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Sunday, July 7, 2002

Musashimaru favored again

Special to The Japan Times

Yokozuna Musashimaru is a strong favorite to win his third consecutive title at Nagoya. The 31-year-old Musashimaru will take his 12th yusho if he wins in July, which will tie him with the great Futabayama, who dominated sumo during the late 1930s and early '40s. Musashimaru is reported to be in top shape and if truly determined could achieve a perfect 15-0 record, or zensho yusho, for the first time since his initial title at Nagoya in July 1994. In fact, no rikishi has achieved a 15-0 record in the Makunouchi since Takanohana did in September 1996.

Musashimaru seems to be in his prime today. Though he is at his highest weight of 231 kg, Maru looks very stable on the dohyo, seldom losing his balance and displaying a maturity and sense of supreme confidence which he lacked in the earlier part of his career.

The greatest danger to Musashimaru this time comes from rikishi ranked below sanyaku, such as Kotomitsuki, who will be returning to action in the mid-maegashira ranks in Nagoya. In all his recent championships, Musashimaru has overwhelmed his opponents up to about the 12th or 13th days, then dropped his guard after he has clinched the yusho. The Samoan-born yokozuna's greatest challenge now is to maintain his will to win until the very end.

Yokozuna Takanohana is absent for the seventh consecutive tournament, breaking his own unenviable record (for a yokozuna) of six full tournaments of absence. The Futagoyama Beya yokozuna has been absent for so long that he is becoming irrelevant. Takanohana has not competed since May of last year. He is reported to have made almost no effort to get into shape for the Nagoya Basho. While he did some fairly serious training at one point in late April, albeit with washed up opponents in his own Futagoyama Beya, Taka has trained very lightly for only four or five days since then.

As early as late May, it became apparent that Takanohana would miss the Nagoya Basho. When queried as to whether he would compete, he gave increasingly vague responses. The only keiko he did was with his aging peers in Futagoyama Beya, 37-year-old Daizen of Nishonoseki Beya and Juryo rikishi Wakakosho of Matsugane Beya. In fact, Takanohana has not trained with any Makunouchi rikishi under 30 for well over a year.

Takanohana's absence in Nagoya was announced on July 4. The reason for the delay in announcing the obvious was that ticket sales, already very low, would have been negatively impacted if Taka had withdrawn earlier. Because Musashimaru is not popular, one cannot escape gaining the impression that Takanohana is simply going through the motions of trying to get back into shape.

It has been a year since Takanohana underwent knee surgery, and the injury to his kneecap is now reported to have not fully healed. In fact, the yokozuna's application for absence in July states that he has an inflamed knee. Takanohana has long had a reputation of training seriously and has always been reluctant to drop out of tournaments, and given his present condition it is most unlikely that he will (not) be in significantly better shape for the September tournament.

Both the Sumo Kyokai's chairman, Kitanoumi Oyakata, and the head of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, Tsuneo Watanabe, have indicated that Takanohana must compete in September or retire. All that remains to be seen is whether Takanohana will seek to mount the dohyo for one last time in poor condition, or announce his retirement without competing again. It will take more than a miracle for Taka to achieve a successful comeback. He turns 30 in July, but having reached Makunouchi at the record early age of 17, he is more battle-worn than the average yokozuna of his age.

With Takanohana's departure likely, the Sumo Kyokai would obviously like a new yokozuna, but unfortunately the four current ozeki do not seem to have what it takes. Thirty-year-old Musoyama will miss the Nagoya Basho due to a dislocated shoulder sustained in May. Since Musoyama had already won nine bouts when he withdrew in May and as he will have kosho, or public injury status, in July, he will not be demoted even if he fails to achieve kachi-koshi in September. Musoyama is still strong and stable and should have little difficulty in maintaining his rank.

Kaio suffered a minor injury in a two-day exhibition tournament in June, but has decided to compete this time, although he will not be in very good condition. Kaio also has nagging back pain, but should be able to at least win eight bouts. In terms of strength, Kaio has no rival among the current ozeki, and were it not for his back trouble, he would probably have reached yokozuna last year.

The two younger ozeki, Chiyotaikai and Tochiazuma, are likely to win in double digits, but judging by recent performances, do not pose a significant threat to Musashimaru. Chiyotaikai has alternated between very good and very poor performances in recent tournaments, and given his strong 11-4 record in May, he hopes to break out of that pattern this time. Tochiazuma won the yusho in January, but has had two 10-5 records since; perfectly acceptable for an ozeki but not sufficient for a foothold toward promotion to yokozuna. Tochiazuma is still handicapped by his relatively small size, and must be consistently speedy on the dohyo to come close to the yusho.

One of the highlights of the Nagoya Basho will be Mongolian sekiwake Asashoryu's drive for ozeki promotion. The 21-year-old has had two consecutive 11-4 records at sekiwake, and 11 or 12 wins again in Nagoya should bring promotion to ozeki. Asashoryu seems to be unfazed by pressure, but often loses due to his lack of weight. The odds are that Asashoryu will fall short with nine or 10 wins in July, nevertheless his promotion to ozeki is just a matter of time. He even has a chance to eventually become yokozuna, if he broadens his range of techniques and gains more weight. If Musashimaru falters, Asashoryu could emerge as a dark-horse candidate for the yusho.

Wakanosato is back at sekiwake for the first time in over a year. The 26-year-old Naruto Beya rikishi has not had a spectacular tournament for quite a while, and is unlikely to emerge as a strong ozeki candidate anytime soon, though he has what it takes to win eight or nine bouts this time.

Thirty-year-old Tosanoumi is back in sanyaku at komusubi for the first time in two years. Once a strong ozeki candidate, Tosanoumi has looked rather sluggish in recent basho, but he is still capable of upsetting the ozeki. He will probably fall short with about six or seven wins in July, but he could impact the yusho race with a couple of major upsets. Former ozeki Miyabiyama is also back at komusubi. Still only 24, he has looked increasingly strong since his return in March. Someday, he will likely win his first yusho, and a return to ozeki in the future is possible. Musoyama should achieve his share of upsets at Nagoya and is likely to win nine or 10 bouts.

No. 6 maegashira Kotomitsuki should be rated as the strongest dark horse candidate for the yusho. He suffered a broken jaw during the Osaka Basho in March, but is now fully recovered and in top condition. Further, he is something of a nemesis to Musashimaru. If Koto gets off to a strong start as expected, he could challenge Musashimaru for the yusho in the second week.

Kotomitsuki has already won one yusho, in September 2001, and has the potential to win many more. It is likely that he will win 12 or 13 and two of the sansho prizes.

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