“There are NO guarantees in sumo.” A Conversation with John Gunning – Part 2

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We’re pleased to present the next segment of our interview with popular journalist and sumo pundit John Gunning. John is well known to Tachiai readers from his work with The Japan Times, NHK and Inside Sport Japan among others. Click here to read Part 1 of our interview with John and read on for Part 2, below. Part 3 will follow in the lead up to Haru. This conversation took place during this year’s Hatsu basho last month, and has been edited for clarity.

Tachiai: First of all, let’s talk about up and coming rikishi. We do a piece on our site called Ones to Watch, where we pick 20 rikishi before each basho – only from the bottom 4 divisions. Do you get to spend much time exploring that part of the banzuke? Are there people who excite you at that level?

John Gunning: For the work that I do in Japan, I don’t really have to do any of that, that’s more of a personal interest. I go to stables and I still spend a fair bit of time with rikishi. Maybe not as much as I would have 5-10 years ago, but I still visit stables regularly and socialise with a lot of them. That’s more to do with my own personal interest rather than work.

Tachiai: But are there characteristics that you look for in someone who might have the potential to break through?

JG: Generally, guys coming from university are probably going to make it to makuuchi. If they were successful at an amateur level at university, that means they’re already basically sekitori level. So, I tend not to get too hyped about them until they show decent results in the top division.

I feel that if you go through the university and amateur system, there’s a very specific way of doing things which can make it more difficult to succeed in pro sumo where opponents can be less predictable. So, when you’re looking for someone who’s going to be successful, it’s the same things as the Shin Gi Tai: heart, technique, physique. Those are the three things.

You need a certain physical type. Smaller guys can succeed to a degree. But if you’re talking about someone who’s going to be an Ozeki or Yokozuna, they need a certain physicality. The most important thing is the fire, the desire to win. When they lose, how do they react? The guys that hate losing more than anything, where there’s no difference between training and real fights… the guys who give everything, who have that burning desire to win and are willing to literally battle: those are the guys.

The technique can be learned. Technique is probably the least important of the three, even though it excites fans most. For example, when guys like Ura come in, or others who are really skilful – that excites fans, but it’s the thing that can be learned. Heart is the thing that can’t be taught.

Tachiai: Let’s continue on that same path and talk about Ura: have you ever seen a rikishi come back from that type of serious ACL injury, and is there any expectation about when we might see him again in the top division?

JG: I’ve known him since he was an amateur, since he was a kid. I was always surprised that he put on so much weight when he moved up to pro sumo. I can see why he did it, like I said, you need a certain physicality when you’re in the top division. But it didn’t hurt Takanoyama, the Czech guy, to be thin and skinny: he kept that speed. If I were Ura, I probably wouldn’t have put on all that weight. I think it hampered him in the end.

Is he somebody to come back? Yeah, sure, why not? Look at Osunaarashi, who’s fought with basically half an ACL. It was half-torn for a year, and he was still competing every single tournament. You can actually compete without ACLs! Olin Kreutz, the Chicago Bears centre [nb: both the author and subject are Chicago Bears supporters] didn’t have an ACL, and he played in the NFL for a decade! It’s rare, but it’s possible. For Ura’s style of sumo, it’s probably more difficult. But, I don’t see anything that would stop him coming back, and having a reasonable career as a sekitori. But he’s never going to make the top.

Tachiai: Along the lines of knee injuries, one person who’s been the subject of a lot of debate is Terunofuji. His dedication is incredible. The big question is: is there a point at which he should heal up and train back to full fitness, even if it means dropping down a couple divisions? The example of this is someone like Tochinoshin, who dropped down and came all the way back up. Or is Terunofuji on the right path right now by persevering, and going out and giving what he can in every single tournament?

JG: Well he did have surgery, that’s the thing. You see people say all the time, “oh, he should take a year off.” That’s presupposing that he’ll come back and won’t get injured in the first fight, and that everything will be fine and dandy after that. If you do sumo, you’re going to get injured. And it’s especially tough if you’re a rikishi because if you’re him, and you’re an Ozeki, you have a lot of rights. You have a great lifestyle. If you drop down, you’re basically like a kid again, you have to come back into the stable and you lose your salary – a pretty good salary. How can you say to somebody in that position who might even be married with kids, “hey, you should take a year off, and give up your salary and leave your house and your mortgage and move back into the stable with 20 other guys and then come back in a year?” That’s not realistic.

And [that view] also doesn’t understand the thinking of top class athletes. Athletes never think like that. They don’t look at things – whether it’s a rikishi or a football player – in a long term view. There are no guarantees in anything, so, you have to do what you can do now. It’s rare that somebody would just drop out. Look at Kevin White, the wide receiver from the Bears: he’s had season ending injuries for the first three years of his career. He took a year off and got healed up and then got injured immediately again. There are no guarantees in contact sports, and the likelihood is that you will just re-injure it anyway. A career is only 7 to 10 years at the most for most guys, so you’re giving up around a fifth of that on the off chance that everything will be ok? It’s just not realistic.

