A little introduction…
Hello! You might have seen me posting on here as “Fluffiest” or on reddit as “acheiropoieton”, but I’ll stick to “pinkmawashi” for the sumo commentary (yes, I am an Ura fan, but mostly I’m just very fond of the colour pink).
As a relative newcomer to sumo, I’m thrilled to be able to contribute to the Tachiai blog. I don’t intend to post a great deal – I’m mostly here to proof-read and to chip in when another perspective is wanted. Now, on to what this post is about:
A retrospective on the Wacky Aki
From a certain perspective, there was nothing wacky about it. We started out with “anyone can win this basho” and ended up with the yusho going to the one Yokozuna and the jun-yusho to the one Ozeki. But the road we took to get there was a rollercoaster.
There were worries from the very start. It transpired early on that Kakuryu would not be competing, and shortly afterwards that first Kisenosato and then Hakuho were out as well; and everybody knew that Harumafuji would be struggling with persistent injuries. Further down the banzuke, Aoiyama – the previous year’s jun-yusho winner – dropped out, as did Sadanoumi. With crowd favourites Endo and Ura also both recovering slowly from past damage but competing anyway, injuries were on everyone’s mind.
A third of the way in, and the injuries had become a plague, the win-loss pattern appeared totally unpredictable, and the “wacky Aki” nickname seemed very apt. Two of the Ozeki corps who were expected to do the heavy lifting in the absence of three Yokozuna – Takayasu and Terunofuji – had dropped out due to injury, as had Ura who should really not have been competing in the first place. Ozeki Goeido lost his first bout to a henka, then won two more matches with henkas of his own, earning the disapproval of the crowd. Harumafuji seemed to be in a bit of a poor state, looking dreadfully nervous before his match with Tochiozan, only 2-3 at this early stage and looking more tired by the day (at around this point, talk of intai bubbled up from the internet like gas from a swamp). The lower San’yaku were doing no better, with Yoshikaze and Tochiozan only able to pick up their first wins on day five, and Mitakeumi suffering lightning-fast slap-downs on the first two days and struggling to reach 2-3 by way of an injured Tochinoshin. Tamawashi was also on 2-3 but at least looking like he was putting in the effort (having suffered one loss due to a slip, one to his nemesis Shohozan aganst whom he has a dismal 1-12 record, and another due largely to a nagging twisted ankle after the previous day’s victory over Takayasu). Meanwhile, the unlikeliest of candidates were doing splendidly: Onosho, ranked high enough to face San’yaku competition for the first time, was undefeated (something of a rarity – a new rikishi’s first encounter with the San’yaku is usually a series of demoralizing defeats and a trip back down the banzuke to regroup). Chiyotairyu found his relatively simple and direct style served him nicely, delivering four quick, decisive wins. Kotoshogiku had apparently decided to prove he’s not ready to retire yet and also picked up four wins (admittedly, one from a henka and one from Harumafuji thinking the bout was a matta). Will we see a yusho from an unexpected quarter? Will the San’yaku ranks be thrown into complete disarray? Will Harumafuji even make it to the end of the tournament? Perhaps more to the point, will the field thin even further from injuries?
Fast-forward another five days, and the picture is quite different. Goeido leads in the yusho race (with only him and Chiyotairyu having managed their kachi-koshi!), and despite employing very reactive, backward-moving sumo in the tournament’s first half – to much disapproval – he seems to have gotten into the swing of things and become the unstoppable force who we love to watch. And yet, the spectre of those two henkas hangs in the air, and a yusho victory would feel tainted by a performance that many say is unbecoming of an Ozeki. And what about the triumphant young ‘tadpoles’? Well, Chiyotairyu looks dominant at this point. That simple and direct style has won bouts against rikishi with far more apparent versatility, just because Chiyotairyu executes it with such speed, power, and instinct. It even flattened Onosho in a very one-sided bout, the first of a series of three losses that would see the enthusiastic red-mawashi-clad youngster drop from contention in the yusho race. Aside from these two, the rest of the Yusho chase group consists of M8 and lower wrestlers (who, while well on the way to a satisfying and rewarding kachi-koshi, seem unlikely to claim the Emperor’s Cup as they are sure to be matched up against tougher and tougher opposition if they keep winning). The yusho is Goeido’s to lose – although everyone knows he’ll face Harumafuji on the last day, and Onosho and Chiyotairyu continue to look like convincing competition. Harumafuji has picked up a little after a rocky start, Mitakeumi is in peril since he needs three more wins and hasn’t faced anyone above Komusubi yet, and Yoshikaze has had a startling return to form and not dropped a single bout since his initial run of four losses. But for now, the spotlight is on Goeido.
