How perfect was Tochiazuma's performance on the final day of the final basho of 2003? It was picture perfect. It was so good, carried out on a stage with stakes so high, following a bout that was arguably even more emotionally charged for the Kyushu crowd, that you'd almost forget that this basho will probably be remembered most as the one at which Yokozuna Musashimaru retired.
We've already touched on Musashimaru as the basho progressed; most all of us agree that his retirement was necessary. He no longer had the skills nor the drive to continue at this level, as was evident by his poor fitness and maneuverability. Not that agility was ever his forte, but you know what I mean. But let's not close the book on Musashimaru with negativity. He was one of the more solid Yokozuna in history. By the numbers, we're saying good-bye to quite an accomplished rikishi:
* From the first time he set foot on a dohyo in September of 1989, he went 61 straight basho without an absence. With the injury-ridden state of sumo today, wonder how many rikishi today can match that?
* He only make-koshied (lost majority of bouts) once in the 75 basho in which he fully participated, and that was in 1990 as a Makushita 11. He never make-koshied in Makuuchi, not even as a rookie in sanyaku. And how many kadoban Ozeki have we seen in the last few years?
* Tied for sixth all time with 12 Yusho.
* Fourth all time in Makuuchi wins with 706, that's more than Takanohana and trails only Chiyonofuji, Kitanoumi and Taiho. Pretty darn good company.
Who will forget how he captured his final yusho last Aki basho when Musashimaru and Takanohana met on senshuraku amid Taka's improbable comeback from an unprecedented 14 month absence? Sumo and non-sumo fans alike were watching that one. Unfortunately, Maru couldn't duplicate a similar comeback after an almost identical length of absence himself that started the next basho. Let's give the big Hawaiian his due and hope he can be as successful bringing up rikishi as Oyakata.
Tochiazuma, who has suffered through 3 kadoban basho and a boat load of questioning about his own drive and ability to compete at this level, collected his second Yusho with a spectacular win over Asashoryu on the final bout of 2003. He simply would not let Asashoryu inside and harassed the Yokozuna with such a stingy attack that Sho finally pulled and sealed his own fate. Azuma gave a double fist pump and closes the curtain in Kyushu with a 13-2 record and will face calls for tsuna-tori in Tokyo in January. And deservedly so. It was a complete turnaround from the Tochiazuma of late, and he was definitely the best rikishi at this basho.
Asashoryu at 12-3 had a solid if not relatively quiet basho for him amid the buzz over his counterpart's retirement and the resurgent Tochiazuma. He carried out his duty as Yokozuna being in the Yusho picture until the very end; he just got beat by a hotter guy this time. Sho will be back to give 'um hell in January. Interestingly, this was the 8th time in modern history to have a "winner takes the yusho" Yokozuna vs. Ozeki bout on the final day. With Asashoryu's loss today, Ozekis have a 5-3 advantage under these circumstances.
The bout prior matching home grown favorites Chiyotaikai and Kaio produced more banner ads circling the dohyo (19) than did the yusho deciding bout (14). This was one for the Kyushu crowd, and the two Ozekis did not disappoint. At the end of the hana-michi (aisle way leading to the dohyo) watching Kaio for the final time was old friend and former longtime tsukebito (personal attendant) Sentoryu, who had just announced his retirement. Kaio wanted to win this one for him so that the two could give a final high five following a Kaio win, as was tradition during their relationship that started two bashos apart in Tomozuna beya 13 years ago. I have to admit when they showed Sentoryu standing there, my eyes welled up a bit imagining what it must feel like for him watching his boss for the final time, all the time reflecting on a hard fought career battling injury after injury that never materialized into any significant time in Makuuchi. When I first saw Sentoryu in person in November of '94 as a "up and coming" Juryo rikishi, he absolutely plowed through an opponent so dominantly that I couldn't wait for him to make it up to Makuuchi to wreak havoc. Well, it took him over three years to get back up to Juryo after being demoted and, despite making Makuuchi about 6 years later, his career never took off. Anyway, this flashed before my eyes and all of a sudden I was a die hard Kaio fan. Fortunately, Kaio was able to come through with a victory in an entertaining, back and forth bout with Chiyotaikai. It was oshi-zumo in the first half that had Kaio backed up and yotsu-zumo in the second half that had Chiyo in trouble. After finally twisting Chiyo down and falling to the dohyo in exhaustion himself, the crowd roared in delight at the two 10-5 Ozekis. I never got to see the final high five, but I'm sure it was good closure on a frustrating career for Henry Miller 'ala Sentoryu. Mike, I guess we can take him off of "Eye on sumo" now.
