|

Is ozeki Baruto the man to watch?

by Mark Buckton

As is often the case when a sekiwake is promoted to ozeki, talk centers on him going just that little bit further in his career and making it all the way to yokozuna.

Given the current requirement for such a promotion — back-to-back yusho victories at the rank of ozeki — there are very few who make it that far. One stat used in the not too distant past supposed that of every 600 men who entered the sport, only one would eventually make it to the top of the pyramid.

In the immediate future, (read: until at least the end of 2010, and likely into 2011 and perhaps further) Baruto will not become that one in 600 statistic.

Immensely strong, hugely personable and an extremely competent rikishi, Baruto still lacks the killer instinct to make a solid push for yokozuna. At the Natsu Basho, set for the fortnight between the 9th and the 23rd, he will most likely only be looking to reach double figures.

All the attention at the Kokugikan will be focused on the Estonian giant each time he enters the dohyo, and this will all add up to a degree of pressure he has never faced before. As an ozeki, he is now expected to win every fight, to push the lone yokozuna all the way to the finish line. Also, as a non-Japanese new kid on the ozeki block, his every move will be watched by eyes from not one, but two nations.

Only the very optimistic, or those new to sumo, would wager that he will walk away with the Emperor’s Cup after his first basho at rank. However, only the naive would predict a career that fails to pull in any silverware at all, for this is a man destined to be a solid, effective ozeki for years to come if he can manage to maintain his health.

Baruto did take part in the April 29 Yokozuna Souken at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, as did most of the upper rankers and almost all of those in the lower makunouchi and juryo divisions. Not too long after appearing from the changing rooms, he was up on the dohyo, going head to head against a range of rikishi of a slightly lower rank.

Notably, he was “schooled” throughout the morning by (current) sekiwake Kisenosato of Naruto Beya, a man he has only lost to twice in 11 career meets to date. More losses by way of his counterparts in the second rank and the yokozuna (1-2) added up to an overall rather unimpressive win 10, lose 10 record for the supposed next big thing — hardly the stuff of a viable yusho contender.

Yokozuna Hakuho, the man who they have all got to beat, fared better but is still in warm-up mode.

Unlike his subordinates, Hak has proven time and time again he has what it takes to knuckle down and focus come the opening bell regardless of pre-basho training, and there won’t be many predicting that he fails to walk away with championship number 14. He won his first just 24 tournaments ago — in May of 2006, and in that time missed one entire tournament to injury. Over the same period he went down to a better man on the day just 44 times — in a total of 345 competitive bouts. Sixteen of those defeats came in the period before he won his second yusho, almost a year after the first. This then is a man getting better each time he mounts the fighting area.

One other rikishi perhaps worthy of keeping an eye on this Natsu Basho is Wakakoyu, down at maegashira 15. It is unlikely the 26 year old will ever make it to the sanyaku ranks as he has been in sumo for over a decade bobbing up and down the unsalaried divisions for much of that time. The past two years have seen him flirt with juryo, once briefly with makunouchi, and he is now at his highest career rank to date on the back of a trio of kachikoshi winning records. Couple this with his blistering performance last month when he was throwing aside all-comers, and we may be seeing signs of the Chiba native leaving a mark in at least one top-flight basho during his active years. This is something of a norm with one low ranker usually dominating all those around him to remain, numerically at least, in the title hunt till the final weekend.

Watch this space.