have a say in where the Emperor’s Cup ends up.