What’s below is Bruce’s post-Kyushu commentary on the state of sumo. Readers, please feel free to chime in with your own views on how our beloved sport will overcome the challenges before it.
With Kyushu now behind us, sumo inches closer to a reckoning. The basho ended in a somewhat predictable style, with a few compelling story arcs that kept fans satisfied – for now. But in this blogger’s opinion, long overdue changes are continuing to unfold, and will possibly pick up speed into 2018.
The first signal of change will be the resolution (or not) of the Araujo incident. As we suspected when news broke on day 4 of the basho, there was a complexity to the story that did not fit the template initially forwarded by the media. In fact, we suspect there is a multi-party agenda at work, and Harumafuji’s drunken actions at the bar in Tottori were simply the spark that may burn through the Sumo Association.
Let’s look at what kind of changes might be loaded and ready:
Takanohana – The oyakata of the eponymous heya seems to be using the Harumafuji incident as a vector to change or influence the Kyokai. He has said in the past that it is his goal to reform sumo, and make it a 21st century sport. Of course, this was not a welcome opinion from the sumo traditionalists, and since then there has been a back-channel low grade struggle on whose vision of the future will eventually prevail. There have been reports that his position as head of the Jungyo PR tour will be forfeit because of his role in airing a normally private matter of rikishi discipline in public, but many think his position in the Kyokai is unassailable.
Jungyo – As discussed in the past on the pages of Tachiai, the Jungyo has grown to proportions where it is negatively impacting rikishi training, discipline and overall athlete longevity. This rests squarely on Takanohana’s shoulders, and John Gunning’s timely article for the Japan Times served to bring to light the toll it was taking on the rikishi. I continue to predict that Jungyo will undergo changes, probably slowly at first, to reduce schedule and intensity, and perhaps total rikishi roster. Rather than “Everyone all the time” there may be a rotating roster of who has “Jungyo Duty” for each period.
Kadoban Rikishi – The name brands of sumo are changing, but the ranks are yet to reflect that. Since the start of 2017, with Kisenosato’s elevation to Yokozuna, the winds of change have been blowing in the face of the great and the famous. With each basho, the participation of sumo’s top men has been in decline. We have lost 2 Ozeki due to promotion, and as of today, the majority of the Yokozuna are absent in most tournaments. By the numbers:
- Hatsu 2017 – Harumafuji & Kakuryu kyujo
- Osaka 2017 – Hakuho kyujo
- Natsu 2017 – Kisenosato & Kakuryu kyujo
- Nagoya 2017 – Kisenosato & Kakuryu kyujo
- Aki 2017 – Hakuho, Kisenosato & Kakuryu kyujo
- Kyushu 2017 – Harumafuji, Kisenosato & Kakuryu kyujo
Much as everyone loves these guys, the Kyokai has a slate of grand champions that are perpetually too banged up to compete. Personally, I would love to see them all healthy and bashing the daylights out of the tadpoles, but that’s not going to happen, is it?
Kisenosato – Tore his pectoral muscle, and lord knows what else since. Had he gone for surgery right away, and stayed kyujo until now, we might be getting ready to see him back for Hatsu. Instead that damaged muscle is possibly little more than scar tissue now. Furthermore, by limping along he has de-conditioned the rest of his body to the extent that he struggles to win against mid-Maegashira opponents.
Kakuryu – Chronic back problems that cannot be corrected to the extent to ever make him competitive again. When the guy can manage his pain and injuries, he’s a fantastic sumotori. As frequently stated on these pages, his approach to sumo is somewhat unique and can dismantle any rikishi, including Hakuho.
Harumafuji – We have frequently mused that they would have to drag him out of sumo, in a body bag. But sadly, there is now a threat that he may not be able to overcome. I expect the Kyokai to move to resolve their involvement in the matter within a few weeks, as they want to put this in the past. Even if he can survive this incident, he is a walking bundle of pain and injury, and we believe he completed Aki by sheer force of will alone.
Hakuho – Sumo fans around the globe revel in “The Boss”, and the reality that he seems strong, fit and committed to a few more years of sumo. But he is one big injury away from pain and suffering. Everyone hopes we never see the day when the greatest Yokozuna of our age is wheeled away from the dohyo in agony, but we worry that with inter-basho time almost completely consumed by Jungyo, it’s just a matter of time before de-conditioning sets in, and the risk is realized.
I am sure the Sumo Kyokai realize all of this to be true, and they also know that over the next several months they will need to clean up their roster. Sadly, this will likely include Yokozuna intai sooner rather than later. Sumo needs a quorum of the top men each tournament, and if those men can’t fulfill that schedule, we will likely see new top men.
Sumo fans stay sharp, changes are coming soon. While it may be sad to say goodbye to long serving favorites, we have seen first hand that the next generation is strong, ready and already taking their place in the top ranks.