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Monday, Sept. 23, 2002

Maru overpowers Taka to take title


By CLYDE NEWTON
Special to The Japan Times

Yokozuna Musashimaru overpowered fellow-yokozuna Takanohana on the final day of the Aki Basho to win his 12th title with a 13-2 record. It was the 31-year-old Hawaiian-born yokozuna's third yusho this year; he also triumphed in March and May.

Musashimaru rallied despite a first-day upset to komusubi Takanonami, a former ozeki. His only other loss was to ozeki Kaio on the 13th day. Whereas in most recent basho Musashimaru has tended to fall apart at the end, the opposite was true this time.

Musashimaru was competing at his highest weight to date -- 237 kg, also the greatest weight for a yokozuna in centuries of recorded sumo history. Nevertheless, the veteran yokozuna was quite mobile and considerably more powerful than he was in July, when his record slipped to a mediocre 10-5 mark.

Since none of the five ozeki appear to be within striking range of yokozuna promotion at this point, Musashimaru is likely to continue to be the dominant figure in sumo for the immediate future, despite his advancing age.

The highlight of the Aki Basho was Takanohana's attempt at a comeback after being absent since the final day of the May 2001 tournament. Takanohana had done very little training in the last few months, facing three aging veterans in his Futagoyama stable on the rare days when he trained with other rikishi.

The consensus of opinion prior to the Aki Basho was that the 30-year-old yokozuna was doomed. There were even those (including this writer) who felt that he'd drop out winless after the first few days and retire.

Takanohana's Rip Van Winkle-like return generated a level of excitement which has been missing from sumo in the last few years. Taka got off to a rocky start, losing to little-heralded No. 4 maegashira Kyokutenho on the second day and to No. 3 maegashira Kotoryu, who was also returning from an injury, on the fifth day.

Taka appeared to be only a loss or two away from retirement after his second defeat, but from that point on he rallied dramatically and, almost unbelievably, became the favorite to take the yusho in the last few days of the tournament.

Obviously rusty, somewhat flabby, and at times desperate, Takanohana was not the nearly invincible yokozuna of several years ago. He was criticized for sidestepping ozeki Chiyotaikai on the 13th day, the first time he had done so in a bout since July 1999, but nevertheless Takanohana's comeback was nothing short of incredible. Had he defeated fellow-yokozuna Musashimaru on the final day, and thereby taken his 23rd title, his comeback would undoubtedly have gone down as one of the most remarkable in history.

Takanohana maneuvered deftly in the first seconds of his clash with Musashimaru, but once Maru found an opening and pushed forward, Takanohana was quickly overpowered.

If he can avoid getting injured again, and provided he does more training, there is no reason to believe that Takanohana will not take the yusho again; indeed he will be one of the favorites at Fukuoka in November.

However, having reached makuuchi at 17, Takanohana is battleworn and a very old 30. He is covering declining strength with his experience and technique, but given his strong fighting spirit on the dohyo, he could last another year or so.

With the exception of Kaio, who shared runnerup honors with Takanohana with a 12-3 record, the performance of the ozeki this time was disappointing, especially in the final days. New ozeki Asashoryu roared off to an 8-0 start, only to fall apart in his bouts with the other top-rankers, finishing with a 10-5 record.

Musoyama barely eked out an 8-7 record, while Chiyotaikai, who would have been promoted to yokozuna if he had won the tournament, dropped to 10-5, which means that he must start again from scratch in his quest for yokozuna promotion. The fifth ozeki, Tochiazuma, was absent, and must win eight or more bouts in November to avoid demotion.

Of the sekiwake and komusubi, only sekiwake Wakanosato achieved kachikoshi, with an 8-7 record. He will retain his rank, but has lost his foothold toward promotion to ozeki. Tosanoumi fell to a 6-9 record after his fine 10-5 comeback in July, while new komusubi Takamisakari had a poor 4-11 mark.

Komusubi Takanonami defeated yokozuna Musashimaru and two ozeki, but failed with a 7-8 record. The 30-year-old former ozeki tends to be very erratic, but he is still capable of upsetting the yokozuna and ozeki and should be around for a while yet.

With Tosanoumi, Takamisakari and Takanonami falling from sanyaku, Takanowaka, Kyokutenho and Kotomitsuki are likely to rise from the maegashira ranks to take their place. Takanowaka will probably be ranked at sekiwake and the other two rikishi at komusubi.

Two popular old veterans lost their battle for survival in September. Thirty-nine-year-old former sekiwake Terao, probably the second most popular rikishi in sumo after Takanohana, announced his retirement on the final day, with a 5-8-2 record at No. 11 juryo. Terao's fighting spirit was apparent to the very end; he won the final bout of his career against Oginishiki on Sunday, to thunderous applause.

The lanky, ever-youthful Terao was the last rikishi with a career stretching all the way back to the 1970s -- he made his debut in July 1979. One of three brothers who had sumo careers, he long outlasted his siblings Kakureizan and Sakahoko.

Terao was promoted to juryo in May 1984 and was thus a sekitori (ranked in the two top divisions) for a remarkable 18 years. He was the last survivor of the Hana no Sanpachi Gumi (rikishi born in 1963), which included yokozuna Futahaguro and Hokutoumi and ozeki Konishiki.

Something of a living legend and one of a kind, Terao will be greatly missed. He will remain in sumo as Shikoroyama Oyakata.

Former sekiwake Takatoriki withdrew with a 3-10 record on the 13th day, after losing to Terao, and announced his retirement. He will remain in the sumo world as Odake Oyakata and will eventually take over Taiho Beya, which is operated by his father-in-law, the great former yokozuna Taiho.

Takatoriki, who is nearly 35, won the makuuchi yusho in March 2000 and was a strong sekiwake in the early to mid 1990s. The aging veteran seemed to lose heart in the last few tournaments, and he announced his retirement after his demotion to makushita became a certainty. There is no precedent for a former makuuchi championship winner to fall below juryo.

Former No. 3 maegashira Minatofuji also retired in makushita and has become the new Tatsutagawa Oyakata.

The juryo championship was won by Tamarikido with an 11-4 record. The makushita title went to Shishio, the sandanme to Nadatsukasa, the jonidan to Russian Roho and the jonokuchi to Tokitenku, all with 7-0 records.

The Outstanding Performance and Technique Prizes were not awarded this basho, with No. 7 maegashira Kotomitsuki (11-4) taking the Kantosho, or Fighting Spirit Prize.



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