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Monday, Nov. 20, 2000

Akebono king of Kyushu


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to The Japan Times

Akebono, facing a potential playoff with No. 9 maegashira Kotomitsuki, overwhelmed fellow-yokozuna Musashimaru in the final bout of the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament on Sunday at Fukuoka International Center to take his 11th yusho with a 14-1 record.

It was the first time Akebono has won more than one championship in a year since 1993, the year he was promoted to yokozuna. Akebono also achieved his best record since March 1995.

The 31-year-old also had his best year since his promotion to yokozuna -- 11-4 in January, 12-3 in March, 13-2 in May, 13-2 in July (with the yusho), 13-2 in September, and finally 14-1 in November. This remarkable comeback for Akebono was in large part due to his seemingly full recovery from knee injuries, which have plagued him in the past, and the mediocre performance of yokozuna Musashimaru and Takanohana.

Akebono's two yusho this year were even more remarkable considering that he was probably only a single loss away from retirement when he got off to a poor start after returning from a lengthy absence in May last year. With old nemesis Takanohana fading and unlikely to recover the level he reached in the mid-1990s, Akebono is likely to remain the dominant yokozuna as long as he can avoid injury. With Kotomitsuki winning his 13th bout just minutes before, Akebono was obviously tense as he mounted the dohyo for his showdown with Musashimaru.

After an initial exchange of slaps, Akebono quickly got his hands on Musashimaru's mawashi and wasted no time in driving him to the edge. Maru put up a heroic struggle at the edge, but Akebono refused to relent and finally forced his 29-year-old rival out. Musashimaru, who had been one of the leading candidates for the yusho until the last few days, finished with an 11-4 record.

Maru was undefeated in Fukuoka until he fell to little-regarded No. 3 maegashira Chiyotenzan on the seventh day. But it was his humiliation at the hands of Kotomitsuki on the 11th day that robbed Maru of his momentum.

Although his 11-4 record is considered passable for a yokozuna, he seemed to lack the speed and agility in November that brought him his only yusho this year in September.

Takanohana had no trouble defeating ozeki Kaio on senshuraku to improve to 11-4. However, the Kyushu basho was very disappointing for Takanohana; he won his first eight bouts with the type of generalship that brought him 20 yusho from 1992-98. But he fell apart in the second week when he faced most ozeki and yokozuna, falling to Musoyama, Chiyotaikai, Musashimaru and Akebono. He only narrowly overcame upstart Kotomitsuki.

Taka appeared to lose both stamina and fighting spirit in the second week. Perhaps the sour mood in his Futagoyama stable is catching up with him. The stable had 10 strong makunouchi rikishi in the mid-1990s; now only Takanonami, Akinoshima, and Takatoriki remain, and all are washed up and nearing retirement.

The three veterans took a terrible drubbing in the Kyushu Basho, while Takanohana had to face the entire sanyaku, with the exception of Takanonami. Although he is only 28, Takanohana has not won the yusho for more than two years, and one wonders whether he can ever take the title again, or for that matter, last much longer. Having reached Makunouchi at the early age of 17, his shelf life as a rikishi has nearly expired.

While Kaio finished with a respectable 11-4 record despite a knee injury, his fellow ozeki all had mediocre 9-6 records. Chiyotaikai lost his last five bouts, Miyabiyama five of his last six bouts, while Dejima was victorious on senshuraku after losing the three previous days.

The weakness of the ozeki, and the shameful performance the three of them offered in their bouts with Kotomitsuki, took much excitement out of this basho. Even though five ozeki were competing for the first time in 13 years, their presence wasn't felt.

This basho did not see a single manin-onrei (full house), the first tournament without a capacity crowd since the early 1930s. The popularity of sumo has declined rather drastically in Japan in the last several years, after reaching an all-time peak in the early 1990s with the rise of Takanohana and Wakanohana.

However, there are some hopeful signs for the future. No. 9 maegashira Kotomitsuki, competing in Makunouchi for the first time (he was absent due to an injury in his debut in the division in May 2000), created a sensation by achieving an unbelievable 13-2 record, the best record for a rikishi making his first appearance in Makunouchi since Mutsuarashi (March 1967), who also achieved a 13-2 record.

Kotomitsuki was dripping with nervous perspiration Sunday going into his final bout with ozeki Musoyama. But he had the bearing of a seasoned pro once he clashed with his opponent. Kotomitsuki took the offensive from the start and made Muso appear a rank amateur. At a loss for how to deal with the powerful maegashira, Musoyama was finally pushed out from behind. Kotomitsuki would have faced Akebono in a playoff for the yusho if the yokozuna had lost his bout.

Akebono wisely made a supreme effort against Musashimaru. If he had lost, he might have faced an uphill struggle to win a playoff with Koto. If Kotomitsuki had won the yusho, he would have been the first rikishi (since the current championship system was launched in 1909) to win the title without an oichomage (the elaborate hairstyle used by rikishi in Makunouchi and Juryo). Having entered professional sumo in March 1999, his hair is still not sufficiently long enough for more than a simple chonmage.

Twenty-four-year-old Kotomitsuki won 27 championships as an amateur, and also won the Juryo yusho in September with a 14-1 record. Though he is somewhat shorter than most Makunouchi rikishi at only 179 cm, he is exceptionally powerful as well as skillful. He appears to be of a considerably higher caliber than other promising young rikishi of his generation -- such as Miyabiyama, Wakanosato, Hayateumi, and Takanowaka. It will be very interesting to see how well he does in January. By all indications, it is just a question of time before he wins the Makunouchi yusho.

Kotomitsuki was awarded all three special prizes this time -- the Outstanding Performance Prize, the Technique Prize, and the Fighting Spirit Prize. He became the first rikishi to make a complete sweep of the sansho since Dejima in July 1999.

Of the three new sanyaku rikishi this time, only Wakanosato achieved kachi-koshi. While he upset Akebono on the third day, Wakanosato faltered in the first week, but made a strong recovery in the second week with eight consecutive wins, going all the way from 1-6 to 9-6.

Wakanosato shared the Outstanding Performance Prize with Kotomitsuki and will be promoted to sekiwake in January.

New sekiwake Hayateumi withdrew at 4-5 due to an injury, while new komusubi Tochinohana totally collapsed with a very poor 3-12 record. Sekiwake Takanonami, a former two-time ozeki, was winless until the ninth day, but won six of his last seven bouts to end up at 6-9. However, he is due to be demoted down to the maegashira level for the first time since the early 1990s.

Kotomitsuki is likely to join Wakanosato at sekiwake in January, while the vacant komusubi slots will probably be taken by Tochinonada, who had a 10-5 record at No. 7 maegashira and Takanowaka, who achieved a strong 11-4 mark at No. 8 maegashira.

The Juryo yusho was taken by Kinkaiyama with a 12-3 record -- his third Juryo title. Komahikari won in Makushita, Dewanofuji in Sandanme, Haraguchi in Jonidan, and Fusanoumi in Jonokuchi. All the yusho in Makushita and below were won with 7-0 records.



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