Tuesday, December 25, 2001
TOKYO >> With Takanohana finding out that "in life everything has a price," Akebono admitting he "couldn't climb any more mountains" and Musashimaru cursing his "bad luck," 2001 could have been a lot kinder to sumo's grand champions.
Many grapplers struggled in 2001
Star-Bulletin wire services
Then again, it could have been a lot worse, just ask any ozeki.
A combination of injuries and inept performances saw bumbling Musashigawa stable ozeki duo Dejima and Miyabiyama's rankings go into freefall, while a bad back robbed perennial bridesmaid Kaio of a shot at promotion to yokozuna.
But while sumo's big guns were firing blanks, sekiwake Tochiazuma, autumn champion Kotomitsuki and pride of Ulan Bator Asashoryu proved that there is no shortage of capable wrestlers waiting in the wings to succeed their so-called superiors.
For Takanohana, the price he paid for bravely deciding to soldier on injured and battle Musashimaru in a playoff for the summer title was almost his career plus the cost of a trip to Paris to undergo surgery to have bone chips removed from his right knee.
And yet 2001 seemed to be so full of hope for Takanohana after he finally ended a title drought dating back to autumn 1998 with the first of his playoff triumphs, again at the expense of archrival Musashimaru, or Hawaii's Fiamalu Penitani, at the New Year basho.
It was his second victory over the Samoan-born wrestler in May, however, that captured the hearts of the Japanese public, "moved" attending Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and appeared to be the perfect panacea for sumo's wilting popularity.
Knee heavily strapped and grimacing with pain, Takanohana was courage personified as he battled back from defeat in the final bout of regulation at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan to twist Musashimaru over for his 22nd Emperor's Cup.
The victory was a personal triumph for Takanohana, who, after sustaining the injury 24 hours earlier in a loss to ozeki Musoyama, had contemplated pulling the plug on the final day of the meet.
"I didn't want to pull out. It's always important to keep going. I felt like if I hadn't got up on to the ring and seen it through to the bitter end, everything I've accomplished so far in sumo would have meant nothing.
"Everything in life has a price attached to it. I think the injury is the price I paid for wrestling in that bout," Takanohana reflected.
Takanohana was consequently forced to take the rest of the year out of a sport he described as his "lifeblood." Now on the road to recovery, Takanohana could be back on the raised ring in the spring.
Shortly after Takanohana's success at the New Year meet, sumo bade farewell to its first foreign-born grand champion Akebono, of Hawaii's Chad Rowan, who retired after deciding he could no longer compete at the top.
Ironically, Akebono, who sat out the New Year tourney, opted to hang up his mawashi after completing his most successful 12-month stint in seven years, leading all wrestlers in 2000 with 76 wins and a pair of championships.
"My legs have been hurting since before the New Year tourney so I decided to retire. I just don't have the energy to climb the mountain anymore," Akebono told reporters after submitting his retirement notice to the Japan Sumo Association.
Musashimaru, meanwhile, was unable to capitalize on his position as the lone yokozuna until the final tournament of the year.
After twice squandering chances to nail Takanohana, Musashimaru finally washed from memory the nightmare playoff defeats by toppling Tochiazuma on the penultimate day of the Kyushu meet.
Musashimaru was clearly relieved with the victory and also made sure he did not leave his sense of humor in the locker room.
When asked by television reporters the reason behind his prolonged winless spell, the grinning yokozuna quipped, "Hey, what can I say? I guess I just had a bit of bad luck."
Musashimaru and Musoyama, who posted winning records in all six tournaments of the year, were the only top wrestlers from the Musashigawa stable to emerge with any credit as Dejima and Miyabiyama saw their ozeki ranks go up in smoke.
Plagued with thigh and ankle injuries, Dejima's fall from grace started in May and ended with a dismal 7-8 showing in Kyushu, where he competed as a rank-and-filer for the first time in 20 tournaments.
Injuries also played a part in Miyabiyama's fate.
Miyabiyama pulled out midway through the September meet with an ankle injury resulting in back-to-back losing records, a drop to sumo's third-highest rank of sekiwake and a no-show in Kyushu.
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