Hello Tachiai readers, and I hope all of you are enjoying the festive holiday season. The Japan Sumo Association delivered the Hatsu banzuke for Christmas, and it was full of potential for a fantastic tournament in just over 2 weeks. While most of the world takes a year-ending breather, what could be a tumultuous January tournament lurks just around the corner.
Yokozuna Kisenosato’s posting to the 1 East slot is the first surprise. While he entered the Kyushu basho in November, he failed to win a single bout before he pulled out of the tournament citing an injury. We have written extensively about the tragedy that is Kisenosato’s tenure as Yokozuna, and in the past we have forecasted that it would become increasingly farcical if he chose to try and gamberize his way through things. But a “zero win” promotion has to be one of the more farcical things I have seen in sumo for a while.
None of the three current Yokozuna are presenting as blazing examples of genki power at the moment. Each sat out part or all of Kyuhshu, each have some lingering injury that is hampering their performance. None of them participated much in the Fuyu jungyo, either because of their injuries, or wisely conserving whatever health they had mustered for the January tournament. Could we end up with a second straight “nokazuna” tournament?
The Ozeki ranks also have their worries, with Goeido being the most banged up of the bunch. Only Takayasu seems to be in fighting form as we close out 2018, with Tochinoshin a potent but fragile rival.
But just past the Ozeki ranks, we find the upstart challenger. After blasting his way through Kyushu and scoring his first yusho, it’s Takakeisho who is at the Sekiwake 1 East slot. It’s tough to tell how much impact the promotional appearances and awards ceremonies will have on his sumo, but I expect him to show up strong and dominant from the start. His youthful vigor and stamina may give him an edge over the experience and boundless skill of some of his higher-ranked opponents for January. He comes into Hatsu with a string of kachi-koshi tournaments: 13-2, 9-6, 10-5, 10-5. For those keeping count, with 11 wins at Hatsu, he could be considered for promotion to Ozeki.
Mitakeumi finds himself still in the San’yaku, but in dire need to regroup, reorganize and reconnect with his sumo. He has been a “Future Ozeki” for a while, and should Takakeisho bypass him and reach sumo’s second highest rank, it would either be a source of frustration, or a stiff motivation to elevate his sumo to the next level. That’s an evolution his fans (myself included) have been looking forward to for a couple of years.
Further down the banzuke, it’s kind of interesting to see how many long-serving veterans are in the joi-jin for this tournament. The problem with that is that many of these rikishi are towards the end of their careers, and the cumulative injuries and problems mean that they struggle to perform consistently. I would include in this group: Tochiozan, Shohozan, Kotoshogiku, Okinoumi and Yoshikaze. This would mean that it is possible that the joi may give up a lot of white stars to the named ranks, giving someone an easy path.
Then there are a handful of rikishi that I think are worth some excitement. This would include Nishikigi, who against all expectations was able to earn his kachi-koshi at Maegashira 3, and finds himself at Maegashira 2. This guy really is a bit of a Cinderella story, and every time he wins, I cheer. Hokutofuji has struggled with injuries and stamina issues during tournaments, but he has sound fundamentals in his sumo, and few specializations that give him an exciting fighting edge in any match. Aoiyama has all of the pieces needed to be an upper ranked rikishi, but between injuries and what I can only guess might be “jitters” in some matches, he falls a bit short. He’s making another run towards the top now, and we wish him a solid tournament. Then there is Onosho, who seemed in November to still be recovering from his summer injury and reconstructive surgery. While his friend Takakeisho has become a driving force in sumo, I personally think Onosho is the stronger rikishi, and has greater upside potential. I am looking to see him continue to improve over November, and I think Maegashira 6 is a great rank for him this time. He is outside of the joi, and he will fight a lot of hit-or-miss vets who may struggle with his speed and energy.
With the table set, fans around the world are counting down the days to the start of Haru. The rikishi will begin to train in earnest starting in the next few days, and we will be following the workup to Sunday January 13th with eager anticipation!