One for the Ages

Takakeisho & Takanosho - Takakeisho Victory Parade
Image via Sumo Kyokai on Instagram (@sumokyokai)

It has been a peculiar year in sumo – there’s no question about that. The Kyushu basho punctuated this in a number of ways.

We have often talked – on this site, on podcasts, on social media – about the “changing of the guard” currently underway in the sport. The latest basho offered a delightful confirmation of this in the championship victory by Komusubi Takakeisho.

Takakeisho’s victory was a disruption of the normal order of sumo: young, talented prospects will move their way through the lower divisions – but the big prizes are almost always won by established superstars. Even Mitakeumi’s yusho this year was a victory – especially under the circumstances – by a rikishi with an enormous fanbase who was heavily favored to go on an Ozeki run even before Tochinshin’s surprise ascendance earlier in the year. This “disruption,” however, is what turns talented prospects into superstars in their own right – it’s just that it’s something we only get to see every few years – at most.

But there’s another half of that earlier point: that talented youngsters, college veterans and other hot prospects, will usually have their fun in the unsalaried ranks. Taking that into account, not only was Takakeisho’s top division championship in this tournament special in its own right – especially in the face of the heavily favored Ozeki Takayasu – it was actually unique because all of the yusho winners from the bottom four divisions were returning veterans. As a result, in a rare and incredible coincidence, Makuuchi division winer Takakeisho was actually the youngest winner of any of the six divisions at the Kyushu basho:

  • Jonokuchi: won by Hatooka, a 24-year old former Makushita mid-ranker of Kise-beya. He was making his 12th basho appearance, and first full basho in a year.
  • Jonidan: won by Mitsuuchi, a 22-year old former Sandanme mid-ranker of The Onomatsu Group Jazz Combo Onomatsu-beya. This was his second consecutive yusho on his 9th basho, though he needed to come through a playoff against one of Sadogatake’s myriad prospects. Mitsuuchi is 3 months older than Takakeisho.
  • Sandanme: won by Ura, a 26-year old past and present scientific marvel who has been apparently explained by Neil DeGrasse Tyson as “wow,” prompting Vegas bookmakers to slash the odds on the next discovered element to be named Uranon, but only because Uranium is already taken. This was his fourth spotless tournament and second yusho – having coughed up two in playoffs to fellow future funster Hokutofuji, and his stablemate Shiba, who is in the midst of making his third sekitori promotion challenge.
  • Makushita: won by Sokokurai, a 34-year old injury-and-drama survivor of Arashio-beya, who rescued himself from a future as tsukebito to the Onami brothers. Generally liked despite just a single winning record* north of Maegashira 10. This was his fourth lower-division yusho in a 15-year sumo career.
    * edited thanks to an error spotted by commenter Savaros
  • Juryo: won by Tomokaze, a 23-year old big bopper from Oguruma-beya, who likes to push and thrust more than twist and shout. This was his 3rd yusho in 9 tournaments.
  • Makuuchi: won by Takakeisho, a 22-year old tadpole from Chiganoura-beya, his 1st top division championship and 5th such success at all levels.

This coincidence is obviously a rarity because it requires a young champion. It’s the first time it has been seen in sumo in over 11 years, since the third yusho from another 22 year old: then-Ozeki Hakuho. The person to do it before that? Ozeki Hakuho, with his first championship, a year prior. Takakeisho – who like many was a much more promising recruit than the famously unheralded future dai-Yokozuna – will be hoping that his ability to turn his early career momentum into a title, like his predecessor, will bring him similar results.

SUMOS: A New Short Film on Mongolian Sumo

Acclaimed photographer Catherine Hyland has released an astonishing look at Sumo in Mongolia. In a project commissioned by WeTransfer’s WePresent arm, Hyland has released a stunning series of photographs and a short film, titled SUMOS: Rise of the Mongolians, providing insight into the world of the sport in Mongolia. Groundbreaking Mongolian rikishi Kyokushuzan, who now trains young wrestlers in Mongolia, makes an appearance in the film, which also features an interview with a recent Hakuho Cup winner who aspires to be like the tournament’s namesake someday.

Many of us around the world are of course aware of the presence and dominance of many rikishi (and Yokozuna, and yusho winners, and now stablemasters) from Mongolia, but I felt this short film was exceptionally interesting by presenting us with moving images from a country which is extraordinarily infrequently covered in the western media. Indeed, any conversation about Ichinojo will go to serve how the origin stories of Mongolian rikishi can be the stuff of legend.

