The Haru Basho gets under way in Osaka today, with ozeki Tochiazuma and Chiyotaikai aiming for yokozuna promotion, while sekiwake Kotomitsuki sets his sights on ozeki.
If Tochiazuma, the winner of the January tournament in Tokyo, and Chiyotaikai both fare exceptionally well, it is conceivable that the Sumo Association could decide to promote both men simultaneously. There have been three joint promotions in the last century: Kitanofuji and Tamanoumi in 1970, Akinoumi and Terukuni in 1942, and Hitachiyama and Umegatani II in 1903.
Further, Kotomitsuki has a strong chance to gain promotion to ozeki. Undoubtedly, these potential promotions will add interest to the Osaka Basho and help compensate for the absence of yokozuna Takanohana and the likely mediocre performance of the other yokozuna, Musashimaru.
Tochiazuma is in top condition again this time. In January, he became the first new ozeki since Kiyokuni, in July 1969, to win the Makunouchi Division title in his first tournament at ozeki. The consensus of opinion is that Tochiazuma needs to take the title again in March, or come a very close second with at least 13 wins, to get the nod.
The 25-year-old ozeki seems to have almost perfected his own style of sumo over the last few tournaments. His strength, technique, and perseverance compensate for his relative lack of stature and weight.
However, Tochiazuma has his shortcomings. Either by instinct or habit, he tends to sidestep his opponents in the clutch. For a run-of-the-mill maegashira or sanyaku rikishi, sidestepping, or “henka,” would be considered a perfectly normal way to win. However, it is still viewed by many as being beneath the dignity of a yokozuna and not an honorable way for a yokozuna candidate to win. Tochiazuma won the championship in January by sidestepping Chiyotaikai in their 13-2 playoff.
Tochiazuma has also been an injury-prone rikishi, though he has not had an injury now for over a year. Needless to say, he must avoid injuries at all cost; sustaining another one could transform him from being a yokozuna candidate to a sekiwake (i.e. demotion) candidate overnight.
No ozeki has been able to reach yokozuna after just two basho at ozeki since Terukuni in 1942 and the great Futabayama in 1937, and Tochiazuma is unlikely to be an exception. The odds that he will eventually reach yokozuna are probably better than even, but after having elevated the quality of his sumo to a high, new plateau over the last several basho, Tochiazuma is in for the inevitable letdown. He is likely to win only about 10 or 11 bouts.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai is the most unpredictable of rikishi. When his oshi-zumo clicks, his destructive offensive power is awesome. However, when he has a lackluster tachi-ai or is forced on the defensive, he is much less effective. His outstanding 13-2 record in January has placed him as close to yokozuna as Tochiazuma is. All he has to do is win the tournament or perhaps finish runnerup with 13 or more wins.
Does he have a good chance of promotion to yokozuna? Probably not. He only achieved kachikoshi in two of the six tournaments last year, withdrawing from all the others with injuries. Given the frequent absence of the current yokozuna, sumo needs a full-time yokozuna, not another part-time pretender. To prove his worth, Chiyotaikai needs to put together four or five consecutive double-digit records, not just two.
Like Tochiazuma, Chiyotaikai is likely to have a letdown in March, though he should still be able to achieve a decent 10-5 or 11-4 record.
Maru still recovering
Yokozuna Musashimaru has decided to compete this time. His sprained wrist is much better and he has been able to do some training with the higher ranked rikishi. Maru actually trains very little these days even when in good condition, and for this reason, his performance is expected to follow the pattern of his recent records. In the most likely scenario, his record will fall somewhere between his poor 9-6 record last September and his 13-2 surprise yusho last November.
Now nearly 31, he seems determined to pace himself and not overtrain. However, he still has the potential to take the yusho at any time and, for this reason, he must be considered a dark horse this time. He is most likely to end with an 11-4 or 12-3 record.
Will Taka ever return?
Yokozuna Takanohana is absent again, for the fifth consecutive basho, an all-time record for a yokozuna. If Taka does actually return in May, it will be exactly a year since his last performance.
The yokozuna is supposedly fully recovered from the knee surgery he underwent in Paris last summer, but despite having more than a month to train from February to early March, he did virtually no training at all, other than stamping his feet and taking on a few makushita and lower rikishi for butsukari geiko on some days.
