Kyushu Basho 2014: A tale of two Mongolians

by Mark Buckton

There are two men to watch when the action gets underway at sumo’s final basho of 2014, down in Fukuoka on Sunday.

Both are Mongolian.

One, in just his first tournament in the top division so very nearly upstaged the other, arguably the greatest wrestler who ever lived, when he scored an incredible 13-2 in his makunouchi debut. His name is Ichinojo.

The other, yokozuna Hakuho, matched the newcomer before calmly sending him to the dirt with a wonderful pulling over-arm throw on Day 14, going on to notch up his 31st career title a day later.

So massive – pun intended – has been Ichinojo’s arrival in sumo’s senior division that once the top division men start filtering in to for bouts around 4 p.m. Sunday, sumo fans present in Fukuoka or watching on TV around the world will be talking about the 21 year old from Minato Beya.

As the new Mongolian on the block he may one day be charged with carrying his nation’s flag into the next decade, but for now, he will simply be looking to put on a reasonable showing at the sport’s third highest rank of sekiwake in Fukuoka.

Truth be told, few in sumo expected he would be promoted quite as high as sekiwake when the Kyushu tournament rankings were announced recently.

Komusubi? Likely. Maegashira one? At least. Sekiwake? Cue the raised eyebrows.

In being promoted to sumo’s third highest rank ahead of Fukuoka, however, he is the first man since the Showa Era (1926-89) to be promoted so fast following a debut tournament in the top flight.

Yet, while he is clearly the one to watch for so many, sumo’s 199 kg, 192 cm darling of the media looks to be struggling to regain the form that saw him tear up the rankings just six weeks ago.

Hospitalized in October with a bout of shingles, he has, at time of typing, yet to embark on any degeiko sessions at other stables with men of comparable ability, the people he really should be practicing against to put in a half-decent performance in Kyushu.

Of course, it would not be the first time for a rikishi looking to hide his techniques or levels of (un)fitness from those he will face to exaggerate a bout of sickness. But for Ichinojo, TV and other media commitments coupled with his health issues might just have combined to become the straw bale that have broken this behemoth’s back.

The first day will tell a huge amount, both about his physical form and his ability to cope with men at the pointy end of the division where size alone is not enough to put up the numbers.

Of course all the current media hullabaloo surrounding Ichinojo will be suiting one man right down to the ground.

That man is yokozuna Hakuho who will be chasing his 32nd career yusho to equal the all-time record set by former yokozuna Taiho between 1960 and 1971

He is increasingly being lauded as the greatest of all time, and if the quality of his sumo and the fact he has achieved similar numbers to Taiho in a much shorter time are anything to go by, his fans are right.

Only late on Thursday was it confirmed he will be facing both his fellow yokozuna in the quest for 32, an announcement by the Harumafuji camp concerning an eye injury he picked up in September. Apparently the socket has healed enough for him to enter.

Even with the fact that Hak will be going against two fellow yokozuna and a full complement of ozeki, few would bet against him turning the heat up on his foes when the chips are down, and walking away with a Taiho-equalling tally come the 23rd.

If he does, Ichinojo, the hugely popular Endo or any other star of sumo’s future notwithstanding, the spotlight will once again be Hak’s, and Hak’s alone come the 2015 Hatsu Basho in January back in Tokyo.

Sumo history of this magnitude is penned just one or twice a century.

We are watching perhaps the greatest ever preparing a bid to secure for himself the single most important achievement in this 257-year-old sport.

He will do it.

Just don’t bet on it. That would be illegal!