Tachiai: We have a reader question from Tom, who wants to know – which of the current rikishi do you think could be a Yokozuna by Tokyo 2020?

JG: In the top division now?

Tachiai: Or anywhere. I know you’re a big fan of Mitoryu.

JG: Oh yeah, Mitoryu! I talked about him (on the NHK Grand Sumo Preview before Hatsu). He went through the university system obviously, and the high school system in Japan. Injury permitting, he has the ability.

Murray (Johnson) who works at NHK with me always says, “who’s going to beat Hakuho?” If Hakuho was out of sumo, then everything would be wide open. You could have a new Yokozuna this year, even. As Murray says, when Hakuho is there, who’s going to win at least 13 or 14 (matches), who’s going to take those 2 basho in a row? Your target is probably 14 wins to get the yusho. Maybe you can lose to Hakuho if you face him and still do it. That kind of consistency is hard to see from anyone while Hakuho is still there. But, there’s age and injury, and he has started to miss tournaments. If I had to pick one, then probably Takayasu. Takayasu could win two tournaments. He’s the best placed, obviously he’s an Ozeki, so a couple of good tournaments and he could be Yokozuna.

Further down… I’m high on the two young guys, the 21 year-olds Takakeisho and Onosho. I don’t know if they’re big enough to make Yokozuna, because size is important. But, both of them have something. I could easily imagine both of them making Ozeki. They didn’t have the best start [to Hatsu], but they’re still young. They’re 21 and they’ve both reached san’yaku which is a huge thing.

There are a couple of German guys on the Sumo Forum who have all these tables and stats – a guy called Jürgen (Randomitsuki) developed a prediction of future success. And it’s incredibly accurate. You put in all the factors: age, size, what age they started sumo, how they did in the first couple tournaments, and he can predict very closely the highest rank someone will have. It’s kind of shocking really. If you think about it, it actually follows what’s intuitive to older people who follow sumo. Then you always have the kids like Tochinowaka, people who have everything but are just missing the mental points.

Tachiai: Corey Yanofsky has been in touch with a question, and wants to know what steps Takakeisho should take in his training in order to make Ozeki rank?

JG: I don’t think he needs to do anything particularly differently. One of the things with Takakeisho, Onosho and Mitakeumi is the flexibility in their training. They all do stuff outside of the regular sumo training. For the two young guys (Takakeisho and Onosho) especially, that’s one trait that goes back to what I said about heart. They hate losing with a passion, and will do whatever it takes to improve. And that’s why they’ve had that success. So, I wouldn’t presume to advise Takakeisho on what he needs to do – I think he’s doing plenty of stuff in his training.

From here, it’s just basically experience. These guys are knocking off Yokozuna. It’s about consistency during tournaments, and they’re getting there! They’re young, and they will get it. They’re going to make mistakes, but I think those mistakes will decrease over time, and they’ll continue to rack up the wins. But no, I don’t think he needs to do anything differently.

Check out Inside Sport Japan on Twitter and Instagram, as well as their website. Stay tuned as we dig into more topics in Part 3, which we’ll post here on Tachiai ahead of the Haru basho in Osaka!

Kisenosato – Frozen In Carbonite?

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I admit, my Japanese is very poor. But I fear this post on twitter from the NSK reports that Yokozuna Kisenosato has been frozen in carbonite until they can find a way to repair his damaged left pectoral muscle.

Hopefully no one has summoned Boba Fett

 

Haru Story 2 – An Ozeki’s Opportunity

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Since Harumafuji’s untimely fall from honor, a gap has opened in the Yokozuna front. No longer able to consistently field grand-champions, both of the current Ozeki can’t help but set their sights on the Emperor’s cup, and a slim chance at promotion to sumo’s highest rank. But for both Goeido and Takayasu, this greatest of sumo’s prizes seem frustratingly out of reach.

First and foremost, the case of Goeido. Famously inconsistent, his Aki 2016 appears to have been an amazing and spectacular fluke, not to be repeated any time soon. Since his blazing 15-0 zensho yusho at that fabled Aki 2016, Goeido has reverted to form, and only achieved double digit wins at the 2017 Aki, when he took his 6th jun-yusho with a 11-4 record. Readers will have noticed that we frequently refer to Goeido in terms of a poorly constructed and malfunctioning piece of technology, rather than one of two men who hold the exalted rank of Ozeki. This comes down to our burning desire to see the Goeido of Aki be the Goeido who steps onto the dohyo every tournament. Until he can capture and summon that wild, unstoppable rikishi at will, he will continue to struggle.