The other Ozeki, Musoyama, having escaped demotion the day before, closed with a kotenage win over Wakanosato for a 9-6 mark. Musoyama has battled through some injuries himself, namely a left elbow last basho and a lower back just prior to this basho. Let's give him credit for holding his rank and hope he can start anew in January with total health and his old desire. Wakanosato was dumped to finish 7-8 after grand expectations of Ozeki promotion two weeks ago. It's not the first time a Sekiwake has failed at the brink. Before we get too down on him, look around. I don't see anyone else who'll make Ozeki anytime soon. He disappointed yes, but he'll be back.
Speaking of disappointing, how about a combined 22-38 record from our Sekiwake and Komusubi ranks with nary a winning record? Besides Wakanosato at 7-8, counterpart Kyokutenho finishes a paltry 4-11 including the cheapest of cheap tachiai-henka wins on days 13 and 15. The Komusubis didn't fare much better, with Takamisakari at 5-10 and Iwakiyama at 6-9. Iwakiyama got the kitchen sink thrown at him the first week and couldn't dig out of a slow start, but showed signs of his potential with his trademark de-ashi and strong oshi-zumo on day 15. Takamisakari lost convincingly to little Aminishiki (5-10), who made like he was Chiyotaikai and plowed right through our cross-eyed friend. It was a bad loss for Sakari, who will drop in rank but not in popularity.
The four under performing Sekiwake and Komusubi will likely be replaced with M1 Tochinonada (8-7), M2's Toki (9-6) and Tosanoumi (10-5), and M3 Tamanoshima (10-5). Tochinonada, who beat both Yokozuna and Kaio, and Tosanoumi, who beat Musashimaru on his swan song bout, Musoyama, and gave Tochiazuma his first defeat, both deservedly garner the Shukunsho. Tamanoshima gets the Kantosho for his double digit wins, which I don't think anyone can argue about. The Technical merit Ginosho was not awarded this time. Can you believe there's no controversy on the sansho awards for once? I guess they can get it right every now and again.
Other solid performers included M7 Hokutoriki at 10-5 and M14 Dejima with an 11-4. Capturing kachi-koshi on day 15 were M6 Tokitsuumi, M8 Kakizoe, M9 Shimotori and M10 Jumonji.
Disappointments in Kyushu include M4 Miyabiyama at 6-9, his counterpart Asasekiryu who completely blew it at 3-12, M12 Takanowaka at 7-8, and finally yours truly who got trounced by the monkey in Fantasy Sumo to finish near the bottom of our biggest field ever at 85 stables. Next time, I think I'll painstakingly choose my stable as I usually do, then randomly change every other selection. I need to get this Fantasy Sumo monkey off my back (pun intended). What better time to do it than the new year when resolutions, big plans and feelings of renewal are abound, right? Folks, have a great holiday season. Thanks for passing the time with us. Let's have another great year in 2004.
Now that's how zabuton are supposed to fly when a Yokozuna goes down. Kaio's big win over Asashoryu before the hometown crowd today must have separated over half of the zabuton from the fannies in the sparsely populated Fukuoka Kokusai Center. The match itself was nothing spectacular but the scene afterward was pretty neat. Kaio (9-4) would not let the Yokozuna in on the right side to secure morozashi, which was the key to victory. The Ozeki danced around the tawara to slap Asashoryu down to his second loss against eleven wins.
