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Monday, March 25, 2002

Musashimaru ends with loss

Special to The Japan Times

Yokozuna Musashimaru, looking somewhat relaxed after capturing the Haru Basho title the previous day, lost to ozeki Tochiazuma on the final day, to finish with a 13-2 record and his 10th title.

It was very much a repeat of Musashimaru's performance last November, when he also lost on the final day after having clinched the championship earlier.

Musashimaru's 10th yusho puts him in the same bracket with Tochinishiki, Wakanohana, and Kitanofuji, who also finished with 10 titles. Akebono won 11, Wajima 14, the still active Takanohana 22, Kitanoumi 24, Chiyonofuji 31, and Taiho 32.

Musashimaru was the first yokozuna to come back from an absence and take the title in his first tournament back since Chiyonofuji more than a decade ago.

The 30-year-old yokozuna looked in superb form throughout the tournament, losing only to tricky sekiwake Asashoryu on the 12th day and ozeki Tochiazuma on the last. Not only was Musashimaru's offense powerful throughout the basho, his defense was also good on the days when he was unable to quickly secure victory.

The Haru Basho was heralded as the tournament in which a new generation of 25 year olds would take over. Tochiazuma and Chiyotaikai were vying for yokozuna promotion, while sekiwake Kotomitsuki needed only 11 or 12 wins for ozeki promotion. Surprisingly, all three of the younger rikishi fell apart, robbing the tournament of a sense of excitement.

Tochiazuma, the winner of the Hatsu Basho in January, could manage only a mediocre 10-5 record, while Chiyotaikai, runnerup in January with a 13-2 record, ended with a failing 7-8 mark, losing to fellow ozeki Musoyama on the final day. Chiyotaikai, will thus go from being a yokozuna candidate in March to a sekiwake candidate in May; if he fails again, he will be demoted from the ozeki rank he has held for three years.

While Tochiazuma and Chiyotaikai needed at least 13 wins to reach yokozuna, Kotomitsuki needed only 11 or 12 wins to be promoted to ozeki. However, he looked lackluster and lacking in drive.

Koto managed to win his eighth bout on the 14th day, only to have to drop out on the final day with an injury, thus finishing with a poor 8-7 record. He retains his sekiwake rank, but will need to start his drive for ozeki promotion back from scratch. The two older ozeki, Kaio and Musoyama, performed reasonably well. Kaio, who provided the only real competition to Musashimaru during the basho, was in the yusho race until the final days and ended as runnerup with a good 12-3 record.

He still suffers from back pains, but appears to be in considerably better condition than he was in November or January. Kaio will turn 30 this summer, and while the odds of his being promoted to yokozuna at some point in the future are now low, he cannot be ruled out as a candidate for the yusho again.

If Musashimaru can do it, Kaio can, too. Musoyama, who turned 30 in February and is thus the oldest ozeki, is also the most stable. He struggled with a desperate Chiyotaikai on the final day, but held his cool and came through with his 10th win, par with most of his recent performances. The star of the Haru Basho was 21-year-old Mongolian sekiwake Asashoryu.

Asa finished in third place (tied with No. 11 maegashira Takanowaka) with a fine 11-4 record. Asashoryu is one of the lightest rikishi in the Makunouchi division, but also one of the most skillful and agile. He begins most of his bouts with ferocious thrusts, then finishes off most of those who survive with his widening repertoire of techniques.

Asashoryu's 11-4 record at sekiwake is theoretically a strong foundation for a bid for ozeki promotion in the next couple of basho, but he really needs to put on more weight; he still weighs only 131 kg.

Without doubt, though, save perhaps for unexpected injuries, Asashoryu is a strong candidate for ozeki and perhaps even yokozuna in the not-so-distant future. Yokozuna Takanohana was absent for the fifth consecutive tournament this time. He is supposedly expecting to make his much delayed comeback in Tokyo in May, but reports of his condition are not very encouraging.

He has hardly trained at all since May last year, and may not be in sufficient shape to compete in May. And even if he does compete, he will have an uphill struggle, since he will be extremely rusty and as he is past his prime.

Komusubi Wakanosato did not achieve spectacular upsets in March, but improved his record to 9-6. With Kotomitsuki and Asashoryu remaining at sekiwake, however, he will probably be ranked at komusubi again in May.

Aging former ozeki Takanonami got off to a good start in March in his comeback at komusubi. He was 5-4 at one stage, but finished with a poor 6-9 record and will be demoted back to the high maegashira ranks.

Takanonami's slot at komusubi is likely to be taken either by No. 3 maegashira Tochinonada, who had an 8-7 record, or No. 6 Aminishiki, who had a fine 10-5 record at his highest rank to date.

Tall, lanky Aminishiki is becoming a superb technician and has the capability to be a sanyaku regular in the near future. No. 11 maegashira Takanowaka made a strong comeback with an 11-4 record, and like Aminishiki figured in the yusho race briefly in the final days, though only mathematically.

Perhaps the most disappointing factor in the Haru Basho was the absence of 10 sekitori. Most basho in the last year have had at least 7 or 8 absences by rikishi in the top two divisions, and this is impacting ticket sales, which are at their lowest level in generations.

The Osaka Basho was a sell-out every day from 1974 to 2001, but this year there were only a few manin onrei (full houses). The Shukunsho or Outstanding Performance was awarded to Asashoryu, the Ginosho or Technique Prize to Aminishiki, and the Kantosho, or Fighting Spirit, to Takanowaka.

The Juryo title went to Kotoryu with a fine 12-3 record, the Makushita to Gojoro (7-0), the Sandanme to Mongolian Ama (7-0), the Jonidan to Hanada (7-0), and the Jonokuchi to Kajiwara (7-0).

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