The 2018 Hatsu Basho has come to a close, and what an incredible Basho it was! While the Cinderella story of Tochinoshin claiming his first Yusho – and as a Maegashira to boot – made the New Year Tournament special, this Basho was also notable for the incredible level of competition coming from the bottom of the Makuuchi banzuke. The undercard, comprised of the bottom nine rungs of the top division, consistently turned out high-quality matches day in and day out and made this January one of the most exciting months in sumo in quite some time. Here are my rankings for the 2018 Hatsu Basho undercard.
17. Terunofuji: 0-8-7
What can I say about Terunofuji that hasn’t been said countless times already? With a 0-8-7 record, Terunofuji’s performance is one of the worst seen in quite a while, and now the former Ozeki has fallen entirely out of the Makuuchi division. But all hope is not lost. The career paths of Tochinoshin and Chiyonokuni have demonstrated that taking much needed time off and starting over lower on the banzuke is not a death sentence. Hopefully, our Kaiju does the same and returns to wreak havoc in the top division one day soon.
16. Aminishiki: 3-9-3
Aminishiki’s performance was far from what many had hoped for after his splendid tournament in November. The crafty maneuvers he used in Kyushu were well scouted and dealt with by his Hatsu opponents. Coupled with a new injury that forced him to miss three days, Aminishiki racked up only three wins and is Juryo-bound. Here’s hoping we see that lovable old uncle back in the top division in the future!
15. Takekaze: 5-10
The other elder statesman of the undercard, Takekaze, will also leave the top division in March unless he has a barbers appointment booked before then. Grandpa Bullfrog didn’t go out without a fight though, and managed to put together a nice four-match win streak after a disastrous start. However it was too little, too late, and he finished Hatsu with a record of 5-10.
14. Sokokurai: 6-9
Juryo is probably looking pretty good right about now for the former second division champion. Sokokurai made his return to Makuuchi at Hatsu, but during his time away the top division has gone through a significant influx of talent and is now far more competitive than when he left it. The Chinese rikishi just couldn’t keep up with the young guns.
13. Daishomaru: 7-8
Daishomaru was kind of invisible this January, and with only seven wins (including a fusen win over Terunofuji) he failed to score his kachi koshi. However, 7-8 is far better than his abysmal 4-11 Kyushu record, so at least he is trending in the right direction.
12. Kotoyuki: 7-8
While Kotoyuki failed to get a winning record, his performance at Hatsu was more consistent than other the rikishi with make koshi records, and he could have very well finished in the winners’ column had he not bit so hard on Ishiura’s Day 15 henka. The Penguin will have to regroup for March.
11. Daiamami: 8-7
Daiamami, the man at the absolute bottom of the division, did just enough to remain in Makuuchi for Haru. With his size and strength, Daiamami has the makings of a sumo powerhouse, but he needs to get his consistency issues under control first.
10. Nishikigi: 8-7
Nishikigi lives to fight another day! The man in green managed to secure his kachi koshi, in dramatic fashion this time with a big senshuraku win. He won’t have to worry about demotion for a while. Well, at least for February.
9. Ishiura: 9-6
While I’m glad to see Ishiura make his return to Makuuchi, I was a little disappointed by the quality of his sumo near the end of the Basho. While I have no problem with a smaller rikishi pulling out a henka to get the upper hand, it got a little tiresome by the third time he used it. I hope Ishiura uses more of the creative sumo he employed in week one of Hatsu when the March tournament rolls around, and saves the henka for when he really needs it!
8. Asanoyama: 9-6
Asanoyama looked like he was having a major rebound Basho after the disaster of Kyushu last November, but he faded considerably in the latter half of Hatsu and went on another prolonged losing skid. A lack of self-esteem seems to be his most significant issue, and he needs to figure out how to keep it together when he starts to lose if he wants to make it in Makuuchi. Asanoyama did manage to pull out of his tailspin this Basho and put together nine wins. I hope he takes the next few weeks to tighten up his sumo and enters March with more confidence.
7. Yutakayama: 9-6
You may be asking yourself, why is Yutakayama so high on this list when he has just as many wins as a bunch of other rikishi? Well, the simple explanation is that with nine wins he more than exceeded all expectations the majority of fans had for him coming into Hatsu! Even if he had finished with a 5-10 record, Yutakayama would have improved on his previous ventures into the top division. But instead, he captured a bonafide Makuuchi kachi koshi, something many thought he was incapable of, and for that I commend him.
6. Chiyomaru: 9-6
Another solid outing for the marshmallow man. Chiyomaru has recorded nine wins in four of his last five tournaments, and it’s this consistency that earned him his spot near the top of this list. If he can keep this run of 9-win kachi koshis going, he could find himself in the Joi before the year’s end. At Maegashira 9 and assured a promotion, Chiyomaru will not be a part of the Makuuchi undercard come March.
5. Kagayaki: 9-6
I have a feeling we will be looking back on Hatsu 2018 as a turning point in the career of Kagayaki. The man in gold transformed from the clumsy, hesitant rikishi we knew into a much more confident, skilled athlete. Heck, he even fought on the mawashi a few times this Basho! If Kagayaki continues to build upon this success and strengthen his craft, 2018 could be his year.
4. Daieisho: 9-6
While my prediction of Daieisho fading in the second half of the tournament was right, his drop off wasn’t nearly as severe as in previous Basho, and he ended Hatsu with a very respectable 9-6 record. Daieisho has so much natural talent when it comes to sumo, and if he can figure out how to show up for the full 15 days of a tournament, then it won’t be long until he’s one of this sports brightest stars.
3. Shohozan: 9-6
Big Guns Shohozan has made a humongous return to form after his ghastly 3-12 Kyusho record. The man from Fukuoka was a consistent threat throughout the first half of Hatsu, and while he did drop off near the end of the tournament, he will be remembered for his colossal clash with Tochinoshin, giving the Yusho winner one of his toughest matches of the Basho. I look forward to seeing what Shohozan has in store for us at Haru, and I pity anyone who has to stand across the dohyo from this brawler.
2. Abi: 10-5
Sorry Asanoyama, but I think it’s time to pass on that Mr. Happy moniker to Abi. Things didn’t start off great for Abi, whose balance issues were exploited by his opponents. However, he never lost his smile, and once he got his balance under control, there was very little anyone could do to stop him from reaching his impressive 10-5 record. Even facing opponents ranked much higher than him didn’t seem to perturb the smiling one, who took them on with great determination! When I look Abi, with his long limbs and stocky body, he reminds me so much of a young Takanohana. While they are known for different fighting styles, if Abi can learn to use his proportions as effectively as the former Yokozuna, he has a very bright future ahead of him.
1. Ryuden: 10-5
Without a doubt, Ryuden was the star of the 2018 Hatsu undercard. Few have had as tough a road to the top division as Ryuden. Throughout his twelve-year career he has faced everything, including injuries that forced him to miss most of 2013 and 2014, but he never let these roadblocks stop him from reaching sumo’s biggest stage. Once he reached the top division, he not only held his own but flourished! After a rocky Act One, Ryuden took flight and won eight of his last nine out matches, clinching a sansho special prize for fighting spirit along the way! While he shares the same record as Abi, Ryuden gets the edge over the smiling youngster due to his consistency and his tenacity. It didn’t matter who he faced or how outmatched he was, Ryuden fought with everything he had each and every day, and sent a message that he is here to stay.
*This is just an opinion piece, and I would love to hear who you think were the standout rikishi of the 2018 Hatsu Basho.