Asashoryu had the chance to become the first yokozuna debutant ever to win the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in March. But the pressure proved too great and he blew it on the final day.
So sumo fans can expect a fierce backlash from the saucy Mongolian grand champion when the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament kicks off at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan on Sunday.
With fellow yokozuna Musashimaru out nursing a wrist injury, Asashoryu was widely expected to blitz his way to a third successive title in March only for his ruthless Genghis Khan streak to desert him.
The Ulan Bator bully looked riddled with self-doubt in the first week of the 15-day basho and slumped to a 10-5 after being given the hiding of his life by ozeki Chiyotaikai, who with the win lifted his third Emperor’s Cup on the final day.
Musashimaru has yet to recover from surgery on his left wrist and is absent for the fourth straight meet, so Chiyotaikai, aiming for promotion to sumo’s top rank of yokozuna, represents the main threat to Asashoryu at the summer basho.
Asashoryu has looked sharp in practice and signaled his intentions earlier this week by crushing Chiyotaikai in 13 out of 15 bouts in Monday’s public practice session before the Yokozuna Deliberation Council.
“I’m in tip-top shape. I’ve been getting plenty of practice and feel sharper than I did in the last tournament,” said Asashoryu.
“I feel much more relaxed and focused wrestling in Tokyo than at the regional venues. I stiffened up a bit (in Osaka) but I feel fresher and ready for the challenge this time round,” he added.
Asashoryu faces komusubi Tosanoumi on Sunday and will be hoping compatriot and komusubi Kyokutenho can do him an early favor by tripping up Chiyotaikai in their opening match.
Chiyotaikai will be under pressure to pull off another victory in Tokyo and instill some pride in the national sport that is without a Japanese-born wrestler at yokozuna following the retirement of Takanohana in January.
Despite winning the Osaka meet on his return from a niggling arm injury sustained in the Kyushu meet last November, Chiyotaikai managed it with only 12 wins and will need to go at least one better to convince the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) that he is grand champion material.
“True, Chiyotaikai won the last spring tournament, but he got only 12 wins. He will need at least 13 wins (in the summer tourney) to claim yokozuna,” JSA chairman Kitanoumi commented after watching Chiyotaikai in action on Monday.
Chiyotaikai readily admits he was disappointed with his record in Osaka and stablemaster Kokonoe has urged his ozeki to move up a step and pick up from where Takanohana left off.
“It (the spring meet) went all the way to the wire partly from me allowing my opponents to capitalize on silly mistakes,” said Chiyotaikai, whose win over Asashoryu spared him a playoff for the Emperor’s Cup against the Mongolian.
“I’ve always got to remember that bigger effort in keiko (practice bouts) will help me win more convincingly” added the 27-year-old three-time Emperor’s Cup winner.
Kokonoe, former yokozuna Chiyonofuji, said, “I feel he (Chiyotaikai) has shown he is a strong ozeki. Takanohana is no longer around and if ever there was a time that he has to prove himself it is now.”
Elsewhere, ozeki Kaio will be seeking an improvement on his 10-5 record last time out and has looked impressive despite his relative lack of practice due to a calf injury.
The perennial yokozuna candidate, however, is unlikely to make a serious challenge for honors, while fellow ozeki Tochiazuma and Musoyama are both returning from injury and will be battling to retain their status at sumo’s second-highest rank with at least eight wins.
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