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The next big thing, and one that never quite made it

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

Leading up to the 2011 Kyushu tourney down in Fukuoka, the world of sumo is looking to round off another annus horribilis.

Court cases against the Sumo Association are still going through the notoriously slow legal system, having been brought by several rikishi fired amid the yaocho match fixing scandal. Claims of hazing have resurfaced at Naruto Beya, and ticket sales have suffered all year.

So, is there anything at all to look forward to for sumo fans in the last quest for Emperor’s Cup glory in 2011? Answering that seemingly obvious question with a “no” might be all too tempting and overly negative thanks to one man now riding a wave of success near the top of the sumo pile — Kotoshogiku.

Promoted to the ozeki rank after a very impressive 12-3 record last basho and with an accumulated 33-12 win/loss record since May, the Fukuoka native will receive massive support from the 1.4 million folks in Japan’s 8th largest city when he first steps foot on the dohyo on Sunday Nov. 13 and for the following two weeks of bouts. The media coverage he will be subjected to will likely even exceed that of yokozuna Hakuho. Expectations are high for a local boy to finally make good, and at the very least put in a decent challenge for the Emperor’s Cup.

When then ozeki Tochiazuma*, currently Tamanoi Oyakata, won his third and final championship back in January of 2006, little did anyone know that over five years and 34 tournaments later there would still be no other Japanese name carved onto the little silver plates at the foot of the sports premier trophy.

With the Sadogatake Beya man Kotoshogiku now at ozeki, and as the first Japanese to be promoted anew to the rank in over four years since disgraced former ozeki Kotomitsuki, and after long time ozeki Kaio, another Fukuoka native recently retired, the eyes of a nation of sumo fans will be focused on each and every one of his bouts to some degree. In this regard precedent will only add pressure to the new ozeki; of the five men promoted to the rank in the past decade, all bar one have finished their first tournament in the second rank with double figures — one even winning the basho; that man Tochiazuma again.

For Kotoshogiku to produce a solid double figure basho when everyone will be looking to knock the newbie off his perch will be a great achievement in amongst one of the strongest set of rikishi in the upper ranks in recent years. For him to win the Emperor’s Cup first time out would be a dream, but not one many would wager on — yours truly included. That said, look for him to put in a decent basho, hopefully approaching or right on the double figure mark.

In his shadow of course will be sekiwake and fan favorite Kisenosato who may benefit from the lack of attention in his own quest for ozeki status — something a final day score of 11-4 would ensure, maybe even a 10-5 if he beats the right people. And this is one I would wager on were it legal!

One sekitori — still but only just — who would love to be facing the media attention now being readied for Kotoshogiku is Takamisakari. Often dubbed the clown of sumo, or “Robocop,” for his bizarre movements when psyching himself up prior to a bout, Takamisakari was once the main attention-puller at basho up and down the country. He did flirt on occasion with the sanyaku ranks, making komusubi in 2002 and 2003, but with injuries and age catching up with him the last few years, he has dropped through makunouchi into the second-level juryo division. In Fukuoka he will be fighting from the 10th rank in this 14 rank division. Posting his sixth consecutive losing record this year demotion to the unsalaried makushita division is a very strong possibility, which means he will almost certainly retire. In turn, sumo will lose one of its main characters of the past decade, and no matter how well Kotoshogiku does, the media may be split as to whom to put on the front pages of the sports sections.

* Ozeki Tochiazuma was promoted ‘back’ to ozeki after a single basho as sekiwake on two occasions having been demoted following injury, which caused him to miss or drop out of tournaments. This is one of the privileges of being an ozeki — the chance to use the first tournament at the lower rank of sekiwake to win 10 bouts to secure automatic promotion back to ozeki.

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In news just prior to submission, it was learned that Naruto Oyakata, stable master of Kisenosato and himself facing allegations of physical abuse of his juniors, died on Nov. 7 of acute respiratory failure.