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Sunday, July 9, 2000

Men of Musashigawa set sights on Nagoya Basho

Special to The Japan Times

With Musashigawa Beya's heavy guns -- yokozuna Musashimaru and the ozeki trio of Musoyama, Miyabiyama and Dejima -- getting ready to roll out on the dohyo to do battle with yokozuna Takanohana and yokozuna Akebono, sumo action in the Nagoya Basho opens today at the Aichi Kenritsu Taikukan. Taka and Akebono are slight favorites closely followed by Maru and Miyabi, while sekiwake Kaio -- the yusho victor of the Natsu Basho last May -- is regarded as the tourney dark horse. Ozeki Musoyama and ozeki Dejima must be listed as also-rans.

Meanwhile, the pressure is also on sekiwake Takanonami to wind up with at least 10 wins in order to win back the ozeki rank he lost after two successive make-koshi (losing) records in March and May. The odds that he'll be able to make his second return to ozeki since last November are only about 50-50, at best. If Nami gets his 10 wins to ensure his return to ozeki and if Musoyama, who is kadoban (vulnerable to demotion after one losing record), gets at least eight wins -- and if Kaio comes through with at least 11 wins, it would mean a historic ranking of six ozeki in September.

Although it has only been four basho since Musashimaru took his last championship, Akebono hasn't won the yusho in more than three years -- since May '97 and Takanohana has gone winless for almost two years -- since September '99. On the other hand, newly promoted ozeki Miyabiyama must be just as hungry. He won his first four basho (two in Makushita and two in Juryo) after entering professional sumo two years ago in July '98, but he has now gone more than a year in Makunouchi without capturing the top prize.

Akebono turned 31 last May and needs to go all-out before it's too late if he ever hopes to capture his 10th yusho. Just a year ago in the Nagoya Basho of '99, he nearly made it. Standing 13-1 going into sen-shuraku (final day), he was only one win away from wrapping it up on the last day, but a loss to Musashimaru in his final bout set up a playoff with Dejima. Still a sekiwake at the time, Dejima fooled Akebono by doing henka (jumping aside at the tachi-ai) for the first time in his Makunouchi career and "stole" the yusho from the yokozuna. Akebono was also frustrated in March by bottom-ranked Takatoriki, who beat him out for the title by one win: 13-2 to 12-3. Then in May, the aging yokozuna had a chance to tie Kaio on the last day, but he lost to fellow-yokozuna Takanohana in their senshuraku showdown.

Akebono still hasn't shown any signs of slowing down, partly because he has been on the sidelines since mid-'94 for 166 bouts -- the equivalent of more than seven basho. All those absences could very well have extended his career for at least a year. If he can avoid losses like the one he absorbed on the third day by sekiwake Tochiazuma last May, he could finally go all the way in July. 13 wins and a slight advantage for the yusho.

Takanohana will be Akebono's main rival in their quest for the championship. But he must avoid another letdown like the ones he had in his bouts with Kaio on the sixth day and Chiyotaikai on the 13th day last May. It may be difficult, but he needs to psych himself up for every bout -- every day, especially when he comes up against fast-chargers like Dejima and Taikai.

Taka will be 28 in August, but he is still capable of performing like a yokozuna for another two or three years. Since last November, he has averaged 11.75 wins per basho and that translates as three runnerup finishes and one third-place result -- all just short of winning however. Now, he must stimulate himself and crank up his sumo one more notch to get back on the winning track. 12-13 wins and possible yusho if he can force a playoff.

Musashimaru is back in reasonably good condition and is undoubtedly anxious to pick up where he left off last November, when he won his last yusho with a 12-3 record after that historic struggle with fellow-yokozuna Takanohana on senshuraku. His various physical problems, including a wrist injury, are apparently under control. And since he doesn't have to fight three of the four ozeki, he has a much-easier schedule than either of his two fellow-yokozuna. But to have a real shot at collecting his eighth yusho, he needs at least to split his final two bouts with his fellow-yokozuna Akebono and Takanohana, provided, of course, that he avoids more than one upset. 11 or 12 wins and second or third place.

After two years in professional sumo, Miyabiyama would like nothing better in July then to celebrate his ozeki debut by emerging as the winner of the Nagoya Basho. He has been especially impressive in keiko, overwhelming stablemate ozeki Daiju in 14 of their 16 pretournament practice bouts shortly before the basho opened.

Miyabiyama's recent promotion to sumo's second-highest rank has resulted in making Musashigawa Beya the first stable ever to field a yokozuna and three ozeki in the same basho. Although Miyabi has been unable to beat Takanohana so far -- although he has what it takes to go all the way, he could finally break the ice by defeating his opponents at the top and capturing his first top-division yusho. Maybe not this time, however. 11-12 wins and runnerup at best.

Chiyotaikai had his best score in May, 11-4, since his promotion to ozeki in late January '99. He admits that he's "in decent shape" this time, but because he depends almost entirely on his opening charge and followup de-ashi, he needs to be in top shape every time. About his only other good move besides his tsuki/oshi attack is his ability to come up with a crucial hatakikomi technique, reversing his line of attack and suddenly pulling his opponent forward head over heels. He's also a very agile and elusive opponent at the edge, as he has shown by outmaneuvering such opponents there as Musashimaru and Dejima. Nine-10 wins.

Dejima slipped to eight wins last time -- his lowest score since his promotion a year ago -- from 11 wins in March, and although he has not been very impressive in practice, he should be able to bounce back with wins in double figures in July. As long as he is able to maintain his momentum from his opening charge, he can sometimes shift to the mawashi and win with a belt technique. He has plenty of speed and power, but he lacks the agility of someone like Chiyotakai. Nine-10 wins.

Now kadoban (vulnerable to demotion after one losing or absent basho), Musoyama could become the first ozeki in history to be demoted from that rank without ever having defended it. He resumed training at the end of June after recovering from a persistent, lower back injury, working his way up from bouts with Makushita opponents to matches with higher and higher-ranked sekitori rivals in his heya. He admitted earlier this month that he still hadn't regained his full strength, but was "only about 60 or 70 percent." He said, however, that he would give it his all this time. About nine wins.

Once again, Kaio stands within one strong performance of reaching ozeki. Unfortunately for him, however, something seems to go wrong every time -- a bad injury or a disheartening letdown, etc. In the last five years or so, he has suffered at least five lost opportunities. But this time, the sekiwake has looked unusually strong in prebasho practice sessions. In one series of bouts with komusubi Tosanoumi, for instance, he won 9 out of their 10 matches.

Yokozuna Akebono was heard to remark that Kaio looks even stronger than he did in May, when he won every bout except one -- and that loss was to Akebono. Kaio said he didn't expect to jump out to an early lead in Nagoya, as he did last May, but acknowledged that he hadn't done anything "ridiculous" since winning the Natsu Basho. At least, he has avoided wearing himself out in training for the basho, as he did last year, admitting that he had "practiced like an idiot so that I was worn out before the basho even began." About 11 wins and promotion to ozeki.

Tochiazuma has been knocking on the ozeki door for the last few years, but he invariably alternates a good, double-figure performance with a letdown to a barely passing 8-7 mark. He's small but tough, tricky and elusive but vulnerable. Perhaps the memory of his severe injury a few years ago has made him a bit too cautious, but he's still young at 23 and can bide his time for a few more years before he needs to make his move. In the meantime, he should try to get more speed in his sumo and become more aggressive. Nine-10 wins.

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