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Sunday, March 11, 2001

Takanohana faces challenge from Maru

Special to The Japan Times

Yokozuna Takanohana, who won his first tournament in over two years in January, is determined to continue his winning ways in the Haru Basho, which gets under way at the Osaka Furitsu Taikukan today.

Takanohana will be aiming for his first consecutive championships since July and September 1998. The yokozuna is in fine condition, achieving a perfect 14-0 record at a training session on March 8 with wins over Akinoshima, Takanonami and other rikishi from his Futagoyama Beya.

Takanohana seems to have completely recovered from the lingering injuries that relegated him to the sidelines in 1999 and 2000, as well as ailments, including a liver problem, that sapped his strength.

At around 160 kg, he is now heavier than he has ever been, but his mobility on the dohyo does not appear to have been affected. To the contrary, he appears to be most stable at his current weight.

Having gone undefeated until the 14th day in January, Takanohana should be setting his sights on a perfect 15-0 record in March. No rikishi has achieved zensho (a perfect 15-0 record) in Makunouchi since September 1996. In fact there have been only five 15-0 yusho in the top division since January 1990 -- four by Takanohana, and one by Musashimaru.

Takanohana is still young at 28, but he is battleworn, having reached the Makunouchi at the record early age of 17 in May 1990. Many yokozuna in the past have started to decline after their chief rivals retired. Takanohana's chief rival was, of course, Akebono, who announced his retirement after the January tournament.

After Tochinishiki retired in May 1960, his erstwhile rival Wakanohana I started to fade, though still at his prime, and was gone within two years. The great Taiho was 29 when his rival Kashiwado retired in July 1969. Taiho followed Kashiwado into retirement in May 1971. Kitanoumi outlasted his rival Wajima, who retired in March 1981, by nearly four years, and won four more yusho, but he was never the same, and hung on for his last couple of years to fulfill his ambition of competing in the new Ryogoku Kokugikan, which opened in January 1985.

Takanohana still has a rival in yokozuna Musashimaru, but with Akebono gone he will inevitably feel that his own era is drawing to a close. For now, however, Takanohana, is the man to beat. He is in top shape, and there is nobody, other than Musashimaru and ozeki Kaio, who can really be expected to provide competition for the yusho.

Fellow yokozuna Musashimaru is also in good shape this time. However, he has slackened off fairly dramatically in his training regimen in the last few days before the basho opens. There is nothing unusual about relaxing a bit as opening day approaches, but Maru has a tendency to under-train, rather than overtrain.

Musashimaru will turn 30 in May, but shows no sign of slowing down. Since he has had few injuries and no major health problems over the years, the odds are quite high that Musashimaru will outlast Takanohana.

The most powerful rikishi in sumo today, Musashimaru's only real rival is himself. He tends to be fickle, and his de-ashi (first step) can run hot and cold. When he moves fast on the dohyo, and holds his balance, Maru is virtually invincible. On the defensive, he can also compete quite competently, but not with the same overwhelming advantage.

If Takanohana absorbs a couple of losses in the first week, Musashimaru is likely to become the favorite. If the championship race goes down to the wire in an even struggle between the two yokozuna, Maru will be in with a good chance. Taka once had overwhelming superiority in his rivalry with Musashimaru, but not any more. If he can't take the title, Musashimaru is likely to be runnerup with at least 12 bouts.

Ozeki Kaio, the only real yokozuna candidate at present, is in exceptionally good condition and has a chance to win the yusho himself if the yokozuna falter. Kaio turns 29 in July and if he is ever to go beyond ozeki needs to make his move to yokozuna this year. He is apparently determined to lay a foundation stone toward promotion to yokozuna.

In terms of sheer strength, Kaio certainly has yokozuna-class capability. His tachi-ai (initial charge), however, tends to be somewhat wimpy. He can be fast, and exceptionally destructive, but more often than not he starts slowly, and can be outflanked by inferior opponents. If he can maintain a consistently strong tachi-ai, he will pose a serious threat to both yokozuna, and will be a strong contender for the yusho. However, it is more likely that he will continue to have his good and bad days, and end with a solid, but not overwhelmingly outstanding, 11-4 or 12-3 record.

