Here we go, sumo fans! We’re less than 24 hours away from the start of the 2019 Haru basho. I’ll be joining the action live from Osaka later in the week, and in the meantime am here to help bring the coverage of Day 1’s action.
While this tournament marks the final basho of the Heisei Era, we enter Haru well into the current transitional period between the era of sumo that was and the era of sumo that will be. As friend of Tachiai John Gunning notes in a recent Japan Times feature, the current period of sumo may feature less notable rivalries than in the past, although that doesn’t necessarily mean any less intrigue.
Three of the last four and four of the last seven yusho champions have been first time winners. Will we see a return to the dominant Yokozuna performances of old, another step forward for one of the newly minted superstars, or yet another debut yusho?
What We’re Watching on Day 1
Chiyoshoma vs Shimanoumi – As lksumo noted in his preview post, here’s an opportunity for Juryo yusho champion Shimanoumi to eat the Kokonoe man’s lunch and prove he deserves to be in the top division. Shimanoumi is visiting from Juryo for the afternoon to make up the numbers, with Chiyonokuni predictably kyujo from Day 1. Sneaky trickster Chiyoshoma narrowly clings to the bottom of the Makuuchi banzuke for Haru, after a series of underwhelming tournaments. He has not been relegated since making his makuuchi debut, so it’s a big tournament for Chiyoshoma. This will be the first match between the two men.
Daishoho vs Yutakayama – The first of the three makuuchi debutants, Daishoho gets his first match against Yutakayama, who has struggled mightily from last September onward. Yutakayama won their only previous matchup, back in 2016. Yutakayama will want early wins to stop his backslide, but Daishoho may well see this as an early opportunity to get his first true top division win and an early visit to the interview room.
Ishiura vs Kotoeko – Ishiura makes his top division return against a rikishi from whom he leads the career series 3-1, having defeated Kotoeko thrice with a variety of tricks. Ishiura’s opening fixtures don’t seem to provide much in the way for henka opportunities (though he’s proven us wrong before), so hopefully we will see some good, low, body-to-body sumo from him early on in this basho. Kotoeko is searching for his first makuuchi kachi-koshi on his third attempt and while he has displayed flashes of good sumo, not much of anything to show us he’s going to be able to consolidate a place in the top division. This is another good early matchup for two guys to prove they belong.
Terutsuyoshi vs Toyonoshima – Terutsuyoshi gets his makuuchi stripes against a man making his 974th appearance in the top division. Toyonoshima, of course, has also just been promoted after a two and a half year absence from makuuchi, and he will be sure to receive an enormous reception from the crowd as usual. Both men – despite their wildly different body shapes – are very capable of mixing in a variety of styles so this should be an entertaining match. Toyonoshima has won both of their previous encounters, which took place in the previous two basho.
Tomokaze vs Kagayaki – We started following Tomokaze not long after his entrance to the sumo world, and his ascent to this point – his top division debut – has been startling. The Oguruma man has lost just 21 matches, suffering no make-koshi, on his journey all the way from jonokuchi to makuuchi. The pusher-thruster has been starting to develop other techniques in recent basho, and gets “Fundamentals” Kagayaki in his makuuchi debut. The 24 year old is on a 4 basho make-koshi streak that he will be looking to snap, but if Tomokaze can get the pushing attack working and keep Kagayaki’s somewhat awkward physique high, he’s got a good chance of winning this. Going out on a limb, I’d give Tomokaze the best chance of the three debutants to grab a special prize this basho.
Yoshikaze vs Meisei – A good chance to see what the berserker has left in the tank, against an up-and-coming Meisei who’s doing a good job of consolidating his top division position. Should be a mawashi match.
Ryuden vs Yago – According to Herouth, Yago’s motivated to speed ahead of stablemate Tomokaze en route to san’yaku. I have a feeling he might get passed. He’s going to be a makuuchi mainstay but has seemed to struggle for stamina at times. Ryuden seems to have less issues with longevity and more with technique. This match feels a little early in the schedule for me – if it were in week 2 you’d say it might have some say in determining who gets kachi-koshi. It’s their first ever meeting.
Shohozan vs Ikioi – It’s the 14th matchup between these veterans, with Ikioi leading 8-5. Ikioi may have taken the mantle from Yoshikaze of “most likely to bleed all over everything” in recent basho. Shohozan hasn’t displayed his all-action brutality in recent months but this is probably the one match on Day 1 most likely to resemble a street-fight (with Aoiyama-Abi perhaps second). This probably hinges on what condition Ikioi is in to start the basho but if he’s genki then I’d make him the slight favorite.
Sadanoumi vs Kotoshogiku – Not a whole lot remarkable here… Sadanoumi has done a good job maintaining his position since rejoining the top division, while in Kotoshogiku’s decline we’re just waiting for the long-teased Toyonoshima matchup. Kotoshogiku leads this one 4-1.
Asanoyama vs Takarafuji – Asanoyama leads the series 2-1 from the veteran Little Uncle Sumo. This should be another good mawashi battle, and could (hopefully) be a prolonged match as I feel both men have tended to show more defensive tendencies recently.
