No Easy Way Out
With Kisenosato out for kyujo for a second straight basho, there is a growing concern among the men who run sumo. Kisenosato’s elevation to Yokozuna has been a huge boon for the sport, raising it’s profile among the broader Japanese public, and driving huge ratings for the daily broadcasts. But as it becomes clear that Kisenosato cannot “heal naturally”, the sumo world faces a set of tough choices.
Fans who have come to sumo recently may not know how far out of the public’s minds sumo had wandered earlier this decade. The Japanese are proud people, and rightfully so. The nation of Japan and Japanese culture wield an oversized influence across the globe. They consider sumo to be their national sport, and it is in fact a sacred ritual. When it became clear that the top men of sumo were Mongolian for the foreseeable future, a section of the population lost interest. Sumo still had it’s fans, but it had become a sport dominated by outsiders, making it more like football (soccer) or any other imported event.
At the new years basho in 2017, this dynamic changed. For some time, the sumo association had wanted to promote Kisenosato, but lacked the final ingredient: a Yusho. In January, there was a confluence of events that gave Kisenosato his best chance ever at a tournament championship, and he took it. With his promotion secure, suddenly sumo had a Japanese born man at the highest rank. The public went absolutely insane for sumo and all things Kisenosato. He was Babe Ruth and John Glenn rolled into one. He had broken the lock Mongolia had on sumo.
March 2017 in Osaka, and Kisenosato is a freshly minted Yokozuna. The Japanese public is glued to their televisions, as the Osaka arena sold out all 15 days in mere minutes. In his day 13 match against Yokozuna Harumafuji, Kisenosato takes a hard fall off the dohyo and ruptures his left pectoral. Kisenosato is left handed by birth, and this injury robs him of his massive strength. Like every other sumo injury, nobody wants to talk about it. But the Japanese public (even if you are not a sumo fan) knows that the hero of Sumo is wounded. Somehow, he takes the yusho by defeating Ozeki Terunofuji not just once but twice on the final day. Again Japan erupts in jubilation as not only has their champion won his first tournament as Yokozuna, he overcame a grievous injury and prevailed against all odds.
After the party that follows a yusho, there were serious decisions to be made. Kisenosato had an injury that always requires surgery to heal. This would mean that the hero of sumo would be out of commission for at least 6 months, and even then might not ever return. This would remove the key figure that was driving interest in the sport back to where it belonged from the stage, possibly forever.
For whatever reason, the decision was made to try and “heal naturally”. This mean Kisenosato was to spend weeks resting his left upper body. He did not train much, and he was to do everything he could to not use that muscle group. Anyone who has trained athletically can tell you, over a period of weeks of non use, the related and supporting muscle groups de-condition, and lose their power. By resting, Kisenosato was losing the strength and stamina that had made him Yokozuna.
For the past two basho, he has tried to compete, but he is completely out of shape now, and most likely that pectoral muscle is still damaged and generating a faction of its former power. Kisenosato cannot compete in his present physical form, and that form cannot change without medical intervention.
So the question is – what do to? All of the answers have huge down side. Here are a few
- Continue to wait and hope – So continue to “heal naturally” knowing that every day that goes by without intense strain on the left upper body diminishes your strength. Medically, there is no way to naturally heal a pectoral tear. So Kisenosato never regains left side upper body strength. We get a sub-standard Yokozuna lingering in the shadows (like Kakuryu) but instead it’s your Japanese born hero rikishi. Eventually (probably later this year) he is pushed to retire due to lack of performance.
- Medical intervention – You take your prize Yokozuna to the best sports medicine doctors in the world, and just tell the fans he’s gone for 6 months. Surgical repair of the pectoral and any other nagging bits that were plaguing him. Hakuho did this for the big toe on his right foot, and he had to train like a madman for months just to step on the dohyo and not embarrass himself. It took him a year to return to 90% of his former glory. For Kisenosato this would likely mean intense physical therapy and endless workouts with Takayasu to try to get back to the form that won Hatsu 2017.
- Admit you are done – Ugly solution, but if you are not going to try surgery to fix your left upper body, may as well go intai now and save yourself further damage or the fans any further disappointment. This would be a nightmare scenario of the sumo association, as it would return them to the days of being considered a foreign dominated sport.
- Hold the fort – The most cruel of the outcomes, Kisenosato can continue to compete as best he can until another Japanese rikishi is ready for promotion. The most likely candidate would be Takayasu, although Goeido 2.0 could get it done sooner. This would allow the sumo association to shift everyone’s affections to a new hero, and Kisenosato could quietly bow out and retire.