Less can be expected of the other ozeki. Musoyama and Miyabiyama seem to be stuck in the 8-7, 9-6 rut. Miyabiyama, who simply trains insufficiently and seems to lack a killer instinct, looks especially vulnerable. Still only 23, he should be winning at least 10 bouts per basho and making his presence felt in the yusho race. However, he is simply relaxing and making the minimum effort at this point.

The older Musoyama, who turned 29 in February, has superior fighting spirit to Miyabiyama, who also belongs to Musashigawa Beya. Musoyama, while strong, tends to lack a sense of coordination in his sumo. In fact, his offensive and defensive coordination is more out of sync than when he was promoted to Makunouchi in September 1993. Both Miyabiyama and Musoyama are likely to achieve kachi-koshi (winning marks), but will have difficulty going beyond 9-6 records.

Ozeki Dejima, also from Musashigawa Beya, is kadoban, in other words he will be demoted from ozeki if he fails to win eight or more bouts in March, as he failed in January with a 7-8 record.

Dejima, like Kaio, has an erratic tachi-ai. Unlike Kaio, Dejima has no effective defense at all. If he doesn't stay on the move, he loses. He had one good tournament, in July 1999, when he won the yusho at sekiwake, but in nine basho at ozeki he has never really figured in the yusho race. The odds are that he will achieve kachi-koshi in March with nine or 10 wins. If he fails and is demoted to sekiwake, the odds may be against him returning to ozeki.

The fifth ozeki, Chiyotaikai, is sidelined with an injured right ankle. He withdrew on the fifth day in January and will be kadoban when he returns to the dohyo in May. Chiyotaikai has performed at a higher level than Dejima, Miyabiyama, and Musoyama, however, and should be able to preserve his ozeki rank when he returns to action.

Sekiwake Wakanosato is emerging as a strong ozeki candidate. He had a 9-6 record at komusubi last November followed by 10-5 at sekiwake in January. While his sumo is rather orthodox, Wakanosato is becoming stronger with each basho and is a threat to both yokozuna and all the ozeki. However, he may have to meet exceptional standards if he is to be promoted to ozeki in the near future. There have never been more than five ozeki. The Sumo Kyokai places great weight on precedents, and since there is no precedent for having a sixth ozeki, Wakanosato will have to prove beyond all doubt that he is worthy of being promoted. However, if he can avoid injuring his knees again, Wakanosato has a strong chance of eventually reaching ozeki. While not yet a strong yusho candidate, Wakanosato can be expected to win nine or 10 bouts in March.

The other sekiwake is Tochinonada, who is new to the rank. A journeyman maegashira, Tochinonada really excelled at komusubi in January with a 9-6 record. He is a spoiler and an upsetter, having achieved six kinboshi (upsets of yokozuna by maegashira) over the years. Tochinonada may have difficulty holding his new sekiwake rank, but he is a dangerous and frequently underrated opponent for the yokozuna and ozeki.

Tochiazuma is back at komusubi and will face yokozuna Takanohana on the opening day (Musahimaru has a less formidable opponent, Kyokutenho). Tochiazuma is eager to give Wakanosato competition in the race for ozeki promotion, and undoubtedly he will make his move in the near future, save for another injury. Now just about fully recovered from the injury that sidelined him late last year, Tochiazuma is likely to win 10 or 11 bouts and achieve a few major upsets.

Wakanoyama has been promoted to komusubi for the first time in his career. The 29-year-old from Musashigawa Beya reached Makunouchi early, but fell down as far as Makushita due to diabetes. He has had a remarkable comeback and is now reaching his peak. He began his career in March 1988, along with Takanohana, Kaio, and former yokozuna Wakanohana and Akebono.

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