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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2002

Maru favored to win Hatsu Basho


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to the Japan Times

The Hatsu Basho gets underway this Sunday with only one yokozuna competing -- Musashimaru. Yokozuna Takanohana will be absent for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Taka has now tied the record for the number of consecutive tournaments absent for a yokozuna, set by Onokuni 12 years ago.

Takanohana unexpectedly resumed training in December and expressed determination to compete in January, however, he was simply too rusty to get back into shape within a couple of weeks.

Takanohana should be able to compete in March, but if he fails to do so and makes his comeback in May, he will have been absent for a year, and will inevitably be under pressure to retire if he wins less than 10 bouts. Takanohana will turn 30 this August, and his long-term prospects are not very bright.

Musashimaru will be competing, though he has complained of aches and pains in the last month or so. He missed a special keiko session for the Yokozuna Deliberation Council on Monday, and was roundly criticized by Makiko Uchidate, the only female member of the committee, for "lacking common sense as a member of society."

In a virtually unprecedented move, Musashigawa Oyakata (the yokozuna's mentor) and Musashimaru himself rebutted Uchidate's criticism as being unfounded. Uchidate is only 53 and by far the youngest member of the committee; all the other members are old men.

Actually Musashimaru haslooked reasonably strong in training in the last few days before the opening of the Hatsu Basho.

He is apparently determined to win his second consecutive yusho in January. He was victorious in Kyushu in November, and given that there are no other yokozuna competiting, Maru is again a very slight favorite, and should be able to win his 10th yusho with about 13 wins.

Ozeki Kaio's performance is a question mark. Kaio won two tournaments in 2001, only to drop out of the tournaments that followed. His ozeki rank was endangered twice, and in both instances he came through with enough wins to survive, most recently in the November tournament, when despite a total lack of practice, he managed to come through with 10 wins and maintain his endangered ozeki rank.

It is really difficult to predict Kaio's performance -- he could be the yusho winner and on the other hand he could drop out early, winless. The greatest likelihood, however, is that he will win 10 or 11 but not make much difference in the final days of the competition.

Chiyotaikai, who must win at least eight bouts to maintain his ozeki rank, will be competing for the first time since last July, when he was sidelined with an injury.

Chiyo has looked somewhat less than outstanding in training, but he should be at least able to win 10 or 11. Earlier last year, Chiyo was the most stable of the ozeki, consistently winning 10 to 12 bouts. It will be interesting to see here whether he can take up where he left off last year. At 25, Chiyo is still young.

Musoyama, the only ozeki to achieve kachikoshi (eight or more wins) in every tournament last year, has looked very strong in training, and will be eager to play a part in the yusho race.

Musoyama has won only one championship -- exactly two years ago in January 2000. Though he has achieved a modicum of stability recently, Musoyama's sumo tends to be very erratic.

As a pusher-thruster, he is sometimes exceptionally effective, with the ability to crush out his opponents. When his forward momentum is stymied, however, he tends to have a weak defense and can lose easily.

Musoyama's performance this time has the promise to be exciting, 11 or 12 wins and perhaps runnerup honors.

New ozeki Tochiazuma has worked hard in training, despite a busy schedule with various events to celebrate his promotion to sumo's second-highest rank.

The leg injury which he suffered in his 14th day bout with Musashimaru in November is healed, and at least in theory, the 25-year-old should be in top form this time. As he is relatively small, speed is the most essential element in Tochiazuma's sumo.

Tochi has good technique and fighting spirit but needs to avoid being bogged down in mid-dohyo, which allows his opponents to gradually wear him down.

Tochiazuma's presence at the ozeki rank will undoubtedly generate a higher standard of competition in the higher rank. He should be able to win 11 or 12 bouts.

It is unlikely he will take his first yusho -- no new ozeki has won a tournament since Kiyokuni back in July 1969.

There has been speculation that sekiwake Kotomitsuki will be promoted to ozeki if he can win 11 or 12 bouts this time, since this would bring his cumulative record over the last three tournaments up to the level expected of new ozeki.

The Sadogatake Beya rikishi has looked impressive in training, however, it is probably still too early for him to reach ozeki. One of the cleverest rikishi in sanyaku, Koto should be able to achieve some major upsets and win nine or 10 bouts, a good foothold for a bid for ozeki promotion later in the year. Koto is a darkhorse candidate for the yusho, however. New sekiwake Asashoryu has looked exceptionally lively in training, along with Kotomitsuki. Still only 21 and the first Mongolian rikishi to reach sekiwake, Asashoryu is a ball of fire and energy. With a bit more seasoning and weight, it is not inconceivable that he could take the yusho.

This will be the last tournament in which sumo fans will be able to see a bout between Asashoryu and maegashira Toki. The master of Toki's Takasago Beya is retiring from the Sumo Kyokai after the January tournament, and Asashoryu's mentor Wakamatsu Oyakata (ex-Ozeki Asashio) is becoming the new Takasago.

As a result, Asashoryu will be a Takasago Beya rikishi come March, as will Toki. Hence there will be no more bouts between the two rikishi after January.

Wakanosato is back at komusubi and in good shape. He got off to a rough start in November at 1-5, but he won all his remaining bouts, to finish with a strong 10-5 record and a sansho prize.

He has been practicing various measures to improve his speed and power, including head butting.

Wakanosato has tremendous potential, and with Kotomitsuki in his second basho at sekiwake, Waka needs to make his mark before rivals of his age do so.

He should be able to win nine or 10 bouts again.

Kyokutenho has had a very lucky promotion to komusubi from No. 6 maegashira, on the strength of an 8-7 record.

Now 27, he is the third Mongolian to reach sanyaku. Kyokutenho's initial charge improved dramatically about two years ago, when he abruptly broke out of the low maegashira ranks, but since then he seems to have made relatively little progress.

Despite his impressive physique, Kyokutenho lacks the speed and skill to make much of an impression on the sanyaku ranks. He is likely to fall back with only four or five wins.

Sekiwake Miyabiyama is absent again, as he has not recovered fully from surgery on an old injury. As a result, he will fall all the way down to the low maegashira ranks in March.

The last rikishi to attempt such a comeback was Kotokaze in November 1985; he lost his first few bouts and announced his retirement.

Miyabiyama, however, is still very young at 24, and has a good chance to make a successful comeback if he regains his old fighting spirit.

Former ozeki Dejima, now No. 4 maegashira, will be aiming to achieve a winning record for the first time in nearly a year.

He has looked quite strong in training, and can be expected to do well this time, possibly with as many as nine or 10 wins and an upset or two.

The third former ozeki, Takanonami, is back up to No. 3 maegashira, but he is over the hill and unlikely to win more than five bouts, though perhaps with an upset or two.



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