Speaking of which, it was a slap down, pull down, side stepping festival today in Kyushu. Seven of the last eleven bouts were determined by hiki waza. And get this- Kyokushuzan and Toki did not contribute to this phenomenon! Anyway, I thought that was kind of interesting...
On to the other bouts; it was upset city today. Not only did Asashoryu go down, Tochiazuma (11-2) fell to Chiyotaikai (10-3) by way of, you guessed it, hatakikomi. Actually it wasn't a cheap one. In fact it was the only way Chiyo was going to beat Azuma because quite frankly Azuma was on Chiyo like white on rice. Even though Chiyo probably had the better tachiai, Azama would not be driven back. When that happens, we all know what Chiyo does. But it was a well timed one amid a flurry of high speed offense so it's definitely acceptable. The pusher is now one back in the loss column and, as Mike said, controls his own destiny. This is getting interesting...
Musoyama (7-5) took care of Tamanoshima (8-4) in a must win bout for the kadoban Ozeki. Muso attacked intelligently and cautiously, securing the front left grip and keeping close to Tama and never letting up. He eventually drove Tama back and out for a relatively easy win. Musoyama has Kyokushuzan tomorrow for a great shot at that eighth win. Let's hope he gets it so that Kaio can sleep easier for senshuraku not having to worry about facing a 7-7 Musoyama on the brink of demotion. To borrow an oft used Japanese phrase, Kaio is not the best at "kokoro wo oni ni suru", or "making himself the devil" as those circumstances would dictate. He's just too nice a guy and might just throw the bout as Mike mentioned.
Let's see, Wakanosato (6-7) kept his slim Ozeki promotion, I mean kachikoshi hopes alive with a, you got it, pull down of Tosanoumi (8-5). Somebody with a lot of time on their hands should do an analysis of Tosanoumi's career losses. I'll bet he has fallen forward for more than 75% of them.
Finally, Kyokutenho (3-10) beat Miyabiyama (5-8) with the 'ole tachiai henka that Mike loves to death. Have you ever seen anyone get as pissed as Miyabiyama when an opponent cops out with that move and wins? I don't blame Tenho; with his record he'll take any win at this point.
In other news, Hokutoriki notched his ninth win to continue his strong performance while Tochinonada secured kachikoshi. Dejima is lurking still, winning his 10th in the dregs of Makuuchi. He currently stands alongside Chiyotaikai in second place in the yusho hunt, only one loss behind Asashoryu and Tochiazuma. With the upsets today, the two horse race is no longer. It's looks to be an exciting home stretch.
We're down to two horses for all practical purposes. Tochiazuma (10-1) finally gets to shave his lucky beard growth over the last 11 days as he was absolutely dominated by Tosanoumi (8-3), who with wins over one Yokozuna and two Ozeki has become a Shukunsho candidate and now finds himself with an outside chance for the yusho. The key here was the better tachi-ai for Tosa and the fact that he beat Azuma at his own game--head low and attacking upwards. When Azuma gave a brief inashi, or lateral movement, the momentum given up to a hard charging Tosanoumi did the Ozeki in for good. He was driven out in a matter of seconds.
Asashoryu (10-1) now shares the lead as he handled a fading Wakanosato (5-6) in another intense belt bout to follow their prodigious clash last basho in which Waka turned Sho over with a beautiful uwatenage. Did anyone really think Asashoryu would lose twice in row to anyone? This time it was the Yokozuna who won by uwatenage. Sho got the outside grip immediately, was shaken loose of it, then got it back again. Waka was on the defensive the entire time as Asashoryu never stopped moving, not even for a millisecond. There was no way to mount any offense for the Sekiwake. He was eventually stood straight up, then dumped at the ring's edge.
Musoyama (6-5) somehow beat Chiyotaikai (8-3) in what may be one of the biggest wins of his career. With a loss today and Asashoryu looming tomorrow, Muso most like would have been sitting on a 5-7 record in kadoban status. After a violent clashing of heads at the tachiai, Chiyo drove Muso back to the rope. Then Muso took a page out of the Kaio sumo technique manual and pulled Chiyo's right arm, which was firmly planted under his chin in nodowa position. It succeeded enough to dislodge the arm. This coupled with a nifty tight roping shift to the side left Chiyo's momentum going forward with no opponent in front, which resulted in his walking himself right out of the ring and practically right out of the yusho race.
