Why So Many Maegashira Wins?
A hallmark of the Hatsu 2017 basho were the fantastic scores racked up by mid and lower level Maegashira / rank and file rikishi. To followers of sumo, this immediately looks strange, as typically there are 2-3 (at most) stand outs, and the rest is a brutal blood-bath of demotion and make-koshi.
We had 6 rikishi (outside of Yokozuna and Ozeki) who had double digit wins, which is frankly unusual. What happened?
Devastation at the top end of the banzuke. During the second half of the tournament, there was only one functioning Yokozuna and one functioning Ozeki. While two other Ozeki remained in rotation, both were fighting well below Ozeki level, and were not presenting much challenge to anyone.
Not to detract from Kisenosato’s yusho and imminent promotion to Yokozuna, but this basho was perhaps the easiest possible configuration for his victory. The Yokozuna and Ozeki are there to cull the Maegashira and test the San’yaku, and in Hatsu they failed. The result was run-away score inflation by some young, healthy and talented men.
This underscores some important facts about sumo:
- Sumo is a combat sport. Unlike what most Americans are used to in terms of wrestling on television, these men are really battling to win, each and every time. When you weigh in excess of 300 pounds and someone throws you off of a 4 foot high clay platform, you may get hurt. Over time these injuries, if not healed or treated, will degrade your performance.
- The upper ranks are past their prime on average. Due to the nature of sumo as a combat sport, it is rare that a rikishi can remain truly competitive past age 30. Takekaze is a wonderful and noted exception. The upper 2 ranks (Ozeki and Yokozuna) have been largely static for several years, as the men in the ranks have been exceptional performers, and have dominated the sport in ways unseen in the modern age. For those of us (such as myself) who dearly love to see them perform, the time is coming to say goodbye as the retire and move to coaching and fostering the sport they love
- The current sumo year leaves not time for recovery, rest, recuperation or proper medical treatment. With the exception of the Yokozuna, there are no breaks in sumo. You show up and compete every tournament or you face some fairly brutal demotions (for example, Osunaarashi). This means that talented rikishi such as Okinoumi, Terunofuji, Kotoshogiku and possibly many others much continue to compete with injuries that may have been simple to treat at first. But lack of prompt and thorough therapy translated them into performance limiting and eventually career ending problems.
As of the end of Hatsu, we have Yokozuna Kakuryu and Harumafuji, and Ozeki Goeido, Terunofuji and Kotoshogiku injured. The start of the Osaka basho is about 6 weeks away, and the chances that any of the men above will be back to full potential is close to zero.
Sadly, we are looking at what may become a changing of the guard, as high-skill rikishi are forced out by their failing bodies, and a younger, healthier crop of wrestlers step forward to fill the gap.