The competition finally arrives

But can the yokozuna handle them?

by Mark Buckton

In 1958, then yokozuna Wakanohana, uncle of the Wakanohana and Takanohana brothers of the 90s won the first July tournament in the modern era with a 13-2 record.

Almost half a century later, in Nagoya 2005, current yokozuna Asashoryu, mirrored the 13-2 on his way to claiming all six yusho in that calendar year. Having won the last two Nagoya tournaments, and eight of the last ten basho overall, it would normally be a brave man willing to bet against him taking the Nagoya yusho in 2006.

I say ‘normally’ for the Asashoryu you will see in Nagoya this year is not the same Asashoryu we saw last.

Already with a bagful of records and achievements under his mawashi, over the first three tournaments of the year he has not appeared as sharp as he once did and the rather disappointing 25 wins, 8 losses and 12 absences for the year to date is well below par when bearing in mind that he lost just 6 times in the whole of 2005.

It can’t be age affecting the 25-year-old as he hasn’t been around enough to pick up the collection of career threatening injuries many older sanyaku men have. He did drop out early in the first week of the May tournament and in preparing for Nagoya is still experiencing numbness beneath the heavy strapping needed to keep his gammy arm from getting worse, but I think there is something more.

I think Asashoryu is bored!

Given his tally of 16 yusho in just five and a bit years of a Makunouchi career that could, at a stretch, last another decade, what is there left to aim for but longevity records? Not much of a motivating factor for one still just five years out of his teens.

That said, Asashoryu IS still top dog in the rankings but has been knocked from the ‘media’ top dog rank in recent months by in your face and at times ‘waaaay’ over the top coverage of anything and everything to do with the ozeki pair of fellow Mongolian Hakuho and Bulgarian Kotooshu. Last year’s legend is turning into yesterday’s news and I think this may be affecting his state of mind and perhaps also his performances.

Chuck in a dash of media madness over the Estonian Baruto and his reaching the upper maegashira ranks in a mere two years and you have another potential nail being readied for the PR coffin of Mongolia’s finest to date.

While still a match for any of these men when he is at his best, it is this increasing need to be at his best that is showing in Asashoryu. A year or two ago, even on an off day he was beating the best of the rest. At present, those days seem like a distant memory and Nagoya will be a hurdle for the yokozuna to say the least. Times are always changing in sumo and it is in Nagoya we will see how this man in particular reacts to these very early signs of a future changing of the guard.

Hakuho meanwhile is THE man to be watching come July 9th. Put simply — if he wins the yusho with 13 wins or better, he becomes the 69th yokozuna in the history of the sport. Even if he doesn’t actually win the tournament there has been talk of a decent 13-2 being good enough but as the saying goes — ‘talk is cheap.’

Baruto is another for whom the attention will increase soon. Many of the more casual fans will be noticing him for the first time and you can expect TV or media pundits to regurgitate the ‘problem’ with his hair being blond from time to time. A winning record of 9-6 or better and he will likely see the sanyaku rankings in September.

A current sanyaku man to watch is sekiwake Miyabiyama. As a former ozeki, the Ibaraki native will be back at the rank if he notches up double figures again as he has already won 24 of his last 30 bouts.

At the foot of Makunouchi and in Juryo, the usual mixed bag of promotion and demotion scenarios will play themselves out and will be watched intently by longer term fans. Mokonami at Juryo 5 is worth keeping an eye on to see if the injury that affected his performance in May has healed sufficiently to take him back up the rankings.

Below Juryo, the four non-salaried divisions have some interesting up and comers. Russian teenager Wakanoho in Makushita should make Makunouchi in 2007 and down at Sandanme 62, the Japanese American teen Daishoyu is in only his third basho proper and is looking a good bet for possible sekitorihood in the future should he stay healthy.