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Nagoya the testing stage once more — just as in 2008

by Mark Buckton

As the long hot summer descends on Japan, and the people of Nagoya prepare for the annual visit of the Japanese Sumo Association, this year’s basho, like that held last year, looks like being make-or-break basho for at least one rikishi in terms of reaching a career high.

Last year it was Kotooshu who was trying to add to his championship victory in May, 2008, and by doing so, being able to secure promotion to the rank of yokozuna — the highest in the sport.

This year we see Harumafuji, an ozeki like Kotooshu, for whom this year’s visit to the central Japanese city carries more significance than ever before, as he attempts to reach the pinnacle that only 69 other men have succeed in doing over the past two and a half centuries of organized sumo.

In the days before the tournament starts on July 11, however, the Japanese papers and TV shows are likely to focus their sumo coverage on the announcement that one-time grand champion power house Asashoryu, who has confirmed divorce proceedings from his wife. The father of two made the sudden announcement on his Internet blog, presumably trying to beat Japanese weekly magazines to the punch.

Turmoil in his private life will only add to the problems surrounding the sport’s senior yokozuna, as he has not won a basho since January of this year. He has also failed to string together a pair of yusho for the better part of three years. The call for his retirement only get louder when you couple this with an ever-increasing string of injuries and the Natsu Basho tournament, which left him flailing as Hakuho and a handful of younger men competed to be called champion.

Hakoho, on the other hand, has not personal issues standing in his way. Cool and forever collected on the dohyo, the younger of the two Mongolian yokozuna is a hot favorite to take the Nagoya crown from his position in the senior-most Eastern side of the banzuke.*

Harumafuji, ranked as the top ozeki on the same banzuke, will be looking to push Hakuho all the way to the final weekend as he sets out on his first shot a promotion to yokozuna. Needing to return from Nagoya clutching the trophy to guarantee that promotion, the relative lightweight is fast surpassing Asashoryu as Hakuho’s main challenger. Should he take the yusho, he will become the third yokozuna from Mongolia.

One foreign rikishi who is making all the wrong waves in terms of the quality of his sumo is Aran. Ranked at a career-high maegashira 1, the one-time resident of Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, is still far too inexperienced to stamp his mark at this level but will, for the first time, see himself going head to head with all the top men in the sport. Hopefully this will lead to him learning a few more techniques than the all-too-common pulling sumo he has become known for. Power-wise he is up there with the strongest in the division, so he might cause a few upsets when going against a few of the older men such as Kaio, Chiyotaikai and Kotomitsuki. Ulimately, Nagoya should be all about learning and using what he learns to improve things in the long term.

Down at maegashira 7, 25-year-old Mongolian sekitori of Tatsunami Beya, Mokonami has finally seen himself promoted to the makunouchi division. Lauded on these pages back in 2007 as one destined for the bright lights of the top flight, a series of injuries held him back for what seemed like an eternity. Come May of this year, however, the injuries had subsided, and his will had developed to such a degree that he put in a solid 11-4 at the head of the second division and secured one of the biggest leaps in modern history.

Kitazakura, at juryo 13, is a man living on borrowed time. As one of the most popular rikishi in the modern game, the gentle giant from Kitanoumi Beya is now back in the salaried ranks after two basho in makushita. Already in his late 30s, he is all but a shadow of the man he once was and needs to bow out gracefully. Look for this as a “dead certainty” should he suffer an eighth loss in Nagoya, as he will not want to be heading back down the banzuke for the September basho in Tokyo.

Should he win more than he loses, though, he may hang on a bit longer and compete in the Aki Basho, but those wanting to see the man known as much for making his own bead designs in his spare time as his sumo, should start thinking of a trip to Aichi.

*For historical reasons the banzuke ranking sheet is divided into eastern and western sides with the position of individuals positioned on the eastern side of the banzuke considered slightly higher than those on the western side.