Big guns head for Kyushu tourney


This year’s Kyushu Basho gets under way in Fukuoka today with all three yokozuna and all five ozeki ready to compete.

Yokozuna Takanohana will be setting foot on the dohyo for the first time since July. Given the frequent absences of the yokozuna over the last three years, just having all the top-rankers compete in the Kyushu Basho is an achievement.

The Kyushu Basho has been held every November since 1957. It has had its share of unexpected winners over the years. Perhaps the most dramatic Fukuoka basho was the first, which was won by the then 34-year-old No. 14 maegashira Tamanoumi.

Tamanoumi took 20 years from his sumo debut in 1937 to win his first and last championship with a perfect 15-0 record. As a teenager, he had been expelled from the sumo world for assaulting a soldier. Drafted into the Japanese army, he survived the battle of Guadalcanal and eventually had to escape from a Soviet labor camp. He returned to sumo in 1950.

Two years ago, former sekiwake Kotonishiki, ranked at No. 12 maegashira, achieved a similar dramatic victory in Fukuoka, returning from the brink of retirement to win his second yusho.

In the 44 Fukuoka tournaments to date, only five have been won with 15-0 records. The odds are high that there will be no zensho yusho this time; none of the yokozuna and ozeki are looking exceptionally impressive.

Spotlight on Takanohana

The spotlight this time around will be on Takanohana, who will be attempting to win his first yusho since September 1998. Though only 28, Takanohana has faded over the last three years, after having achieved near-greatness by winning 20 championships by age 26.

Takanohana has already spent a decade in Makunouchi and has taken more wear and tear than the average 28-year-old yokozuna. At his age, he should be at his prime, but Takanohana is already fading and will likely retire before he reaches 30. Nevertheless, he is determined to bring an end to his long dry spell.

Taka will have an uphill battle to take the yusho. He could once count on support from a strong Futagoyama Beya sanyaku contingent. However, his heya’s strength is a just a shadow of what it was several years ago when it had 10 rikishi ranked in the Makunouchi Division. Besides Takanohana, the Futagoyama Beya now has only sekiwake Takanonami, a former ozeki, and two aging former sekiwake, Akinoshima and Takatoriki in the higher ranks. Although he has apparently recovered from the right-elbow injury that resulted in his withdrawal during the July tournament, Takanohana began training again only after reaching Fukuoka on Oct. 22. He claims to be in better shape than he was last November when he finished with an 11-4 record.

To be a serious contender for the yusho, Takanohana has to get through the first week of the basho unbeaten, or with only one loss. Since he must face the entire sanyaku, with the exception of Takanonami, it will be very difficult for him to outdo fellow yokozuna Musashimaru and Akebono. If he finishes the tournament he should, however, be able to win 10 or 11 bouts.

Musashimaru, who won the September tournament in Tokyo with a 14-1 record, has been in reasonably strong shape during keiko (training) in late October. However, he injured his left ankle on Oct. 31 and has missed several days of training.

At 29, Musashimaru is gradually becoming more injury-prone. However, he has managed to shed around 15 kg and is now a relatively slim 215 kg. He will need to go all out to compensate for his reduced mobility as a result of his ankle injury. He is thus no longer a favorite for the yusho, although he may have his chance if the title is taken with an 11-4 or 12-3 record.

Akebono the favorite

Akebono is a slight favorite in the Kyushu Basho. He is in good shape and is determined to make a strong showing in Fukuoka, as he was absent from the Kyushu Basho in 1997, 1998, and 1999. If he competes to the end of the Kyushu Basho, he will have completed a full year without absence for the first time since 1993, the year in which he was promoted to yokozuna.

Though he is now 31, Akebono has performed impressively this year: 11-4 in January, 12-3 in March, and then three consecutive 13-2 records from May, including his first yusho in over three years in July.

To date, Akebono has shown no sign of slowing down due to advancing age. Given his prodigious weight and overwhelming strength, Akebono could compete for another few years if he can avoid injuries. He still hopes to achieve zensho yusho, which has proved to be an elusive goal for him, despite his 10 championships to date.

The Hawaiian-born rikishi has also resolved to hold his yokozuna rank for 10 years (he was promoted after the January 1993 tournament). Although he missed about a week of training in October due to treatment for a boil, Akebono is looking strong and should be able to win 12 or 13 bouts and the yusho.

While all five ozeki are competing, only Kaio, who was promoted after the Nagoya Basho in July, has the power to challenge the yokozuna at this stage.

Kaio achieved a strong 11-4 record in his ozeki debut in September, despite a fractured bone in one of his fingers. He has had only a couple of weeks to train for the Kyushu Basho, due to treatment for the injury and will not be in top shape. Nevertheless, he should be able to perform at about the same level as he did in September. Of the five current ozeki, only Kaio has the potential to vie for yokozuna promotion in the near future. But, at 28, he needs to make his move soon.

Chiyotaikai and Dejima, now the senior ozeki, can only be expected to win about 10 bouts. Though sufficiently strong to survive as ozeki indefinitely, both rikishi lack technical finesse and the ability to consistently defeat the yokozuna. Musoyama is back at ozeki, having won 10 bouts at sekiwake in September in his first tournament after demotion. Muso is reported to be in even better condition than in September and could even be a dark-horse candidate for the yusho if the yokozuna and Kaio falter. However, Musoyama tends to be erratic, and unless he takes the offensive in his bouts, he tends to become a sitting duck. Ten to 12 wins.

Currently the least impressive of the ozeki, but with the most potential in the long term, 23-year-old Miyabiyama only narrowly held on to his ozeki rank in September, with an 8-7 record. Miyabiyama simply lacks experience, having been in professional sumo for just 2 1/2 years. As his ozeki rank is not in jeopardy this time, he will be under less pressure and may be able to improve his record to about 10-5. A couple of years from now, save for injuries, Miyabiyama should be ready to make a serious challenge for yokozuna promotion.

Interesting sanyaku ranks

Three promising rikishi will make their sanyaku debut in November. Hayateumi, one of the lightest Makunouchi rikishi at 129 kg, is ranked at sekiwake, while Tochinohana and Wakanosato have been promoted to komusubi. All three rikishi have rather orthodox forms of sumo, although Hayateumi has recently been working to incorporate the element of surprise into his dohyo strategy.

While Tochinohana and Wakanosato are unlikely to win more than six or seven bouts, Hayateumi has a chance to hold his rank, considering his 9-6 record as a high maegashira in September. All three of the new sanyaku rikishi have the potential to upset some of the yokozuna and ozeki.

Veteran former ozeki Takanonami has been promoted back to sekiwake from komusubi. Now 29, he is past his prime, but still quite powerful and capable of upsetting the yokozuna. The chances of him returning to ozeki are slim, but he may be able to hold his own at sekiwake for a while.

Among the maegashira, the rikishi to watch this time is No. 9 Kotomitsuki, who won the Juryo championship in September with a 14-1 record. With a build similar to that of former yokozuna Kitanoumi, Kotomitsuki has even greater potential than Hayateumi, Tochinohana, and Wakanosato. In one training session with ozeki Dejima in mid-October, Kotomitsuki came out on the winning side with a 5-2 record. Since he is unlikely to face the yokozuna and ozeki, Koto may win 10 or 11 bouts.