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Sunday, July 8, 2001

Plain sailing for Musashimaru with Taka absent from Nagoya

Special to The Japan Times

Yokozuna Takanohana, the winner of a dramatic playoff in May, will miss the Nagoya Basho, due to a nagging injury to his right kneecap. Takanohana sustained the injury in his 14th-day loss to ozeki Musoyama in the May tournament. It was his first loss of the tournament.

With Musashimaru only one loss behind him, Takanohana insisted on competing on the final day, despite barely being able to walk. Despite quickly losing in his final bout, he defeated the odds to get the better of Musashimaru in a playoff.

With his injury supposedly healed, Takanohana resumed full-scale training in the latter part of June. However, after he moved to Nagoya late in the month, the injury flared up again and worsened to the point where he had difficulty even in walking. Takanohana and his father, Futagoyama Oyakata, announced his withdrawal from the Nagoya Basho on July 6.

In the past, Takanohana has tended to insist on competing even with partially healed injuries, but this time apparently the damage to his knee is far greater than initially reported. Takanohana himself acknowledged that he will probably need surgery, and will not return to the dohyo until he is fully recovered. His absence is likely to be protracted; it is believed that he will be able to return to action in January 2002 at the earliest and possibly as late as May 2002 -- in other words, in nearly a year's time.

Now nearly 29, the odds that Takanohana will even get close to breaking Taiho's record of 32 yusho appear to be negligible. Taka now has 22 yusho.

Musashimaru the favorite

Takanohana's absence will be a severe blow to hopes for a recovery in sumo's currently low level of popularity, and will leave Musashimaru, who has never really caught the imagination of the public, as the only competing yokozuna.

Musashimaru is said to be in reasonably strong condition, and judging by his record in recent tournaments, he must be considered the overwhelming favorite for the yusho at Nagoya. In fact, he will face only two ozeki -- Chiyotaikai and Kaio -- since the other three holders of sumo's second highest rank are members of his Musashigawa Beya.

At 30, Musashimaru shows no signs of aging. However, in recent tournaments, he has tended to suffer unexpected upsets in bouts with lower, supposedly inferior opponents. At Nagoya, he will need to concentrate on losing no more than one bout in the first week. Seven years ago, in July 1994, Musashimaru won his first championship at Nagoya with a perfect 15-0 record. Musashimaru has not been able to achieve zensho (an unblemished record) since, and in fact no wrestler in the top division has had a perfect 15-0 record since September 1996, an exceptionally long period.

Since Kaio is not in top condition, the only real opposition in the top ranks to Musashimaru may come from ozeki Chiyotaikai, who came in third in May with a fine 12-3 record. While prodigiously strong, Musashimaru is not the fastest or most flexible rikishi, and most of his losses come when he is abruptly forced into defensive tactics and is at a loss to extricate himself. Nevertheless, the yusho is his to lose, and he should come through victorious with 13 or 14 wins.

Unimpressive ozeki

On the verge of losing his rank only a few months ago, Chiyotaikai is now the strongest of the five ozeki and a dark-horse candidate for the yusho, though he is by no means a credible yokozuna prospect.

At his best, Chiyotaikai is a relentless pusher-thruster. However, in recent tournaments he has been criticized for his occasionally instinctive urge to pull down his opponents, rather than to out-thrust them. Indeed, Chiyotaikai won several bouts in May by tricking or pulling down his opponents. No matter what purists may say (most hold that a yokozuna or ozeki should not win by "underhanded" tactics like pulling down or side-stepping their opponents), pulling down opponents is risky, since it leaves the perpetrator a sitting duck if the tactic fails.

What Chiyotaikai needs most is a strong defense. He has very good fighting spirit and is basically a dedicated rikishi. If he could defend himself effectively when his thrusting tactics are not sufficient to carry the day, Chiyo would have a good chance to eventually become yokozuna.

As for his performance in July, the ozeki could well play a decisive role in determining who wins the tournament, but he will probably have to be content with second or third place with 11 or 12 wins.

Ozeki Musoyama and Miyabiyama, both from Musashimaru's Musashigawa Beya, had mediocre 9-6 records in May. In March, Musoyama came through with his best record in a year (12-3), but he faded to 9-6 in May due to recurring back pain. Musoyama is in about average condition this time, and should be able to win nine or 10 bouts again. Musoyama is capable of defeating anyone -- as witnessed in his upset of Takanohana in May, but he can also be clumsy and lose unnecessarily to maegashira. Musoyama is not likely to become a strong yokozuna candidate in the future, but he is unpredictable and thus could turn out to be the darkest of dark horses in Nagoya.

Miyabiyama appeared to have tremendous potential when he was ranked at komusubi and sekiwake and vying for ozeki promotion early last year. But in the year he held the ozeki rank, he has shown nothing, only reinforcing the doubts expressed by the Sumo Kyokai's Judging Department Chief, Sakaigawa (ex-Yokozuna Sadanoyama) when Miyabi was nominated for promotion for last year.

