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Monday, July 24, 2000

Nagoya Basho ends in both triumph and disappointment


Akebono wrapped up the Nagoya Basho on both triumphant and disappointing notes, losing to fellow-yokozuna Musashimaru in the final bout but finishing his first yusho in more than three years with an excellent 13-2 record and reaching his long-awaited goal of 10 championships.

But he lost a golden opportunity to rack up the first perfect performance of his career by suffering consecutive losses to ozeki Chiyotaikai and Musashimaru on the last two days.

Sekiwake Tochiazuma finished in the runnerup position with his best record ever of 12-3, giving him a leg-up on his long-delayed quest to gain promotion to sumo's second-highest rank of ozeki. The other sekiwake, Kaio, virtually assured himself of ozeki promotion by easily defeating No. 4 maegashira Wakanoyama to wind up with his target record of 11-4.

In contrast to these two achievements, Musoyama lost his newly won ozeki rank following a combination of an absence and a 4-11 losing record, while ozeki Miyabiyama got off to a losing debut as a new ozeki with a poor 6-9 mark.

In other results, sekiwake Takanonami failed to win the right to return to his lost ozeki rank by ending up with a 7-8 record when he needed at least 10 wins to return to ozeki in September.

The other two ozeki, Chiyotaikai and Dejima, came through with strong 11-4 and 10-5 performances, respectively, but the two komusubi both ended up with losing marks, Tosanoumi failing to make kachi-koshi (majority of wins) for the first time since last July, and Tamakasuga completely collapsing with a disastrous 2-13 mark.

American Sentoryu made a successful debut in the Makunouchi Division by eking out an 8-7 record at No. 13 maegashira, and former top-division hopeful Wakanosato completed his return to Makunouchi by capturing the Juryo Division title with a strong 13-2 record.

The sansho, special prizes, were awarded as follows: Shukun-sho (Outstanding Performance Award) -- sekiwake Kaio (11-4), who defeated two of the three yokozuna --Takanohana and Musashimaru. It was Kaio's 10th Shukun-sho and ties him with ex-ozeki Asashio for the all-time record.

The Kanto-sho (Fighting Spirit Prize) was split between two shin-nyumaku -- No. 11 maegashira Takamisakari and No. 13 Aminishiki, both of whom finished with strong 10-5 records.

The Gino-sho (Technique Prize) was won by sekiwake Tochiazuma, who attained his best-ever record of 12-3, which included upsets of yokozuna Musashimaru and Takanohana as well as ozeki Miyabiyama and Musoyama.

Overall, the Nagoya Basho was not all that exciting, with Akebono moving into the lead with a one-win advantage on the fifth day and increasing that to two wins by the 10th day and to three wins at the end of the 12th day.

The real interest was focused on whether Akebono could come through with the first perfect record of his career (winning the tournament was a given) and on whether Kaio would be able to collect 11 wins and assure himself of promotion to ozeki. (Since Miyabiyama was promoted to ozeki on the strength of 11 wins in May, 11 in March and 12 in January for a three-basho total of 34 wins, the Sumo Kyokai can't deny promotion to Kaio, who had a total of 33 wins, including the yusho in May, over three basho.

The problem is that the Kyokai's last two ozeki promotions have backfired, with Musoyama losing the rank only two basho after he became ozeki (one absence in May and a losing 4-11 record this time), and Miyabiyama becoming kadoban (susceptible to demotion after one losing record) as a result of his 6-9 ozeki debut.

Now two new candidates currently ranked at sekiwake are knocking on the door to ozeki -- Kaio and Tochiazuma. And the Sumo Kyokai must abide by the guidelines it has set for ozeki promotion and not try to change them until a period is reached when there are no qualified candidates waiting in the wings.

Although Akebono made it unscathed through the first 13 days, mostly by blowing away his opponents in one-sided fashion, he did have a couple of close escapes, including his bout with No. 1 maegashira Tochinohana on the sixth day, ozeki Dejima on the ninth day, No. 4 Oginishiki on the 12th day and ozeki Miyabiyama on the 13th day.

Most of these close calls were a result of Akebono's difficulty in maintaining his balance, and even his first loss on the 14th day resulted from Chiyotaikai's superior ring agility and not from any offensive power or technical prowess on the ozeki's part.

Only fellow-yokozuna Musashimaru displayed real power and superior bout tactics in his win over Akebono on the final day, getting a better grip on the mawashi and quickly driving him out when Akebono suddenly tried to switch grips.

It was pretty much accepted by the halfway point that Akebono would take the yusho, and so most of the interest in the second half of the basho was focused on whether he could go all the way this time without losing. Back in March 1995, the yokozuna also went into the 14th day with a perfect record, but a very skillful ozeki named Wakanohana spoiled that chance by dealing him his first defeat.

And now in July 2000, history virtually repeated itself, except that this time Akebono lost both of his last two matches. Of course, all credit is due to Akebono for his impressive 13-2 triumph, but the odds are against the 31-year-old yokozuna's getting a third chance to collect that elusive zensho yusho before he finally hangs it up.

Akebono thus joins the select group of 12 yokozuna and one ozeki who have won the yusho in double figures: Taiho (32), Chiyonofuji (31), Kitanoumi (24), Takanohana II (20), Wajima (13), Wakanohana I (10), Tochinishiki (10), Futabayama (12), Tsunenohana (10), Tachiyama (11), Inazuma (10), Tanikaze (21) and (ozeki) Raiden (28).

