All Columns written by Kenji Heilman

for the Kyushu Basho 2002 

 

2002 Kyushu Basho Roundtable

November 25, 2002 -- This Kyushu basho was not unlike a lackluster follow-up game after a huge college football victory the previous week. It would have been tough to match the excitement that the Aki basho provided with Takanohana's historic comeback, yes, but this basho went from promising to depressing in a hurry when Taka, Kaio, Musashimaru and Chiyotaikai all bowed out within a span of 10 days. But you can find a silver lining in any basho. And that silver lining came in the form of a fiery 22 year old Mongolian who stepped up big time and made some history of his own.

With a 14-1 record, Asashoryu became the first Mongolian rikishi to win a Makuuchi yusho and tied the record held by Takahanada (currently fighting as Takanohana) for fastest time from maezumo to yusho (24 basho or 4 years). With 66 wins in 2002, he has the most wins of anyone for the year. That's an average of 11 wins over 6 basho. He has not lost in the first 8 days for the last 3 basho. Not bad for a 22 year old who is the fifth lightest rikishi among 40 in the top division. What he lacks in stature he more than makes up for in competitiveness and sheer determination. Plus he has an uncanny sixth sense in the ring, or "sumo-kan", that we haven't seen since Wakanohana a few years ago. He made his parents and a whole country proud today, especially by winning out the last two days against fellow Ozeki after clinching on day 13. The pressure will be on him for tsunatori (Yokozuna promotion) in January. Even if he doesn't make it then, folks, I think you're looking at the first Mongolian Yokozuna in 2003.

Musoyama had a good chance to challenge for the cup this basho with all the injuries, but he was true to form with his last second losses that can only be attributed to lack of concentration. The way he lost today, however, is a huge concern. It looked as though he may have dislocated his left shoulder again. If this is the case, it doesn't bode well for Hatsu basho since we already know Musashimaru is gone, Kaio is unlikely to fight, and Takanohana and Chiyotaikai are questionable at best.

Tochiazuma deserves praise for turning around a disastrous first five days to notch 8 wins and avoid demotion. He showed that he has what it takes, but the content of his sumo leaves much to be desired for an Ozeki. He resorts to hiki, ala Chiyotaikai, way too much. Where, oh where has that tenacious maemitsu (frontal belt grip) attack gone? With the kadoban pressure off and a tournament under his belt after his injury, hopefully we can see more of his Ozeki-like sumo in January.

We had a unique basho in that there were 3 Kantosho (fighting spirit prize) awarded. The most notable recipient was Takanowaka, who aside from Asashoryu grabbed the most attention in Kyushu with his own brand of feisty grappling. This guy was fired up this basho. He disposed of Toki, who frustrates most with his long reach and incessant nodowa (thrusts to throat), with ease today and gave a sumo version of the Heisman pose with his final thrust as if to say, "I've arrived". At 11-4 from Komusubi and with Wakanosato turning in a listless 7-8 at Sekiwake, Takanowaka now is in the drivers seat to make a run at Ozeki. I think it's too early to tell at this point if he'll make it, but I do think this guy is legit.

We had 7 rikishi coming into senshuraku (day 15) with a 9-5 record: Takanonami (M1), Toki (M7), Aminishiki (M8), Kotonowaka (M9), Dejima (M10), Iwakiyama (M11) and Akinoshima (M14). The other two Kantosho were awarded to 2 of the 4 who won: Takanonami and Iwakiyama. I came close with my prediction of Dejima, who won 10, but I agree that of these performances, the appropriate choices were made.

By defeating 1 Yokozuna and 2 Ozeki and finally showing he was a contender and not a pretender for the second half of a basho, Takanonami became the fourth former Ozeki in history to win a sansho and the first to do it since Kaiketsu 25 years ago. He also reached futaketa (double digit wins) for the first time in 17 basho. I've never been a fan of his "hook over the top and swing your opponent" sumo, but wouldn't it be neat if he went one step further and replicated Kaiketsu's feat of being promoted to Ozeki twice? This is probably wishful thinking, but he proved in Kyushu that Takanonami is still a force to be reckoned with.

