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Monday, March 26, 2001

Kaio captures title in Osaka

Special to The Japan Times

Ozeki Kaio won the Osaka Haru Basho on Sunday with a 13-2 record after he defeated fellow ozeki Musoyama and yokozuna Takanohana lost to Musashimaru at the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium.

It was Kaio's second championship; he won his first in May last year, with a 14-1 record at komusubi. It was also the first time since July 1996 that three or more rikishi had vied on the senshuraku with identical records.

A dramatic showdown, including a playoff seemed likely, but Kaio looked exceptionally determined, and Takanohana perhaps somewhat less than totally inspired. Kaio had been in the sole lead from the fifth day until the 13th day, when he was defeated by yokozuna Musashimaru.

Kaio lost again to yokozuna Takanohana on the 14th day, to give up the lead that he had struggled so hard to maintain single-handedly for a week.

However, despite his disappointing performance on Friday and Saturday, Kaio was exceptionally strong on the senshuraku, overpowering fellow ozeki Musoyama.

It might have been a different story if the ozeki had to face Takanohana in a playoff, but it was not to be. Kaio's 13-2 title places him within striking range of promotion to yokozuna.

Even though he lost to both yokozuna this time, he will likely be promoted if he wins the yusho again in May. However, he will need to defeat at least one of the yokozuna to have a non-controversial promotion.

At 29, Kaio needs to make his move to yokozuna soon, if ever. In terms of sheer strength, he is nearly equal to yokozuna Takanohana and Musashimaru, but he frequently has difficulty with his tachiai (initial charge), which runs hot and cold.

In fact, both of his losses this time came on days when his tachiai was out of synch. The odds of Kaio obtaining promotion after the May tournament are likely less than 50-50, given the problem with his tachiai.

However, unlike the other ozeki, his records since he was promoted after the July tournament last year have been consistently strong. He has not had less than 10 wins in the past year.

Yokozuna Takanohana and Musashimaru were the favorites going into the Haru Basho, but Takanohana's surprising loss to sekiwake Tochinonada on the third day put him behind the pace.

Musashimaru lost to maegashira Chiyotenzan and Kotomitsuki in the first week, effectively taking him out of the running.

Nevertheless, both yokozuna came through with good 12-3 records, which indicates that even though their best years may now be in the past, both men are likely to be around for a while yet, and have the potential to win more yusho.

Ozeki Musoyama's fine 12-3 record is also worthy of praise. He won his first tournament last January, and was promoted to ozeki after the Osaka tournament last year, only to lose his rank due to a back injury.

He regained ozeki status last November, but has had mediocre 9-6 records since returning.

Musoyama looked stronger in March than he has been since January 2000. If Muso can continue to maintain his present condition, he should have a chance to win the yusho again. The less said of the remaining three ozeki, the better.

Chiyotaikai sat out the tournament with an injury he sustained in January. He will return to action in May, but will be demoted if he fails to win eight or more bouts. Musoyama, the youngest ozeki at 23, finished the Haru Basho with a failing 7-8 record, and will be kadoban with Chiyo in May.

Miyabiyama has been a disaster as an ozeki; he has never won in double-digits, and can do no more than hang on to his rank by the skin of his teeth. And yet, when he was still sekiwake last year, Miyabiyama looked like yokozuna material.

He seems to have slackened off in training, and often lacks determination on the dohyo during tournaments. Given his current predicament, it might be to his advantage to fall back to sekiwake and try to regain what he lost after promotion.

Ozeki Dejima, who failed in January with a 7-8 record, managed to finally achieve kachikoshi on the final day this time, by blasting out Mongolian No. 5 maegashira Asashoryu. Dejima had actually had a 38-degree fever the last few days, and the odds of him winning eight were starting to look bleak. In a year-and-a-half at ozeki, Dejima has had some fairly good records, but in recent basho he has lacked speed and fire.

One cannot help wonder whether he can survive at ozeki in the long-term.

While new sekiwake Tochinonada achieved kachikoshi on the final day, with an 8-7 record, and was awarded the Shukunsho (Outstanding Performance Prize) as a reward for his upset over Takanohana, the other sekiwake, Wakanosato, fell apart with a 6-9 record, and will demoted back to the maegashira ranks. Wakanosato has recently been heralded as likely to be the next ozeki, but this time he lost to all the yokozuna and ozeki he faced.

Despite a painful injury, komusubi Tochiazuma defeated three ozeki as well as yokozuna Musashimaru, and finished with a 9-6 record and the Shukunsho (which he shared with Tochinonada). No. 3 maegashira Kotomitsuki, who had a disappointing performance as a new sekiwake in January, roared back this time with a 10-5 record, the Ginosho (Techinique Prize), and promotion back to sekiwake in May.

Tamanoshima (11-4) was awarded the Kantosho (Fighting Spirit Prize).

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