The Boss Is Back
In completing his perfect yusho, Yokozuna Hakuho has made it clear that he is back in form and ready to resume his reign as the dai-Yokozua. It’s been a long, difficult road for Hakuho. After he injured his foot in Nagoya, he chose to miss Aki and undergo an operation to reconstruct his big toe and to fix parts of his knee. The recovery was not easy. The surgery and immobility afterwords had a bigger impact than I am sure he expected. As a result he has been under performing for months.
In that period, we have seen some rikish who would normally be eking out kachi-koshi scores here and there truly excel. This is in part because to top predator (and some of his cohorts) have been under performing, in culling rikishi from the ranks.
You can think of it this way, for Hakuho to get to 15 wins, the rest of Makuuchi had to absorb 15 losses. With Hakuho kyujo, someone else got those 15 wins. Everyone’s score increased. You got to see Kisenosato finally make Yokozuna, you got to see Goeido take a zensho yusho. You got to see Kakuryu rack up (at last) a yusho himself. It’s been a great year without a Hakuho. But now he is back, and he is genki and he is ready to rule once more.
A sign of that include his late pushes after a match have returned, so maybe he feels he is fine and will stay fine, and he is free to be Hakuho the great. This has huge implications for sumo for the next year or two. Specifically the other Yokozuna and anyone wishing to follow Takayasu up the Ozeki trail.
For a long time nobody but Hakuho could yusho. When he is / was healthy he is / was unstoppable. We saw that again here during Natsu. Is he back to that level? He wants you to think he is, to be sure. But is he? Maybe? But it’s clear that the one armed Yokozuna needs a repair job if he wants to contend once more. It would be brutally sad if Kisenosato had to follow Kakuryu into a series of revolving kyujos due to a combination of untreated and unresolved injuries, and a mighty, nearly unbeatable uber-sumotori at the top of the heap.
Chiyonokuni finished 2-13. He’s much better than that, and I think he still has a lot of promise. He just peaked hard when a lot of other sekitori were flailing, and he got caught in a storm of beat downs by everyone. He will recover, he will be back. He’s one to watch.
Okinoumi & Takarafuji finished 3-12. Both are old for rikishi, both have various performance limiting injuries. This is one of the problems with Makuuchi at the moment, its full of guys in their 30s. As a pure meritocracy, it’s full of people who can win, and those that can’t win go away over time. We are in one of those times, but because of the way the banzuke works, it could take a long time before fading veterans make way for the up and coming hard chargers.
Daieisho, Aoiyama, Takekaze, Toyohibiki, Myogiryu & Yutakayama finished 4-11. You might expect there to be a brutal banzuke thump down for these rikishi, but for every down there must be an up. And many of the pressure from the lower ranks you might expect did not materialize due to near absolute parity in Juryo. 13 Juryo wresters ended with 8-7 or 7-8.
Matches That Mattered On Day 15
Ura defeats Daishomaru – Ura does a reverse tachiai. You can rightly ask “what the hell was that?”, but hey! it worked! Was it a henka? No, not really. Was it strange? Yes. I thought I saw Daishomaru smiling and maybe giggling a bit over what had just happened, but then I had already had a glass of sake, so who knows.
Tochinoshin defeats Toyohibiki – Kind of sour ending by back to back henkas from Tochinoshin. I am going to guess he re-injured that mummified knee, and that’s why he henka’d his last two matches.
Ishiura defeats Takekaze – Ishiura gets to be Hakuho’s standard bearer – very happy for Ishiura, he pulled out a kachi-koshi on the last day. He has some work to do, and hopefully a healthy Hakuho can provide some assistance. His deshi needs some upgrades.
Tochiozan defeats Shohozan – Both end with 6-9, both are in the older crowd that is lingering around, due to lack of pressure from Juryo. Don’t get me wrong, Makuuchi is good sumo now, but it could and should be better. But right now Juryo is kind of broken for some reason I have not figured out. There should be a crop of early 20’s rikishi who stand these old guys on their ear daily, but that is not happening.
Hokutofuji defeats Yoshikaze – Hokutofuji joins the joi next basho, I would assume. It will be time to see if the up-and-comer has the mojo to really make a stand against the San’yaku. With a healthy Hakuho, it could be a blood bath again (as the basho were before he was hurt a year ago). Yoshikaze at this point is just running up his personal score. While we fans out side Japan mostly focus on what the NHK video shows us, it’s important to note that inside the sumotori community, everyone loves Yoshikaze, and I predict that once he retires and exercises his kabu, he is going to be a very big deal in sumo management indeed.
Shodai defeats Mitakeumi – Whatever they put in Shodai’s chanko the last few days, do keep it up! Next basho, we get Shodai back in the joi, and it’s bloodbath time for him, too!
