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Sunday, March 12, 2000

GRAND CHAMPIONS HAVE A POINT TO PROVE

Osaka to see yokozuna battle


By ANDY ADAMS
Special to The Japan Times

For the first time ever, the four current yokozuna -- Takanohana, Akebono, Musashimaru and Wakanohana -- are expected to compete in the same basho when the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament (Haru Basho) gets under way in Osaka today.

All but Wakanohana are in with a good chance of taking the Emperor's Cup, but whereas Musashimaru won four of the six titles at stake last year, Takanohana hasn't taken the yusho since September 1998 and Akebono hasn't won a title in nearly three years. Wakanohana has never won a yusho as yokozuna, a spell of nearly two years.

As a result, three of the four yokozuna have a point to prove. Akebono, once again, will be seeking to gain his 10th title while Musashimaru will be aiming to maintain his winning form.

One wrestler who will be under the spotlight is Miyabiyama, now ranked at sekiwake after only a year in the Makunouchi Division. He tied for runnerup with a 12-3 record in January and can be considered a dark horse for the yusho along with fellow sekiwake and stablemate (Musashigawa Beya) Musoyama, who took the New Year title with a surprisingly strong 13-2 record and who will be gunning for promotion to ozeki for which he'll need at least 11 wins this time.

None of the three ozeki -- Dejima, Chiyotaikai and Takanonami -- can be considered yusho candidates, but they could prove to be spoilers for any of the four yokozuna or the two sekiwake mentioned above. The third sekiwake, Tochiazuma, as well as the two komusubi, Kaio and Tosanoumi, can also be regarded as potential spoilers.

Another wrestler under the spotlight will be Takanowaka, one of the most promising of the youthful up-and-comers. Ranked at No. 4 maegashira, he all but killed Miyabiyama's chances for the yusho in January when he upset the komusubi on the 14th day and handed him his third loss.

Taka trains more

Takanohana, who tied for the jun-yusho (runnerup) in January with a strong 12-3 record, hopes to climax his comeback with a yusho-winning performance this time. He has trimmed down a bit and stepped up his training regimen in hopes of recapturing his form of a couple of years ago. At the same time, he has become reconciled with his brother, Wakanohana, as well as his parents -- Futagoyama Oyakata and his wife. Thus, Taka is hoping to climax his comeback with a near-perfect performance for his 21st yusho. Give him the benefit of the doubt and a slight edge in winning the Haru Basho with 13-14 wins.

Akebono appeared to be on his way to his 10th title as he led the race with a 10-1 record on the 11th day, but the bottom suddenly dropped out when he lost three out of his last four bouts. Something similar happened last July when he actually went into senshuraku (final day) in first place with a 12-2 record, but then lost his final match to Musashimaru as well as the playoff with Dejima. He'll be 31 in May and time is running out if he hopes to come through with that 10th yusho before he starts to noticeably slow down and his power starts to ebb. As usual, the key to his performance will be balance. If Takanohana falters along the way and if he can beat Musashimaru in their showdown match, Akebono has a 50-50 chance of collecting win No. 10. Twelve to 13 wins and runnerup honors are more likely, however.

Musashimaru will be back hoping to pick up where he left off last November. But it will be much harder now that the other three yokozuna are all in good condition. His ability to consistently get his right hand on his opponents' mawashi is vital to his chances. He has almost an equally good chance to keep pace with Takanohana and Akebono most of the way, but unless he can beat them both, his chances of winning it all are doubtful. Eleven to 12 wins and a tie for second at best.

Burnout time for Waka?Wakanohana is a question mark. Has age slowed him down to the point where he can no longer make it to the homestretch as a viable candidate for the yusho? This basho could very well be the weather vane that shows whether or not he still has what it takes to win the yusho. He's still only 28 and entered sumo 12 years ago, but he and Takanohana have been doing sumo practically all their lives, so he could be nearing burnout. This is what happened to former yokozuna Kitanoumi, who entered sumo when he was 13 and was all but washed up at 28 (verifying the belief that the average sumo lifespan of a top rikishi is 15 years). Waka might finish in a third-place tie with 11 wins with an all-out effort.

Of the three ozeki, Dejima seems to be a notch above the other two, both in speed, size and weight. Both he and Chiyotaikai failed to reach double figures in wins in January and ended up with 9-6 marks, while Takanonami got his crucial 10 wins with an all-out effort that reached its climax on the last day. After seven straight wins, Dejima lost three of his last four bouts. A similar thing happened in November when he lost his last four bouts. He seems to run out of steam toward the end and unless he can overcome this shortcoming by getting in better shape, losing more weight and strengthening his endurance, more of the same can be expected in March. Nine or 10 wins.

