Sumo

Emperor's Cup race looks wide open at Kyushu Basho

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

Although he retired a quarter century ago and made just 18 appearances for Nagoya Grampus Eight, Gary Lineker remains one of the names most closely associated with Japanese soccer among foreign fans.

The England international’s strike rate here was well below a career average that saw him score just over a goal a game at Leicester City, Everton, Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur.

Despite all the fame and accolades, however, Lineker was never considered a “great” player, but rather a supreme goal poacher — a player that always found himself in the right place at the right time, and someone whose ability to convert chances was second to none.

Mitakeumi is fast becoming sumo’s version of Gary Lineker. In September, the sekiwake once again took advantage of the absence of the yokozuna to claim the title.

Even without the big guns competing, Mitakeumi managed just 12 wins on his way to lifting the Emperor’s Cup. Hardly the most spectacular of efforts, his three-loss title was equivalent to toe-poking the ball into the net from a yard out.

“All he does is score goals” was an accusation often leveled at Lineker. In Mitakeumi’s case that’s fast becoming “all he does is win trophies” as the 26-year-old now has eight special prizes to go along with his two championships despite failing to reach double digits in wins in 18 of his 26 tournaments in the top division.

If his career ended today Mitakeumi would become just the second rikishi in history (after Kotonishiki) to win two or more titles and not reach at least ozeki.

But with none of the last nine men promoted to sumo’s second-highest rank managing to win a second championship (or in Takayasu’s case a first) it’s arguable that being an ozeki isn’t the glamourous position it once was.

Mitakeumi’s inconsistency and the return of the yokozuna pair makes it highly unlikely he will win back-to-back titles in November.

As with virtually every tournament over the past two years, predicting who will emerge victorious at the end of the 15 days is an extremely difficult task.

There hasn’t been a repeat champion since Kakuryu walked away with the March and May titles last year. Eight straight tournaments have had a different winner than the previous one, including four first-time titlists.

With most of the top rankers banged up it’d be no surprise to see that streak continue for the foreseeable future.

Takakeisho’s mission

Takakeisho came within a bout of capping his return to ozeki with a title last time out but a pectoral injury sustained in that playoff defeat to Mitakeumi has prevented him from training probably ahead of the Fukuoka meet.

The 23-year-old has been making lots of positive noises over the past week, but there is a massive difference between the controlled practices he has had with lower-division wrestlers and what he would face in an actual tournament.

Takakeisho has shown a willingness to be smart with injury and sit out tournaments rather than risk aggravating things. Waiting until January would be more prudent, but you get the sense he is eager to return and earn his first winning record at the ozeki rank.

With 12 wins being enough to take the title in two of the last three basho, Takakeisho may well enter and see if he can fight his way back into top condition. His pushing thrusting style, however, puts a lot of stress on chest muscles that in many cases need six months to a year to recover fully from tears.

Ozeki have the kadoban system which means, unlike every rank below them, it takes two straight losing records before demotion kicks in. Takakeisho could sit out the entire Kyushu tournament and an 8-7 record in January would still be enough to allow him to keep his rank.

At this stage however it seems the Chiganoura stable man will enter the upcoming meet and at least see how things go for a few days.

The outlook for fellow ozeki Takayasu is much bleaker however.

Since his fourth career runner-up performance 12 months ago, the veteran has reached double digits in victories just once and hasn’t fought in a tournament since the middle of July.

Although he has been training on a near daily basis over the past few weeks, an arm injury means Takayasu’s results in those practice sessions are mixed at best and it is clearly causing him a lot of pain and discomfort.

Unlike Takakeisho, Takayasu has to enter the upcoming meet if he wants to hold on to his ozeki rank. The Taganoura stable wrestler announced his engagement to enka singer Konomi Mori last month and will be keen to avoid a demotion spoiling his good news.

It’s common for rikishi to see an upturn in results soon after getting engaged, married or having a child. The extra motivation and support a family brings is often worth a few extra wins.

Takayasu’s target this time out is eight wins in Fukuoka. Anything above that would be a surprise in November.

Yokozuna update

Both yokozuna are also returning from injury and while not 100 percent healthy Hakuho and Kakuryu seem the most likely candidates to lift the Emperor’s Cup in Kyushu.

Hakuho’s record-extending 41st and 42nd titles were both won with 15-0 marks, and he now stands one perfect championship away from having as many zensho-yusho as legendary yokozuna Taiho and Futabayama combined.

The yokozuna has dominated the sport like no other. His 12-year and five-month long reign now also makes him the longest serving grand champion in history.

Seventy-two men have had the title of yokozuna bestowed on them over the past 200 years but Hakuho stands head and shoulders above them all. He owns virtually every record of note in sumo and his 42 championships (and counting) is a mark unlikely to even be approached for several decades — if at all.

Mind-blowing and all as his achievements are, what’s almost as stunning is that those two 15-0 championships are the only titles that Hakuho has won over the past two years. The greatest of all time is probably less than a year away from retirement, but even at 85 percent he is still better than anyone else in the sport.

Hakuho has recovered fully from the broken finger that caused him to drop out in September and if anyone deserves the title of favorite in November it’s the Miyagino stable man.

Fellow yokozuna Kakuryu likewise seems to be in better condition, but as always training reports about the Mongolian veteran are more sporadic and not something that you can read too much into.

Kakuryu will be taking to the ring for the first time as a member of the Michinoku stable.

He and his two remaining stablemates moved over from Izutsu Beya after the stablemaster’s passing led to its closure.

As with Hakuho, it’s hard to see Kakuryu lasting much longer in the sport — he has missed all or part of eight of the last 15 tournaments — but while he remains active, he is a credible title threat.

Outside of the yokozuna there are no obvious standout contenders. Cases for and against the chances of any number of rikishi could be made as sumo continues its transition from the Hakuho era into the sport’s version of the Warring States period.

Asanoyama makes his sanyaku debut and is one of four komusubi this time out. The former Kinki University wrestler had a solid bounce-back tournament last time out after an expected post-championship dip in July. He might be set for another title run.

After the hard work of defeating yokozuna and ozeki in the first week in September though, three losses to rank-and-filers over the last five days took some of the shine off the Dewanoumi stable man’s performance.

Asanoyama has what it takes to add to that first title, however, and is a good outside bet to win the championship this month.

With Shohozan and Kotoshogiku the only wrestlers hailing from Fukuoka in the top division, the chances of a hometown winner are slim at best. In fact, there hasn’t been a single Kyushu native winner of a tournament in Fukuoka since yokozuna Sadanoyama lifted the Emperor’s Cup in November 1967.
Meisei, Chiyomaru and Shodai are the remaining rikishi from Kyushu in the makuuchi division so odds are that streak is going to stretch into a 52nd year.

There is only one makunouchi debutant this time out. Wakatakage is the youngest of three Onami brothers in Arashio stable and first to make it to the top division.

The 24-year-old has been holding his own against rikishi of a similar caliber over the past year, and if he can put in a good performance and reach double digits, he’s almost certain to be rewarded with a special prize.

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