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Tis the season to be focused

At least for sumo's latest addition to the ozeki ranks!

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

Unlike many sports, the sumo calendar can be predicted months, even years in advance.

The start and finish dates of the six annual tourneys are pretty easy to work out when you know basho almost always start on the closest Sunday to the 10th of the month, and end 15 days later — also on a Sunday.

Periods of intense training and morning practice before each tournament therefore can be similarly predicted with one exception — the training period in the weeks prior to the Hatsu Basho held every January. Thanks to the annual tendency to take the foot off the pedal for a few days over New Year, stables let their rikishi travel to hometowns for varying lengths of time as the old year winds down.

Some of the non-Japanese rikishi head off to Narita, most Japanese-born rikishi spend time with families, but one rikishi known as much for his tenacity and determination on the dohyo during basho as he is for the effort he puts in during training every day, regardless of holidays, is Kisenosato.

At the open-to-the-public practice session in the Ryogoku Kokugikan on the morning of Dec. 23 he was applauded by many in the almost 3,000-strong crowd as he made his way to the dohyo for his first public bouts — in practice or otherwise — since his promotion was announced after the Kyushu Basho in November.

Once atop the dohyo his performance against others at the sport’s second highest rank was mixed. He ended with a 5-win, 4-loss record and had a little trouble against the taller Kotooshu at 202 cm, compared to his own 188 cm, and Baruto at 197 cm. Bouts against the only other Japanese ozeki Kotoshogiku, who stands 180 cm, were one-sided, with Kisenosato literally owning his opponent: Kotoshogiku finished a dismal first such event as ozeki with a 2-win, 7-loss record against others at rank.

Baruto had the most fights in the ozeki ranks, in front of numerous fans, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council and many senior stable masters, including the former yokozuna trio of Taiho, Takanohana and Chiyonofuji. By the end of play the Estonian behemoth had a decent 9-6 record to go home with. Kotooshu ended on 6-4, while one ozeki noticeable by his absence atop the dohyo was Harumafuji.

For over an hour the Mongolian stood to one side doing little more than acknowledging fellow rikishi, working through a few leg lifts, and ignoring calls from fans to get out there and wrestle against others at the same rank.

And then there was Hakuho. Entering earlier than he has in the past, Hakuho surprised many by climbing onto the dohyo while the upper maegashira rikishi of the makunouchi division were still doing their thing. More often than not, to date he has reserved his efforts for bouts against the ozeki and sanyaku rikishi.

The lower ranking “beneficiaries” of his efforts were primarily Wakakoyu, a new komusubi, and Takayasu at maegashira 3 — just 21 years of age. Obviously testing out two rikishi he has all but the briefest of experience against — he has only ever met Wakakoyu once during a tournament, never Takayasu — the yokozuna finished with 13 win, 2 loss record.

Most surprisingly he never again entered the fray, opting not to go against any of the ozeki, something that probably disappointed more than a few folks in the crowd.

One to watch is Chiyotairyu, the youngster who just turned 23 from Kokonoe Beya. He will be entering his fifth tournament in January, already a sekitori in low juryo. Thanks to a rule enabling former university rikishi to enter from the makushita division, his rise to the second division has been so rapid that he is still unable to tie a mage, the traditional sumo hairstyle seen atop almost all rikishi.

The hairstyle will come over time. His rise in the rankings is a definite possibility, given his showing on the 23rd. Whether or not he, like Wakakoyu and Takayasu, will one day be afforded the attention of the yokozuna remains to be seen.

The next open practice session will likely take place in Golden Week, ahead of the Summer Tournament. Watch this space for details.