Kotoshogiku defeats Ikioi – Well, that was like the Kotoshogiku of old. We should all enjoy it while it lasts. It’s sort of sad to see him fade, but I guess he is still calling his own outcomes, so I praise his persistence. Ikioi is still hit or miss, but then he has been for a while now.
Tamawashi defeats Goeido – Goeido 1.0 came back for old time’s sake. Now that Kadoban is lifted for a few months, he can afford to be unfocused. Please go get rested, ready and strong Goeido. Nothing would confound the critics and delight the fans more than a second basho full of Goeido 2.0. Who knows, you might even convince Hakuho to retire…
Terunofuji defeats Takayasu – I love the Kaiju when he’s on his sumo. Although I am a ginormous Takayasu fan, it was very good to see Terunofuji deploy all of his moves against the man who will be Ozeki. Even to the point of crushing his arms, which we have not seen in some time. People use to be afraid of facing this guy because they would leave the bout hurt. If Kisenosato can be restored to working order, Takayasu will make a great Ozeki. But while he is training on his own (like he was the for the past 2 months) he is vulnerable. The two are a team, and together they will excel.
Hakuho defeats Harumafuji – Kind of one for the ages. It was a great match, especially the series of moves Hakuho used to change the dynamics of the match and get Harumafuji un-stuck and moving backwards. Given Harumafuji’s re-injury to his ankle, I think he put on a hell of a performance. My complements to both men
15 thoughts on “Natsu Wrap Up & Day 15 Highlights”
You make a couple really good points here which raises the question – what’s Ishiura’s relationship with Hakuho between tournaments – does anyone know? With Hakuho openly chasing #40 you’d imagine within the beya he’d want to have someone the way that Kisenosato has Takayasu, but Ishiura isn’t really near that level.
As someone who’s a little ignorant on this, I might want to look back at the history of the #2 men at Miyagino over the course of the last 10-15 years, maybe that’s a good article for in between basho :)
So it seems that Ishiura does not play the same role for Hakuho that Takayasu plays for Kisenosato. But then I don’t spend time watching practice at the beya(s). I get the impression that the Kisenosato / Takayasu symbiosis is fairly rare in sumo, and it fascinates sumo fans.
If Hakuho can stay healthy, I think 40 yusho is not out of the question for him. When he’s dialed in there are few who can even make a credible effort of stopping him. Next stop for Hakuho is the total wins record at 1047, which he could very well break in Nagoya.
The state of Juryo has been mentioned quite a lot this basho, with a lack of young rikishi ready to climb through the makuuchi rankings and nobody really getting a high kachi-koshi in Osaka or Natsu.
I am wondering if this is in part due to a lack of grassroots participation, that could have resulted from the decline in sumo’s popularity in the past few years, due to causes such as the match fixing scandal. It’s only been in the last year or so with Kotoshogiku’s great yusho, followed by Kisenosato’s promotion, that sumo has grown against massively popularity. I noted that many basho were not that well attended before.
Perhaps all those factors just meant fewer kids actually got involved in sumo at a younger age and it might take a while for that rise in popularity to actually produce those younger, top quality rikishi that can come with greater participation in the sport.
I have absolutely no evidence for this at all haha, it’s just a general pondering.
*grown again with massively increasing popularity
It seems to take few years from the time you get a quality rikishi to Makushita until they are ready for Juryo or Makuuchi. I was blessed that during my time in Tokyo, I got to watch Sandane and Makushita. There are some rikishi there that are working their asses off to climb the banzuke, and we are maybe 2 years from a fierce wave of new blood (as long as they can stay healthy) that will provide an entirely new wave of awesome sumo.
While I chafe against the NHK stranglehold on sumo video, and we in the US can only get what they are able to show us, I am grateful (honestly) that we get anything. But even the viewers in Japan don’t get the lower divisions, so they are unaware of who is up and coming.
I will point to Takagenji, who had a good amount of attention as he entered Juryo, but turns out to be a dud both from a bout standpoint as well as a “how to behave on the dohyo” standpoint. This (to me) is a complete surprise as he comes from Takanohana’s stable. I would think proper manners would be an essential fundamental drilled into everyones soul before they were very far along.
I don’t think the dame-oshi were evidence of Hakuho feeling fine, quite the opposite in fact. He never did them back when he was truly untouchable; that type of misbehaviour has only come to the forefront over the last two to three years, and it tends to be worse the more he has to work for his wins.
I see your point, in my mind it was more of a thing where he was feeling confident enough that he was once again to do as he pleases. I am so eager for a healthy Kisenosato to provide a cultural contrast to a resurgent Hakuho. Kisenosato could use a healthy infusion of Hakuho’s showmanship and performance (non-sumo) aspects. Hakuho would benefit much from some of Kisenosato’s stony determination and stoic warrior’s persona.
