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Monday, May 22, 2000

Komusubi Kaio claims first Emperor's Cup

Special to The Japan Times

Seven years after entering the Makunouchi Division and 12 years after his sumo debut, Kaio finally captured his first yusho Sunday with an outstanding 14-1 record in the Natsu Basho at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan.

The 27-year-old komusubi did it by defeating No. 4 maegashira Tamakasuga while Akebono suffered his second setback at the hands of fellow-yokozuna Takanohana in the day's final bout.

Takanohana took the offensive right from the tachi-ai and soon had a morozashi (double-inside grip) against Akebono. Although Akebono was able to fend off Taka's first attempt to drive him out, Takanohana quickly resumed his assault, powered Akebono to the edge again and muscled him out by yorikiri.

It left Taka one-up in 41 bouts with his longtime rival and abruptly ended Akebono's hopes of forcing a playoff with Kaio and picking up his 10th yusho.

The 31-year-old yokozuna, whose last championship was in May 1997, thus had to settle for runnerup honors with Takanohana.

Ozeki Takanonami lost a thriller to sekiwake Miyabiyama and finished with a 6-9 record, ensuring his demotion from sumo's second-highest rank for the second time since the beginning of the year. Miyabiyama's 11-win performance coupled with the demotion of Takanonami may have earned the ex-collegian what he needed to gain promotion to ozeki, especially coming in the wake of his 11-4 mark in March and 12-3 runnerup performance in January.

In the head-on collision between the other two ozeki, Chiyotaikai pulled Dejima down onto all fours shortly after the tachi-ai. As a result, they wound up with a reverse of their records in March, with Taikai scoring a strong 11-4 mark and Dejima scraping by with 8-7.

In other results, komusubi Tosanoumi beat No. 7 maegashira Takanonami to finish at 9-6, his best record so far this year. Sekiwake Tochiazuma lost his last three bouts but still managed to end with a good 9-6 record.

Despite the fact that yokozuna Musashimaru, new ozeki Musoyama, shin-nyumaku/No. 8 maegashira Kotomitsuki and No. 9 Minatofuji were all sidelined, it was still one of the most exciting tournament races in recent years. No less than eight rikishi were in either first or second place at the end of the first week, and five were still in the running for the yusho after the 12th day, including Makunouchi newcomer Tochinohana.

Going into senshuraku, Kaio, Akebono and Takanohana all had a chance to take the title, although Taka's chances depended on Kaio and Akebono losing.

The sansho (three special prizes) were awarded as follows: Shukun-sho (Outstanding Performance Award): komusubi Kaio for the ninth time; Kanto-sho (Fighting Spirit Prize): Kaio, fifth time, sekiwake Miyabiyama, third time, and No. 12 maegashira Tochinohana, first time; and Gino-sho (Technique Prize): Tochinohana, first time.

Once again, Kaio has launched a new drive to reach ozeki, and if he can come up with at least 11 wins (or possibly 12), he could reach the coveted rank. One problem is that Miyabiyama could get there ahead of him if he's elevated to ozeki this week, thus bringing the ranks of ozeki up to four again.

In such a case, the Sumo Kyokai may be reluctant to promote a fifth candidate to ozeki after the Nagoya Basho unless Kaio comes up with an overwhelmingly strong record in July. In the past, Kaio was unable to follow up on his 12-3 runnerup record in March '97 and another 12-3 runnerup mark just one year ago in this same basho.

Kaio's only loss in the Natsu Basho came on the fifth day when Akebono boomed him off the dohyo in a one-sided bout, while Akebono's two defeats were to sekiwake Tochiazuma on the third day and to Takanohana. Both of these rikishi were virtually unbeatable in their other bouts, although Kaio narrowly escaped losing to Tochiazuma on the 14th day. Takanohana also made it through the 15-day basho with just two setbacks: to Kaio on the sixth day and to ozeki Chiyotaikai on the 13th day.

Miyabiyama's chances to keep up with the frontrunners received a serious setback at the end of the first week. After keeping pace with the leaders through the sixth day, the hefty sekiwake lost two in a row -- to Akebono and to Chiyotaikai. After surging back to win his next three bouts to improve his record to 8-3, he went down to his fourth defeat on the 12th day when Takanohana marched him out in a surprisingly one-sided match.

Chiyotaikai kept up with the frontrunners until the 12th day, when he lost his third bout -- surprisingly to No. 12 maegashira Tochinohana. Earlier, he lost to Kaio on the second day and to Tochiazuma on the sixth day. But Taikai's final 11-4 mark is his best record since his 13-2 yusho-winning performance in January '99.

On the other hand, Dejima's 8-7 record is his worst performance since that same New Year's Tournament of '99.

Ironically, komusubi Takatoriki finished with exactly the opposite record he attained last March, when he took the yusho with a strong 13-2 mark. But this time, he managed to win only two bouts while losing 13. Needless to say, probably because he showed very little fighting spirit this time, Riki is headed for a huge drop in the rankings for the upcoming Nagoya Basho.

Popular veteran Terao has been holding his own in the top division since July 1985 -- 15 years ago, but the 37-year-old No. 13 maegashira suffered a losing 5-10 record this time and is due to be demoted to the lower Juryo Division for the July basho.

Former No. 2 maegashira Wakanosato captured the Juryo yusho with a fine 12-3 record, while Kuniazuma of Brazil and Tamanoi Beya won the Makushita yusho with a perfect 7-0 record. It will be a question whether or not to promote Waka all the way from his Juryo No. 12 rank to Makunouchi.

No. 3 Juryo Takamisakari (11-4) of Azumazeki Beya will become Jesse's second top-division contender in July after Akebono. Juryo No. 2 Sentoryu, the half-Japanese, half-black rikishi from St. Louis, Mo., squeezed out an 8-7 record and has a good chance for promotion to the top division in July for the first time ever in his 12-year sumo career.

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