OSAKA – When the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament begins on Sunday, a number of compelling storylines are likely to spice things up over the two-week haul at Bodymaker Colosseum in Osaka.
Ozeki Kakuryu makes his maiden run at sumo’s ultimate rank of yokozuna, Harumafuji returns after missing his first full tournament as a yokozuna, and rising star Endo gets his chance to mix it up with the upper echelon of sumo’s elite after being promoted to the highest rank yet, No. 1 maegashira.
Kakuryu overcame a first-day loss to go an outstanding 14-1 at the New Year Basho in January, defeating yokozuna and Mongolian countryman Hakuho on the final day to force a playoff.
Although he lost the playoff as Hakuho triumphed for his 28th career title, Kakuryu’s sterling effort put him on the fast-track for his first yokozuna bid.
One litmus test for consideration for the top rank will be if he can win here with at least 13 victories and capture his first career championship.
In pre-tournament training against Harumafuji and Endo, Kakuryu won most of his bouts with a dominant frontal- charging technique. The keys will be avoiding a bad habit of backpedaling and not losing early on to the lower-ranking wrestlers. He faces Endo on the opening day.
Harumafuji, on the other hand, is anything but ready. Sumo’s other Mongolian-born yokozuna is still recovering from ligament damage in his left ankle, on top of which he is also nursing an injured right elbow. He could be in danger of pulling out again, if he botches it out of the gate.
Harumafuji, who meets Toyonoshima on Sunday before his first clash with Endo on the second day, went just 2-8 against Kakuryu in sparring sessions earlier in the week.
As usual, Hakuho appears favored to win his second consecutive championship. The yokozuna’s 29th career victory would move him within two of Chiyonofuji’s mark and three of the all-time record of 32 held by the late sumo legend Taiho.
Endo’s popularity has shot through the roof since he debuted in the elite makuuchi division in September last year.
It will be intriguing to watch how the 23-year-old fares in his first matchup with a yokozuna, not to mention the three at sumo’s second-highest rank of ozeki.
But if his sparring sessions against Hakuho and Kakuryu were any indication, Endo, his popularity notwithstanding, is still a long way off from challenging the top dogs.
That said, an upset on the first two days against either of those two would cause a sensation.
For Kisenosato, who withdrew on the final day in January as his second yokozuna bid crashed and burned, the first and foremost concern will be earning the eight wins needed to retain his rank.
That could hinge on whether the ozeki’s big toe, which he injured toward the end of the tournament, has healed properly.