Sumo’s Coming Changes

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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.

What the Kyushu Results Mean for Hatsu

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The Kyushu basho has concluded, and while the Yusho race was largely a one-man affair, the rest of the proceedings were filled with unanticipated results. At the end of each basho, the banzuke gets reshuffled for the next one, and this is the most complex and unpredictable reshuffling I’ve seen. I will have a full banzuke forecast post once I’ve digested the final results, but here are some initial thoughts.

What makes the task difficult for the banzuke makers?

I’m glad you asked. We have a confluence of unusual events.

  • Below the Yokozuna ranks, we had three rikishi who missed all or most of the tournament, ranging in rank from Sekiwake Terunofuji to M8 Takanoiwa to M16 Ura. Where should they be ranked in January?
  • We have a 14-1 Juryo champion, erstwhile Makuuchi mainstay Sokukurai, who needs to be worked into the banzuke much higher than usual for rikishi promoted from Juryo.
  • We have several 7-8 rikishi whose make-koshi records warrant demotion, but there is a dearth of rikishi with kachi-koshi records to place ahead of them.
  • Several rikishi near the bottom of Makuuchi have records that aren’t quite good enough to make them safe from demotion to Juryo. Conversely, several rikishi near the top of Juryo have records that aren’t quite good enough to guarantee promotion to Makuuchi.
  • Perhaps the greatest complication is that we have 5, count them, 5 rikishi whose records would usually warrant Sekiwake rank, and only 4 “normal” San’yaku slots to accommodate them. This doesn’t even include Ichinojo, who will miss out on San’yaku promotion despite accumulating double-digit wins at M4.

Who will be in San’yaku?

We already knew that Kotoshogiku will vacate his Komusubi slot; with today’s loss, Yoshikaze will drop from Sekiwake all the way into the maegashira ranks (I expect to see him at maegashira 1). We also know that Mitakeumi will retain his Sekiwake 1e slot by virtue of his 9-6 record.

Beyond that, things get complicated. Our shin-Komusubi, Onosho, turned things around in a big way and ended the basho with an 8-7 record that guarantees a second tournament in San’yaku. Normally, this record would also ensure a promotion to the open Sekiwake slot, but this time we have another strong contender in former Sekiwake Tamawashi, who went 11-4 from the M1e slot. In the past, there have been a couple of cases of an 8-7 Komusubi and a 10-5 M1 competing for a Sekiwake slot, and it’s played out in different ways. Going 11-4 makes Tamawashi’s claim stronger, but I’m not sure how this will play out.

Onosho’s friend and fellow rising star Takakeisho also went 11-4 from the M1w slot. Being on the West side puts him in line behind Tamawashi, and 11-4 is not strong enough to force an extra Sekiwake slot to open, so he will be shin-Komusubi at Hatsu. This fills up four San’yaku slots: S1e Mitakeumi, S1w/K1e Onosho/Tamawashi, K1w Takakeisho. So what to do with M3 Hokutofuji, who also delivered an amazing 11-4 performance? My guess is that this record is good enough to force the creation of an extra Komusubi slot, and that he will be K2e at Hatsu, but it’s not guaranteed. Having all four of the promising youngsters—Mitakeumi, Onosho, Takakeisho, and Hokutofuji—in San’yaku, plus the formidable veteran Tamawashi, with Ichinojo knocking on the door, makes me really look forward to Hatsu. It’s going to be a long wait until January 14th!

Who will be in the joi?

The joi is a somewhat nebulous category of the top 16 or so rikishi who battle each other. In addition to the upper named ranks, it includes a number of the highest-ranked maegashira. How many? Well, that varies from tournament to tournament depending on the number of San’yaku members participating, and as we’ve seen recently, it can change during a tournament following withdrawals of upper-rank rikishi. In Kyushu, the line fell between M5e Takarafuji, who faced a number of the upper-rankers, and M5w Arawashi, who made only a couple of cameo appearances.

Drawing the line in the same place for Hatsu, the 9 rikishi projected to make up the joi include 4 current members and 5 wrestlers from lower down the banzuke who separated themselves from the rest. The returnees include the two demotees from San’yaku, Yoshikaze and Kotoshogiku, M2 Chiyotairyu, who fought his way to a respectable 7-8 record after a rough start, and Ichinojo. These four should make up the M1/M2 ranks. Rounding out the M3-M5e slots should be Tochinoshin, Arawashi, Shodai, Okinoumi and Endo; none are newcomers to this part of the banzuke.

Where will the Makuuchi/Juryo line fall?

Barring unusual circumstances (e.g., multiple retirements, court orders…), Myogiryu, Aoiyama, Takanoiwa, and Ura will be demoted from Makuuchi. Sokokurai and newcomer Abi have definitely earned their promotions from Juryo. I think Asanoyama and Nishikigi did just enough to avoid demotion by the skin of their teeth, and Ishiura and Yutakayama did just enough to return to Makuuchi after a one-tournament absence (but not enough to convince us they can make it an extended stay). The bubble is made up of Daiamami and Ryuden, who may or may not exchange spots in what would be a Makuuchi debut for Ryuden. Ryuden would have made this decision a lot easier had he defeated Daiamami head-to-head when they met on day 14.