The short film – SUMOS: Rise of the Mongolians – is embedded above. Click here to read a brief interview with Hyland about the project on WePresent, which includes some wonderful photos from the project.

In other news, this is apparently our 2000th post on the site, so thank you all for joining us!

Promotees to Juryo Announced

Following its regular banzuke meeting, the NSK announced the names of the rikishi who will be promoted to Juryo for Hatsu basho.

Gagamaru and Sokokurai by Futabayama’s monument

Two men advance this time: the veterans Gagamaru (Georgia, Kise beya) and Sokokurai (Inner Mongolia, Arashio beya). There is no first-time promotee.

While the NSK does not announce the names of the wrestlers who will be demoted as a result, it is easy to infer that Gokushindo and Chiyonoo, who had the deepest make-koshi at the lowest rank, will be the ones to part with their silk shimekomi. Chiyonoumi may have been saved by that win on senshuraku against Terutsuyoshi.

We wish Sokokurai and Gagamaru health and good luck on their return to sekitori status.

Takakeisho: Path to Glory

 

The 2018 Kyushu Basho is officially in the hallowed record books of sumo. Komusubi Takakeisho Mitsunobu is now our newest champion, and before we turn our attention to the upcoming winter jungyo tour, let’s reflect on the incredible path that lead Takakeisho to the Emperor’s Cup and sumo glory! Here’s to a long and successful career for this promising young rikishi! Omedeto Takakaiso!!!

The YDC Convenes In Kyushu

YDC-2017-11

The Yokozuna Deliberation Council meets following most basho to review the performance of the top rikishi, and give guidance to the NSK and the sumo world on the state of competition. These meetings usually take place in Tokyo, regardless of where the basho might be, but this Monday, the council convened in Kyushu. The primary subject on the table was the lack of Yokozuna during the second week for the second tournament in 2018, and the failure of Kisenosato specifically to win a single match.

The YDC could take a number of positions on the topic, ranging from “encouragement” to “caution” and finally “suggestion to retire”. Given the fact that Kisenosato has sat out part or all 9 of the last 10 tournaments, and was specifically admonished by this same council to not return to the dohyo until he was ready to compete as a Yokozuna, the fans would be right to expect a stern warning or guidance towards intai.

Instead the YDC returned “Encouragement”. Chairman Kitamura remarked on Kisenosato’s performance, saying that he should be showing physical strength and ability commensurate with his position and ‘the disappointment of the fans who had earnestly hoped for his recovery at the Kyushu basho was great’. Trying to put a good spin on things, he also said “There was a lot of excitement without any Yokozunae. So much so that people may be saying ‘Maybe we don’t need any Yokozuna..”.

If you are rolling your eyes at the last part, you are not alone. Clearly the YDC wants no part in pushing the only Japanese Yokozuna out of the sport. They see there is a problem, it’s easy to identify and its hurting sumo. If the broader sumo world tracks the intensity of interest that we see in traffic numbers at the site, a “No-kazuna” basho produced about 30% less interest. This has to be eating into the NSK bottom line at some point.

(Below is opinion only)

The sumo association is in a tight spot now. One would think that Kisenosato would have figured out that he is past his ability to recover, and take a dignified way out. He has his name beside an inglorious record in the annals of sumo history, and the numbers are just getting worse. In a broader sense, the NSK has a real problem with its kanban rikishi. As we have pointed out in the past, with the exception of the absolutely fantastic Aki basho, participation of the top ranking rikishi has been below 50%, and continues to be poor.

The NSK either needs to clean up its rosters, or accept that its going to fade in popularity among the core Japanese audience. This clean up is going to be painful and difficult. Many of the rikishi who may be past their sunset date are popular and well loved. But there is a significant cohort of older athletes who are not performing with the same intensity that they did 10 or 15 years ago. This has the quiet background effect of lowering the overall intensity of each basho, and I would guess it impacts the fan base, too.

Finally, it has to be said that the sumo fan base in Japan is elderly. To appeal to new (younger) fans, they need some new faces. Yokozuna Kisenosato should show his leadership, and step down to start his life as a sumo elder. We are always going to love him, and remember fondly how he put everything he had into attaining sumo’s highest rank. But for myself, I think it’s time to encourage some long serving favorites to start working towards their exit.