OSAKA — Things just got really lonely at the top.
After perennial troublemaker Asashoryu quit sumo following allegations he attacked a man outside a Tokyo nightspot, Hakuho remains as the sole yokozuna and hot favorite to cart home the Emperor’s Cup at the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament getting under way on Sunday.
Alas, sumo without Asashoryu, who took time out from his reputed street brawling to also win the New Year’s meet, could be a lot like watching a one-man show — predictable and lacking the unique pizzazz that the Mongolian firebrand brought to the sport.
Hakuho, who broke down in tears when his countryman made his bombshell announcement last month, became the ninth sole yokozuna and first since Asashoryu reigned alone at the 2007 summer meet.
The fierce rivalry (not to mention all of the juicy playoff encounters) now gone, who, if anybody, can step in to fill the shoes of the 25-time Emperor’s Cup winner?
“I am so happy to be able to meet everybody here in Osaka, the city I love. Although I won the title (in January), unfortunately I must apologize for causing such a scandal,” Asashoryu said at a pep rally for his former Takasago stable ahead of the 15-day meet at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium.
“I am 29 now. This year, I’ll turn 30 and I want to make the best of my second stage of my life,” he said.
With fans already reluctant to purchase tickets because of tighter wallets in this economic downturn, the absence of Asashoryu will only cause a further drop in attendance.
In fact, according to the Japan Sumo Association, whereas tickets had been sold out for nine days at last year’s Osaka Basho after Asashoryu’s big comeback to win the New Year’s meet, tickets for the final day of competition this year that would normally be gone still remained ahead of the tournament.
“For sure, there is nothing positive about it (Asashoryu’s resignation),” said stable master Fujigane, an organizer for the spring meet.
Advanced ticket reservations were largely unaffected from the end of last year through January, but the effect of Asashoryu leaving was palpable from the beginning of February, with roughly a 10 percent drop compared with last year.
In order to boost ticket sales, the JSA even continued taking phone calls for ticket reservations up until three days prior to the meet, though it usually is finished one week before the first day of competition.
Hakuho, known for his softer approach more in line with the tradition of the ancient Japanese sport, finished with a 12-3 record in January, one win behind Asashoryu.
Other than Asashoryu, few have challenged his dominance after a record-breaking year in 2009. Hakuho won three out of the six meets and set a new record with 86 wins against only four losses.
One possible headliner this time could be sekiwake Baruto.
The Estonian man-mountain has a shot at gaining promotion to ozeki for the first time after winning 12 bouts in January but is nursing an injury to his left thumb.
Whether ozeki wrestlers Harumafuji, Kotooshu and Kotomitsuki can make a run in the title race remains to be seen.