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Monday, Jan. 28, 2002

Tochiazuma downs Chiyotaikai in playoff to take New Year title


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to The Japan Times

Tochiazuma won his first yusho on the final day of the Hatsu Basho after defeating fellow-ozeki Chiyotaikai in a playoff for the championship, coming from behind to take the title Sunday at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Tochiazuma thus became the first ozeki to win the title in his initial tournament at the rank since Kiyokuni in July 1969. The only other ozeki to win in his first tournament in the postwar era was Wakahaguro in November 1959. Neither Wakahaguro nor Kiyokuni reached yokozuna.

Tochiazuma has also become the first rikishi since World War II to win the title of all six divisions. The last rikishi to achieve that feat was yokozuna Haguroyama, who set the mark when he took his first makuuchi title in May 1941. Tochiazuma also became the first ozeki to win 11 consecutive bouts from the opening day in the postwar era.

Tochiazuma's father and mentor Tamanoi Oyakata, former sekiwake Tochiazuma, won his only title exactly 30 years ago, in January 1972.

The Hatsu Basho was one of the most exciting in recent years, with ozeki Tochiazuma and Chiyotaikai and sekiwake Kotomitsuki all undefeated going into the 10th day. Thereafter, possession of the lead fluctuated day-by-day, with first Kotomitsuki losing, then Chiyotaikai, and finally Tochiazuma on the 12th day.

Chiyotaikai, who was kadoban (subjection to demotion) this time following his withdrawal in September with a 4-5-6 record, followed by his absence in November, seemed to have a strong edge going into the final day, because he was 13-1 as opposed to Tochiazuma's 12-2.

Sunday's regularly scheduled bout between Tochiazuma and Chiyotaikai was brief, but thrilling. Chiyo launched a tremendous thrusting volley, which Tochiazuma somehow managed to survive. Tochi worked his way into Chiyo's defenses, halted his thrusting, and drove him out.

Unfortunately, the playoff was a total letdown. Tochiazuma sidestepped Chiyotaikai at the tachiai, in what can generously be termed a cowardly move. The capacity crowd at the Kokugikan, save for a few diehard Tochiazuma fans was disgusted; fans threw hundreds of cushions onto the dohyo in anger.

While Tochiazuma must be credited for training hard and going all out every day this basho, sidestepping an opponent in a playoff is hardly worthy of a future yokozuna. Tochiazuma will presumably be promoted to yokozuna if he wins the title again in March, but he is smaller than most of the top rikishi and rather injury prone. He will probably have a more productive, long-term career if he remains ozeki.

Much the same can be said of Chiyotaikai. When he is at his best, he is extremely impressive, but when he is not in top shape or has trouble with injuries, he has to struggle just to hold his rank.

Yokozuna Takanohana was absent for the fourth consecutive touranment in January, and the other yokozuna, Musashimaru, dropped out with a poor 1-3 record due to a wrist injury.

The domination of the Hatsu Basho by a trio of 25-year-olds indicates the level of difficulty Musashimaru, and especially Takanohana, will face when they attempt comebacks. The other two ozeki, Kaio and Musoyama (both 29-year-olds), managed to hold their own, but were never in the race for the champioship. Musoyama got off to a poor start, then rallied after the first few days, while Kaio is obviously still suffering lower back pain.

Kaio and Musoyama clashed on the final day in an anticlimatic bout, with Musoyama easily pushing out a dispirited looking Kaio. Musoyama finished with a 10-5 record, while Kaio slipped to 9-6 -- the first time he has failed to win in double digits since his promotion to the rank, other than tournaments in which he has dropped out.

While Kaio and Musoyama are still strong enough to hold their ranks for a couple more years, it is increasingly unlikely that they will ever again be serious yokozuna candidates or even able to win the title again.

Sekiwake Kotomitsuki finished with a fine 12-3 record and was in the thick of the yusho race until the 14th day. There was speculation during the tournament that he would be promoted to ozeki if he won 13 or more bouts. Judging Division head Sakaigawa noted on the 13th day that Koto would likely be promoted if he just won one more bout.

Koto did win one more bout, but it was on the final day. He suffered a humiliating loss to Buyuzan, still competing in only his second tournament in the top division, on the 14th day.

Kotomitsuki will not be promoted this time, but is likely to be given the nod if he wins at least 12 bouts again in March.

Mongolian Asashoryu, competing in his first tournament at sekiwake, ended with a winning 8-7 record, while the third sekiwake, former ozeki Miyabiyama was absent. Miyabiyama, who is still only 24, will make his comeback in March, probably in the lower maegashira ranks.

Komusubi Wakanosato finally achieved kachikoshi on the final day, with an 8-7 record, while new komusubi Kyokutenho, also a Mongolian, fell short with a 5-10 record.

The Kantosho, or fighting spirit prize, was awarded to No. 8 maegashira Buyuzan, who had a fine 11-4 record.

The Ginosho (technique prize) was shared between sekiwake Kotomitsuki and No. 13 maegashira Tokitsuumi. The Juryo title was won by Takamisakari, with a 12-3 record.

The Makushita championship went to Korean rikishi Kasugano, the Sandanme to Kokai, from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the Jonidan to Midorifuji, and the Jonokuchi to Anju, all with unblemished 7-0 records.



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