It’s starting to get mighty lonely at the top for Mongolian firebrand Asashoryu.

News photo Kaio (left), a candidate for promotion to yokozuna several times, must win eight matches at the upcoming
Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament just to retain his ozeki rank.

Asashoryu begins his campaign for a third straight Emperor’s Cup at the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament on Sunday as the only yokozuna representative on the raised ring for the 18th straight basho.

And the bully from Ulan Bator is unlikely to have a grand champion teammate any time soon, especially now that Hakuho, the only wrestler to pose any sort of threat to his dominance this year, is right back where he started.

Ozeki Hakuho misses the 15-day meet at Fukuoka Kokusai Center after suffering a fractured toe, and his absence in the last tournament of 2006 means Asashoryu winning his 19th title appears to be little more than a formality.

Hakuho may have been off kilter at the autumn meet in September, where he made a mess of his second bid for promotion to yokozuna, with an 8-7 record a Japan Sumo Association official described as “an embarrassment.”

But with the exception of the autumn meet, Hakuho, who as a result of his withdrawal here will be battling relegation to sekiwake in the New Year tourney, has posted at least 13 wins in every tournament so far this year and also won his first title.

The other wrestlers at sumo’s second rank of ozeki have paled in comparison.

Asashoryu has admitted he is disappointed for Hakuho but naturally was more concerned about trying to nail the most wins in a single year for the fifth year in a succession, a feat only previously achieved by former yokozuna greats Taiho and Kitanoumi.

“He (Hakuho) is still young. He is a great guy to have around and I really hope he gets better quickly,” said Asashoryu.

Looking ahead to the tournament, Asashoryu said, “I have had a bit of a twinge in my lower back but I’m not in bad shape at all, and I think the (most wins) record is within reach.”

Hakuho’s no-show in Fukuoka has removed a major obstacle from Asashoryu’s path to glory given that the yokozuna is unlikely to face a major threat from anyone else, although his opener against Russian komusubi Roho could be a tough match.

Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu has failed to live up to expectations and has only posted double-digit victories in tournaments twice this year.

However, he appears to have shaken off a knee injury and will be looking to improve on a 10-5 showing in the Autumn Basho.

Chiyotaikai and New Year winner Tochiazuma lack consistency and neither appears capable of giving Asashoryu a run for his money.

As for Kaio, the injury-weary ozeki finds himself in an uncomfortably familiar situation: Save your rank and pride with eight or more wins or you’re going down.

Kaio, whose status is on the line for a record 10th time, has a habit of pulling off a Houdini act at the end, but do not be surprised if failure to score a winning record in front of his home fans leads to the 34-year-old hanging up his mawashi.

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