Kotomitsuki (3-8) finally won a significant bout but it's too little too late. Kaio (7-4), who had a great chance to bag his crucial 8th win before any dates with the big boys, was the victim. This makes 5 in a row Kaio has lost to Kotomitsuki. The Ozeki couldn't keep up with his opponent's speed here, as Koto attacked nicely from the side. In defense mode and anxious, Kaio pulled which was the nail in the coffin. He was walked right out.
We now have two atop the leader board in Asashoryu and Tochiazuma with 10-1 records followed by a barrage of 8-3 record holders led by Chiyotaikai. The others, who all won to achieve kachikoshi, are the aforementioned Tosanoumi, Kyokushuzan, Hokutoriki, Kasuganishiki and Dejima.
Well folks, it looks like it's coming down to a 3 horse race between Tochiazuma (9-0), Asashoryu (8-1) and Chiyotaikai (7-2), who all won again today. Hokutoriki, Kyokushuzan and Kotonowaka all lost today to drop to 7-2 and are still in it mathematically, but as we all know when you start talking "mathematically" as in baseball pennant races, you're pretty much done. Especially Kotonowaka, since reports indicate he can't even walk on his own power after injuring his leg. It will be tough to sit the rest out with such a nice 7-2 start and one win away from kachikoshi at the bottom of Makuuchi.
To start at the top, Asashoryu had little trouble with Tosanoumi (6-3). Tosa went in hard albeit cautiously. After a brief session of jockeying for position, Asashoryu pulled and Tosa fell flat on his tummy as he often does when he loses.
Chiyotaikai drove struggling Kotomitsuki (1-8) into the 4th row with a brutal oshi attack in a bout where both men were visibly geeked up. It's about as strong as Chiyo has looked.
Tochiazuma continued his flawless performance thus far with another win against upstart Tamanoshima (6-3). It was another case of squaring up, attacking upwards, handcuffing the opponent and not worrying about securing the belt. Vintage Azuma. Six of his nine wins have come by way of oshi-dashi with no pull down wins yet. He did briefly pull today as the match flowed, but this Ozeki is looking unbeatable right now.
In a battle of kadoban Ozeki, Kaio (6-3) summoned every bit of grit in his body to overcome Musoyama (5-4) to the delight of the roaring crowd. It was the 44th meeting of the two veterans. Give the tachiai to Musoyama but props to Kaio for sucking it up, bad tailbone and all, grabbing the right uwate and never letting go. Kaio was pushed to the edge and must have been in quite a bit of pain but he persevered and turned the tables for the win. Musoyama has a tough road ahead if he is to stave off demotion.
Wakanosato (4-5) took Toki's (5-4) bait hook, line and sinker today. He had to know. Everyone in Fukuoka Kokusai Center knew what was coming from Toki. But give Toki credit for an effective enough morote and adequate pressure to the throat to make such a hackneyed pull down strategy work. Forget Ozeki, Wakanosato better start thinking about how to kachikoshi.
Look out for Kokkai down at the top of Juryo. He is 9-0 and should be quite a story as shinnyumaku in January. The Georgian should also be a popular pick in fantasy sumo next time as well.
Well, the inevitable finally happened as Musashimaru calls it quits after another sloppy match today against Tosanoumi (5-2), who he had not lost to in over 3 years and had beaten 11 times consecutively. It was another case of the body not being able to keep up with an opponent's lateral movement. And so the last link to the Waka-Taka and Hawaiian rivalry is now gone. I don't think there are many who second guess this decision but let's not forget that rikishi with 12 championships to their credit don't come around too often. With Maru coming off a virtual one year absence from the dohyo, it's easy to forget that this was a Yokozuna who never missed a day of competition through his Ozeki days. Though often not spectacular in style, he has been rock solid through the years. Hats off to another great Yokozuna. Let's hope Maru's debut in the color booth is not as painful to the listener as the former Kirishima's debut a few years ago (ouch).
