As Kakuryu eyes promotion, Haru Basho to test yokozuna Harumafuji's mettle

With Sunday the first day of the 2014, Haru Basho in Japan’s third most populous city of Osaka, many fans and commentators will be looking at Kakuryu’s quest to win his first ever yusho, and, if successful, the resulting talk of promoting him to yokozuna.

With all eyes on Japanese ozeki Kisenosato in January in his quest to become the 71st yokozuna in the sport’s history, the Mongolian came from nowhere to record a brilliant 14-1 record and force a last day play-off with Hakuho.

Despite losing the play-off, his score over the 15 days of regulation and the quality of his sumo immediately generated talk of will he, won’t he be considered for promotion — if he can repeat his performance or go one better and win the top division title in Osaka.

Never having won a championship before, Kakuryu is now in a similar place to that occupied for so long by fellow ozeki Kisenosato whose own yokozuna run came crashing down horribly in January.

On the back of a run of consistency second only to Hakuho in the past two years, Kisenosato was for many already worthy of being elevated to the rank of grand champion.

The only snag going into January’s tournament in Tokyo was the fact that he had never actually won an Emperor’s Cup, and back-to-back titles being an unwritten prerequisite for promotion in recent years.

As such, Kisenosato’s awful 7-8 just two months ago when the pressure was really on and a yusho would have all but seen him promoted, coupled to the fact he is now almost 28 has essentially taken the wind out of his sails. It is highly unlikely he will ever get another shot and will peak at his current rank of ozeki.

For Kakuryu in his own quest, March 23 will provide the answer one way or another with an Emperor’s Cup win probably securing promotion. Anything else means he will probably have to wait at least one more tourney.

Meanwhile, more than a few fans will be looking at Harumafuji to see how he copes having missed the last basho due to injury. The winner of six championships to date has blown hot and cold since his promotion after the September 2012 tourney, winning just two of eight Emperor’s Cups on offer in that time.

Few see him as ever really challenging Hakuho for dominance of the top division. Rather, for increasing numbers of sumo followers he is the result of Hakuho aging and taking his own foot off the pedal slightly as he looks to stretch out his own career and one day move past the 32-championship record of the now deceased legendary yokozuna Taiho. Hakuho currently stands in third position on the all-time winners list with 28 titles to his name.

Anything less than challenging for the title will see daggers unsheathed and demands for Harumafuji’s retirement becoming more vocal.

Away from the pointy end of the action, and for foreign fans out there, much media attention is still being piled on Egyptian grappler Osunaarashi. Ranked at maegashira 11, his highest rank to date, he will be hoping to at least repeat his winning record in January as he pushes for promotion.

Having been in the top flight for three tournaments now, however, his opponents have already seen how he operates and how limited his sumo remains in terms of technique and adaptability. The fact that he is still over-reliant on his upper body strength will be an aspect the more experienced of his foes over the 15-days of action look to expose from the get-go.

To this end, as much as Osaka is the tester for Kakuryu and his own quest to become the fourth Mongolian to make the top rank, it will also serve as a test bed for Osunaarashi to prove he belongs up here now that the novelty of another top-heavy non-Japanese overly reliant on brute force to win his bouts has worn off.

Enjoy the basho.

For those unable to get down to the action in Osaka, why not consider a trip to one of the single-day events scattered around the Kansai and Kanto areas post-Haru in the run up to preparations beginning for the May tournament back in Tokyo.

Action-wise there is usually a full list of bouts at these single day events, but with the results not affecting promotion or ranking the heat is off and many rikishi are more out to entertain than to go full-on. Additionally, most events offer demonstrations of sumo related activities such as how to set the oicho-mage hair style seen on top ranked wrestlers. Sometimes sumo songs are demonstrated as are short skits with wrestlers demonstrating illegal moves in routines aimed at raising a chuckle.

Particularly recommend for those who can make it is the Yasukuni Shrine event in early April. The open-air dohyo behind the main shrine pulls in several thousand fans each year, many there as much to enjoy the cherry blossoms all round the arena and in the shrine grounds. Add this to the fact that all the action if free of charge makes it even better!

March 30 – Ise Shrine, Mie Prefecture
March 31 – Kadoma City, Osaka
April 1 – Kyoto City – Kyoto Prefecture
April 4 – Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo
April 5 – Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture
April 6 – Fuji City, Shizuoka Prefecture
April 12 – Maebashi City, Gunma Prefecture
April 19 – Tateyama City, Chiba Prefecture
April 20 – Kasama City, Ibaraki Prefecture

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