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Sunday, Jan. 7, 2001

Takanohana, Kaio favored in New Year sumo tourney


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to The Japan Times

The 21st century for sumo gets under way at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan today.

The outcome of the Hatsu Basho, or New Year's Tournament, has been relatively predictable over the years; seldom has it been won by competitors ranked below ozeki.

The rikishi in general seem to be healthier in January than in slightly warmer Osaka in March, with more competitors catching colds in the spring.

However, this year's Hatsu Basho could prove to be totally unpredictable.

After a full year without absence or injury, yokozuna Akebono has withdrawn due to ailing knees. Musashimaru is in poor shape, and most of the five ozeki look lackluster at best. Logically, this leaves yokozuna Takanohana and ozeki Kaio as co-favorites, but the presence of new giant killer Kotomitsuki could turn the basho topsy-turvy.

Musashimaru has not been able to train much in the past month due to an eye ailment. Like Akebono, he missed the special keiko session before the Yokozuna Shingiinkai (Yokozuna Deliberation Council) on Dec. 25. Musashimaru is likely to compete in January, but being out of shape, he is likely to be somewhat lumbering and clumsy. Certainly good enough for 10 wins -- given his latent power -- but with little prospect of taking the yusho until the winner's level slips down to the 11-4/12-3 level.

Musashimaru will turn 30 this May, and unless he can avoid injuries and keep his weight down, he could be facing the beginning of a gradual decline.

Takanohana due

The third yokozuna, Takanohana, is still only 28, but has not won a championship since September 1998. Though he won 20 yusho between January 1992 and September 1998, Taka looked battle-weary and somewhat washed up in 2000. He started well in November, with eight consecutive wins from the first day, but he fell apart in the last week, to finish with a less than impressive 11-4 record.

Nevertheless, Takanohana is in good shape this time, and despite the wear and tear and illnesses which have plagued him over the last few years, he is at least a co-favorite for the yusho. But he will have to work harder than ever before for the yusho. His Futagoyama Beya once had 10 rikishi in Makunouchi, most of whom were ranked in the sanyaku or upper-maegashira level. These competitors provided Takanohana and his elder brother Wakanohana, now retired, with a shield of sorts -- permitting them to face relatively low, less impressive maegashira who did not face the non-Futagoyama Beya yokozuna and ozeki.

In the last couple of years, that shield has totally fallen apart. Takanohana is now the only Futagoyama Beya rikishi in sanyaku. Former ozeki Takanonami, now just a spent shadow of his old self, has fallen down to the maegashira ranks, while former sekiwake Akinoshima and Takatoriki are both well into their 30s and long past their prime. And to make matters worse, Futagoyama Beya has few promising rikishi rising through the lower divisions.

Futagoyama Beya had a disastrous year in 2000, with yokozuna Wakanohana retiring at the early age of 29 (and leaving sumo altogether at the end of the year), while Takanonami lost his ozeki rank. The heya was also beset by scandals, real and imagined, and has had difficulty in attracting new recruits. In the mid-1990s, Futagoyama Beya had 50 deshi, now only 27 remain.

However, Futagoyama Oyakata (ex-ozeki Takanohana I) has resolved to rescue his heya's fortunes. He now personally supervises keiko everyday, and his wife (Takanohana's mother) has returned to the heya after months of life out of public view.

Perhaps the better mood in his heya will give Takanohana the impetus to make a successful comeback and take his 21st yusho in the Hatsu Basho.

Kaio rounding into form

Ozeki Kaio is a co-favorite for the yusho. He has two 11-4 records since his promotion after the Nagoya Basho last year, despite being in poor condition. This time he is said to be in very good shape, and could go all the way. He turns 29 this July, and in all probability will have his best chance to achieve yokozuna promotion this year.

Basically just about as strong as the yokozuna, Kaio still needs to become more stable.

In the past, his tachi-ai (initial charge) has tended to be wishy-washy. On some days, it is perfect, like a thunderbolt, while at other times a slow tachi-ai puts him at a disadvantage in a defensive struggle with a faster-moving opponent. If Kaio can survive unscathed in the first week, he may have a real chance to go all the way. Not too much can be expected of the other ozeki. Dejima, Chiyotaikai, and Musoyama have all won the yusho once at sekiwake, but never at ozeki. All three rikishi excel at thrusting and pushing, but tend to be weak in a protracted defensive struggle. Dejima and Chiyotaikai can be awesome when their tachi-ai is on the mark, enabling them to tackle an opponent with a single thrusting or pushing attack. Chiyotaikai seems to have become capable to winning in double-digits in most tournaments, but like Dejima, he does not train sufficiently hard. Musoyama, the oldest of the three, turns 29 in March. He may have to struggle just to hold his ozeki rank last year. He was demoted from ozeki last year after only two tournaments at the rank, but managed to return by the skin of his teeth.

The fifth and youngest ozeki, Miyabiyama (23), has the greatest promise in the longterm, and is a stronger yokozuna prospect than even Kaio in the future. His promotion last year was a bit premature, but in all likelihood, he will be able to win his first yusho this year, though it is not likely to be in January. He must first gain on master newcomer Kotomitsuki and become more of a threat to the yokozuna.

Two sekiwake upstarts

There are two promising new sekiwake this time -- Wakanosato and Kotomitsuki.

Wakanosato is a spoiler and an upsetter -- he was the only rikishi to defeat Akebono in November -- but he needs more time to really make his mark.

Kotomitsuki, competing for the first time in Makunouchi in November (he was absent when first promoted to the top division in May 2000), achieved a remarkable 13-2 record, including upsets over yokozuna Musashimaru and ozeki Dejima, Miyabiyama, and Musoyama. He was in the race for the yusho until the end. In training in late December, Kotomitsuki looked very impressive, totally overwhelming ozeki Dejima.

Though Kotomitsuki began his professional sumo career less than two years ago, in March 1999, he must be regarded as a strong darkhorse candidate for the yusho in January. If he does win, he will be the first rikishi with a simple chonmage (his hair is still not quite sufficiently long for the more elaborate oichomage used by sekitori) to hold the Emperor's Cup. Even the most promising rikishi tend to have a setback when they enter the sanyaku for the first time, but Kotomitsuki could prove to be an exception. A year ago, he was a powerful, but slow juryo rikishi; today he is a fast, extremely powerful rikishi with good technique.

He has what it takes to reach ozeki this year, and win a yusho or two, but the odds are that he will have a slight setback in January with nine or 10 wins. He poses a serious threat to all the yokozuna and ozeki.

The two komusubi, Takanowaka and Tochinonada, are expected to struggle and are unlikely to come even close to holding their ranks. Tochinonada is making his first venture to sanyaku in three years, while Takanowaka, who is reputed to be nearly as promising as Wakanosato, is making his sanyaku debut. While both rikishi are likely to fall short of kachi-koshi, they are sufficiently strong to upset an ozeki or two.



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