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Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002

Last hurrah for Takanohana?


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to The Japan Times

Yokozuna Takanohana has definite plans to compete in the Aki Basho at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan. It will be his first appearance on the dohyo since May 2001; he has been absent for a record (for a yokozuna) seven consecutive tournaments.

News photo
All eyes will be on Takanohana at the Aki Basho as he returns to the dohyo following a long layoff due to a serious knee injury he suffered in May 2001.

Takanohana has done virtually no training in the last 15 months and is likely to be totally out of shape and in the poorest condition of his career in September. However, he has no choice but to compete, as the president of the Sumo Kyokai, Kitanoumi Oyakata, has served notice that Takanohana will be expected to retire if he cannot compete.

In May last year, Takanohana was a hero for his remarkable playoff victory over fellow yokozuna Musashimaru, despite having severely injured his knee the previous day.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appeared on the dohyo at the award ceremonies to hand Takanohana the Prime Minister's Cup; Koizumi's poignant praise of the yokozuna captivated the nation. But 15 months is an eternity in sumo. When Taka last competed he was an over-the-hill 28, now he is a flabby, washed up 30-year-old.

There is intense speculation about Takanohana's performance in September. Logically, he has done so little keiko, against only a few aging sekitori in his own Futagoyama Beya, that one wonders whether he can win a single bout.

Some newspapers have speculated that the veteran yokozuna has internal ailments that have kept him from training properly. Taka's knee surgery in Paris last August was reported to be a success, but the healing process should not have taken more than several months. Takanohana has had liver trouble in the past.

There is another theory that the yokozuna simply lacks the will to get back into optimum condition.

The most likely course of events is that Takanohana will lose a few bouts in the first days of the Aki Basho and then announce his retirement.

If he somehow survives, he will again be a hero. In fact, if Takanohana makes it through the Aki Basho and continues in competition, he will give sumo's flagging popularity a tremendous boost. Takanohana's only remaining assets on the dohyo are his strong fighting spirit when in the clutch and his experience.

However unlikely Takanohana's comeback may seem, stranger things have happened in the past.

For instance, yokozuna Haguroyama made a successful comeback in 1949 after an 18-month absence due to Achilles tendon injuries. Haguroyama was 35 years old at the time, and like Takanohana, had been a yokozuna for eight years. Haguroyama succeeded in his comeback even though he had not been able to handle even lowly sandanme rikishi in training. Haguroyama finally took the yusho again in January 1952, with a perfect 15-0 record, and remained in active competition until he was nearly 39. As for Takanohana, it will be a miracle if even survives this basho.

The Yokozuna Deliberation Council, an advisory board to the Sumo Kyokai, is sharply divided on what standards Takanohana will be expected to meet in September.

Yomiuri Shimbun President Tsuneo Watanabe, a 76-year-old who heads the Council, says he has totally lost hope in Takanohana. He went so far as to say he would resign his position if Takanohana were allowed to take off another tournament. However, a few members who are friendly to Takanohana have suggested that he be allowed to sit out the Aki Basho, or be permitted to continue with as little as eight wins.

Of course, the Deliberation Council is but an advisory body and the Sumo Kyokai makes the final decisions.

The excitement over Takanohana's return against hopeless odds has clouded speculation about the yusho race. The leading candidates are yokozuna Musashimaru, ozeki Chiyotaikai and Asashoryu, and perhaps No. 7 maegashira Kotomitsuki.

The Japanese media has paid scant attention to yokozuna Musashimaru over the summer months.

He now tips the scales at 237 kg, an all-time record for a yokozuna, surpassing the top weight of even Akebono, who was considerably taller than Musashimaru at 204 cm.

In recent basho, Musashimaru has looked very strong in the first week, only to falter in the final few days. He is expected to be in reasonably good condition, however, and if he makes an all-out effort to win, he will undoubtedly take his 12th yusho, tying him with the great prewar yokozuna Futabayama (though in Futabayama's time there were only two basho per year, as opposed to six now).

If Musashimaruru had the hunger and drive of Asashoryu, he would be taking the yusho almost every tournament. Musashimaru should be capable of winning 12 or 13 bouts, and he must be regarded as a very slight favorite for the championship.

Ozeki Chiyotaikai, who was victorious in July with a superb 14-1 championship, will be promoted to yokozuna if he wins the yusho again in September.

However, while a strong pusher-thruster, Chiyo is notoriously erratic, and he seldom puts together consecutive double-digit winning records. The odds that he will go all the way again in September are not high, probably 10 to 20 percent. It is much more likely that he will drop back to the 10-5 level.

Ozeki Kaio will be returning to action in September, after dropping out in July winless on the fourth day due to nagging pain from old injuries.

Kaio is kadoban, which means he must win eight or more bouts or face demotion to sekiwake. Kaio has turned 30, but were it not for the injuries, he would probably be holding his own at yokozuna. Save for another injury, he should be able to win 10 or 11 bouts, though the yusho is probably out of his reach.

Musoyama, who dropped out at the end of the May tournament, is returning, but is not kadoban since he won nine bouts in May. Like Kaio, he has already passed his 30th birthday. He doesn't really have what it takes to win the yusho again or become a yokozuna candidate, however, he looks strong enough to win nine or 10 bouts in September.

Ozeki Tochiazuma dropped out on the fifth day of the July tournament, and since he has kosho (public injury) status this time, he is likely to sit this one out and make his comeback as kadoban in November.

The fifth ozeki is 21-year-old Mongolian Asashoryu, who was promoted from sekiwake on the strength of his impressive 12-3 record in July. Asashoryu is aggressive, motivated and increasingly skillful. He is the strongest yokozuna candidate of the current ozeki, but needs more experience before he can make his move. He has a set a modest goal of 10 wins in September, but the odds are that he will win 11 or 12 bouts and possibly emerge as a dark horse candidate for the yusho.

Sekiwake Wakanosato has a foothold for ozeki promotion with his 11-4 record in July. He would need a 14-1 record in September to secure ozeki promotion, especially since there are already five ozeki and there has never been a precedent for having six.

Wakanosato's strategy is orthodox and very predictable. He moves forward and tries to overwhelm his opponents. His defense is competent, but lacks dynamism. Waka's greatest asset is his brute strength and stability. He may be able to perform at the same level he reached in July, with 10 or 11 wins likely.

Tosanoumi, age 30, is back at sekiwake. The veteran won 10 bouts in July and was the only rikishi to upset championship winner Chiyotaikai. When his pushing/thrusting runs hot, Tosanoumi is dangerous, but when he is even slightly out of rhythm, he is a sitting duck for most of the sanyaku rikishi. He will probably have a difficult time even winning eight bouts.

Colorful new komusubi Takamisakari could be one of the stars of the Aki Basho. While somewhat underweight for his height, he is becoming stronger and more skillful, and could prove a formidable foe for Takanohana. But he will have to struggle to match the 9-6 record he achieved in July.

No. 7 maegashira Kotomitsuki, who had a surprisingly poor 7-8 record upon returning in July, after suffering a broken chin in March, could be the sleeper this time. He won the September tournament last year. It will not be surprising if he figures prominently in the yusho race and wins 12 or 13 bouts.



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