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Bringing the focus back to the rikishi and sumo

by Mark Buckton

On July 25, yokozuna Hakuho, barring major injury, or another basho-cancelling scandal, will mount the dohyo at around 5:45pm to be presented with his 20th Emperor’s Cup to date.

Expect a humble response from the best the modern game has produced. No Asashoryu-esque fist-pumps or waves to the crowd. This is the quintessential sumo champ, the man sumo has been craving since the retirement of Takanohana almost a decade ago. Hak, as he is known to the sumo-following community, will one day — and you can quote me on this in the future — become the most successful yokozuna the sport has ever seen. We are, therefore, watching history in the making.

At a similar age the career of the Mongolian yokozuna so many loved to hate — Asashoryu — had peaked and was on the downward slope. Asa was great when he had no real opposition at rank or from the ozeki gang, but Hak, even with a strong group of ozeki chasers, still manages to win basho after basho. Expect little different in Nagoya.

The excitement for many, though, will be found lower down and could, if they get their act together see the ozeki pair of Harumafuji and Baruto give the champ a run for his money.

Mongolian ozeki Harumafuji should be in fine fettle once the gates open even if he did blow hot and cold earlier in the year. This is a man of incredible talent and with the proven ability to beat any yokozuna on his day. Hopefully he will avoid injury for long enough to, at the very least push Hak to the wire. Baruto is another big name to keep an eye on. He is a future grand champion if steady performances can be put back to back. (Incidentally, I first interviewed him not long after he first made it to sekitori-hood back in 2006.)

At sekiwake, Japanese rikishi Kotoshogiku, should he win 12, should be promoted to ozeki and will undoubtedly then be lauded as the (domestic) people’s champ. Perhaps this will allow Kaio to retire from the second highest rank he seems to be clinging to merely to make sure the locals are represented at ozeki.

Another interesting commodity should be Tochinoshin at komusubi — his third time at rank — but with this one the result of an excellent 12-3 in May. The Georgian looks like he has matured and is ready for a regular place in sanyaku. Although his lateral skills could use some work, he’s developed into a solid all-round fighter. Strength-wise he is a bear of a man and just needs to overcome some issues with self-confidence against certain foes to really peak. Nagoya will hopefully see him hit double figures once more.

And where are the local lads of tomorrow to be found?

There are, fortunately, several indications that Japanese rikishi down in the lower divisions will now get their 15 minutes of fame — a long time in sumo when the average fight time is much less than that. Keep an eye on Chiyozakura at makushita 2, after just over a year in the sport on the verge of sekitori-hood!

Higher, Goeido and Okinoumi are names to watch, and both are improving steadily in makunouchi even if Okinoumi did have a makekoshi-losing basho in May.

At the foot of the division, however, one Japanese fighter to keep your eye on in Nagoya is Fujiazuma as he is now called. Hailing from Tokyo’s Adachi-ku, he was allowed to join the training at his local Tamanoi Beya when he was a local junior high school boy.

Fujiazuma has had a tough eight-year passage through the lower divisions but now, at age 24, he has made it to the top flight. Look for touches of former ozeki Tochiazuma, his stable master, in his fighting — upper body strength prevailing, elbows in close, a low stance and insistence on forward-moving sumo. To rise in the ranks, he will have to really improve his game, but this is a boy with one of the best mentors in sumo and as a neighbor, my fingers are crossed for Nagoya 2011 for the lad.

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Recently, there have been few “nice” stories about sumo, so I would like to share one personal account from a few years ago. Soon after my son’s birth, a heart problem was detected. He needed two operations in his first three months of life — and as a result he has now fully recovered. At the time, I was covering sumo, and the Baruto interview mentioned above took place in Mihogaseki Beya (he later moved to Onoe). A casual chat ensued after the interview, and mention of my son resulted in Baruto, on the spot, making five tegata (handprints). Four were to be sold so that I might make money to spend on toys for similarly affected kids at a Tokyo hospital. One was kept for my own son and will be presented to him when he is old enough to understand what it is. This is a story Baruto never sought recognition for, but it is one that supporters of the sport can take comfort in.