“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!

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

  1. I’m humbled that you selected my question to pose to John Gunning — a lot of good reader questions were submitted.

    I’ve heard people say that Takakeisho needs to expand his repertoire beyond wave-action tsuppari and I wondered if John Gunning would raise that point. I guess he thinks that Takakeisho has the drive (and innovation) to ensure that his training will address any technical weaknesses.

    • Thank you for the great question Corey!

      Ultimately we weren’t able to get to everyone’s questions but I was lucky to have a question like this that really fit into the context of the conversation that we were having, so thank you for contributing.

      What I took from it is that without diving into the specifics, perhaps that is covered off by having the experience. For me personally I agree that that experience means understanding when a tactic (in his case, the “wave action tsuppari”) is or is not going to work against san’yaku opponents – and of course Onosho has a similar challenge… I think raising this was really cool because now I am thinking about where Mitakeumi is in that progression as well. Maybe part of his recent plateau has been because he’s trying to get consistency in his ability to use gain then use that experience to win.

    • Thanks Bruce! I agree – It’s great that John is a friend of Tachiai, and I’m excited for us to share more stories like this with our readers

  2. Awesome work Josh, I really appreciate you asking my question, thank you!!!

    Some fascinating insights here by John Gunning. It’s great to hear his thoughts on so many topics.

    • No problem Tom – I agree, great question and as with Corey it really fit right into the conversation! Stay tuned for part 3 – a few more topics yet to cover

    • Yeah… fully agree. Have to admit though I thought the same thing the first time he stepped into the dohyo at makuuchi level, so it was interesting to hear that verified by a pundit of John’s stature. His style of sumo is amazing to watch but seemed immediately handicapped by that aggressive weight gain.

  3. Yeah, while I like him his dynamic movement and weight just seemed like it was bound to happen. Especially with how awkward falling off the clay could be.

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