Lowly Takatoriki captures first Emperor’s Cup

by Andy Adams

No. 14 maegashira Takatoriki stunned Miyabiyama and the entire sumo world Sunday when he upset heavily favored sekiwake Miyabiyama to clinch the championship of the Haru Basho in Osaka with a spectacular 13-2 record. It not only marked ‘Riki’s first yusho, but it was also the first time in sumo history that the yusho has ever been won by a bottom-ranked maegashira. Moreover, it was the second hiramaku (maegashira) yusho in the last nine basho — Kotonishiki took the championship of the 1998 Kyushu Basho as a No. 12 maegashira with a 14-1 record.

Yokozuna Akebono and sekiwake Musoyama had to settle for second place with 12-3 records, while yokozuna Takanohana and Musashimaru, ozeki Dejima and sekiwake Miyabiyama wound up in a third-place tie with 11-4 marks. It had been widely expected toward the end of the basho that the spring tournament would end up with a five-way playoff with either Takanohana or Akebono, yokozuna Musashimaru, sekiwake Musoyama, sekiwake Miyabiyama and Takatoriki. But ‘Riki obviously had other ideas.

In an all-yokozuna collision, Akebono defeated Takanohana, although it appeared that Taka had won by unleashing an arm throw near the edge, as they both crashed out together. But the tategyoji (referee) gave Akebono the nod and the shimpan (judges) declined to hold a monoii (bout review by the judges). The two yokozuna are now even in their 40-bout rivalry. The other remaining yokozuna, Musashimaru, proved to be easy prey for Chiyotaikai, who spilled Maru by tsukiotoshi (push down) shortly after the tachi-ai.

In other bouts, Dejima boomed out fellow-ozeki Takanonami, handing ‘Nami his eighth loss and thus making him kadoban (vulnerable to demotion) for the second time in the last three basho. That means he has to get eight wins in May or get demoted to sekiwake again. Dejima ended in a third-place tie with an 11-4 record.

Musoyama won a hard-fought struggle with Tochiazuma to finish second, while Tochi barely scraped out an 8-7 record. Musoyama’s strong performance has obviously clinched his drive to gain ozeki promotion, making a total of four ozeki beginning with the upcoming Natsu Basho in May.

Overall, it was one of the most exciting tournaments in recent years, with no less than six rikishi vying for the title down the home stretch. Takatoriki’s amazing unbeaten pace through the first 12 days surprised sumo pundits, but his losses on the 13th and 14th days appeared to open the way for a thrilling playoff climax. That is, until ‘Riki won against all odds on senshuraku by downing Miyabiyama at the very last second at the edge.

The Haru Basho of 2000 will also be remembered as yokozuna Wakanohana’s last hurrah, although he wasn’t up to going all the way to the end, deciding to hang up his mawashi after losing three of his first five bouts. He has taken the toshiyori name of Fujishima, but is expected to take over Futagoyama Beya when his father (ex-ozeki Takanohana) retires at the age of 65 in February of 2015.

The three sansho prizes were awarded as follows: the Shukun-sho (Outstanding Performance Award) to Takatoriki for the third time; the Kanto-sho (Fighting Spirit Prize to Takatoriki for a record 10th time and Miyabi for the second time; and the Gino-sho (Technique Prize) to Musoyama for the fourth time.

Takatoriki turned his dreams of winning the yusho into reality with an unbelievable comeback after falling to the very bottom of the division. Before anyone took any special notice, he raced through the first 10 days undefeated. As expected, he was moved up to fight komusubi Tosanoumi on the 11th day.

After upsetting both Tosa and sekiwake Musoyama on the 12th day, he came smack up against two of the three yokozuna — Musashimaru and Akebono — on the 13th and 14th days, respectively. As expected, ‘Riki lost both bouts, and was not expected to have any real chance against Miyabiyama, who is not only 10 years younger, but also 7 cm (nearly 3 inches) taller and more than 40 kg (88 pounds) heavier.

Takatoriki admitted afterward that he was very tense and nervous over the last three days and wasn’t able to perform at his best. But ‘Riki couldn’t have done it any better in his brilliant comeback in that final bout. Two images stand out: Takatoriki choked up and crying while being interviewed by NHK after clinching the yusho and the big ex-collegian sitting on the edge of the dohyo after his loss and looking back in disbelief.

Akebono finished with a strong 12-3 performance and a tie for runnerup. But for his unexpected loss to Chiyotaikai on the 11th day, he might have been able to finally collect his elusive 10th yusho. He’ll be 32 in May and is obviously not going to get any stronger, although he is also not showing any real signs of slowing down. If he ever hopes to get that 10th title, he’ll have to come up with a performance like putting together his first 10 days of the Hatsu Basho with the last four days of this tournament.

After three straight wins from shonichi (opening day), he went down to two consecutive defeats at the hands of sekiwake Musoyama on the fourth day and sekiwake Miyabiyama on the fifth day. But Akebono bounced back hard by winning eight of his next nine bouts, losing only to ozeki Chiyotaikai on the 11th day and reaching the final-day showdown with Takanohana.

Takanohana appeared at times as though he might finally be able to win his first title since September 1998, but that opening-day loss to Tosanoumi handicapped him all the way. Although he surged back from the second day with consecutive wins until the eighth day, when he suffered his second setback at the hands of komusubi Kaio, he never really performed like the great yokozuna of a few years ago.

Bouncing back strongly after that loss, Takanohana finally appeared to be on the way to his 21st yusho, but ozeki Dejima stunned him on the 13th day, preventing the yokozuna from taking the mawashi, even with an outside grip. By the time Taka came up against Akebono on the last day, the outcome had already been decided by his Futagoyama Beya stablemate, Takatoriki. Although the outcome of his final bout was close, Taka nevertheless lost to Akebono and had to be content with an 11-4 record and a third-place tie.