Sumo returns to Osaka with a bang


Special To The Japan Times Online

For the first time since March of 2010, the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium played host to a sumo tournament.

Things started off slow and somber on the opening day as the tournament, as the entire nation paused to remember the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that changed Japan forever.

Later in the day, in an indication of things to come, Mongolian sekiwake Kakuryu downed his Day 1 opponent Kyokutenho with a well-worked yorikiri win, Estonian ozeki Baruto took on the heavier Gagamaru, employing a powerful uwatenage overarm throw move to finish him off, and Hakuho quietly stole beneath the radar with an all-too-easy thrust down to send komusubi Tochiozan to his first loss of the basho.

Combined, the aforementioned trio wrote most of the headlines as the basho wore on, with the spunky Fujishima Beya Mongolian Shotenro fighting at the maegashira 16 rank adding a dash of spice until midway through week two when his own 9-1 record come Day 11 came off the rails with five consecutive defeats against higher ranked foes in the last five days.

By Day 15 Kakuryu on 13-1 only needed to beat the maegashira 6 Goeido — a rikishi against whom he had enjoyed 9 wins and suffered just 3 defeats to date — to take the title. At this juncture Hakyho stood at 12-2. Kakuryu lost.

A few minutes later yokozuna grand champion Hakuho went on to down Baruto — in large part before the match had actually begun, courtesy his presence as a yokozuna and the mental games at the tachiai. This went on to set up a final day play-off against his fellow Mongolian Kakuryu.

Both men were thus at 13-2 after 15 bouts apiece. The final bout of the first tournament in Osaka since 2010 would therefore see one Mongolian go against another — both the same age, both from Ulan Bator. The winner would walk away a yusho winner — the man defeated, an also-ran

One of the best battles sumo has seen in the past two years, since Hakuho, downed by former yokozuna Asashoryu in a play-off at the September 2009 tourney, saw the same man claim a victory over his sekiwake foe. But only just — and courtesy an uwatenage overarm throw that left them both on the clay that will be replayed many times in the years ahead.

As a result of his magnificent 13-2 record this basho, his more-than-satisfactory (for promotion to ozeki rank) 33-12 win/loss record over the past three basho, and his overall 64-26 over the past calendar year, Kakuryu was, on Wednesday morning, paid a visit by representatives of the sumo association.

The men charged with informing him of his promotion included Shikoroyama Oyakata, the brother of Kakuryu’s own stablemaster and a former sekiwake himself.

With the promotion, Kakuryu, who is expected to keep his shikona (fighting name) but may change it should he ever win back-to back yusho and be promoted to yokozuna, will be the sport’s ninth ozeki to date born overseas, the fourth Mongolian to reach the rank.

This will mean that come the 2012 Natsu Basho in Tokyo this May there will be a record six ozeki at the second rank, a feat never before seen in the sport’s 255 years of recorded history.

Thankfully all are reasonably young. All are capable of winning a tournament — perhaps not back to back to secure promotion to the highest rank, but at least one. Harumafuji, Baruto and Kotooshu have already proven this point. Kakuryu has come close as have Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku in recent times.

In this regard all apparently bodes well for sumo. The competition is healthy,

Hakuho is no longer the shoe-in he so long has been, and the ozeki line-up look capable of challenging the top dog for the basho on a regular basis.

That is, until we get to the fact that four of the six ozeki are non-Japanese. But that is a story for another day. And one to be covered here in Sumo Scribblings between the basho a couple of weeks from now

Hats off to Kakuryu for a wonderful ascent to sumo’s second rank, but let’s not forget Hak now has his 22nd top flight title and is within site of Asashoryu’s 25 championship record, the 31 of Chiyonofuji, and the ultimate goal — the 32 of Taiho.