Sumo: Mongolian yokozuna out to reestablish dominance at New Year meet
Mongolian yokozuna Kakuryu and Hakuho are gearing up for the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament starting Sunday, looking to shore up Mongolia'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 to 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.
Fellow ozeki Kotoshogiku and Goeido both won their maiden titles last year to leave Kisenosato as the only ozeki with an empty trophy cabinet, but the two fell well short in their respective yokozuna promotion chases.
Kotoshogiku, in fact, is fighting to save his ozeki status for the seventh time having again slipped to a losing record in November.
Among the Mongolians, ozeki Terunofuji is still battling to shake off injuries to both knees but his compatriot Tamawashi could be the next wrestler to rise.
The 32-year-old Tamawashi reached the third-highest rank of sekiwake in his 77th tournament, the fifth slowest in history, sitting in stark contrast to Shodai's 17-tourney ascent which is the second fastest since the six-tourney-a-year format was established in 1958.
Tamawashi, who won 10 as komusubi in November to win the technique award, will test Kisenosato on the opening day and the Japanese ozeki, who has been suffering right-foot discomfort of late, can take nothing for granted despite his 7-0 record against the Mongolian.