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Monday, May 27, 2002

Maru finishes with a whimper


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to The Japan Times

Yokozuna Musashimaru clinched his 11th title in the Natsu Basho on the 14th day, only to lose to ozeki Kaio on the final day, to finish with a 13-2 record.

Musashimaru had remained undefeated until the 13th day, when he lost to ozeki Chiyotaikai. If he had gone all the way with a 15-0 record, or zensho yusho, Musashimaru would have become the first rikishi to take the Makunouchi Championship with a perfect record since September 1996, when Takanohana did so.

Musashimaru seems to have a propensity to overly relax in the last few days, especially on the final day. Maru actually has already achieved zensho yusho, back in July 1994, when he won his first championship at ozeki, the only foreign-born rikishi to date who has done so.

Despite his two losses in the last three days, Musashimaru looked exceptionally strong and stable on all the days he won. He has now turned 31 and tips the scales at 231 kg, his heaviest weight in his 12-year career.

However, Musashimaru looks as strong as ever, and the way things are going, he could be around for several more years, possibly surpassing his own objective of winning 15 yusho. Musashimaru has now tied Akebono for the most number of yusho for a foreign-born rikishi, at 11.

Yokozuna Takanohana was absent for the sixth consecutive tournament in May, and now there are rumors that he will need to sit out the Nagoya Basho in July as well, to get back into reasonably strong condition.

There is increasing criticism of Takanohana's year-long absence from the dohyo, though, and the odds are that he will make an all-out effort to train hard between now and early July, and that he will compete in July. To survive, he will need to at least achieve kachi-koshi, anything short of that, such as a withdrawal will likely generate pressure for him to retire. When a rikishi wins the yusho, the other top rankers in his heya often tend to do well, and such was the case with Musashimaru's Musashigawa Beya in May.

Ozeki Musoyama withdrew with an injury on the 14th day, but he had already won nine bouts. Musashigawa Beya's two former ozeki -- No. 3 Maegashira Miyabiyama and No. 9 Maegashira Dejima both did quite well; Miyabiyama achieved a 10-5 record, his first double-digit winning record in two years, and is likely to be promoted to sekiwake or komusubi in July.

Dejima, who had not had a winning record since March 2001, when he was still ranked at ozeki, roared back to life in May. He was 9-1 at one point, but lost all his remaining bouts.

Nevertheless, he should be back up in the top maegashira ranks in July. On the other hand, the three aging stalwarts of Takanohana's Futagoyama Beya fell apart this time -- ex-ozeki Takanonami had a 4-11 record, No. 5 maegashira Akinoshima ended with 3-12 -- the worst performance of his career, and Takatoriki, a former Makunouchi yusho winner, collapsed with a 4-11 record at No. 1 Juryo.

Musashimaru dominated the Natsu Basho from start to finish, though ozeki Chiyotaikai remained undefeated for the first nine days, and No. 10 maegashira Kyokushuzan for the first eight.

Chiyotaikai was kadoban (endangered ozeki rank) as a result of his poor 7-8 record in March, but he appeared fiercely determined in May, finishing with a good 11-4 record and a tie for the jun-yusho (runnerup) with fellow ozeki Kaio, sekiwake Asashoryu, and No. 14 maegashira Hokutoriki, who was competing in his first tournament in the top division. Chiyotaikai upset Musashimaru on the 13th day.

Ozeki Kaio got off to a poor start and appeared likely to withdraw, but he caught fire in the second week, to finish with an 11-4 record that included a final day upset of Musashimaru.

Of the four ozeki, pre-tournament speculation focused on Tochiazuma, who was exceptionally strong in training. The 25 year old was less impressive in the hombasho, however, and ended with a mediocre 10-5 record.

Mongolian sekiwake Asashoryu excelled again in May, achieving his second consecutive 11-4 record at his current rank. If he wins 12 or more bouts at Nagoya in July, he will almost certainly be promoted to ozeki.

Actually, Asashoryu was not in top shape in May, and he had a mediocre 4-3 record after the first week. However, he rallied in the second week and was awarded part of the Kanto-sho (Fighting Spirit Prize).

Asashoryu is still quite light for a sanyaku rikishi at 134 kg, but he is still only 21 and could go all the way to yokozuna in the future, if he can avoid major injuries.

Mongolian No. 10 maegashira Kyokushuzan won his first eight bouts with a different technique on each day. He finished the basho with a 10-5 record and was awarded the Gino-sho (Technique Prize).

New makunouchi rikishi Hokutoriki achieved a superb 11-4 record and shared the Kanto-sho (Fighting Spirit Prize) with Asashoryu. Hokutoriki, of Hakaku Beya, appears to have much potentially and will likely be a future sanyaku rikishi.



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