Little known shin-nyumaku (rookie top division rikishi) Iwakiyama opened some eyes with a 10-win performance and a Kantosho to boot. He looks to be solid in both stature and his tsuki-oshi style. It's always exciting to see newcomers knock on the door of joi. He may be high enough to get a taste in January. It probably won't be pretty, but it will be interesting to see if he'll be more than a flash in the pan.

Here's a rundown of a few more tidbits from this otherwise uneventful basho:

 

                  Wakanosato looked awful this basho but ended with 7 wins. Think about that. That's not all bad when you win 7 looking awful at Sekiwake.

                  My man Tosanoumi was his usual fearless self, picking up 8 wins and assuring a return to sanyaku. Let's see, how many times can you recall Tosanoumi using hiki waza this basho? Take note, Chiyotaikai and Tochiazuma!

                  The lovable Takamisakari only managed 5 wins at M4. Until now I thought he was bowing when he lost, but in fact it's just an extremely animated limp on that bum right knee of his. You gotta feel for a one legged guy who is blind as a bat trying to mix it up in makuuchi joi. Let's hope he makes it back soon.

                  Did anyone happen to see Kyokushuzan's tachiai (initial charge) today? He actually went full boar against Dejima! He then of course used hiki and got steamrolled, but this is huge news. He didn't stand straight up with one arm extended to greet his opponent. This is why I never cared for the guy, even when he was all the rage coming up with all the "waza no depaato, Mongolu-shiten" hype.

                  Notable Juryo performances include a sure-to-be shin-nyumaku in January named Takanotsuru, who looks like Toki's long lost cousin with equally obnoxious and unkempt sideburns.

                  Takekaze, the shortest sekitori today, posted 10 wins in mid-Juryo. Let's hope this vertically challenged fire plug keeps climbing to become a pain in the mawashi to makuuchi rikishi as well.

 

Well, another year of sumo is in the books. These aren't the best of times, but there are enough stories out there to make 2003 a solid year. And for goodness' sake if the top dogs can all stay healthy at the same time, I think the sport can turn the corner once again and return to the sold out tournaments of the Waka-Taka years of the mid-nineties. Let's hope so.

 

Day 7 Comments

November 16, 2002 -- My, how the flavor of a basho changes in the span of a week.  First it was Takanohana dropping out a couple days before shonichi, next Kaio a couple days in, then Musashimaru a couple days after that.  All of a sudden a refreshingly stout basho that had 2 Yokozuna and 5 Ozeki going in has no Yokozuna, 4 Ozeki and, as Mike put it, an uninspired higashi Sekiwake in Wakanosato.  Come on boys, who wants this thing!?

 

Asashoryu, the only rikishi so far to make it through the first 7 days unscathed, showed today why I think he is the next Yokozuna.  He got beat thoroughly by Miyabiyama yet picked up the win with his uncanny waza timing, side stepping the hard charging Miyabi just as he came with what would have been the final tsuki to push Asa out of the ring.  This guy has presence beyond his 22 years.  The only question mark is how he will fare from here.  In Nagoya his record in the last 6 days was 3-3.  Last basho, it was worse at 1-5.  With the slew of dropouts this basho, this is as good a chance as ever for Asa to forge through to pick up his first yusho.

 

Musoyama and Akinoshima are chasing Asashoryu with 1 loss apiece.  Musoyama is a hard guy to predict because he always looks solid with his sumo; whether he wins or not is a different story.  To borrow a quote from Forrest Gump, in that regard he is like a box of chocolates:  You never know what you're going to get.  That's why you can never count him out.  Akinoshima is showing the youngsters his veteran savvy down at M14, but sustaining this kind of momentum will be difficult in a few more days if he keeps winning because he'll find himself up against sanyaku or sanyaku caliber material.  But I wish the old warrior well; he deserves one more time in the spotlight.

 

Chiyotaikai's loss today is exactly why I can't see him making Yokozuna.  Was Hokutoriki's timing that good or does Chiyo have a hard time adjusting when someone throws a wrench in his freight train sumo?  I say maybe a little of the former and a lot of the latter. 