As for Chiyotaikai, he has had two 10-5s and two 9-6s in his last four basho, which is perfectly OK for an ozeki, but since his stunning yusho in January last year, he hasn't come close to challenging the frontrunners for another title. He's quite small at 181 cm (5-11) compared to most of the other top-rankers, although he's certainly heavy enough at 158 kg (348 lbs). It looks like his main task from now on will be to do well enough to hang onto his rank, never mind trying to go for another yusho. Nine wins.

Takanonami is back at ozeki. But how much longer can he hang onto sumo's second-highest rank? Being so tall at 196 cm (6-5), he has a long frame that may be more susceptible to injury than most of his fellow sekitori. He's 28 years old and is beginning to lose much of his agility and even his power is slowly slipping away. Although he can probably hang onto his newly regained rank, next year could be a real problem for him. Eight or nine wins.

Rivals for ozeki

Both newcomer Miyabiyama and veteran Musoyama are now rivals for promotion to ozeki, although they are from the same heya. Will the sempai-kohai (senior-junior) relationship get tangled up in their struggle to reach the coveted rank? Probably not, since Musoyama is only a step away from promotion while Miyabiyama has just barely started to launch his drive for the rank. The problem with Musoyama is that he has been so erratic over the past couple of years; just when he appears about to launch a drive for ozeki, he falters and drops out of contention. If he doesn't get at least 11 wins this time, he won't make it and this could very well be his last chance. Ten wins, which means he'll fall short of promotion.

As for Miyabiyama, he'll get really tested this time with all four of the yokozuna competing and he'll be very, very lucky to upset any of them. But unlike Musoyama, time is on his side -- he's still only 22. In his favor also is the fact that he can hold his own in a slapping/thrusting exchange with the best of them and is quite strong and skillful on the mawashi -- much more so than Musoyama. But the next few basho should reveal just how far he can go, whether he's destined to find a wall that he can't climb when he reaches sekiwake or whether he can on to bigger and better things in the next several basho. Nine or 10 wins.

Tochiazuma bounced back from a losing 6-9 mark last July with two consecutive 10-5 records and appeared to be on his way at last to a higher rank, but he slipped back to a disappointing 8-7 mark in January. Of course, he's still quite young at 23, so there's no need to start worrying now about whether he has what it takes to make it to ozeki. But he appeared to be too cautious and a bit too anxious to win two months ago. He also needs to vary his technique, especially his opening ottsuke (pinning the arm or arms of his opponent in tight against his body while driving his own arms through his opponent's defenses).

The trouble is that this unvarying kind of attack is eminently suited to Tochi's own small stature -- 180 cm (5 feet 10 inches) so that he may have difficulty with the orthodox approach of seizing the mawashi at the opening and following through with a frontal force-out or an arm throw. He may be too small to win consistently with a tsuki/oshi attack, so Tochi has to worry about getting stuck at sekiwake and finding himself unable to launch a drive for ozeki. Nine wins.

No progress for Kaio

At the beginning of the Hatsu Basho last January, reporters and fans were talking about Kaio launching his long-awaited drive for ozeki after a fine 11-4 performance last November. But the first half of the New Year Tournament was pretty much a disaster, with Kaio finding himself tied at 4-4 halfway through the tournament. At 27, he's the same age as Musoyama. His career in the top division pretty much follows along the lines of Musoyama's career, but now Kaio finds himself demoted back to komusubi and watches Musoyama close in on the long-elusive ozeki rank.

Thus, Kaio is no better off than he was as a sekiwake three years ago when he went from 11-4 in November 1996 to 6-9 in January '97. Nine or 10 wins and another comeback.

Except for one basho at sekiwake last September, Tosanoumi has been stuck at komusubi for the last four out of five basho, barely saving his rank with his eighth win on the final day of the Hatsu Basho. On some days, he seems unbeatable, but on others, he easily gets slapped down on all fours at the tachi-ai. You get the impression that he is not in complete control of his body, including his movements and his muscular coordination. But when he's on, he can beat almost anyone in the top ranks. Until he can control his erratic sumo, however, he'll continue to bounce up and down between lower sanyaku and upper maegashira. Seven or eight wins.

None of the top 10 maegashira in the upper five ranks, except perhaps No. 4 Takanowaka, seems capable of upsetting more than one or two of the dozen rikishi ranked in sanyaku and yokozuna. This is the highest rank ever for No. 1 Wakanoyama and No. 2 Kyokutenho as well as No. 4 Takanowaka. Down at the very bottom of the maegashira ranks is No. 14 Takatoriki, one of the more illustrious rikishi of the past decade with 12 sansho (three special prizes) that includes a record nine Kanto-sho (Fighting Spirit Prize), 25 basho in sanyaku (including 15 at sekiwake) and nine kinboshi (wins over yokozuna), second among all current top-division rikishi.



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