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Kitanoumi’s death overshadows Harumafuji’s triumph

by Mark Buckton

On Sunday, when yokozuna Harumafuji was presented with the Emperor’s Cup for the seventh time, the world of sumo was still reeling from the news that Sumo Association Chairman Kitanoumi had died 48 hours earlier from complications related to rectal cancer aged only 62.

As the sport’s 55th yokozuna, Kitanoumi was hugely popular in his day. And as the winner of 24 career titles, he is still fifth on the all-time list of Emperor’s Cup winners.

His death was marked in a simple ceremony at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center in Fukuoka with a slow drive by of his hearse. A proper memorial is to be held Dec. 22 in Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Many senior wrestlers and stable-masters were visibly shaken when they heard the news and in large part, the final weekend of the tournament was a formality, albeit it one Harumafuji will not forget in a hurry.

Back in action for the first time since Day 1 of the Nagoya tournament in July, he trailed fellow yokozuna Hakuho until Day 13.

On Day 13, the two men went head to head, just hours before Kitanoumi passed away.

Harumafuji won the bout, and pulled level.

The following day, Hakuho lost again to ozeki Terunofuji, while Harumafuji beat Kakuryu.

Then, in a bizarre anti-climactic twist, both men lost on the final day, gifting Harumafuji the tournament overall with a 13-2 record to a 12-3 for Hakuho.

For Hakuho, it was the fist time he had gone two tournaments without taking the Emperor’s Cup in over three years.

For Harumafuji, already aged 31, it is his first top division title in two years. Whether he makes it to 10 career titles and becomes a ‘Dai-Yokozuna’ remains to be seen.

Lower down in the division, as predicted pre-basho here in Sumo Scribblings, Mitakeumi at maegashira 11 made his mark in what was his first makunouchi outing, and just his fifth ever tournament.

Finishing with a respectable 8-7 record, the 22-year-old from Dewanoumi Beya defeated a number of hugely experienced makunouchi men along the way, and will be nudged up a rank or two come January.

Ten ranks higher, however, one of the sport’s most recent ‘next big thing(s),’ who has for so long relied on strength alone, looks like he may have peaked both physically and mentally.

As sumo’s first ever Egyptian sekitori, Osunaarashi entered the Kyushu basho at a career-high maegashira 1 rank.

But as on two previous occasions in the upper echelons of the maegashira ranks, he once again proved he lacks the mental wherewithal to properly focus for fifteen days at this level.

On his day he is still an opponent worthy of the greatest respect, and has demonstrated this in defeating the yokozuna pair of Harumafuji (twice) and Kakuryu (once) from the maegashira ranks.

But when the going gets tough, he often suffers complete collapse.

After he entered the sport in early 2012, he moved up through the lower divisions in just seven tournaments, racking up impressive numbers along the way, albeit over just seven bouts each tournament, such are the rules in sumo’s unsalaried ranks.

Once a sekitori, back-to-back 10-5 records in juryo seemed to indicate he had made the transition to 15-bout tournaments quite well before his first top-flight tournament in November 2013.

And then the wheels came off.

The man nicknamed ‘The Mummy’ by some fans for the amount of bandages he wears on various joints just didn’t have the technical skills to deal with many of his far-more experienced opponents in makunouchi.

In terms of brute strength he is, or perhaps was, arguably one of the strongest men in the division. But lacking in experience, he was finding it far harder to adjust to both a higher level of sumo, and daily bouts over 15 days.

Indeed, in his 13 makunouchi tournaments to date he has dropped out of four tournaments injured, and finished with a winning record just seven times. Only one of these winning records was in the upper maegashira ranks — a barely passable 8-7 in September this year at maegashira 2; hardly the stuff of future ozeki or yokozuna.

And Kyushu 2015 proved no different in this regard.

Worryingly now for the Otake-beya man, it also looks like all-round strength, his meal ticket so far in the sport, could now be an issue.

Seven of his eight active losses on his way to a disappointing 5-9-1 record (including failing to appear one day) were by ‘yorikiri’ frontal force-out, oftentimes a simple chest-to-chest battle of strength.

True, he did pick up a ‘kinboshi’ for a hard fought and deserved win over yokozuna Harumafuji on Day 2, but the signs are there that the 23-year-old just isn’t coping, either mentally or physically, with the rigors of upper maegashira life.

Time will tell how far he goes and how long he lasts, but with persistent rumors from some close to him that he is often homesick, and having seemingly peaked in the mid-to-low maegashira ranks, Osunaarashi’s star may already be on the wane.

Watch this space.