Maru's retirement will dominate the news for a few days, but there's still a basho up for grabs in the meantime. If I were a bettin' man (and don't put you money on me; just look at fantasy sumo), I'd have to say Tochiazuma (7-0) is the man to beat right now. He is looking better than he has in years. Today was no different as he was flawless in his attack against Aminishiki (1-6). He didn't let Ami in on the belt by way of squeezing Ami's arm in on the right side coupled with a stiff nodowa on the other. This offensive minded Tochiazuma is a sight to see. Picture perfect sumo thus far.
Matching Tochiazuma win for win is none other than rank and filer Hokutoriki (7-0). This is a bit of a surprise but I still don't think it will last. He should face much stiffer competition in the second week.
Hot on the heels of the two leaders with 6-1 marks are Asashoryu, who defeated struggling Kyokutenho (1-6), Tamanoshima, who behind Azuma and Sho is showing the third best looking sumo this basho, Kyokushuzan, who is still a pretender, and Kotonowaka, who is taking full advantage of his low rank.
Another solid performer thus far is Tochinonada (5-2), who defeated Kaio (4-3) for the 5th consecutive time and has now defeated two Yokozuna and one Ozeki (okay, beating Maru and Kaio is no big feat this basho, I'll give you that). But still.
Musoyama (5-2) has now reeled off five consecutive wins after a 0-2 start to make things more comfortable as he seeks to avoid demotion. I wish the same could be said for Kaio. It looks like it might be a long second half for our hometown favorite.
Day 5 Comments
It didn't take long for upset city in Kyushu. The zabutons were a flying as both Yokozuna and one Ozeki went down in day 2.
Maru got lucky in being matched up with stationary Takamisakari yesterday, but I figured today would be a different story. I knew that if Kyokutenho (1-1) kept to the boxing mantra of "stick and move," he'd be alright. He did, and Maru simply couldn't keep up. It also helped that Kyoku had a grip on both sides of the belt while Maru had none, but most of all it was the constant movement that did the Yokozuna in. Others in line to face Maru should be salivating.
Asashoryu (1-1) met his match today in Tochinonada (1-1). Sho is starting to look like he has trouble winning if he doesn't get moro-zashi. He didn't get it today and Tochi steamrolled him for an easy yori-kiri. He also put his weight on Sho's left side so that the Yokozuna couldn't throw a desperation sukuinage in defense. A well executed bout for Tochinonada.
In today's featured bout, Tochiazuma and Wakanosato went at it twice to the delight of the sparsely filled Fukuoka Kokusai Center. Waka blew his chance in the first bout when he had better positioning with migi-uwate secured. He failed to follow through. I was waiting for him to pressure, then throw a powerful uwatenage but it never happened. He eventually did attack but lost the belt and Azuma eluded him at the tawara enough that both men fell together. In the tori-naoshi bout, Waka committed the cardinal sin and tried an ill-advised pull down after the tachiai which resulted in an immediate yori-kiri loss.
Kaio's (1-1) butt is obviously in trouble (pun intended) but he pulled out a win today against Iwakiyama (0-2). You can tell Kaio is shying away from a full tachi-ai by way of his morote or harite clashes on the first two days. Today he relied on his "taguri" or pulling the arm of a pushing opponent, to gain positioning and side stepped the big Komusubi for a fortunate win. It looks to be a long basho to 8 for the hometown fave.
Musoyama (0-2) is at it again, losing his first two out of the gate. Today it was to Kotomitsuki, who did the tachi-ai henka thing that Mike loves so much. A win is a win, I guess. You think Musoyama would take one of these? Talk about a long basho to 8 wins.
Chiyotaikai (2-0) steamrolled Toki (1-1) for the 13th consecutive time. No problems here, just flat out horsepower.
