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Sunday, May 7, 2000

Trio of favorites for Natsu Basho

Special to The Japan Times

The Natsu Basho is shaping up as a three-man struggle among yokozuna Takanohana, yokozuna Akebono and sekiwake Miyabiyama, with two other would-be favorites, yokozuna Musashimaru and new ozeki Musoyama, nursing injuries and unable to compete this time around.

Each of the three joint favorites has his own special reason for wanting this yusho: Takanohana to finally take his 21st yusho -- and first championship since September 1998, Akebono to reach his elusive 10th title (his ninth yusho was in May 1997) and Miyabiyama to capture his first top-division yusho and reach the next plateau in his incredible climb up the ladder of professional sumo by clinching promotion to ozeki.

What about the other three ozeki, the two sekiwake and the two komusubi, or the always-hopeful crowd of maegashira all anxious to reproduce Takatoriki's amazing yusho in March? Although there were back-to-back yusho by maegashira nearly 10 years ago in 1991 when No. 13 maegashira Kotofuji took the Aki Basho yusho in September and No. 5 Kotonishiki followed up with the Kyushu Basho championship in November, the odds are exceedingly long that history will repeat itself in May.

The three co-favorites are so evenly matched that very few pundits are prepared to go out on a limb and predict the yusho winner. Without his ailing stablemates from Musashigawa Beya taking part, Miyabiyama will have much less help from his usual built-in advantage of not having to face Musashimaru or Musoyama.

Miyabiyama, however, still has another built-in advantage in stablemate ozeki Dejima, who can generally be considered as a long shot in most basho since his yusho last July. Dejima has upset both Taka and Akebono this year. Here are the respective records of each of the three against each other (excluding stablemate records) and of two of them against Dejima:

Akebono: Takanohana (30-30), Miyabiyama (2-2) and Dejima (2-5). Takanohana: Miyabiyama (4-0) and Dejima (8-3).

The three favorites

Takanohana is 27, but he has been doing sumo since he was a kid and now needs to fight much harder to win than he did when he was still at his peak in mid-'98 and earlier. In March, however, he proved that he is still No. 1 in sumo by coming through with decisive wins against three of the best that Musashigawa Beya has to offer. His loss to Dejima on the 13th day can probably be blamed on his over-concentration on his bouts with Musoyama, Miyabiyama and Musashimaru and his failure to psyche himself up for his bout with the ozeki, which came in the midst of his crucial victories over the other three.

Although he will be 28 this summer, Takanohana continues to have the stamina he needs to emerge from the first week with just one loss and still have plenty of reserve power to overcome his four key Musashigawa Beya rivals plus Akebono. This should allow him to reach senshuraku in first place or at least a tie for the lead. Of course, he must continue to train hard and keep himself physically fit, both of which are indispensable to his chances to pick up where he left off in September '98. Give Takanohana a slight lead in racking up with his 21st yusho with 12 or 13 wins.

Akebono is celebrating his 31st birthday this month, but amazingly, he hasn't shown any real signs of slowing down. He has been bothered with lower-back problems, but for the upcoming Natsu Basho he has been training harder than anyone else in the top division. At the recent soken, he engaged in two or three times as many practice bouts as the other yokozuna or the ozeki. He also wound up with a better record than any of the other top-rankers in that practice session before the Shingi-iinkai (Yokozuna Deliberation Council) and the general public in the main hall of the Kokugikan.

The trouble with Akebono is that all too often he has bad days such as his losing bouts against Tochinonada last January and Miyabiyama in both of the last two basho. If he can recapture the momentum all the way to senshuraku that he had last July, he has a chance to win it all. But he has to go all-out every day and not ease up against anyone, all the while making sure to keep his hips down and to keep moving forward. Eleven to 12 wins and runnerup, with some hope of taking the yusho.

Miyabiyama, the third co-favorite, can be counted on to go all-out this time in a concerted effort to collect his first Makunouchi yusho. The big ex-collegian lost to Takanohana, komusubi Tosanoumi and No. 1 maegashira Kyokushuzan in March, but the one that must have hurt the most was his surprising and embarrassing upset on senshuraku by yusho-winner Takatoriki.

With a 12-3 runnerup record in January and an 11-4 mark in March, Miyabiyama can become the fifth ozeki if he's able to come through with another 12-3 mark, or maybe even 11 wins will be enough. He has never beaten Takanohana, however, although he has upset Akebono in the first two basho of this year. He is getting stronger with each passing basho, but he has to upset Takanohana to have a realistic chance to get his first yusho. Eleven to 12 wins and a tie for runnerup, but with an outside chance of taking the title.

Dejima playing catch-up

Although Dejima was always trailing in the yusho race last March, he managed to catch up at the end and tie for third with Takanohana and his two his stablemates -- Musashimaru and Miyabiyama -- at 11-4. He was fortunate that because of Takatoriki's surge toward the yusho he wasn't matched with Akebono in March. Besides, he doesn't have to fight his high-ranked stablemates, so he got by rather easily in the Haru Basho.

Dejima's big win, of course, was against Takanohana, but he also handed fellow-ozeki Takanonami his eighth loss and made him kadoban (vulnerable to demotion in the following basho). But taken all together, it wasn't a record really worthy of a tie with Takanohana, Musashimaru and Miyabiyama. About 10-11 wins this time.

Struggling ozeki pair

As for the other two ozeki, Chiyotaikai and Takanonami, they will both be struggling just to make kachi-koshi. Taikai got his eighth win on the last day, thanks to an (intentionally?) inept performance by Musashimaru. Nami was not so lucky, losing to Dejima on senshuraku. Obviously, Musashigawa and Futagoyama stables are not giving anything away to each other, which makes the bouts between the rivals from these two heya all the more exciting.

Chiyotaikai may have to really pull out all the stops from now on to stay on the winning side, and if he incurs any sort of an injury, he'll be in serious trouble. Eight wins again. As for Takanonami, he may be able to squeeze out eight wins in May, but the writing is obviously on the wall for him with the probability that he won't last out the year. He'll probably retire next time he's due to fall rather than accept demotion again. But Takanonami has been training much harder than usual to get back in top shape for this basho and should be able to save his rank with 8-9 wins.

Looking for upsets

For the other three rikishi in lower sanyaku (excluding Miyabiyama): Tochiazuma at sekiwake, and Tosanoumi and Kaio at komusubi, their role will be similar to that of the high-ranking maegashira -- to pull off as many upsets as possible but with no hope of making a run for the yusho. All three had 8-7 records in March, with Kaio barely making it on senshuraku.

Although they're not exactly over the hill yet, this trio has definitely leveled off lately and none of them appears likely to catch fire again in the near future. But they should be able to squeeze out eight wins again, provided they win all of their bouts against their maegashira opponents.

Further down the ranks, it should be interesting to see whether No. 7 maegashira Takanowaka and No. 11 Hayateumi can bounce back this time, and also how well shin-nyumaku No. 8 Kotomitsuke and No. 12 maegashira Tochinohana can do.

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