Sakaigawa felt the promotion was premature and counseled caution; his objections were overruled at the time but now appear to have been well-founded. Miyabiyama simply needs to train harder and regain the self-confidence and dynamism he had as a sekiwake. His performance in May, when his rank was kadoban (endangered), was the best to date at ozeki, but it was still only a mediocre 9-6 record. He should aim for at least 10 wins this time.

The Nagoya Basho has had many surprise winners, including maegashira winners -- Fujinishiki in 1964, Takamiyama in 1972, Kongo in 1975, Kotofuji in 1991 and Mitoizumi in 1992. If Musashimaru falls apart, the Nagoya Basho could well have a surprise winner. A victory by one of the ozeki other than Chiyotaikai would have the same upset quality this time as the maegashira yusho (hiramaku yusho) had in past Nagoya tournaments.

Little is expected this time of the two kadoban ozeki -- Kaio and Dejima. Dejima had surgery on his ankle after the Natsu Basho, and was not able to train at all until reaching Nagoya in late June. His condition is improving, but still far below what it should be. Dejima will be demoted if he fails to win a majority of bouts -- in other words at least eight wins.

Judging by his condition, the odds that he will survive as ozeki are low. Fellow ozeki Kaio, who won the March tournament but withdrew with a poor 4-5-6 record in May, is in the same boat as Dejima. Kaio continues to have back pain and did not train until the last week before the Nagoya Basho. Kaio also needs eight wins to survive at ozeki. His odds are better than Dejima, since he was a yokozuna candidate as recently as late April, and has better skill than pusher-thrusters like Dejima, Musoyama and Chiyotaikai. Kaio should hold his rank with at least eight or nine wins.

Clever, powerful Kotomitsuki has joined Tochiazuma at sekiwake. Koto collapsed when he was first promoted to sekiwake in January, but he looked strong in March and May. He is an exceptionally dangerous opponent for all the yokozuna and ozeki. In fact, he is becoming Musashimaru's greatest nemesis. Kotomitsuki should win 10 bouts this time, and perhaps even more. Tochiazuma, on the other hand, seems unable to win more than nine or 10 bouts at this level. He needs more speed to cover for his relative lack of height and weight.

Komusubi upsetters

Mongolian 20-year-old Asashoryu remains at komusubi, while Wakanosato has been promoted back to the rank. Both rikishi are upsetters; Asashoryu is capable of defeating even Musashimaru, while Wakanosato is more of an ozeki killer. Asashoryu has a propensity to upset nearly all the yokozuna and ozeki, then drop his guard and lose needlessly to a maegashira. He is due for a letdown at some point, but will probably win at least eight if he continues to dominate the ozeki. Wakanosato, on the other hand, has been in the doldrums in recent basho and could really shine this time. With Takanohana out and the ozeki weak, Wakanosato is another dark horse, but is likely to end up with about 10 wins.

Meanwhile, a washed-up 34-year-old Takatoriki has fallen to Juryo for the first time in more than a decade. He and two other popular old timers -- 38-year-old Terao and 37-year-old Tomonohana will draw attention to the Juryo bouts. Tomonohana is on his last legs and needs to win eight bouts this time to avoid demotion to Makushita and probable retirement.

Sumo Rankings for Nagoya Basho
Takanohana (Y, 13-2) Yokozuna Musashimaru (Y, 13-2)
Chiyotaikai (O, 12-3) Ozeki Musoyama O, 9-6
Miyabiyama (O, 96) Ozeki Dejima (O, 5-10)
Kaio (O, 4-5-6) Ozeki
Tochiazuma (S, 9-6) Sekiwake Kotomitsuki (K, 9-6)
Asashoryu (K, 8-7) Komusubi Wakanosato (M1, 8-7)
Hayateumi (M4, 9-6) M.1 Takanonami (M5, 8-7)
Kotonowaka (M8, 9-6) 2 Higonoumi (M11, 11-4)
Tochinonada (S, 4-11) 3 Toki (M13, 11-4)
Tosanoumi (M3, 7-8) 4 Otsukasa (M8, 8-7)
Kyokushuzan (M15, 11-4) 5 Takanowaka (M1, 5-10)
Akinoshima (M9, 8-7) 6 Tochisakae (M5, 7-8)
Tamakasuga (M4, 6-9) 7 Tamanoshima (M3, 5-10)
Tochinohana (M13, 9-6) 8 Chiyotenzan (M2, 4-11)
Jumonji (M7, 7-8) 9 Kitazakura (J1, 13-2)
Kotoryu (M10, 0-0-15) 10 Kaiho (M6, 6-9)
Kyokutenho (M7, 6-9) 11 Daizen (M14, 8-7)
Wakanoyama (M2, 2-6-7) 12 Aminishiki (M10, 7-8)
Asanowaka (M11, 7-8) 13 Tokitsuumi (M6, 4-11)
Wakatsutomu (M12, 7-8) 14 Oginishiki (J5, 12-3)
Minatofuji (J3, 10-5) 15
(Previous ranking and record in parentheses. Y=yokozuna, O=ozeki, S=sekiwake, K=komusubi, M=maegashira, J=juryo, r=rest)

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