In another bout of interest, Takamisakari (1-1) beat an overly cautious and uncharacteristically pull-happy Tosanoumi (1-1) to even his record and set up his musubi-no-ichiban with Asashoryu tomorrow. Think Sho will be mad tomorrow? He might just keep pushing and kicking Takami right out of the arena and into the bay.
In the rank-and-file, off to fast 2-0 starts are Tamanoshima, Kyokushuzan, Kinkaiyama, Hokutoriki, Jumonji, Kasuganishiki and Yotsukasa.
Time for sumo on the southern island again--mine and Mike's favorite basho of the year. I see that I have been one-upped on the pre-basho report. Hey Mike, can you be a little more comprehensive there buddy? I guess my only recourse is that I have a few more days of news to go by, so here is a very brief preview of the Kyushu festivities.
Musashimaru should retire because it is obvious he has no desire to keep himself in half the shape that any respectable Yokozuna should. His breathing is labored after only a few bouts of practice. Excuse me, but isn't it your WRIST that's been on the mend for a year now? Don't your legs work? Can't we do the basics like suriashi, or maybe ride the bike for some cardio? He obviously doesn't care to, and shame on Musashigawa Oyakata for not riding his ass about staying in better shape. Maru's only problem should be with the wrist, if even that after a full year of rehab for crying out loud. There is no excuse for his lack of fitness. This guy is retired by March, tops.
Asashoryu has a questionable ribcage, Musoyama has a bad back, now Kaio's ass is hurting him and Takamisakari has a bum shoulder. Meanwhile, Tochiazuma looks as if he's training for a hilly 5K footrace and Wakanosato is dealing with the serious pressures of Ozeki promotion. That leaves Chiyotaikai as the sole reasonable pick in my book to sweep up in front of his hometown fans. I like what I've seen from Chiyo lately; he's not backing down. He's persevering with his oshi attack without the lapses of hiki fever. Don't prove me wrong now cause I've got to go with you this basho.
In the Sanyaku I like Kyokutenho to make some noise in his second go around at Sekiwake, if only because he's lost in the shuffle with all the hype surrounding Wakanosato. I also like Iwakiyama's chances to do well as a shin-Komusubi. This guy is a mountain and can could wreak some havoc if he's on his game. I'm slightly gun shy though because he's shown some inconsistency in his rise through the ranks.
As for the Maegashira, Kotomitsuki is a wildcard because of the bomb he carries in his elbows but you can't help but like his gutsy performance in September. If the elbows don't flare up, I like his chances.
Tochinonada and Tosanoumi are good for 8 or more, but I'm not so sure about Toki and Aminishiki. You'd think I'd be coming around on Toki after he has continued to defy us by winning over the last year but I'm still not convinced. I just don't care for that predictable game of his. I love Ami's agility and technique, but unfortunately his opponents love his lack of size and will take advantage.
I'm with Mike on M4 which slots Miyabiyama and Asasekiryu. This is the most interesting rank, I think. Anything can happen. Miyabi needs to redeem himself in a big way and he's certainly capable. Remember, his record was bad in September but his sumo content wasn't that bad. As Mike says, Seki may have come of age, folks. If so, look for an exciting basho of upsets from the young Mongolian.
I'm yawning as I look over the rest of the banzuke. M11 catches my eye with Wakatoba and Takekaze. Wakatoba gave a great interview after senshuraku in September when he captured his kachikoshi. How refreshing- a rikishi who seems personable and adds enthusiasm in favor of the usual mundane responses that make a sumo interviewer's job hell in most cases. He won a fan with that one. Takekaze, if he can stay healthy, should do well enough to generate some buzz this time.
Talk about a crossroads. I guess M14 Dejima is at a big one. It's time to suck it up for this big guy or he can gallop off into the sunset with his stable mate Yokozuna from Hawaii.
Yusho- Chiyotaikai, 14-1.
Shukunsho- Kotomitsuki, 10-5
Kantosho- Iwakiyama- 9-6
Ginosho- Asasekiryu- 8-7