Kaio came through with his minimum 11 wins the hard way, winning his first six out of eight bouts, and then dropping his next two bouts to stand with an unpromising 6-4 record by the 10th day. Thus, he needed to win all of his five remaining matches if he hoped to keep his ozeki hopes alive --and that is exactly what he did, driving out Wakanoyama on senshuraku despite the No. 4 maegashira's attempt to jump aside at the tachi-ai.

Thus, Kaio barely got in under the wire. His four losses came at the hands of yokozuna Akebono, ozeki Chiyotaikai, sekiwake Takanonami and No. 1 maegashira Tochinohana, who was competing in only his second top-division basho. But in the end, he came through with the minimum 11-4 record he needed to be considered for promotion to ozeki.

Two of the four ozeki -- Chiyotaikai and Dejima -- came through in true champion style, Taikai with an 11-4 record and Dejima with 10-5, but the other two -- Musoyama and Miyabiyama -- turned in disastrous performances.

Chiyotaikai's strong 11-4 performance reached its peak on the 14th day when he handed Akebono a stunning defeat, thus preventing the yokozuna from combining his yusho victory with a perfect record. Miyabiyama handed him his fourth loss on senshuraku in a surprisingly one-sided bout.

But another of Taikai's victories -- over Kaio on the ninth day -- was unworthy of his rank when he did henka (jumping aside at the tachi-ai) against a lower-ranked opponent. Once someone reaches the second-highest rank of ozeki, he is expected to take on all comers in a frontal attack and prove that he is worthy of his promotion.

In other words, Chiyotaikai performed on the ninth day in a manner unworthy of his ozeki rank. His one-sided losses to fellow-ozeki Dejima and Miyabiyama shows what can happen when he collides head-on with opponents holding the same or a higher rank.

Dejima has also been known to do henka, most significantly in his playoff with Akebono in the previous Nagoya Basho in '99. Otherwise, however, he always charges head-on into his opponents at the tachiai -- and generally comes out the winner, often against the yokozuna.

His loss to Toki on the third day must have given him a wakeup call because he reached the seventh day with a 6-1 record. But two successive losses at the hands of Akebono and Kaio left him at 6-3 on the ninth day and virtually out of the running for the yusho. He won a key match with fellow-ozeki Chiyotaikai on the 12th day, as he went on to register a strong 10-5 mark.

Musoyama missed the Natsu Basho because of injuries to his hip as well as his arm and thus was kadoban in May. In fact, he didn't resume training until mid-June and was obviously forced to compete this time in an effort to rescue his rank despite his poor condition.

But it was not to be, as the ozeki fell behind from 3-3 on the sixth day to 3-6 by the ninth day and 3-10 by the 13th day. His miserable performance was not offset by a 14th-day win, and he wound up with a 4-11 record and demotion to sekiwake in September, when he has a chance to return to ozeki if he can win at least 10 bouts.

As for Miyabiyama, he injured his right shoulder during the basho and was heavily taped up during the latter stages of the tournament. He seemed to be holding his own by the halfway point with a 4-4 record, but he lost three bouts in a row from the 12th to the 14th days, suffering make-koshi (failure to win a majority of bouts) on the 13th day with a 5-8 record. He finally got his sixth win on senshuraku by beating Chiyotaikai. The one-time college star must now get at least eight wins in September to rescue his newly won rank.

Tochiazuma produced his best-ever record of 12-3, thereby becoming a new candidate for ozeki promotion. If he can chalk up 11 wins in September, he has a chance to move up to the increasingly crowded champion rank.

If Kaio is promoted, Miyabiyama gets 8 or more wins in September, Musoyama makes 10 in the Aki Basho and Tochiazuma does well enough next time to be promoted, it would create six ozeki by November.

Tochi started off with a bang, upsetting a yokozuna (Takanohana) and an ozeki (Miyabiyama) in the first three days before losing to Akebono on the fourth day. His second loss came on the sixth day in his bout with Chiyotaikai, while his third and last defeat was against Kaio on the 11th day. He upset two yokozuna, including Musashimaru on the eighth day, and two ozeki -- Miyabiyama and Musoyama -- to attain his fifth Gino-sho.

Komusubi Tosanoumi, who has held a sanyaku rank since last September, failed to squeeze out his 8th win on senshuraku and was forced to finish with his first losing mark (7-8) since last July. His biggest wins came against yokozuna Musashimaru on the second day and both ozeki Miyabiyama on the sixth day and Musoyama on the 11th day.

The other komusubi, Tamakasuga, however, completely collapsed with a 2-13 mark, getting his first win against ozeki Musoyama on the 10th day and his last win against sekiwake Takanonami on the 11th day.

Promising newcomers, No. 1 Tochinohana (5-10) and No. 2 Takanowaka (6-9) ended up with make-koshi records, but shin-nyumaku No. 11 maegashira Takamisakari had a great basho with 10 wins and a share of the Kanto-sho.

Another first-timer, No. 13 Aminishiki also turned in a good 10-5 performance and received the Fighting Spirit Prize as well. No. 9 Chiyotenzan made a long-awaited comeback, also with 10 wins. No. 5 maegashira Hayateumi in his first test against the top-rankers managed to collect the minimum eight wins, which included three big upsets over ozeki Dejima, ozeki Miyabiyama and komusubi Tosanoumi.

Besides Wakanosato's Juryo championship, another Mongolian -- Senshu-yama of Wakamatsu Beya -- took the Makushita Division title with a perfect 7-0 record and will be coming up to the second-highest division of Juryo in September. That will make three Mongolian sekitori, including Kyokushuzan and Kyokutenho of Oshima Beya.

Meanwhile, I must say sayonara to all sumo fans since this is my last sumo preview/review for The Japan Times. I'll be returning to the United States later this year -- to San Diego. Thanks for all your support through the last 40 years or so.

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