Takayasu, on the other hand, has been confronting injuries since his promotion in May of 2017. At the Aki tournament he tore a major muscle in his thigh, and proceeded to struggle to regain his sumo. Since that injury, his technique on the dohyo has relied far too much on a massive shoulder blast at the tachiai, followed by wild and chaotic (almost frantic) moves across the dohyo. This is a far cry from the sumo that took him to Ozeki: calculated, confident, incredibly strong; with every move deliberate and with terrible purpose. That sumo has the potential to take him to a Yokozuna’s rope, but I fear he lost it, and cannot find it again.

So while it may seem that with a possible no-yokozuna basho on the horizon that the Ozeki are cleared to push for higher rank, both men are far from ready to mount the two consecutive wins needed to be eligible for promotion. But my intuitiuon tells me that we may see a new Yokozuna within the next 12 months, and it’s a 50/50 chance that it may not be either of the current Ozeki.

Haru Story 1 – The Threat of No-Kozuna

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For the past year, the sumo world has grappled with the specter of a tournament with no Yokozuna able to complete the entire 15 day competition. All three surviving grand-champions each suffer from chronic injuries that they nurse, bandage, brace or ignore to compete. But up until recently, at least one of them could muster enough healthy to oversee an entire 15 day basho. With the retirement of Harumafuji at the end of 2017, the roster of Yokozuna dropped to three, each of which come to Haru with medical issues. If no Yokozuna can compete for all 15 days, will this be the first tournament in years that features Ozeki as the highest rank competing on the final day?

In 2016, Hakuho underwent surgery to repair his big toe. It took months for him to recover enough to credibly compete once more. News during January’s Hatsu basho was that Hakuho had not only re-injured that toe, but the other one as well. He has been training as best as he can manage, but may be questionable for the entire tournament.

Japan’s great hope – Yokozuna Kisenosato, has not sought surgical treatment for his torn left pectoral muscle, and may have very few options to regain strength in his dominant left side. He has been admonished to stay out of competition until he is completely healed, and able to perform at Yokozuna levels again.

Rounding out the list is the eternally injured Kakuryu. He looked almost unbeatable during the first 10 days of Hatsu, until he injured his ankle and struggled to win. While he took surgery to repair damage to that ankle, but an awkard fall on the final day match against Goeido left his hand injured, and now he struggles to generate any grip strength.

While fans may worry about a tournament with no Yokozuna competing, this is in fact all part of the natural evolution of Sumo. We are in a transitional period where may well loved rikishi at all ranks reach the end of their careers, and retire. While we will miss all of the ones who say goodbye this year, it’s evident that at least two strong, eager classes of young men are ready to step up and take the ranks they vacate.

Bruce’s Haru 2018 Banzuke Commentary

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Yes, A Banzuke from 2017…

First and up-front, the normal Tachiai banzuke podcast has been delayed due to yours-truly being away on business. We will work to have it ready for your viewing and listening pleasure on Friday.

With the publication of the Haru banzuke, Hakuho has set a new record by appearing for 64 consecutive tournaments as a Yokozuna. The man continues to rack up records, and although age is starting to nip at his heels, he refuses to slow down.

Mitakeumi holds on for a fifth consecutive tournament at the Sekiwake slot. Sadly he has yet to summon the mojo to start an Ozeki campaign, but fans are impressed that he is proving quite resilient at this rank. He is joined by Hatsu yusho winner Tochinoshin. The big Georgian has been out of the Sekiwake slot since July of 2016, and returns in glorious fashion. Fans are eager to see if he can run his score to double digits once again.

As lksumo posted, his banzuke forecast was once again amazingly good, but what surprised me was just how far down former Ozeki Terunofuji dropped. Now down at Juryo 5 (which he shares with Gagamaru), his fans cringe and wonder if his damaged body can even hold this rank. We all want our kaiju back. Fortunately for Takekaze, his drop was only to Juryo 1, and with a winning record he will be back in the top division by May. The road for Uncle Sumo (Aminishiki) is almost the same, but with his damaged knees, the task is much harder.

Abi and Ryuden seem to be carrying the banner for the “Freshmen” (as I have taken to calling them). Ranked in mid-Maegashira, they are going to have their hands full with a number of veterans who had a terrible tournament in January. If Yoshikaze is over whatever illness plagued him at Hatsu, we are likely to see a lot of great, madcap sumo in the middle tier this time.

Of course I have my eye on the giant at Komusubi 1 East, our favorite boulder, Ichinojo. He was last in the San’yaku at Nagoya 2015, and has not been able to maintain consistant good sumo since. This could be a huge turning point for the Mongolian giant, and everyone is eager to see if he continues his excellent performance from Kyushu and Hatsu. It’s been an even longer drought for Chiyotairyu, who was last Komusubi in September of 2014.

Much further down, Tachiai congratulates Texas sumotori Wakaichiro on his return to Sandanme. After an outstanding performance at Hatsu, the man from Nagasaki finds himself Sandanme 89 East. We can be certain that his coaches at Musashigawa have been tuning him up for his second run at this rank.

A great tournament starts two weeks from today, and Tachiai’s wall-to-wall coverage starts now!