If the 29-year-old yokozuna stays out of the May tournament as well, he will be on the brink of retirement and perhaps unlikely to ever compete again. He has two months to get into shape for the Natsu Basho.
Having won 22 yusho, including a dramatic win over Musashimaru in a playoff last May despite having a painful injury, Takanohana has been living on accumulated good will over the last year. But any yokozuna runs out of hot air after four or five consecutive basho away from the dohyo. He very much needs to make his comeback in May.
Dark horse Kaio
As for the two older ozeki, 30-year-old Musoyama and 29-year-old Kaio, both are likely to play a supporting role in March, though Kaio cannot be excluded as a dark horse yusho candidate if his back is better. With his mobility limited in January due to constant back pain, Kaio dropped to a mediocre, albeit passing 9-6 record. In March, he is most likely to win about 10 bouts, but if Tochi, Chiyo, and Koto falter, he could still take the yusho.
Musoyama also has back trouble, but less distracting than Kaio’s. In recent basho, Musoyama has done reasonably well and seems to be settling in at a 10-5 plateau. He shows no sign of becoming a yokozuna candidate, but in good condition he should be able to win 10 or 11 bouts.
Sekiwake Kotomitsuki is on the brink of ozeki promotion, and is a slight favorite to win the Haru Basho. He won the yusho last November as a high maegashira, with a 13-2 record, followed by 9-6 and 12-3 at sekiwake. One more record on par with his 12-3 mark in January will win him promotion to ozeki.
With Tochiazuma and Chiyotaikai under pressure this time, Koto could be the upsetter of the basho. He has a better than even chance of winning promotion to ozeki this time. Both strong and skillful, Kotomitsuki has superior yokozuna potential to Tochiazuma and Chiyotaikai. He is likely to win 12 or 13 bouts.
A new Takasago era
Asashoryu is competing in his second tournament at sekiwake and his first as a Takasago Beya rikishi. His mentor, Wakamatsu Oyakata (ex-ozeki Asashio) took over Takasago Beya in February, from the old Takasago Oyakata (former komusubi Fujinishiki, who reaches the Sumo Kyokai’s retirement age in March).
The new Takasago Beya is the largest in sumo, and practicing with such a large group should greatly help Asashoryu. He still needs to put on more weight if he is to be a viable ozeki candidate, but at this stage, simply getting kachikoshi in Sanyaku is an achievement. He should win 9 or 10 bouts this time.
Wakanosato is still ranked at komusubi. The same age as Tochiazuma, Chiyotaikai, and Kotomitsuki, he has been left behind by his peers. He needs more technique and speed to go beyond his present plateau. Waka is likely to win eight or nine again this time.
Ex-ozeki wild cards
Takanonami is surprisingly back in sanyaku — becoming the first former ozeki to fall to the double digit maegashira ranks and work his way back to sanyaku since Nayoroiwa in 1953. Takanonami is still capable of upsetting anyone, but lacks the drive and consistency he once had. While not impossible, kachikoshi in March is unlikely.
Another former ozeki may hold the key to the outcome of this tournament. Miyabiyama, at 24 the youngest former ozeki in centuries, is making his comeback bid at No. 8 maegashira. In good condition, at a low rank, and with no pressure, he could well be the wild card of this basho, and cannot be eliminated from consideration as a yusho candidate. He has still not won the championship and will be eager to do so, as well as to start working on a comeback to ozeki. He should win 11 or 12 bouts, possibly even more.
The third former ozeki, Dejima, also in Miyabiyama’s Musashigawa Beya, has fallen down to No. 7 maegashira, with no winning records in the last year. It is possible that he, too, will make a strong comeback this time.
Sellouts no more
The Sumo Kyokai, now under a new “rijicho” (president), Kitanoumi (former yokozuna Kitanoumi), will likely be most concerned about the drop in ticket sales in Osaka. Every day at every Osaka basho in March since 1974 has been a sellout, but this time only three weekend days are reported to be sold out and thousands of unsold tickets remain on the other days.
Furthermore, the number of new recruits who will make their debut this time has fallen to 50, the lowest level in many decades. Only three rikishi are absent in Makunouchi and Juryo this time: yokozuna Takanohana, maegashira Chiyotenzan and Sentoryu in Juryo.