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Sunday, Nov. 11, 2001

Wide-open race expected in Kyushu Basho


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to The Japan Times

Though it is not taking place in a dramatic fashion, sumo is now in a state of transition, a changing of the guard. Unlike most generational shifts in the past, the current transition is far from dramatic, since the old guard rikishi are actually, for the most part, still in their 20s, and many of their potential successors are only a few years younger. Another factor which makes this changing of the guard unusual is that there are still no real stars in the younger generation who can capture the imagination of the public.

Yokozuna Takanohana will be absent again in November; in fact now it appears that he will not he sufficiently recovered from knee surgery to compete until next May, or perhaps March at the earliest. The November tournament will be the third consecutive basho he has missed. Regardless of the progress of his recuperation, at 29, the longer he stays out, the more difficult it will be for him to make a successful comeback. If he waits until next May, he will have been absent for a year, and the odds of a successful return will be poor. Indeed, it will take nothing short of a miracle for Taka to win another championship.

Yokozuna Musashimaru, who at 30, is a year older than Takanohana, is not a very strong candidate for the yusho. In recent tournaments his weight has remained constant at over 230 kg, and as a result he has become very sluggish on the dohyo. In September, he lost to five maegashira, an all-time record.

Though he managed to eek out a 9-6 record, his performance was embarrassing, as he did not face any opponents above sekiwake. If he shed a little excess poundage and trained more seriously, Musashimaru could still dominate tournaments. His overall health is good, though he has had problems with minor aches and pains. Maru will be under greater pressure to perform this time, especially since Takanohana and ozeki Chiyotaikai are absent.

If he can get off to a strong start, he may be able to go all the way and take the championship if it falls to the 12-3 level. However, a 10-5 or 11-4 performance is more likely.

Ozeki Musoyama, 29, is the same age as Takanohana and Kaio and is reported to be in good shape this time.

Through heavy training, he has managed to reduce his weight by 7 kg down to 170 kg. In a recent training session with Musashimaru and other top rikishi, he won 10 out of 13 bouts. Like Kaio, he has had problems with his lower back, but it seems to be under control now.

Basically a pusher-thruster, Musoyama is powerful but lacks technique. If he gets off to a good start and builds up his self-confidence, he can do extremely well, as seen in his yusho in January last year.

In recent tournaments, Musoyama has become the most stable of the ozeki, consistently winning at least 10 bouts. He could well do even better this time, and is one of the more serious candidates for the yusho.

Ozeki Kaio, who dropped out of the Aki Basho in September with a 0-4 record, has decided to compete in November, despite lingering back pain.

In early October, it was reported that his condition was so poor that he would miss the November tournament, lose his ozeki rank, and attempt a comeback at sekiwake in January. Kaio's back pain is less intense now, with some discomfort remaining, but he has not been able to train at all for the Kyushu Basho. He must win at least eight bouts to maintain his ozeki rank.

It is practically impossible to make accurate predictions about Kaio's performance. He won the Nagoya tournament in July in identical circumstances without any real training and with his rank on the line.

On the other hand, with yokozuna promotion at stake and in seemingly better condition, he fell apart in September and went from being a yokozuna candidate to a sekiwake candidate overnight. In terms of power, Kaio is at his peak at 29. Sadly, in all likelihood, his back trouble is a ticking time bomb.

It is highly likely to shorten his career. If he somehow manages to be promoted to yokozuna, he will probably have a very brief reign. On the other hand, if he is demoted, it will be very difficult for him to return. The safest course may be for him to remain ozeki.

Ozeki Chiyotaikai will be absent in Fukuoka, but having been injured in September, he will still be ranked at ozeki in January next year, but will need to win eight or more bouts to avoid demotion.

Much of the focus in the Kyushu Basho will be on sekiwake Tochiazuma and Kotomitsuki. Both 25-year-olds are positioned to gain promotion to ozeki if they put in impressive performances.

Tochiazuma had 10 wins at sekiwake in July and 12 in September, and will likely be promoted if he can win 12 or more this time.

However, Tochiazuma's sumo has been much criticized as of late due to his propensity to sidestep opponents, rather than try eat them head-on.

Tochi is hampered by his relatively small size by today's standards. This sometimes leads to a lack of confidence and hence the seemingly instinctive moves to sidestep.

Tochiazuma is a strong, skillful rikishi, but tends to sometimes lack speed. To be a strong ozeki, he will need to develop more speed and the ability to dispose of opponents quickly. However, promotion may still be a bit premature. He is likely to fall short with nine or 10 wins.

Kotomitsuki is said to be likely to be promoted if he can win 13 or more bouts and his second consecutive title. Koto's two previous tournaments at sekiwake were both unsuccessful; in fact he has achieved kachi-koshi in only one of four performances in sanyaku.

That Kotomitsuki has potential, as witnessed in his yusho performance in September, is beyond doubt, the question is whether he can put it all together at this relatively early of his career.

Despite the brevity of his career to date, Koto has good technique, and he is also strong and increasingly tenacious.

However, a second consecutive yusho for Kotomitsuki is probably out of reach. He needs more experience and self-confidence. He may mature quickly, but this time he is likely to win only nine or 10 bouts.

The third sekiwake, Miyabiyama, is a former ozeki. He was demoted after the Aki Basho and, at 24, is the youngest former ozeki since the 19th century.

There are now three ozeki (Dejima and Takanonami have fallen down to the maegashira ranks). Come March, and there could be one, if Kaio and Chiyotaikai fall.

Miyabiyama will be sidelined with an injury this time, but when he returns to action in January, he will still be ranked at sekiwake, and will be able to automatically return to ozeki with 10 or more wins.

Miyabiyama is still a very promising rikishi, but he needs to start all over again in his quest for the yusho and yokozuna.

Komusubi Asashoryu may prove to be a worthy rival of Tochiazuma and Kotomitsuki as well as a threat to the competing yokozuna and ozeki. The 21-year-old Mongolian has fighting spirit second to none, though he needs more weight and experience on the dohyo.

New Komusubi Kaiho has little chance of holding his rank.



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