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The dawning of a new era for sumo?

by Mark Buckton

In statistics alone, Asashoryu Akinori may go down as one of the greatest yokozuna of sumo in the modern era, but at the close of the Summer 2009 Grand Sumo Tournament, much of the talk was about when he would retire.

With his performance in the just-completed basho — a below average 12-3 score and only a trio of yusho (wins) in the past two years — Asashoryu is now having to depend on other results to go his way if he wants to reach the level of former Rijicho Kitanoumi, who ranks third place on the all-time list of yusho winners. Asa is currently stalled on 23 titles, with Kitanoumi the winner of 24 in the ’70s and ’80s.

Asashoryu’s fall from grace in sumo, however, coincides with what appears to be the dawning of a new era. It is an era that is likely to center, yet again, on two Mongolians, only this time, the name Asashoryu does not feature. The older of the two yokozuna could still perhaps continue to prowl, picking up the occasional championship or featuring in the yusho race by sometimes knocking off the contenders, but the days of this alpha male would appear to numbered.

The new kids on the block looking to dethrone the ailing Asashoryu once and for all are Hakuho and Harumafuji.

Hakuho, as regular readers will be aware, has already crept up to double digits in terms of yusho, despite being a yokozuna for just a dozen tournaments. Ozeki Harumafuji, in capturing his first Emperor’s Cup in a dramatic play-off on Sunday’s final day of the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, has now made him the man Hakuho has to beat.

Harumafuji, returning to the outstanding form he saw as a sekiwake that helped him clinch a spot in the ozeki ranks, looked strong throughout the first week, as did former sekiwake Kisenosato.

The two met on Day 11 in an early title-decider with a much anticipated match sent to something of an anticlimactic finish. Harumafuji avoided the main tachiai initial clash, sidestepped, twisted around and left the 167 kg Naruto Beya man flat on his face in the dirt.

To his credit, though, this humiliation did not break Kisenosato (maegashira 4). He remained in the yusho race until the final day when a relatively easy victory over resurgent komusubi Kakuryu (9-6) meant he had to return to the changing room and wait. Should Harumafuji lose his match with Kotooshu, and the same fate befall Hakuho in his own battle with Asashoryu, Kise would have been involved in his first-ever makunouchi yusho play-off. In the end, that outcome was not to be, and Kisenosato had to make do with a brilliant 13-2 record and his third Fighting Spirit Prize to date.

When Harumafuji met Hakuho in his Day 13 regulation bout, it was clear he had saved the best for last. Putting on a magnificent performance that ran well over a minute in a sport known for being done and dusted in mere seconds, Harumafuji was defeated by a rare leg sweep technique employed by the yokozuna.

The next day, when the ozeki defeated Asashoryu with such dominating force as to see the one-time sumo power house helped away from the ring by his attendants, it was evident his time had come. Aided by Hakuho’s defeat at the hands of Bulgarian Kotooshu the same day, Harumafuji was within sight of his first top-flight trophy in sumo to add to jonokuchi, sandanme and juryo division titles.

Shortly after the last bout ended at 6 p.m. on Day 14, several of those without tickets started to form a line outside the ticket office to secure the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the final day of action. Over 14 hours later when the ticket office finally opened, the line stretched around the side of the stadium.

So, when both Hakuho and Harumafuji won on Day 15, the former convincingly over his one-time nemesis, and Harumafuji himself over Kotooshu (9-6), thanks to a well executed neck throw against a much taller opponent, identical 14-1 scores meant the time had come for a play-off.

Reminiscent of their Day 13 bout, with Harumafuji keeping low and trying to keep Hakuho off his belt. The yokozuna was thrown off balance just long enough to touch down, and thus forfeit the match, making Harumafuji the third Mongolian to win an Emperor’s Cup; the eighth non-Japanese to do so.

In only his third basho at rank, Harumafuji will have his name carved in a plaque at the base of the solid silver trophy, and he is now within reach of yokozuna promotion should he be able to repeat the feat in Nagoya in July.

While the chance to become only the 70th yokozuna in sumo’s recorded 252 years of history has arrived, Nagoya is not a place in which Harumafuji has performed well over the years. He has suffered far more makekoshi (losing records) than kachikoshi (winning records) during his sekitori-era visits to the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, so he will have to up his game significantly this year to walk away with his second consecutive yusho.

If he achieves this, though, his victory could well come at a cost — the hastened retirement of his friend and mentor, Asashoryu.