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January 2014: Is This The Beginning of the End of the Era of the Mongolian?

Just like in America where baseball is the national sport or national pastime, in Japan it is sumo. Generations upon generations have watched this sport go through an evolutionary process since it's ancient origins nearly 2000 years ago. But in recent times the Japanese wrestlers have been lagging behind their Mongolian rivals and the popularity of this sport has been in decline.

The first wave of Mongolians came to Japan in the early 90's and made an immediate impact. They started climbing their way up the rankings and in 2003 Asashoryu became the first ever Mongolian yokozuna (highest ranked wrestler). Four years later he was joined by Hakuho, who still currently holds the prestigious rank. Between the two, they hold a combined 52 championships which account for about 80% off all the championships since March 2003 when Asashoryu became yokozuna.

Since then several other foreign born wrestlers, including Kotooshu from Bulgaria, Baruto from Estonia and Kakuryu and Harumafuji from Mongolia have all succeeded in obtaining the sport’s two highest ranks of ozeki and yokozuna. As the top of the banzuke (rankings) becomes more and more dominated by foreigners, the popularity of sumo declines in Japan. The Japanese are still searching for the next home-grown sumo star, but he has yet to come.

The last Japanese yokozuna was Takanohana who retired in 2003 and the last Japanese wrestler to win a major championship was former ozeki Tochiazuma who won exactly eight years ago at the Hatso basho (January tournament) in 2006. Tochiozan came close to winning in May of 2012 when he suddenly found himself in a championship playoff bout on the final day with veteran Mongolian wrestler Kyokutenho, but in a matter of only a few seconds was slapped down to the clay.

All of this could be coming to an end though, in light of recent events coming into the January 2014 tournament. At the moment, ozeki-ranked Kisenosato is up for promotion to the sport’s highest rank should he be able to win at least 13 bouts, plus the yusho (championship), even though the rules normally defined for yokozuna promotion require an ozeki to win two championships back to back. It’s almost like déjà-vu, as he was in the same situation only half a year ago, but was unable to pull it off even with the Yokozuna Deliberation Council bending over backwards for him.

However, now more than ever, it seems that the stars may have finally aligned for a Japanese yusho and yokozuna promotion, all in one go. Right now there are only two other ozeki on the banzuke, Kakuryu, and Kotoshogiku, the latter having withdrawn from the last basho with an injury that he is still nursing. Kakuryu should not be an obstacle for Kisenosato as he has defeated his fellow ozeki 24 times in their 33 total bouts against each other. Also, recently two other ozeki have been demoted from their rank due to injuries and poor performances, namely Baruto, who retired last year, and Kotooshu, who finds himself at the sekiwake rank for the first time since November of 2005.

Keeping this in mind, the only obstacles in the way of Kisenosato seem to be the two yokozuna, Hakuho and Harumafuji, but it was reported only a few days ago that Harumafuji has withdrawn from the January tournament due to an ankle injury, something that has plagued him throughout his career. So that only leaves Hakuho, arguably the greatest yokozuna of all time, who poses a major threat to Kisenosato taking his place atop the sumo world and in so, perhaps saving this fledgling sport and becoming a hero to his native people.

This is a lot of pressure on his shoulders, and as he has shown on more than one occasion, he is not necessarily the best wrestler under pressure. When in high pressure tournaments, his performances seem to be sub-par more often than not. Can Kisenosato win thirteen bouts this tournament? Can he manage to win the Emperor’s Cup as well? Can he become the first Japanese yokozuna since 2003? Will he be the first Japanese wrestler in 47 tournaments to win a championship? Here are my predictions for the 2014 Hatsu basho.

1) Kotooshu will not manage to win 10 bouts and will not return to the ozeki rank.

2) Kotoshogiku will manage to kachi-koshi but will also not win more than 9 bouts.

3) Kisenosato will win at least 13 bouts, and will defeat Hakuho and win the yusho all in one go.

What are your predictions? Feel free to leave a message on Facebook or Twitter or send me an e-mail. And if you’re looking for more great sumo action, make sure to check out FightBox in the mornings and afternoons all month long in January!

- Daniel Austin

twitter @donroidDDW


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