Even with injury-riddled grand champion Takanohana back on the comeback trail, the smart money says cocky Mongolian ozeki Asashoryu will be the man who rules the roost when the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament kicks off in Tokyo on Sunday.

News photoOzeki Asashoryu (right) is poised for promotion to sumo’s highest rank of yokozuna if he wins the New Year Grand Tournament starting Sunday at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Leaving a trail of destruction in his wake in 2002, the 22-year-old sensation from the land of Ghengis Kahn has propelled himself to within touching distance of promotion to yokozuna at a frightening pace.

And with yokozuna Musashimaru out recovering from wrist surgery and injured ozeki duo Chiyotaikai and Kaio also absent in the Jan. 12-26 meet due to arm injuries, Asashoryu has a golden opportunity to become the first Mongolian to reach the top rung of sumo’s ladder.

The stats: Asashoryu’s first overall victory with 14 wins at the Kyushu tourney in November came just 24 tournaments after his sumo debut at the 1999 New Year basho, equaling Takanohana’s record of the quickest-ever title since the present format of six meets a year was introduced in 1958.

He also finished 2002 with the most wins — 66 from the six tournaments — in the makuuchi division, and the New Year’s title with 13 or more wins will guarantee him a place alongside Takanohana and Musashimaru at sumo’s summit.

Asashoryu has clearly enjoyed the success last year that brought him a top sporting award in Mongolia, not to mention hero status in Ulan Bator on a par with David Beckham.

But the humble, yet ever-smiling ozeki insists promotion to yokozuna is the last thing on his mind.

“I haven’t given it any thought at all really. I just want to produce the kind of sumo that proves I am mentally, technically and physically a top wrestler,” said Asashoryu.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on beleaguered grand champion Takanohana.

Takanohana pulled out of the Kyushu tournament at the eleventh hour fearing his injured right knee would not hold out after aggravating it in the autumn meet, where he impressed with a 12-3 record.

He again made the media play the waiting game before father and stablemaster Futagoyama announced Thursday that he would participate at Ryogoku Kokugikan.

In recent weeks, Takanohana has shown a firm resolve to wrestle in the meet, practicing against wrestlers in the top makuuchi division for the first time in four months. Doubts, however, remain as to whether he is really fit enough to wrestle.

A sumo elder close to Takanohana, who competed for the first time in eight tournaments in the autumn basho, predicted the 22-time Emperor’s Cup winner would decide to return to the ring to avoid tarnishing his image.

“His injury is unlikely to ever fully heal. I don’t think he honestly felt he would be able to get back in shape in just two months,” said the sumo elder, who declined to be named.

“But rather than lose face by missing another tournament he probably thought it would be a better idea to wrestle,” he added.

Takanohana has come under pressure from the Yokozuna Deliberation Council to either fight in the New Year tourney or do the honorable thing and retire.

Futagoyama appeared confident that Takanohana would be able to regain his form in the New Year meet but also said he would urge him to retire if he can not carry on.

“He is again putting his career on the line. But at the end of the day he is the one who must decide whether or not to retire,” said Futagoyama.

“He probably thinks he can battle on even if his knee is still hurting but if he thinks it is too much I’ll urge him to quit once and for all.”

Futagoyama continued, “Having said that, he has got himself into good shape in the last two weeks and I think he will be able to wrestle well.”

Ozeki pair Musoyama and Tochiazuma are believed to be the only other wrestlers capable of blocking Asashoryu’s path to the championship and stealing the silverware themselves, although both will need to improve on the largely unimpressive performances they produced in Kyushu.

Musoyama, who failed to register more than 10 wins in any given tournament last year, went 10-5 in Kyushu but was made to look ordinary by Asashoryu, who shot down his fellow ozeki on the final day of the meet.

After missing the autumn meet due to injury, Tochiazuma returned in Kyushu needing a winning record to avoid demotion from his rank but looked short of confidence and just managed to scrape through with eight wins.

Elsewhere, Kotomitsuki will be looking to pull off a few shocks and improve on his 8-7 record in November while fellow sekiwake Takanowaka will be out to prove his 11-4 showing and subsequent promotion from komusubi was no fluke.

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