• Kyodo

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Mongolian yokozuna Kakuryu and Hakuho are gearing up for the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament starting Sunday, looking to maintain the nation’s place atop the sport after a year of promising performances from Japanese wrestlers.

A third career title in November seems to have boosted Kakuryu’s confidence, which has played out with lively training sessions ahead of the tourney at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. He was handed a favorable first-day opponent at Friday’s draw when he was paired with Georgian komusubi Tochinoshin, against whom he has a 19-1 record.

Hakuho, who missed the September tourney with injuries and managed just 11 wins in November, is back to full fitness and will look to add to his record 37 championships to stamp his authority again.

Hakuho, however, drew a trickier opening tie in the shape of new sekiwake Shodai. The up-and-coming 25-year-old is aiming to continue his fine form near the top of the pile following an 11-win November that saw him handed the fighting spirit award.

“This could be the most important bout of the year for me,” said Shodai, who lost his only meeting against Hakuho to date and also suffered 10 straight defeats against the yokozuna in a training session late last month.

“I’ll try not to leave myself with regrets. I want to try to unsettle him, even just a little bit,” he said.

Another Mongolian yokozuna, Harumafuji, has injury concerns with pain in both ankles, while ozeki Kisenosato seems to be the safest bet among Japanese wrestlers to get into the title mix — and revive his yokozuna promotion bid — after he finished 2016 with the most wins in the top division.

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