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Sumo’s dohyo starting to level out

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

If Hakuho wins the upcoming Grand Sumo Tournament (May 6-20) it will be the 50th time a Mongolian has won the Emperor’s Cup.

Of the 32 championship portraits currently hanging in the Ryogoku Kokugikan, eight on each of the four main sides, none are of Japanese sekitori, and currently all, bar one, are Mongolian.

That lone exception is ozeki Kotooshu of Sadogatake Beya, the Bulgarian national whose May 2008 yusho broke a run of 13 consecutive wins for the Mongolians.

This Sunday, that huge-framed 80-kg image of Kotooshu will be joined in the rafters by another image of exactly the same size and weight, that of fellow European ozeki Baruto of Onoe Beya. The Estonian won his first basho of 2012 back in January and broke another run of 20 consecutive titles by Mongolian fighters since Kotooshu’s victory.

In winning this year’s Hatsu Basho, Baruto gave himself a shot at yokozuna promotion in the March Haru Basho, but four losses in the last five days dashed any hopes of achieving that goal.

His missed first opportunity to take yokozuna promotion is, however, more than likely a mere blip in his trip to the top. Hakuho also progressed to the rank of grand champion after one failed attempt as a yusho winner, having to wait until he secured promotion the second time round a year later.

Indeed, it was Hakuho’s eventual dethroning of Asashoryu in 2007, when the rikishi turned soccer player was suspended, that confirmed Mongolian dominance for the then foreseeable future.

That dominance is now on the wane.

Better performances of late by all those now occupying the ozeki ranks — two Japanese, two Mongolians (including the recently promoted Kakuryu) and, of course, Kotooshu and Baruto — does seem to indicate that the dohyo is leveling out somewhat, slowly perhaps, but leveling out all the same.

Statistically, in terms of Emperor’s Cups won, it is still the Mongolian men who dominate. And while it looks just a matter of time until Kakuryu, the three-time runner-up and newest addition to the ozeki ranks, wins his first Emperor’s Cup, the recent yokozuna open practice at the Kokugikan, and Hakuho’s less-than-stellar performance, could indicate a much more even playing field in the months ahead.

It can be argued that not since Takanohana in the 1990s has the sport seen such a grand champion in terms of quality sumo and numbers. But Hakuho is getting older. The ozeki, as they should, are having more of an impact on the title race now that the deadwood of Kaio and Chiyotaikai have moved upstairs into oyakata posts — all of which makes for better tourneys and increased interest all-round.

Ponder the stats: In 2009 Hakuho lost four bouts of 90 throughout the year, a figure repeated in 2010. In 2011, with one basho fewer, due to the cancellation of the March tournament in Osaka, that number had increased to 11 defeats in 75 bouts — all but one of those defeats in matches with today’s crop of six ozeki.

Couple this to Hakuho turning in a rather disappointing 8-4 scorecard following the April 29 open-to-the-public practice session held at the main stadium in Ryogoku — with two of his four defeats coming against Kotooshu, the others given up to Kisenosato and Baruto — and the signs are now there for the aforementioned leveling.

There are, of course, still two or three more years of full-on title contention left in the current king of sumo, and Hakuho will probably eventually surpass Taiho’s 32-yusho record.

But will the large Mongolian contingent in sumo continue to dominate? Kakuryu and Harumafuji are fantastic rikishi, when they’re on form, and could eke out a couple of yusho each over the next few years, but currently there are no fellow Mongols ready to do battle in or anywhere near the top division.

Instead, for Hakuho, Natsu 2012 is looking far less the walk in the park it has been over the past six years. On the horizon, he’s got Japanese-born Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku looking in fine fettle, Baruto as a clear and present danger, and Kotooshu suddenly showing some oomph in his practice-session belt battles.

It would, however, still be a fool who bets his hard earned yen against the yokozuna not taking his 23rd yusho come May 20. So, for me, I’m looking forward to see Hak take it, but not without a fight from the Euro boys.