On a more subdued note, Aoiyama and Sadanoumi have returned to the competition, although by this stage both are make-koshi, with Aoiyama managing a single win and Sadanoumi none. Aoiyama might have done better if he hadn’t been fed to Harumafuji and Goeido straight off the bat, but he is in the Joi according to his ranking and would be expected to face them both at some point.
By day twelve, the banzuke looks… well, rather odd. In the lead: Goeido. In pursuit: Ten other rikishi. Three days to go, and either you do not have your kachi-koshi yet, or you are in contention for the yusho. Amongst that hallowed chase group: Kotoshogiku, who many people said should retire last basho. Harumafuji, who some people said should retire last week. Endo, proud owner of one working ankle. Onosho, newcomer to the Joi. Asanoyama, newcomer to Maegashira 16. I start to wonder what kind of parallel sumo world I’m looking at. It’s a far cry from Nagoya, that’s for sure.
Something astonishing happens on day thirteen. Every single person in the chase group, except Harumafuji and Asanoyama, loses their bout. And since their opponents (Yoshikaze and Daiesho respectively) were also in the chase group, there could be no worse outcome. Luckily for keeping things interesting, Goeido blew it too. This match is one to remember – for a while, it seemed Goeido had left the early basho’s reactive, retreating sumo behind, but here he seems unwilling to charge into Takakeisho, preferring to circle around with deft sidesteps. And then he slips on the clay. It’s not an unforced error, and Takakeisho absolutely deserves credit for pushing the Ozeki onto the defensive (he got that credit in the form of the shukun-sho), but that slip changed the course of the basho. And after that rocky start, the lone Yokozuna is suddenly back in the spotlight.
On day fourteen, there are – technically – sixteen rikishi with a chance of winning the Yusho in a kind of absurd thirteen-way playoff, although that would require Goeido to lose to Takanoiwa and Harumafuji to lose to Mitakeumi. Lovers of chaos cross their fingers.
You know how this ends (and if you don’t, go and watch the matches rather than reading about them). On day 14, Asanoyama finds that he simply can’t deal with Onosho’s onslaught. Goeido stays cool and collected through two mattas, goes on the attack for the whole bout against a Takanoiwa who seems determined to play the dodging, retreating, pull-down defensive role that Goeido himself took earlier in the tournament, and scores a win despite teetering on the edge of a fall several times. Mitakeumi and Harumafuji meet in a cracking tachi-ai, Mitakeumi gets both his hands to a powerful inside grip and converts it into a perfect moro-zashi. The crowd’s intake of breath is audible to the cameras. They lock up for a while, Mitakeumi seemingly wondering just what to do now that he has such a commanding grip… and then Harumafuji somehow borrows the strength of the three absent Yokozuna and carries him out of the ring.
On the final day, it comes down to those two. I, personally, would not begrudge Goeido the yusho, despite those henkas on days three and four. He has exhibited excellent sumo and been a joy to watch at other times. His losses came from one henka, one slip, and Shohozan (who is a force of nature at times). But Harumafuji has without question been the more aggressive rikishi, and between that and little moments of grace – like catching Tochiozan’s head for safety at the conclusion of their first bout, or ensuring Shohozan didn’t fall from the edge of the dohyo – have me (and probably everyone else) cheering for the Yokozuna. He’s clearly not at 100% – there was a very real chance he’d skip the basho entirely, were it not for the absence of the other three Yokozuna – and he’s already shown he can make mistakes. He needs to win twice, while Goeido only needs to win once. And he only goes and does it.
So, yes, in the end, the only Yokozuna in the competition took the yusho, and the only Ozeki took the jun-yusho. But what a road we took to get there!