Instead of a traditional “Ones to Watch” section this basho, we’ll mix things up with a few lower division storylines. We’ll start by taking a look at what’s going on at the top of Makushita.
This division is an absolute slog. There are 120 men in this division fighting for usually 2 to 4 of the 28 slots in Juryo. As described on a recent NHK World sumo preview, the division between Makushita and Juryo is like “heaven and hell,” given the resources and opportunities provided to rikishi once they reach the professional, sekitori level.
If you’re a college rikishi of good pedigree, usually you will cruise through the bottom 2-3 tiers before meeting your tougher matches here. Rikishi who have left school before college often take several years to reach the level as they get acclimated to the sport and the lifestyle. One of the reasons it’s tough to escape the level is because there’s a crush at the top – but Nagoya 2018 is unique. With respect to Natsu whipping boy Amakaze, usually there are a couple rikishi around the top of the division who have departed Juryo due to injury or performance, not soon to return back, and these guys get beat up by the hot young up-and-comers on the upswing of their career.
This time, however, there’s no filler at the top of the division and it’s going to be an all out melee to reach the professional ranks when sumo returns to Tokyo for the Aki tournament in September. Let’s look at who’s jockeying for position:
The Battle Scarred Veterans
I’m going to put 29 year olds Jokoryu (Ms5E) and Asabenkei (Ms4E) in this category, though their careers have taken different routes to the same location. The former Komusubi Jokoryu spent 4 years as sekitori before dropping down the divisions due to serious injury. He’s been stuck in the wilderness for 2 years, but has fought his way back up to striking distance of promotion. Asabenkei, who has been in sumo since 2007, recently made it back to Juryo after an 18 month hiatus. He then suffered a humiliating 3-win tournament in May, which started 0-7, en route to an immediate demotion back to the third tier.
While these guys have a wildly different pedigree and career accomplishments, it’s probably fair to say they have been operating on a similar talent level and with an ambition to scrape back up and re-establish themselves as professionals.
The Hot Shots
Enho (Ms2W) – the first man to open his career 21-0 since Jokoryu – arrived on the scene earlier than predicted in Osaka, but it was clear he was over-promoted before his time and was swiftly demoted back to Makushita. It’s good news for him that he has such an esteemed some-time sparring partner in Hakuho, however, and the hard work he’s put in has seen him rebound after a solid Natsu to the fourth position on the banzuke. We’ve been hot on Enho so long it’s hard to believe it’s still only his 8th tournament. 5 wins should see him back up.
Meanwhile, fellow “Ones to Watch” honorees and college men Murata (Ms1W) and Ichiyamamoto (Ms3E) reach the division’s summit in just their 9th tournaments (though Ichiyamamoto gets bonus points for having got here just as quickly from Jonokuchi). Murata is a big bopper who loves a good ol’ fashioned oshi-fuelled brawl. Ichiyamamoto mixes it up a little more but is still mostly a pusher-thruster.
The youngest of Arashio-beya’s three Onami brothers, Wakatakakage not only made it first to Juryo but then stuck at the level, managing a kachi-koshi in his first trip to the pros. Middle brother Wakamotoharu (Ms4W) now finds himself on the brink – with the third and oldest brother Wakatakamoto not so far behind at Ms10. Having only eked out 3 wins from similar positions on the banzuke in the past, he’ll be looking to improve his record in this part of the sumo world this time, to set up a promotion challenge either this time or next. It’s a sprint between the two remaining brothers to catch Wakatakakage now, but Wakamotoharu is in the pole position.
The Cups of Coffee
27 year old Akua (Ms5W) and 23 year old Hakuyozan (Ms1E) both spent years making the long and winding trek through the lower reaches of the banzuke before managing just a “cup of coffee” in the pros, each returning back to Makushita after one tournament where they both clearly looked overmatched. They’ll be wanting to make sure the chance to establish themselves at a higher level does not go begging again.
The Wild Cards
22 year olds Gokushindo (Ms2E) and Kiribayama (Ms3W) have different origin stories and routes to this point, but what they have in common is a certain inconsistency. Kiribayama at times has looked utterly dominant in this division, and is the current yusho holder. Gokushindo has tended to take 2 steps forward followed by one step back as he adjust to the differences in quality in what is a Makushita tier which effectively has divisions within the division, such is the gulf in class between various areas of the ranks. Having posted a 6-1 record last time out, it would seemingly stand to reason he would need an adjustment period again this time, but he will face familiar foes having beaten Ichiyamamoto, Murata and Wakamotoharu in May (the latter two using a style best described as “Ichinojo” – a ponderously lengthy wait-out of a grapple in the centre of the dohyo followed by an escort over the bales and a throw respectively), losing only to Kiribayama.
At the time of writing, it appears to be unclear whether we’re going to see Terunofuji (Ms6E) in Nagoya. The man has undergone plenty of work on both knees, and suffered a less than fruitful spell in Juryo, which was also apparently hindered at times by diabetes related treatment. What his tournament ability is, at this point in the game, is still unclear. While it’s possible and even likely he may drop further (either due to performance or kyujo-status), the very presence of a former Ozeki in this part of the banzuke should give pause to each of the other names listed here – if he does show up, it’s obviously to compete and to win.