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Natsu Batsu signals changing times

by Mark Buckton

Few sports fans in Japan will be unaware that yokozuna Hakuho recently walked away from the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament at the Ryogoku Kokugikan having claimed his 14th career Emperor’s Cup with his 6th perfect 15-0 finish. 

That he did so after having decided to wear a golden mawashi over the final weekend of action would have raised the eyebrows of a few relatively new to the sport. Even those somewhat longer in the tooth were no doubt a little surprised until it was made apparent this was the yokozuna’s own way of showing respect to a man whose record of 14 top-flight trophies he had now equaled — former grand champion of the late Showa Era rekishi Wajima Hiroshi

In doing so, however, Hakuho found himself facing something of a “damned if you won and damned if you didn’t” conundrum with fans in some quarters. Now the best rikishi by a country mile, the Mongolian is being accused of being boring — apparently for winning with such ease that his bouts may at times appear overly one-sided. But when he loses the traditionalists berate a yokozuna defeated by a lower ranker. Many of those making the claims of his sumo being boring are of the mindset that the sport needs Asashoryu to return to make things interesting again. Ironically, very few seem to recall the 2005-2006 period in which Asashoryu himself lost so few bouts and was also on the receiving end of claims that his sheer dominance was yawn-inducing.

Of course, it is more exciting if every basho goes down to the wire, if every tourney needs a play-off between two immensely strong rikishi. But on occasion one man demonstrates such strength in both physical and mental form that his very presence lends weight to the often-heard claim from older fans that many bouts are actually over before they have started.

As did Hakuho in the May 9-23 tournament, so too did Asashoryu dominate both mentally and physically at his prime. Yet, as soon as he found himself top of the heap, Asashoryu started to lose his footing. Unhappy with the power he possessed and the fear he struck into the hearts of opponents well before their match had started, the one-time great started to “reward” his foes with unwarranted, additional slaps once the match was over. His swagger became more pronounced, the manner in which he received his winnings drew, at times justifiable criticism for the exaggerated gestures and stares he employed. Too many times did Asa seem to enjoy sending his opposite number into rows five and six. Compare this to the ending so often seen following a Hakuho victory, the yokozuna actually preventing his foes from falling into the fans.

And life away from the dohyo was no different. While Asa reveled in the limelight, and at times loved the attention paid by the media spotlight, the opposite is true for Hakuho. A married man with children to care for, Hak prefers to keep things private. There are times in which his presence is required at official functions and the like, and he doesn’t mind a pint with the lads at times, but in general this is a man far more socially astute and aware than his predecessor, a man who will one day pass Asashoryu on the all-time rankings chart. 

Among the “also-rans” at Natsu, as predicted pre-basho on Sumo Scribblings, Chiba man Wakakoryu, way down at maegashira 15, came through the 42-man top division on the back of a strong 10-5 performance and will be at his highest-ever rank when the next banzuke is released prior to the July tournament in Nagoya. He was equaled only by a trio of others, one of whom was Baruto, the best performing ozeki, and bettered by just two, Hakuho and Aran (12-3).

All of the ozeki posted 9-6 winning records — bar Baruto (10-5) — to give the conspiracy theorists more ammunition on which to base claims of “back scratching” in the rank. None were noteworthy in the sumo they displayed, however. Despite Baruto reaching the middle weekend with Hakuho in check, he was sent to the clay four times in five days in Week 2 and thereby essentially handed the yusho to Hakuho. That he shone brighter than all the other ozeki may be a sign of good things to come. However, with his honeymoon period now out of the way in the sport’s second rank, he must fight to stave off contentment with the comforts he now enjoys if he is to really push the champ come July.