Aoiyama vs Abi – Body parts will fly. If Abi has added any yotsu to his game, we’re not likely to see it here, as Aoiyama’s piston powered oshi-action will be in force to keep the tall Shikoroyama man away from his mawashi or any other grabbable body parts. This seems likely to end with Abi dancing around the edge before Aoiyama either slips and falls or Abi goes flying into the shimpan.
Okinoumi vs Onosho – Onosho, who has been wildly inconsistent since returning from injury, somehow leads this matchup against the wily vet 4-1. This will be a contrast of styles. On form, Onosho would be the easy favorite again but he needs to start displaying the consistency that has eluded him in recent basho if he is to rekindle the rivalry with the likes of Takakeisho that will excite sumo fans. This is a good opportunity to put down a marker.
Chiyotairyu vs Ichinojo – A new element could be discovered from the force created at this tachiai, assuming Ichinojo doesn’t just stand up and take the hit. The Mongolian ice-cream enthusiast leads the series 5-3 from Tokyo native Chiyotairyu, and needs a good start if he’s going to reclaim his position in san’yaku any time soon.
Tochiozan vs Shodai – Another lopsided score, with Shodai having won five from six against Tochiozan previously. It’s probably a cliche but this comes down to the tachiai and whether Tochiozan gets a winning position straight away, or whether Shodai recovers from his standing position to defuse the veteran. It seems like this would be a more even matchup as Shodai has faded a bit from his early, more hyped days and I’d pick Tochiozan for the “upset” this time.
Nishikigi vs Tamawashi – If Nishikigi, whose very position on the banzuke has been a shock, is to spring yet another surprise, there’s no better chance to start than against the reigning yusho champion on Day 1. Tamawashi has won all 4 previous matches and will be the extreme favorite, but we’ll see early whether he can put the wins he needs to put on the board before having to defend his title against the likes of Hakuho and Takakeisho. Nishikigi tends to want the mawashi which is not Tamawashi’s game, so I’m looking for this to be a quick one in favor of the veteran Sekiwake, should the Isenoumi man miss a chance to land a grip.
Takakeisho vs Myogiryu – This is exactly the kind of early match against an overperforming veteran (albeit one much beloved and with a surprisingly large fanbase) that Takakeisho needs to win in order to assert his claim for a successful Ozeki push. Myogiryu is a seasoned rikishi who is comfortable fighting in a variety of styles, but has lost to Takakeisho on all 5 previous occasions. Myogiryu is a fairly high intensity rikishi so it should also give us a good sense of Takakeisho’s fitness after his foot injury at the end of the previous basho.
Tochinoshin vs Daieisho – On paper this is a mismatch, with Tochinoshin up against a smaller pusher-thruster fighting at his highest ever rank. Tochinoshin leads the lifetime matchup 4-1, and Daieisho seems to get thrashed every time he enters the joi, but Tochinoshin has been susceptible to pusher-thrusters in recent months as he has battled for fitness and often been unable to land or use his signature left hand grip. The kadoban Ozeki can’t afford to lose this though, and if he did it would be a major shock.
Endo vs Goeido – This is the tenth matchup between these two, and a match that should get the crowd into a frenzy as national icon, ladies’ favorite and brand partnerships darling Endo takes on Osaka native Goeido. The Ozeki leads this well-matched series 5-4. With questions over Yokozuna fitness, Tochinoshin being kadoban, the two Sekiwake overcoming different ring-rust issues and Mitakeumi also coming back from injury, Goeido may have a wide open shot here. Endo won’t be an easy customer but if Goeido wins here it could give him the confidence to go on.
Takayasu vs Kaisei – If you’re Kaisei, this match is probably a “free hit” in that at M1, these aren’t necessarily the matches you need to win to hold your position or even move up into san’yaku. Takayasu, like Goeido, is probably the other rikishi you could make a clear tournament “favorite,” although it’s yet to be seen what his renewed practise with the former Kisenosato will have done to tune him up. What is for certain is that the huge Kaisei isn’t likely to be moved by Takayasu’s signature shoulder blast, so this could be an early endurance test for the Ozeki. Look for a good facial expression from Kaisei in the wake of this one, win or lose.
Mitakeumi vs Kakuryu – Question marks abound in this battle between two historically evenly matched stars (the Yokozuna leads 5-4). Mitakeumi is in extremely questionable condition, while Kakuryu needs a strong basho to fend off questions about his ongoing position after recent withdrawals. Mitakeumi almost never fails to spring a surprise, but I’m backing the Yokozuna to get an important opening win here.
Hakuho vs Hokutofuji – Look, Hakuho in the musubi-no-ichiban is what just feels right. Hokutofuji makes his san’yaku debut in the most horrible way, against the record yusho winner, and will be determined to spring a shock (he’s beaten Hakuho once in four prior matchups). Realistically, we need to see 15 days of the best fitness possible from Hakuho, but 80% Hakuho is still better than almost everyone’s 100%, so it’s impossible to say he won’t be a challenger – he is still the heavy favorite here. His recent success has come when successfully deploying a game plan set to defuse the strengths of his opponent, so it will be curious to see what he has prepared to take on the Shin-komusubi.