In the days leading up to the Nov. 11-25 Kyushu Basho in Fukuoka, much of the talk in sumo circles centered on the ozeki trio of Baruto, Kotoshogiku and the forever injured Kotooshu being able to maintain their rank come the January tournament back in Tokyo.
All were kadoban going into the basho and anything less than a winning record would mean demotion down to sekiwake from where they would have to score ten next time out to guarantee a second try at ozeki.
This is not an easy task in the modern game given that so few of the ozeki regularly post the “required” 10 per basho at the best of times.
So, when Estonian Baruto went out on Day 3, injured yet again, and guaranteeing his loss of rank, all eyes turned to the Sadogatake Beya duo Kotoshogiku and Kotooshu.
At the time of Baruto’s departure both were on 2-1 records, but with one of their main roadblocks removed, they eventually went on to score 8-7 and 9-6 respectively.
A rank higher many were focusing on Harumafuji in his debut as a yokozuna. And, although his 32-match winning streak came to an end on Day 2 against Okinoumi, the Mongolian got right back up the next day winning the next eight, before — astonishingly — losing five in succession down the home stretch to wrap his first yokozuna basho with a less than impressive 9-6 record.
His loss on Day 11 to Kotoshogiku raised more than a few eyebrows when, in the next fight, a victory for Hakuho would have essentially seen the new yokozuna out of the title race with four bouts still to fight.
Hakuho, until that point undefeated, subsequently lost his match against ozeki Kotooshu in what was just his ninth loss in 40 career face-offs with the Bulgarian, and only the second time in almost three and a half years!
The title race was still open for both yokozuna. Public interest would still be maintained, tickets sold.
A day later though it was all over for Harumafuji after he lost a battle of the balance against sekiwake Myogiryu (6-9 overall) and by Day 15 when others had dropped away, Hakuho was left alone atop the sumo pile. Taking home his 23rd Emperor’s Cup as a result of his efforts, few will likely bet against him eventually surpassing the 25 yusho benchmark set by fellow Mongolian yokozuna nearly three years ago.
Lower down, largely free of talk of “the overall picture” and the need for both yokozuna to do well, maegashira 10 Ikioi impressed in what was only his third basho in the top flight with a very solid 9-6 come Day 15.
So too did Kokonoe Beya’s Chiyotairyu with a 10-5 record that included wins over Kyokutenho, Toyonoshima and Miyabiyama — all hugely experienced fighters.
After an initial shaky start back in May when he first made it to makunouchi, the 24-year-old pusher-thruster is now really finding his feet, and looking more and more like former Kokonoe ozeki Chiyotaikai each time he takes to the dohyo.
Another man making waves as we round out 2012, is Masunoyama of Chiganoura Beya. Known to be suffering from a heart defect that in laymen’s terms can be described as ‘hole in the heart’, the 171kg, 22-year old rikishi from Chiba has a limited lung capacity meaning that the longer a bout goes the more he finds it difficult to breathe.
Not wanting to plummet down the rankings should he miss a tournament he has chosen to delay what in the long-run is an essential operation, but in doing so is dividing fans. For many the sport is just that — a sport not worthy of risking your health. For others, he is an example of the grit and determination to make it in sumo.
And, with long-time fan fave Takamisakari floundering near the foot of the juryo division, and nearing retirement, Masunoyama is looking a suitable replacement; win or lose, he is always well supported and already has a huge fan base.
He won just five of 15 in Fukuoka, including a tsukiotoshi thrust-down win over Kotoshogiku, and will find himself around mid-makunouchi come January. An operation and subsequent absence as he recovers will take its toll on his rank. However, if he is looking long-term at his career in the upper echelons of sumo, he would do well to adopt the sooner-rather-than-later mantra, still having youth on his side.
Takayasu (5-10), meanwhile, after a great run through juryo in early 2011, and a nice 9-6 debut basho in the top flight, looks more determined than ever to have himself labelled the next “elevator rikishi” by posting alternate winning-losing records for most of the past year with alternating ups and down on the ranking sheet the result.
Once tipped for sanyaku, he pales in comparison to ozeki Kisenosato (10-5), a stablemate and fellow Ibaraki native who, as the only real Japanese challenger for yokozuna, and the only ozeki to post double figures at rank for four consecutive tournaments since Kaio in 2004, will see 2013 his long awaited breakout year.
Kisenosato for yokozuna this time next year! You read it here first!