FUKUOKA – A night after winning his first championship in four meets, yokozuna Hakuho was only beginning to savor the sweet taste of victory.
Hakuho, who won the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament for the sixth time in a row with his first title since the Spring basho in March, went alone into fifth on the all-time list with his 23rd career championship.
“It’s my first Emperor’s Cup in awhile; I felt anew the joy of winning a title,” a relaxed-looking Hakuho said at a press conference held Monday.
The 27-year-old Mongolian had the weight lifted from his shoulders as the sole yokozuna during the Kyushu meet, where two yokozuna appeared on the east and west wings for the first time in 16 tournaments.
But Hakuho, who impressed with a 14-1 record, was also keenly aware of his position as the upperclassman of Harumafuji, who finished the Kyushu meet with an unflattering 9-6 mark in his yokozuna debut.
“I was conscious (of being the senior yokozuna), and I pushed myself to switch gears mentally,” said Hakuho, who won only two of the year’s six tournaments. “I feel that wasn’t quite enough.”
Even so, Hakuho surpassed former yokozuna Takanohana for title victories on the all-time list. “My honest feeling is I’d like to match former yokozuna pair Kitanoumi and Asashoryu with 24 and 25 titles as quickly as I can,” he said.
Despite Harumafuji’s sudden meltdown in which he lost his last five bouts in Kyushu, Hakuho believes his countryman will rebound once he remembers what got him to sumo’s top rank in the first place.
“In his own way, he made it through while dealing with the pressure. I think in future tournaments, he’ll remember the spirit and mentality he had when he was aiming to become yokozuna,” Hakuho said.
Harumafuji under fire
With the dust barely settled after newly promoted yokozuna Harumafuji’s debacle in Kyushu, sumo’s top council is already calling for his head.
The Japan Sumo Association’s Yokozuna Deliberation Council held a meeting at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan on Monday, and their verdict was unanimous: Harumafuji is not cutting the mustard at sumo’s highest rank, which could be grounds for forced early retirement.
“As a yokozuna, you at least have to be able to get double digits wins, or you don’t qualify,” said Takuhiko Tsuruta, who heads the JSA’s advisory panel.
Harumafuji suffered his first defeat on the second day of the 15-day Kyushu meet, and lost his last five bouts to finish with a subpar 9-6 record.
The consecutive string of losses, in fact, was the worst ever by a new yokozuna since grand champions have been reflected in the sumo rankings, dating back to May 1890.
Tsuruta even went as far as to say that the deliberation council might have jumped the gun on recommending him for promotion.
“His poor performance leaves us with the feeling that we might have promoted him too quickly,” Tsuruta said. “We are probably responsible, but it is disappointing that he was unable to respond to expectations.”
Harumafuji, who relies heavily on his speed due to his relatively small stature compared with other wrestlers in sumo’s top division, came into the Kyushu meet on cloud nine following his promotion after winning the two previous meets with perfect 15-0 marks.
Kabuki actor Sawamura Tanosuke, who is a member of the deliberation panel, hinted that Harumafuji could be forced to retire, if he is unable to get at least 10 wins at the New Year meet in January. “That would mean retirement,” Sawamura said bluntly.
Tsuruta said the council, so far, has not decided to take any measures based on traditional rules in sumo against the embattled yokozuna, such as warnings and recommendations for early retirement.
Hakuho, who won his first title in four meets with a 14-1 mark, is not helping Harumafuji’s cause. “Unless a strong wrestler steps up, things only get easier for Hakuho. There is no sense of urgency,” Tsuruta said.
Aside from Hakuho, seven wrestlers, including ozeki Kisenosato sekiwake Goeido and five rank-and-filers, had better marks than Harumafuji in Kyushu.