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Monday, Nov. 26, 2001

Musashimaru loses final bout to Kaio


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to the Japan Times

Yokozuna Musashimaru lost to ozeki Kaio in the final bout of the Kyushu Basho, but it made no difference to the outcome of the tournament, as he had already clinched his ninth championship on the 14th by defeating Tochiazuma. Musashimaru looked clumsy and overly laid-back in his final bout.

The yokozuna got off to a shaky start, with a poor tachiai (initial charge) until the final days of the tournament, when he finally began to look more like his real self.

Maru suffered a shocking upset at the hands of 36-year-old No. 6 maegashira Daizen, the oldest rikishi in the Makunouchi, on the 10th day.

Musashimaru looked considerably stronger in the last few days, and appeared especially determined in his 14th day bout with Tochiazuma.

Musashimaru is now 30, but shows no signs of advancing age, despite a poor 9-6 record in September. However, he is known for not training very hard, sometimes not at all.

With fellow yokozuna Takanohana likely to be absent until next May, Musashimaru has his chance to win a few more yusho next year, but he will have to make a better effort to get in shape before each basho, and also to keep his weight under control.

Yokozuna Takanohana was absent in November, for the third-straight basho. He has been off the dohyo since the last day of the May tournament, when he defeated Musashimaru in a dramatic playoff for the yusho.

The 29-year-old yokozuna is gradually recovering from knee surgery in Paris this summer, but is apparently still months away from resuming training.

If he is unable to return before next May, he will have been absent for a full year. A couple of years ago, the local sports press was salivating with speculation about Akebono's "imminent" retirement after he sat out three tournaments due to injuries.

Takanohana seems to be immune from such rumors. However, he will have no alternative but to retire if he fails in his comeback bid next year.

Takanohana is an old 29, past his prime in terms of strength and battered by injuries and health problems. He will have an uphill struggle just to survive when he returns.

Ozeki Kaio, who was kadoban (rank in jeopardy) in November and not expected to compete, decided to make a do-or-die effort to maintain his rank, despite a total lack of training due to severe lower back pain.

Though obviously in pain, the 29-year-old ozeki survived a discouraging start to finish with a respectable 10-5 record.

Kaio's struggle created the only real excitement for the local fans in Fukuoka as Kaio is from Fukuoka himself.

The dohyo was covered with cushions by excited fans over his defeat of Musashimaru on the senshuraku.

Were it not for his back trouble, Kaio would undoubtedly already have been promoted to yokozuna. He is by far the strongest of the current ozeki and won two tournaments this year.

However, his back trouble is not likely to heal fully, and given his age, the odds that he will reach yokozuna next year are not high.

Ozeki Musoyama lost his final-day bout to Tochiazuma, to finish with a mediocre 9-6 record. Never really in the yusho race in recent basho, Musoyama has achieved stability in mediocrity.

While powerful when his pushing and thrusting meets its mark, he lacks technique and an effective defense.

Nevertheless, he should be back to survive at ozeki for at least another year, with no chance of being promoted to ozeki.

The third, and youngest ozeki, 25-year-old Chiyotaikai, was absent this time and will have his rank on the line when he returns in January.

Sekiwake Tochiazuma's promotion to ozeki is certain, given his fine 12-3 record this time. The 25-year-old was in the yusho race until the 14th day, when he was eliminated by Musashimaru. Tochi had a 12-3 record in September, and 10-5 in July, and has been ranked at sekiwake or komusubi for 20 basho.

Tochiazuma appeared to injure his leg in his bout with Musashimaru, however, he managed to compete on the final day and slapped down ozeki Musoyama to finish as the runnerup.

Had Tochiazuma not defeated Musoyama, he would have lost to all three competing yokozuna and ozeki, and his promotion would have been in jeopardy.

Tochiazuma's mentor and father Tamanoi Oyakata (ex-sekiwake Tochiazuma I) is especially overjoyed by the promotion.

The old Tochiazuma was an ozeki candidate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and even won the Makunouchi yusho in January 1972.

However, when he had his best chance to launch a bid for ozeki promotion, in March 1970, he was taken ill with hepatitis and missed the tournament altogether and never had a second chance.

What kind of ozeki will Tochiazuma make? He has excellent fighting spirit and always trains hard, however, he is smaller than most of the upper Makunouchi rikishi and has to compensate for a lack of power with skill.

If he can develop more speed, he is likely to survive for several years at ozeki and will likely have a chance to win the yusho.

However, at this point it is rather difficult to visualize him as a yokozuna candidate.

Sekiwake Kotomitsuki, who won the September tournament, got off to a poor start, but gradually improved, to finish with a 9-6 record. Both powerful and skillful, Kotomitsuki is likely to become a strong ozeki candidate next year, though he needs more seasoning, self-confidence, and stability.

If he can avoid injuries, he has a very bright future and could go all the way to yokozuna.

Mongolian Komusubi Asashoryu turned in his second consecutive 10-5 record, and may be promoted to sekiwake for the first time. Still only 21 and somewhat underweight, Asashoryu is extremely aggressive and quite savvy in his defense for a rikishi of his age. He is becoming stronger with each passing basho, and could even have a chance to take the yusho at some point next year.



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