Much of the focus in the runup to the Natsu Basho has been on a rikishi who will not even compete: yokozuna Takanohana.
The 29-year-old yokozuna has not appeared in a tournament for a year, since the final day of the May 2001 Natsu Basho, when he defeated fellow yokozuna Musashimaru in a playoff for the championship, despite having severely injured his kneecap the previous day. Takanohana has thus been absent for five consecutive basho, an alltime record for a yokozuna.
Initially, it appeared that Takanohana’s injury would heal quickly. The yokozuna attempted to get into shape for the July tournament last year, but decided to drop out in the week preceding the start of the tournament. A second diagnosis of the injury revealed more damage than initially believed, and as a result Taka elected to have surgery in Paris the same month.
Taka’s knee was largely healed by the end of the year, although his French surgeon did not give him the go-ahead to resume keiko until February and it was not until April that he declared the injury to be “fully healed.”
While the yokozuna did some light workouts at the end of last year, he did not really start serious training until after the first week of April. He started with sandanme and makushita rikishi from his own heya, then graduated to training extensively with aging maegashira Akinoshima.
Last Monday, at the training session for the Yokozuna Shingiinkai (Yokozuna Deliberation Council), Taka attended but just stood on the sidelines until the very end, when he took on ozeki Tochiazuma in four lackluster butsukari keiko bouts. Judging by Takanohana’s obvious reluctance to do real keiko on Monday, it was obvious that he would miss the Natsu Basho, and it become official on Thursday.
The dispensation afforded Takanohana is in sharp contrast to former yokozuna Akebono, who was under extreme pressure to turn in a strong record or retire after missing only three basho in 1999. The press, the Yokozuna Shingiinkai and the Sumo Kyokai have all been extremely supportive of Takanohana during his long absence from the dohyo, in light of his “heroic” performance in taking the yusho last May.
However, there had been high expectations that Takanohana would at last appear in May, and the announcement that he will be absent may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The august members of the Yokozuna Shingiinkai are now divided, with one group promising to issue an explicit warning to Takanohana after the Natsu Basho is over to the effect that he should appear on the dohyo at Nagoya in July, and that if he is still in poor shape, that he should retire.
With sumo’s popularity at its nadir, and since the other yokozuna, Musashimaru, does not exactly enjoy heartthrob popularity with Japanese sumo fans, the Sumo Kyokai is hoping and praying that Taka will make a successful comeback in July.
What are the odds of Takanohana being able to make a successful comeback and extend his career a while longer? Probably not very high. Taka is simply so rusty that he is finding it difficult to get back into sufficient shape to hold his own with the opponents he usually faces. It is said that when a yokozuna or ozeki retires, in terms of strength he is back to the sandanme or makushita level after being away from the dohyo for a year. The same also applies to an active rikishi who has been away from the dohyo for a year due to absence.
However, other yokozuna have attempted comebacks after extraordinarily long absences. Haguroyama, who severed his Achilles’ tendon after the November 1947 tournament, did not return to the dohyo until May 1949 (there were only two tournaments per year in those days). He achieved an 11-4 record upon returning, and in January 1952, at age 37, he finally took the yusho again, after a lapse of five years, with a 15-0 record.
The most extraordinary attempted comeback was that of Kabutogata, a Kyoto yokozuna who was not recognized by the main Sumo Association. Kabutogata, promoted in large part to reward his loyalty and bravery in supporting the Emperor against the Shogun in the Meiji Restoration, attempted a comeback at age 55, in the early 1880s, after being absent for more than five years. The aging rikishi worked his back into shape, but dropped out after going winless for several days upon his return. Needless to say, he never competed again.
Yokozuna Musashimaru deserves praise for the critical role he has played in the last year as the only yokozuna. He has won two yusho during Takanohana’s absence, in November 2001 and in March this year. He is in good shape this time, and had a good 9-4 record in practice bouts with the ozeki at the soken on Monday.
Maru recently celebrated his 31st birthday and jokingly told reporters that he feels he can remain an active yokozuna until he is 40, by being absent until then.
In a more serious vein, Musashimaru once talked of his goal of taking 10 yusho. Now that he has reached that milestone, he has set a new goal of 15 championships. If Takanohana does not succeed in making a full-fledged comeback, 15 yusho should be attainable for Maru. Though he tipped the scales at the pre-basho weigh-in at 231 kg, Musashimaru is the favorite for the yusho in May, with about 13 or 14 wins.
The strongest competition to Musashimaru is likely to come from 25-year-old ozeki Tochiazuma, who worked exceptionally hard on the jungyo in April and is determined to do well this time. He has even talked of launching a new bid for yokozuna promotion. Tochi won the yusho in January, but faltered with a 10-5 record in March. He would have been promoted to yokozuna if he had won the yusho with an impressive record. With the pressure off this time, since he will not be promoted even with a perfect 15-0 record, Tochiazuma should be more relaxed. However, he still needs more speed and self-confidence in overwhelming his opponents. Tochiazuma is expected to be in the yusho race, probably just behind Musashimaru, and if the yokozuna falters, he will be the favorite to take the title. He should win about 12 or 13 bouts.
Ozeki Kaio is an enigma. He has been on the brink of yokozuna promotion twice, only to falter at the last moment due to back pain. He is capable of going into a tournament as the top yusho candidate and coming out as kadoban (ozeki status endangered through a losing record). And Kaio is capable of the reverse, as well. Kaio missed most of the March jungyo due to back pain, but he appeared to be in good shape at the soken on Monday. It is always difficult to predict Kaio’s performance, but he should be able to win 10 or 11 bouts and can never be ruled out as a dark-horse candidate for the yusho.
Ozeki Musoyama tends to be the most predictable and stable of the ozeki; ending with 10-5 or 9-6 records in almost all tournaments. Like Kaio, he has chronic back trouble, but on the positive side, his defensive sumo has improved in the last couple of years. Basically a pushing-thruster, Musoyama is not likely to take the yusho or become a yokozuna candidate, but he should win about 10 bouts in May.
The fourth ozeki, Chiyotaikai, is on the ropes this time. Chiyo came in a close second to Tochiazuma in January with a 13-2 record, but he withdrew during the March tournament and is thus kadoban this time. He needs at least an 8-7 record to avoid losing his ozeki rank. Chiyo was in poor condition in March, but he looks back to normal this time and should have little difficulty in holding his rank. He is likely to win about nine or 10 bouts.
Sekiwake Asashoryu gained a foothold for ozeki promotion with a fine 11-4 record in March. To make ozeki after this tournament, the 21-year-old Mongolian would probably need a 14-1 record and the yusho; not absolutely impossible, but not very likely. Asashoryu trained diligently and enthusiastically in March. He seems to really enjoy keiko, unlike many other rikishi. He could be a yusho candidate before too long, but it is still a bit premature for Asashoryu to take the title. Nevertheless, he should win 10 or 11 bouts, with a couple of major upsets.
Sekiwake Kotomitsuki is missing the Natsu Basho due to a broken jaw he sustained in a bout Otsukasa on the 13th day of the Haru Basho in March. He is not being granted kosho, or public injury status by the Sumo Kyokai, and will thus be falling back to the mid-mageashira ranks in July.
Komusubi Wakanosato has strong potential and is certainly an ozeki candidate, though he has had a string of 8-7 and 9-6 performances in recent basho. He should improve to 10 or 11 wins this time.
Tochinonada is back at komusubi, but will have an uphill struggle to achieve kachikoshi there. While he has seven kinboshi (upsets of yokozuna while ranked as a maegashira), he tends to lose to opponents who are in inferior in terms of strength and experience. He is likely to fall short with about five or six wins.