 

One rikishi who is raising my eyebrows this basho is Takanowaka at 5-2.  He has fire in his eyes.  He may be the one who wants this thing enough.  A yusho may be far fetched, but I think he has the intensity and desire to pull out a sansho based on what I've seen thus far.  Let's see just who has what it takes to prevail in the second half.

 

Day 1 Comments

November 11, 2002 -- And we're off! On top of being deflated over the last minute withdrawal of Takanohana, it wasn't a very eventful shonichi. And Tochiazuma's loss is hardly surprising considering he is coming off a kyujo and had to face a tough Miyabiyama. I think Miyabi's strong tachiai made him resort to hiki, then his rusty 'sumo-kan' was the nail in the coffin.

The can't miss bout today was Asashoryu-Tosanoumi. Tosa didn't disappoint with his customary smash mouth offense, but he couldn't handle the agile swiftness of a defensive Asashoryu. This is exactly why I think Asashoryu is our next Yokozuna. Even when he doesn't look his best, he can turn the tables on you so deftly.

Chiyotaikai looked a little apprehensive, as did Kaio, but I think with the butterflies gone now we will settle in to a basho with a solid sanyaku presence. The biggest question mark is just how much will Maru's sore wrist affect him the rest of the way? Only time will tell, but I think this one will get plenty interesting in the days to come...Check in with you again in a few days.

 

Pre-basho Report

November 2, 2002 -- Ah, it's that time of year again. We both remember the chill and excitement in the air as we scouted the spots around Fukuoka where the various stables set up shop for the upcoming Kyushu basho. I'll never forget watching the asa-geiko of a promising yet relatively unknown Juryo rikishi named Chiyotaikai. Or the chanko I had two zabutons away from Akebono in Azumazeki-beya the morning of senshuraku in 1994. To my amazement Akebono ate only a few gyoza and downed two tall bottles of beer for breakfast, then went on to lose to Takanohana in one of the biggest back-and-forth yokozuna taiketsus I've ever seen. Or the 12th day of the '96 tournament when my dad and I had 2nd row 'sunakaburi' seats. I remember our legs were toast after being confined to such cramped quarters for so long, but it was well worth it. I think it's safe to say that the Kyushu basho holds a special place in both of our hearts.

The 2002 rendition looks to be as exciting as ever. I say this because it looks like the top guys are all healthy for the first time in a year and a half. That means 2 Yokozuna and 5 Ozeki, which will keep the torikumi interesting for the entire second half of this basho. Remember that just two bashos ago in Nagoya, we had only 1 Yokozuna (Musashimaru) and 1 Ozeki (Chiyotaikai) that fought the whole basho.

As for my picks, I know that Takanohana is the sentimental favorite to reclaim the cup after coming so close in his unprecedented comeback last basho. He should be better shape physically and psychologically to do it. Musashimaru is a safe choice as always. Kaio looks strong, as he beat Chiyotaikai 18 out of 30 bouts in a recent practice session. But my pick this time is Asashoryu. He's no longer under the shin-ozeki microscope, and after fading last basho no one seems to be talking about him. He's got that hunger you need, and therefore he's my pick to sneak up and take this thing, with Takanohana a close second.

Look for the Barometer (Wakanosato) to hit double digit wins again and resume his quest for Ozeki. Kotomitsuki could surprise as well. I'm afraid Kyokutenho may be the goat this time that has to endure the murderous first half schedule of 7 top rankers.

My darkhorse is Dejima sitting down there at M10. He looked awfully good for the couple days he was healthy last basho. If he can string together a few basho without getting hurt, I think he has a legitimate shot at another run for Ozeki.

Moving down the ladder some more, Akinoshima is now the old man trying to hang on. He's been slipping ever so slowly down the ranks. It's always kind of sad to see old warriors fall, so I hope that he can hang on for a few more kachikoshi before the curtain falls on his giant-killing career.

I see no other big stories for now, but I'm sure they will develop as they always do. I just hope for a basho with a healthy makuuchi. It will be refreshing to see little or no names in the 'kyujo' section of the denkoban. That should set the stage for yet another memorable Kyushu basho.

 

Prediction:

 

Asashoryu wins with a 13-2, Chiyotaikai is runner-up. Dejima takes Kantosho with an 11-4 mark.

 

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