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Sunday, May 13, 2001

Taka ready for another title


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to The Japan Times

Despite much speculation over the last month that ozeki Kaio would secure promotion to yokozuna in the Natsu Basho that starts today, yokozuna Takanohana now appears to be a strong favorite to take the yusho against only lackluster opposition.

Despite promising performances in training in April, Kaio has been suffering from back pain since April 30, and has been unable to train, other than light workouts with weights.

Kaio is positioned within striking range of yokozuna promotion for the first time in his career. Exactly a year ago in May 2000, Kaio won his first yusho with a 14-1 record at komusubi. He followed up with a 12-3 record at sekiwake in July 2000, sufficient to earn him promotion to the ozeki rank, which had eluded him during a protracted candidacy for the second highest rank since the early 1990s.

Kaio is expected to compete this month, but judging by his past performance, injuries and aches and pain tend to further slow his generally erratic tachiai (initial charge). And while in the same class as yokozuna rivals Takanohana and Musashimaru in terms of brute strength, Kaio rarely fares well when his tachiai is weak. As a result, it is highly unlikely that he will win more than 10 bouts; he needs to take the yusho or perhaps finish as runnerup with 13 or 14 wins to qualify for yokozuna promotion.

There has actually been a de facto reduction in the standards required for promotion. In the 1990s, ozeki were expected to win two consecutive yusho immediately prior to promotion. Indeed, all the rikishi promoted in the 1990s -- Asahifuji in 1990, Akebono in 1993, Takanohana in 1994, Wakanohana in 1998, and Musashimaru in 1999 -- met this standard.

The new Chairman of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, Watanabe Tsuneo, has gone on record as stating that Kaio may be promoted even if he is just runnerup in May. However, Kaio lost to both yokozuna in March, so his candidacy may not receive much support if his record is marginal.

Takanohana has looked consistently strong in training since late March, though he is not quite as impressive as he once was. While still relatively young at 28 (he turns 29 in August), Takanohana has been ranked in Makunouchi for 11 years, and is thus somewhat timeworn -- older than his chronological age. Taka is undoubtedly lucky that a new generation of successors has not yet emerged. There are young, promising rikishi like Wakanosato, Kotomitsuki and Asashoryu, but at this point none can be considered potential full-fledged successors to Takanohana.

Though Takanohana is the clear favorite this time, success will depend on his getting through the first week with no losses, or perhaps one upset. Once virtually invincible in his bouts with lower-ranking opponents, Takanohana has tended to lose at least once in the first week of recent basho.

However, the odds are quite strong that Taka will win 13 or 14 bouts and his 22nd title.

Fellow yokozuna Musashimaru has just turned 30. He missed a week or so of training in April due to an old, lingering injury, but he looked in reasonably good condition in late April, as well as at the training session before the Yokozuna Deliberation Council.

Musashimaru is prodigiously strong, but his mobility on the dohyo is often contingent on a fast tachiai, which he is not always able to achieve.

Musashimaru has found a new nemesis in Kotomitsuki (ranked at komusubi in May). Koto has upset Maru in two of their three encounters, and the yokozuna will likely have a difficult time with the promising collegian in May.

If Takanohana falters, however, Musashimaru will become the odds-on favorite, as he can be counted on to consistently come within striking range of the yusho -- in other words 11 or 12 wins.

There are five ozeki going into the Natsu Basho, but there could be only two, three, four, or five at Nagoya in July. Kaio has a theoretical chance to obtain promotion to yokozuna. On the other end of the spectrum, Miyabiyama and Chiyotaikai will be demoted unless they win eight or more bouts in May.

The prospects for Chiyotaikai's survival at the rank look good. He has largely recovered from the injury that forced him to withdraw in January, and took part in training thoroughout April. Chiyotaikai is a fighter, and he should be able to achieve the minimum expected of him even if he has not adequately recovered. An aggressive pusher-thruster, Chiyo has the ability to win 10 or 11 bouts this time. In the unlikely event he is demoted from ozeki, he can probably expected to quickly regain the rank, since he is only 25.

The prospects for Miyabiyama, who failed with a 7-8 record in March, look very bleak. He has been treated for a fractured finger and was absent from training throughout late March, April, and early May.

Promising as a sekiwake prior to his promotion last year, Miyabiyama has been a total bust as an ozeki. The 23-year-old seems to lack self-confidence, superior fighting spirit, and technique. He would have to fight to survive in May even in good condition, but with no training at all, the odds appear to be hopeless. He is likely to falter with a 5-10 or 6-9 mark, and thus lose his rank. It is also possible that he will sit out the tournament and make his comeback bid at sekiwake in July. Like Chiyotaikai, time is still on his side.

The fifth ozeki, Dejima, only narrowly maintained his ozeki rank in May by winning his critical eighth bout on the final day, having failed in January.

He has worked quite hard in training, but his powerful thrusting attack still tends to vary in intensity from day-to-day. He can be expected to eke out another 8-7 or 9-6 record, but not much more.

Tochinonada held his own as a new sekiwake in March, and will be eager in May to demonstrate that he has the potential to go higher. While strong and a hard worker, the Kasugano Beya rikishi still lacks a real sense of dynamism in his sumo, and going that extra mile. He should be able to win eight bouts again. Expectations are higher for the other sekiwake, Tochiazuma, who is a perennial ozeki candidate. If the yokozuna and ozeki all falter, Tochiazuma could hold the keys to the outcome.

Kotomitsuki is back at komusubi after achieving a successful 10-5 comeback in March. He is a spoiler and an upsetter and dangerous to all his higher-ranked opponents when he is self-confident.

Twenty-year-old Mongolian Asashoryu has been promoted to komusubi, tying former ozeki Konishiki for the fastest rise to sanyaku from the bottom of the banzuke (just 14 tournaments). The husky youngster has the fierce fighting spirit and hunger that many of his Japanese contemporaries lack. Rather light for a rikishi of his height, he will have a hard time upsetting the yokozuna and ozeki, but nevertheless should obtain a decent record, though perhaps short of eight wins.



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