Before the New Year’s Grand Sumo Tournament, most fans would have predicted that Hakuho, the reigning yokozuna, would claim his third successive Emperor’s Cup, and 22nd title overall.
It was not to be.
In what was perhaps the most interesting basho for sumo fans for some years, four of the five ozeki finally stepped up to the plate and did their job properly — they ran neck and neck for much of the basho, gaps only appearing in Week No. 2 as the men in the uppermost ranks went against each other, and in the end, one of them walked off with his first Emperor’s Cup.
That man was Baruto, an Estonian who first arrived on the dohyo in early 2004. At the time entering professional sumo with another young Estonian called Kitaoji who was to return to Estonia homesick before the year was out, Baruto won his first 14 bouts straight in those early years, in the process picking up the jonokuchi and jonidan division titles.
He tore through the four lower divisions, and was promoted to the foot of juryo a little over a year after he entered the sport. Injuries took their toll in his first years as a sekitori, but the past two years have seen him promoted to ozeki, winning 129 bouts compared to just 51 losses, for a basho average of almost 11-4 in that time. Even with a couple of slip-ups in mid-2010, this is an excellent figure, more than worthy of the rank when held up alongside his fellow ozeki, and second only to the yokozuna over the same period.
The pressure is now on, however, to build on his Tokyo title when the sumo association moves down to Osaka in early March for the first tournament there in two years (last year’s basho was cancelled amid a series of scandals over bout fixing).
Should he win again in Osaka, he will be promoted to yokozuna (regardless of comments made by an English-language NHK guest on the final day of the Hatsu Basho who mulled the requisites for promotion). Back-to-back Emperor’s Cups have been the benchmark for the last seven yokozuna over a period of 20 years, and there is no indication anything would be different in the case of Baruto coming up with the goods.
Indeed, many may even call for promotion with a jun-yusho (essentially, runner’s up) promotion if he posts 14-1 and only loses to the eventual winner.
Local lad Kisenosato had a great first tournament at ozeki finishing 11-4, alongside Harumafuji — the latter’s best score since last July when he won the top division title with a 14-1. Even Kotooshu reached double figures with only Kotoshogiku (8-7) in sumo’s second rank failing to chalk up the minimum 10 wins expected of an ozeki.
The upper maegashira ranks took a pounding as a result of the dominance of the ozeki, with arguably the best result in the top half of the non-sanyaku ranks being posted by Myogiryu.
His gutsy 9-6 at maegashira 5 might just be enough to slip him into a vacant komusubi slot on the March banzuke.
Both Takayasu and Wakakoyu generated much interest pre-basho after excellent showings in the December public practice session but failed to perform anywhere near their best, finishing 6-9 and 5-10 respectively.
In juryo the incredibly talented Chiyotairyu of Kokonoe Beya finished his first sekitori basho 13-2, winning the division and guaranteeing a very large promotion in the process. He is so new to professional sumo that his hair is not yet long enough to shape the traditional topknot, which will no doubt cause a few headlines in March.
Along with Ikioi, who at juryo 3 went 10-5 and will be on home turf in Osaka, Chiyotairyu from Tokyo is perhaps the best next generation homegrown talent. When the time comes, the pair could quite possibly the successors to Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku.