After four days, 6 undefeated rikishi remain, with two of them facing off on Day 5. I’ll quickly run through the bouts involving the other four, as well as a few other matches of note, before moving on to the main event.
M15e Chiyonokuni, the lowest-ranked of the 4-0 group, is having a strong bounce-back tournament after managing a combined total of only 9 victories in the previous two. He takes on M13e Yago (3-1), who is off to a great start in his top-division debut.
M8e Kaisei (4-0) seems to be fully recovered from the injury that hampered him in Kyushu, looking more like the rikishi whose previous two tournaments earned him a sanyaku rank. In an intriguing contrast of body types and fighting styles, he takes on M10w Abi (3-1), who’s prevailed in 3 of their prior 4 meetings.
M6w Onosho shouldn’t really be in the undefeated group after being completely dominated by Aoiyama today, but he lucked out by a finger entwined in his hair. He’ll look to do better against the ghost of M5w Yoshikaze (0-4). Aoiyama, whose DQ dropped him out of the undefeated ranks, will look to take out his frustration on Ryuden (2-2).
Moving up the banzuke, M2w Hokutofuji (3-1) will look to bounce back from his first narrow loss today against M4e Kotoshogiku (2-2). Kisenosato’s intai should pull Kotoshogiku up into the joi rotation later in the tournament.
Undefeated West Komusubi Mitakeumi has looked like the class of the field in the opening days. He will seek to continue his strong performance against West Sekiwake Tamawashi (3-1), whom he has owned to the tune of a 14-2 career advantage, including victories the last 6 times they’ve faced off.
Ozeki Takayasu (2-2) came out strong and determined today following his senpai’s retirement. Tomorrow he faces struggling Shodai (1-3), with the career record favoring the Ozeki 7-3. The hapless and winless Ozeki duo of Tochinoshin and Goeido take on what have historically been difficult opponents for them—Shohozan and Tochiozan, respectively.
And in a really fascinating bout, Yokozuna Kakuryu (2-2) faces M1w Ichinojo (3-1). They have met twelve times in the ring, and Kakuryu won the last eleven. The lone victory for Ichinojo came in his breakthrough top-division debut, at Aki 2014, when, ranked M10, he went 13-2, defeating two Ozeki and a Yokozuna and claiming the jun-yusho. This performance earned him two special prizes, a promotion all the way up to Sekiwake, and the mantle of “future Yokozuna.” Ichinojo has not remotely lived up to it since, but this Ichinojo is starting to look like that Ichinojo, and if he can pick up his second-ever victory over Kakuryu, we can start to believe that his turnaround is for real. Kakuryu, on the other hand, can’t afford a third loss this early in the tournament.
The Main Event
Finally, and I honestly can’t believe I’m writing this, we have the highlight match of the day when the undefeated Dai-Yokozuna Hakuho, winner of 41 yusho, faces the likewise undefeated [checks notes] M2e Nishikigi in the musubi no ichiban, with at least a share of the tournament lead on the line. The two, unsurprisingly, have not met before.
Let’s review just how unlikely Nishikigi’s recent rise has been. He entered sumo in 2006, and took a full two years to work his way up through Jonidan. Two years in Sandanme followed (with a brief visit to Makushita), followed by 27 tournaments in the third-highest division before he finally made it into the sekitori ranks in 2015. After a year in Juryo, Nishikigi made his Makuuchi debut in May of 2016. He rose as far as M6 before dropping to Juryo in May of 2017, where he immediately won the yusho and returned to the top division. He spent the next 8 tournaments ranked near the bottom of the banzuke, with multiple narrow escapes from demotion. Most notably, just last March, he went 5-10 at M14, a record that led to demotion to Juryo in every one of the previous 40 instances since 1960. Nishikigi survived, hanging on to the final M17e slot, only because there were no plausible promotion candidates in Juryo to take his place.
Following a good but unremarkable 10-5 record at M12w in September, Nishikigi benefited from one of the greatest pieces of banzuke luck on record, vaulting to M3e for Kyushu. Everyone anticipated that he’d be completely overmatched at by far his highest career rank, but the rise to the joi seems to have transformed him. After opening the basho with four losses, he recovered to post an 8-7 winning record, defeating Ozeki Goeido along the way. This led to a promotion to M2e for Hatsu, where Nishikigi started things off by defeating two Ozeki and a Yokozuna before picking up a freebie when Kisenosato, his scheduled Day 4 opponent, retired, probably depriving Nishikigi of his second kinboshi. Now he takes on the greatest rikishi of all time. Will the fairy tale continue, or will the clock strike midnight? Tune in to find out!