Seven sumo stories to look out for in the year of the snake


Special To The Japan Times Online

1. Baruto — make or break

This will be the big story at the Hatsu Basho starting on the 13th. The Estonian giant — 187 kg and 197 cm — lost his ozeki rank at last November’s tournament down in Fukuoka and only a 10-5 result or better this time out will do to secure promotion back to ozeki. Anything less and he will need to start from the beginning as a sekiwake with around 32 or 33 wins over the course of three basho.

As amiable as the man himself is, and as much a fan-fave as he has become over the years his star is now on the wane after peaking in January 2012, when he won his first, and likely last Emperor’s Cup. A series of niggling injuries to his legs and upper body that just won’t seem to go away will catch up with him and condemn him to maegashira mediocrity for the remainder of his career is the consensus of many fans.

Prediction: A decent enough basho, but one that will see him fall short of the required 10 wins, never again to retain the ozeki rank.

2. Hakuho to move past Kitanoumi and Asashoryu on the leader’s board

2012 was Hakuho’s worst full year to date as a yokozuna. He won just two basho with much of the glory in the past 12-months showered upon new yokozuna on the block Harumafuji.

With 23 yusho to his name he is still the man to beat though, and the benchmark for every other rikishi in the game today. His opportunity to better the records of yusho won by Kitanoumi and Asashoryu will make headlines throughout the year.

Prediction: Not too much trouble moving ahead of the 24 yusho of Kitanoumi in the next few months. The 25 record of Asashoryu will also be surpassed within a year, but much depends on whether or not Harumafuji gets his act together to take it to Hakuho basho-in, basho-out.

3. Japanese to come good

It has been exactly seven years since a Japan-born sekitori was presented with the Emperor’s Cup.

For many it could be seven more until a local lad comes good but as has been the case for a few years now, domestic hopes are pinned on ozeki Kisenosato of Naruto Beya, the more recent ozeki Kotoshogiku, and at times Goeido and Myogiryu. None have delivered consistently, bar Kisenosato in recent basho. Will 2013 be the breakout year for a Japanese rikishi to push for the very top?

Prediction: This is it for Kisenosato. Last chance. He will make his move, and is odds-on favorite from the ozeki ranks to win a yusho in the next 12 months, but a second to guarantee promotion to yokozuna? Myogiryu, currently atop the maegashira ranks, also has the fire in his belly, if not the years on his side at 26. Thumbs down for Kotoshogiku — lacks consistency — and also Goeido who is too comfortable in the sanyaku-maegashira elevator.

4. Haircuts for Miyabiyama, Kyokutenho, Wakanosato and Takamisakari

As much entertainment as this quartet have given us over almost six combined decades in sumo’s salaried ranks, the time has come for them all to step down and schedule an appointment with the sumo hairsnipper.
Miyabiyama is a former ozeki, currently a hair’s breadth from juryo, the rest were sanyaku/upper maegashira regulars at one time or another, but all are starting to embarrass themselves now — even with Kyokutenho’s unexpected yusho in May of 2012.

Prediction: None on the banzuke a year from now, for their own sake, as much as ours.

5. Overseas PR jaunts

It is not exactly clear why a minor Japanese company operating in Indonesia can be involved in a sumo tour to the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Whatever the behind-the-scene dealings, look for a decent attendance by non-Indonesian fans resident in the country, and from around the region, but little impact on the Jakarta populace and much needed human face required by the sumo association.

Prediction: Fun and frolics, but of limited use to the bigger picture required in promoting sumo. Hopefully no scandals will emerge in the wake of the first trip in years south of the equator.

6. Family ties

The one-foreigner-per-stable limit is well known. Fair or not is a matter of opinion. However, for many following sumo what is mystifying is the sudden emergence of a new stable, under the old name of Musashigawa, and run by former yokozuna Musashimaru. And all of this to give his 17-year-old nephew a shot at sumo glory.

Look for the lad to debut in March at the Osaka basho.

Prediction: Very tough call as much depends on whether or not the lad is treated as family or deshi by Uncle ‘Maru’ in the close confines of the former Nakamura Beya Building in eastern Tokyo. High-profile flop methinks if life is too comfortable . . . unless he gets some heya mates soon.

7. Harumafuji — putting up or shipping out

Harumafuji was widely criticized in the wake of his 9-6 performance at the Fukuoka Basho in November, particularly in light of consecutive. 15-0 victories in Nagoya (July) and Tokyo (September).

He has thus used up any “first basho nerves” credit in spectacularly dismal style and needs to get a solid grip of the next two or three basho. A minimum 12-3 or better should be a mental prerequisite for any yokozuna but life in the shadow of Hauko means the bar has been set just that little bit higher for the 28-year-old Harumafuji.

Any slip-ups this year and whispers followed quickly by out-and-out demands for retirement will follow.

Prediction: I really hope I am wrong but I think Harumafuji may precede his senior in retirement, perhaps as soon as mid-2013. He needs a fantastic Hatsu Basho to keep the Yokozuna Deliberation Council at bay, and to repeat the form that earned him the right to wear a tsuna throughout the year.