That’s the thing – back in 2010-2012 when Hakuho was pretty much tasked with carrying the entire sumo world on his back, he was exactly that stoic warrior as well. The late-career Hakuho we’re seeing these days is hugely different from that guy. He actually reminds me of late-career Kaio, of course at a higher performance level. There’s a certain mixture of determination and desperation about his sumo now. And it goes back further than just the injury-marred last 10 months.
Yeah, it really did seem that in the last 5 days of Natus Hakuho was really having fun. It’s very cool to see him like this, and I think it bodes well for him and for sumo.
Some data points…
Average age in juryo, number of rikishi aged 23 and under, number of rikishi aged 24/25:
Natsu 2017: 27 years 3 months, 5, 3
Natsu 2007: 28 years 1 month, 7, 4
Natsu 1997: 27 years 9 months, 3, 5
Natsu 1987: 27 years 8 months, 3, 5
Natsu 1977: 26 years 4 months, 4, 5
Natsu 1967: 26 years 8 months, 4, 3
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with juryo right now, outside of the fact that we’ve seen a huge number of young talents move up into likely makuuchi mainstay roles of late, so that the high-upside section of the juryo cupboard is a little bare at the moment. (In the last 24 months alone: Daieisho, Mitakeumi, Shodai, Kagayaki, Chiyoshoma, Hokutofuji, Ishiura, Takakeisho, and probably Ura and Onosho. That’s massive for a two-year period.)
Thank you for putting this data together, I do love it when we can use data as an aspect of the discussion. I will come back to say that we have a big crowd of 30 year old plus rikishi in Makuuchi. This includes my personal favorite Yoshikaze. In a real martial / meritocracy system, you would have a fresh crop of rikishi culling this group of older, injured rikishi down.
Yes, this has happened quite a bit in the past couple of years, but I look at sumotori that are limping along, and are allowed to limp along for a good period of time. This happens because there is not a sufficient supply of capable men coming through Juryo to push them aside.
That being said, I am very happy with sumo right now. There is no need to upend the system, and frankly I understand I am an outsider looking in on an inherently Japanese sport. So the NSK can do what it pleases with it’s sport. When you come right down to it, I am just happy to be along for the ride, and to occasionally have a platform to discuss sumo with other fans.
But the rikishi who are hurt aren’t always the same rikishi. Tochinoshin looked pretty out of it two months ago, and this time he was feeling and doing much better. Takekaze entered this basho with almost no practice following elbow surgery and predictably bombed; in July he’ll probably do much better again. Like in any individual year-round sport, you don’t have to be in great condition all the time, just often enough to give yourself opportunities to put in at least some good results. Nobody thinks that a top 40 tennis player no longer deserves his ranking when he has a short run of first-round exits, or when a tour golfer goes a month without making a cut. Pro sport is a results rollercoaster for any athlete except those at the very top.
Rikishi who are consistently injured or just plain bad do drop out of sight pretty quickly. Trust me, there wasn’t any more turnover in the sekitori ranks in the past either, even when they were getting 150 shindeshi per year rather than 80-ish. (I’m too lazy to run all the above numbers for makuuchi as well, so just Natsu 1987 since that’s sufficiently far back: The average age in the top division was 28y 3m back then. Right now it’s 28y 7m.)
Some more thoughts on the issue…
Many other sports are much more event-based for each athlete, e.g. boxing/MMA with only a handful of fights per year, or many of the Olympic sports with a small number of high-profile events (annual world/continental championships, traditional meetings etc.) and often limited competition in between. Sports with a full professional circuit of largely identical events function in a completely different fashion – no sumotori is going to go, “I’m going to set up my training schedule so that my performance peaks for Aki basho this year, because that’s the one we all want to win”. And that means that sumo – much like golf or tennis – tends to come across as a “same old faces all the time” sport. But I daresay this would be the case in almost every other individual sport as well, if it were able to support a full circuit and get year-round media coverage of it. It has nothing to do with a lack of capable newcomers.
Anyway, sumo may look like a sport dominated by physical attributes, and so we’d expect those in less than optimal condition to drop by the wayside quickly – but because the bouts are so short and almost any mistake will be punished with immediate defeat, there’s a huge experience component involved as well. And that means the old hands have something important at their disposal even when their bodies start creaking. At the competitive level, sumo is not like boxing or MMA or any other martial art. It’s really more like a pitcher-batter confrontation in baseball. You (usually) don’t have to grind down a physically superior opponent for minutes, you just need to throw him that one curveball he can’t hit. (Or hit that one pitch he couldn’t locate properly, for the opposite perspective.)
Awesome! Glad to find this forum. I am from the U. S., but was blessed to be in the kokugikan on days 8&9. This was my first live action!
Thanks for coming by, and thanks for taking the time to comment. Days 8 & 9 were fantastic sumo, and I am glad you had a chance to watch it live.