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Harumafuji — sumo’s 70th yokozuna

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

The 2012 Aki Basho will forever be remembered as the tournament at which ozeki Harumafuji, winner of the previous Nagoya Basho with a perfect 15-0 record, mirrored his performance in July and guaranteed his promotion to the rank of yokozuna.

He will be the 70th individual in the 255 years since the sport’s first official ranking sheet was released to hold the title, and will now compete with his predecessor Hakuho to be ranked on the more prestigious eastern side of the banzuke.

In what was perhaps one of the most dominant displays of sumo by an ozeki since the ascent of Hakuho five years ago, or perhaps Takanohana back in 1994, the 28-year-old Mongolian has certainly earned his place atop the roughly 650 men now in sumo, but questions must be asked about how long he will stay there.

As there is no demotion from the rank of yokozuna, and less than stellar performances are rewarded only by talk of when an incumbent should retire, some are already linking the promotion of a 28-year-old to either early, forced retirement or a period of great success.

The former would not be unlike the brief 18-month spell at the top enjoyed by his own, then 30-year-old, stablemaster Asahifuji in 1990, the latter similar to almost 30 championships achieved after Chiyonofuji was promoted in 1881 when he was approaching 27.

Proceedings in the early part of the Aki Basho, though, were slightly marred by the withdrawal on Day 6 of three ozeki: Kotooshu, Baruto, and Kotoshogiku. They all claimed injury, meaning they could no longer continue, although this should have little or no bearing on the eventual decision to promote Harumafuji.

Interestingly, according to one sumo commentator, clear and resounding boos could be heard around the Kokugikan when fans learned of Kotooshu’s previously unannounced absence on Day 6, although NHK tried to pass these noises off as sighs of disappointment.

Four days later, on Day 10, Hakuho fell for the first time to rank-and-filer Tochiozan, who was collecting his first grand-champion scalp. With the remaining ozeki duo of Kakuryu (11-4) and Kisenosato (10-5) both already out of the running by Day 10, the loss made it necessary for Hakuho to switch to a game of catch-up.

Staying unbeaten, the current yokozuna had to beat the 14-0 Harumafuji on the final day in a packed Kokugikan to at least force a play-off, but after a classic bout that lasted almost two minutes, Hakoho was overcome by an underarm throw. Both men hit the dirt in quick succession, but Hakuho went down first. Harumafuji picked himself up, walked back to his side of the dohyo and took the last-ever bow he will take to an opponent as an ozeki.

Notification of his promotion will be delivered to his stable in the next few days, and in Fukuoka, come mid-November, he will have his own ring-entering ceremony, his own tsuna belt only yokozuna are allowed to wear, and even his own ceremonial sword.

For the first time since Asashoryu’s less-than-honorable retirement in early 2010, sumo will have two yokozuna.

Away from the top flight, long-time sekitori Kokkai from Georgia finally called it quits after 12 years in the sport. Along the way he set a record for continual appearances on the dohyo at 882. The highlight of his career was a 2005 victory over former yokozuna Asashoryu. As a former komusubi, he will have his retirement ceremony in the main stadium some time next year at a date yet to be decided.

Down in sandanme, ranked 75th in the division, Egyptian Oosunaarashi had some of the wind taken out of his sails, beaten by a future Japanese sekitori named Hamaguchi on Day 13. His eventual 6-1 record, however, will see a hefty promotion toward the upper echelons of the division, and if he keeps going as he is now, he could find himself a sekitori in juryo by mid-2013. Hamaguchi will likely make the rise faster and is definitely one to watch for fans of homegrown rikishi.