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Kakuryu needs titles to elevate place in sumo’s pecking order

by Mark Buckton

If for nothing else, the upcoming Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka’s Kokusai Center may well be remembered as the tourney in which Mongolian yokozuna Kakuryu was finally able to call himself the “best of the best” — at least for one basho.

Having taken nine full tournaments over the past 18 months, only now has he reached the top yokozuna slot on the east side of the banzuke rankings (Y1e).

His ascent to Y1e is the slowest of any yokozuna in decades.

Hakuho, the sport’s most dominant yokozuna ever with 35 titles to his name topped the bill in his third basho at rank.

Another current yokozuna, Harumafuji also managed to occupy the top slot after just three basho, with fellow Mongolian, the now-retired bad boy of the sport, Asashoryu, reaching Y1e after only two tourneys in the rank; albeit benefiting from then-fellow yokozuna Musashimaru missing his first tournament through injury.

For his part, Musashimaru also made Y1e in his third outing.

One half of the Waka-Taka phenomenon from the late ’80s and ’90s, Wakanohana as perhaps the sport’s most underrated yokozuna in the past 20 years, reached the same honored spot atop the rankings at the fifth attempt.

His brother Takanohana amazingly in his first tournament was promoted straight into the coveted Y1e slot — luck playing a part in that there was only one yokozuna active at the time (Akebono), who finished with a disappointing 10-5 in the previous tournament, while Takanohana went 15-0 as ozeki.

In fact, not since the days of Onokuni, yokozuna between late 1987, and mid-1991, has a yokozuna taken so long to truly lead the sport’s rankings.

In the case of Onokuni, the current Shibatayama Oyakata never actually made Y1e, and finished his career with just two Emperor’s Cup titles to his name.

Like Kakuryu, he was promoted with just one title as an ozeki.

Will history repeat itself and see the man from Mongolia, sumo’s 71st yokozuna and also promoted after just one yusho-win, one day ranked amongst its weakest?

Another title in Fukuoka would in many ways put pays to such claims.

But, with Hakuho having started training three weeks ago in a bid to overcome the knee injury that forced his withdrawal from the Autumn Basho in Tokyo last month, and ozeki Terunofuji champing at the bit in his quest for promotion, Kakuryu will have to be on top form to even come close to winning number three.

Watch this space.

Away from the yokozuna ranks, the rikishi most serious fans will be watching — pin-up boy Endo aside — will be Mitakeumi.

A Dewanoumi Beya rikishi in his first-ever makunouchi basho, and only his third as a sekitori, Fukuoka will be only his fifth tournament since joining the sport.

He is still a long way off being able to sport a mage seen atop rikishi in the lower four divisions, let alone an oicho-mage worn by those in the top two divisions. But will the 22-year-old man from Nagano succeed where so many other Japan-born hopefuls have failed?

Kisenosato, Kotoshogiku, Endo and others have all at one time or another been lauded as the man to break the Mongol-Euro grip on all things sumo as fans await the first Japan- born winner of an Emperor’s Cup since January 2006.

Former ozeki Tochiazuma, currently Tamanoi Oyakata, was the last Japan-born rikishi to win the top-flight trophy.

And in so many ways, Mitakeumi is already a mirror image of Tochiazuma at the ozeki’s peak. Height and weight are almost identical. He is a hugely gifted pusher-thruster, and his skill on the belt is already far above his experience level.

Ranked at maegashira 11 in the makunouchi division for the Nov. 8- 22 outing the stage is set for sumo’s latest domestic hope to show what he is made of.

I think he will do quite well and earn at least a kackikoshi winning record come the final day.

Another space to watch.

Editor’s note: The banzuke ranking sheet issued by the Sumo Association ahead of every tournament is separated into east and west rankings. Traditionally the east rankings are considered to be slightly higher than those on the west.