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Go Ama!

The 2007 sumo season is off and running, and we’re five days into the New Year basho at Ryogoku Kokugikan. There’s less excitement than some would like, at least in the pre-match standings – Asashoryu (4-1) is still the only yokozuna, and of the five ozeki who might look towards promotion to yokozuna, fellow Mongolian Hakuho (3-2) looks like the only rikishi likely to threaten his dominance. Hakuho is recovering from a broken toe, and while he’s pretty fighting well so far, he won’t likely be promoted after this tournament, even if he outpaces Asashoryu, as he missed last year’s final two tournaments. (Indeed, a bad tournament and he’ll likely drop from Ozeki ranks.)

The drama so far, for those of us who root for the Mongolian wrestlers, has been Ama’s brave performance right after his father’s death. The smallest (124kg!) of all wrestlers in top-level sumo, Ama (4-1) has risen to #4 maegashira rapidly with a combination of brilliant technique and a great deal of self-confidence. But he’s clearly shaken in this tournament by the news he received on December 29th of his father’s death in a car crash and his brother’s injury. He returned to Mongolia soon after, and didn’t come back to Tokyo until the day before the basho.

Ama asked his stable manager to allow him to sit out the basho – according to reports from Sumotalk, he wasn’t able to eat for several days after receiving the news, and asked some of his stablemates to sleep in his room. Photos of Ama after his first match – a hard-fought victory over the Estonian Baruto – show him with his face buried in a towel. (Image stolen from SumoTalk, who you really should be reading every day during this basho.)

Despite his psychological struggles, Ama’s having an excellent tournament – he won his first three matches before losing to the Georgian Kokkai (2-3). He’s had strong support from his countrymen, including Asashoryu, who said that he’s drawn inspiration from Ama’s brave performance. Ama’s father was an elite wrestler in Mongolia and had urged the Ajigawa-oyakata (the stablemaster of the Ajigawa stable) to bring his son to Japan, saying “Please take him. He will give you his all.” So far, the son has honored the father’s promise.

I’ll be rooting for Ama this tournament… then again, I’m always rooting for Ama. But I have high hopes that Ama will perform well enough to win his second fighting spirit prize. I remember Brett Farve’s 41-7 victory over the Raiders just a day after his father’s death as one of the most extraordinary football games I’ve ever seen. Sustaining that sort of intensity over a fifteen day tournament, while grieving? That’s an amazing test of character.

Asashoryu lifts Ama out of the ring at a demonstration match in Las Vegas, 2005. Still think these guys aren’t athletes?