I don’t envy the banzuke makers (or your humble prognosticator). If you have other questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, and I will do my best to answer.

Kyushu Day 15 Highlights

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It’s going to be light for the commentary today, as I am traveling to faraway lands on business. There was some fantastic action today, including a great yusho speech from Hakuho. Scandal hounds are, however, locked to the pounce position waiting for the post-basho fireworks.

As I am sure lksumo will describe in due time, there is another San’yaku log-jam, with a crowd of high-performing rikishi all clamoring for a pair of vacated slots. While it’s great to see so many press for higher rank, this is a function of the devastated Ozeki and Yokozuna corps. Had the full roster been present and healthy, many of these men would be lucky to eke out an 8-7 kachi-koshi. Instead, we have, once again, significant score inflation due to a lack of top predators culling the herd. When there is Hakuho with his overwhelming sumo, and a crowd of everyone else, you have a rotating list of who gets to lose to Hakuho, and then everyone else slugging it out on more or less even footing. This makes the yusho race predictable, but it makes for exciting times lower down the banzuke.

Highlight Matches

Aminishiki defeats Chiyoshoma – Uncle Sumo defeats the increasingly annoying Chiyoshoma to secure a storied kachi-koshi on the final day. Aminishiki was visibly emotional, and the Fukuoka Kokusai Center erupted in joy to see the veteran succeed in his quest. With his victory, he picks up the kanto-sho special prize.

Chiyonokuni defeats Takekaze – Takekaze delivered a brutal tachiai, but Chiyonokuni seems to fear no pain and blasts Takekaze over the edge. Sadly Chiyonokuni appeared genuinely injured after the match. The loss leaves Takekaze make-koshi.

Aoiyama defeats Shohozan – Shohozan has fought well this basho, but he achieved an absolutely miserable 3-12 record. The win by Aoiyama in the final match may slightly cushion the man-mountain’s fall down the banzuke.

Takakeisho defeats Okinoumi – The match itself was quite straightforward, as there was really nothing left for Okinoumi to push for. Takakeisho’s oshi-zumo is quite impressive, and the team at Tachiai are waiting to see if he broadens his sumo to include more mawashi attacks as he strives for higher rank.

Tamawashi defeats Hokutofuji – Tamawashi made short work of Hokutofuji, and both men finish the basho with impressive 11-4 records. As with the prior bout, neither rikishi was going to push too hard and risk an injury, as both had achieved much and secured healthy promotions for Hatsu.

Onosho defeats Takarafuji – The red mawashi once again activated in a moment of need, powering Onosho over Takarafuji to place the mighty tadpole in competition for Yoshikaze’s vacated Sekiwake slot. Onosho had this match at the tachiai and easily picked up his kachi-koshi win. Takarafuji battled well this tournament but leaves with a 7-8 make-koshi. Scoff at the red mawashi superstition, but after starting the basho 1-6, Onosho reverted to his red mawashi and racked up 7 wins over the final 8 matches. It may have been as simple as a physical change to allow Onosho to emotionally re-focus his sumo.

Kotoshogiku defeats Ichinojo – In spite of a matta and re-start, the tachiai was mistimed and sloppy. Fans of local rikishi Kotoshogiku were thrilled to see the “Kyushu-bulldozer” lower the blade and push the Mongolian giant around the dohyo and into the abyss. Ichinojo finishes 10-5 and is at long last looking to be a serious competitor once more.

Mitakeumi defeats Yoshikaze – The all-Sekiwake bout was all Mitakeumi. With Yoshikaze injured, he picked up his 9th loss, and will likely be out of San’yaku for Hatsu. Mitakeumi improved to 9-6 after struggling with injuries to his foot at the start, but is still under-performing to launch an Ozeki campaign.

Hakuho defeats Goeido – Goeido put a strong effort into his sumo today, but Hakuho has been unstoppable this tournament, and after going chest to chest, the Yokozuna dispatched Goeido with his preferred uwatenage.

Sansho Special Prizes Awarded for Kyushu Basho

With senshuraku underway, the sansho selection committee has announced the special prize recipients for the 2017 Kyushu basho. Unsurprisingly, both Hokutofuji and Okinoumi received awards for their tremendous performances, taking home the technique and fighting spirit prizes respectively.

The outstanding performance prize was awarded to Takakeisho for defeating two Yokozuna and one Ozeki. Takaksisho now has three sansho to his name, as he won his first outstanding performance prize in September and the fighting spirit prize in March.

Finally, everyone’s favorite uncle, Aminishiki, can earn a fighting spirit prize if he gets his kachi koshi in his day 15 match with Chiyoshoma. This would be his tenth career sansho prize and his second in the fighting spirit category. It has been a pleasure to watch Aminishiki perform his crafty brand of sumo at the ripe old age of 39, and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping he can get his eighth win and take home the hardware!

Update:
Uncle Sumo has his kachi koshi and will receive the kanto-sho prize for fighting spirit!!! Viewers can look forward to more of Aminishiki at the 2018 Hatsu basho.