Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 3: “They’re Certainly Not Going to Get Me in a Mawashi!”

Murray Johnson and Baruto
Murray Johnson with Baruto. Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

Welcome to the third part of Tachiai’s conversation with NHK’s Murray Johnson! I met the longtime sumo commentator on an afternoon in May, just before the start of this year’s Natsu honbasho in Tokyo, and we had a winding conversation which took in many aspects of broadcasting, current events in the sport, and our readers’ comments.

The interview has been edited only for clarity and length. Several of our readers’ questions are included in this piece, which touches on the potential and performance of several specific rikishi. As an editorial note: a couple tournaments have passed between the time the interview took place and now, but the points of view we considered didn’t focus as much on the specific moment in time that the interview took place.

If you missed the previous instalments, here are the links: Part 1 and Part 2. We hope you enjoy this piece, and return to the site for the final part of our conversation!

Tachiai: Someone we’ve talked about a lot, who’s now in the top division, is Enho. We’ve followed Enho and Tomokaze since their very first tournaments and charted their rise, which has been great: as you know, sumo predictions can make you look pretty foolish sometimes, so it’s always nice to get one right! Those developments have been super exciting, and we’ve seen some of the great lower division bouts from those guys as they made their way up. Andy has a related question for you: is there any desire or appetite to show exciting lower division matches, and to find that next Hakuho? As you mentioned, the next Hakuho’s in the sport somewhere.

Murray Johnson: Well as you probably are aware, the sumo highlights show doesn’t show all the bouts.

Of course, even in the top division.

Yeah. I’ve sat down with the boss and said, “look, we can do this!” He’s to’d and fro’d. I said, “well, you know, there are some lower division bouts that we should show!”

We can do the English voiceover of the bout, obviously in that situation, because (the highlight show) is done a couple of hours after the live show finishes anyway. So (the boss) is contemplating it. It’s also up to the director, who could be a fan of this guy or that guy.

It seems like focusing on more of those exciting matches is how you make new fans.

I’m just a part of the organization. I do have input, but by the time I get there it’s already been decided. (It’s) another thing in the works.

I hope it happens, but the trouble is, many Japanese don’t sit down and watch the Juryo division. It’s the die hards of sumo that watch it. TV could be on in a bar somewhere, or a cafe, and (people) watch it while they’re having a coffee. There are enough coffee shops or tea houses around Japan where plenty of people will be doing that, but that’s not our core audience. That’s a pickup audience that has a large number, but they’re not glued to the TV to watch an hour of lower division bouts.

Most people would be surprised: there are many dedicated fans overseas that know more about sumo than most people inside of Japan! Of course, they are dedicated to following guys in Jonidan and Jonokuchi.

We are, once again, governed by the Japanese show. When we do the recap of the Juryo winners, we’ll show a bout. It might not necessarily be an important bout, but they’ll show what they think is an important bout. We can’t say, “oh let’s show this one” – we’re on the same channel. Whatever the Japanese show’s director decides to show, we’ve gotta go with it (on the English show).

But the highlights show and the preview show, those are different. All of these heya visits done by Hiro Morita or Raja Pradhan, that’s our baby. John Gunning’s threatened to come back (on the dohyo). They’re certainly not going to get me in a mawashi!

Now that Hiro’s done it, it seems like they are working their way through the team.

I’m pretty sure that my senior card will not allow me to put on a mawashi! I’m the only one in the current group who has never been on the dohyo… well, not in a mawashi anyway.

A reader named Andrew asks: “Do you see any constraints on the widening of an international following of Japanese sumo?”

No constraints, other than the fact that people will be frustrated at the fact that they can’t see enough of it. NHK in particular is well aware of the growing audience, and they are bragging about it within the office to their fellow work mates: “look at what we’re doing!”

They want to go another step forward, but (for example) they have to argue with the guy who runs the science department (at NHK), who may say, “I’ve done a show on IPS Research and this is far more important to the world than some guy in a loincloth.” They’ve got to juggle their expense. I think the Sports division will be pressing to make sure that at least what some people are saying, they’ll try and cater for. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, or when that’s going to happen, but I know they’re well aware of it.

One thing I’ve asked NHK to do, instead of doing a preview show, is to have a Q&A roundtable with 4 or 5 of us: Raja Pradhan, Hiro Morita, John Gunning and myself. We would take questions from people overseas, or we would have our own questions to throw at each other. Like “why do you think I’m terrible,” and all that stuff!

I thought it would be a good opportunity. You get online sometimes, and people say “what’s happened to such and such,” and the question has been asked 3 posts previous. And the answer’s underneath it! 3 posts later someone asks the same question. That is a bit frustrating. Just look around, the answers are there.

Sumopedia has been a pretty good thing, I’ve done a lot of those (videos). One thing I say to people a lot is, “sumo’s not the sort of thing you’re going to learn in five minutes. It takes years, and enjoy the ride.” You will learn something new every day: “I didn’t know that,” or “I’ve been doing this for that long and I didn’t know that.” There’s always (new) stuff. 

Here’s a question from someone called Thomas: “Is there anything in particular in an up and coming wrestler that you see as a sign that they will end up being a mainstay at the top of the rankings in the future?”

They’re kind of the obvious ones. I think Roga is (a few) basho old, and he’s another Mongolian. He looks like someone who has a mind for sumo, if he can adjust his position. Hakuho wasn’t seen as someone who’s going to be a Yokozuna, he was a skinny little kid!

He was rejected by stables!

Yeah! But he could move well. And Roga is already using that wiggling of the hips move that is a winning move. Takanohana incorporated that in his sumo, look where that got him. And Asashoryu and Hakuho, and Harumafuji to a lesser extent.

I’m a little unsure about Hoshoryu. He doesn’t look like he’s going to put on a lot of weight.

He hasn’t so far. 

That could be his biggest problem.

Do you see him as more of a serious prospect than Naya? They frequently come up in conversation together.

I think Naya can be a serious candidate for Sekiwake or Ozeki. If Hoshoryu (doesn’t) put on weight, especially in the lower body, his calves, he’ll start looking like Abi.

If you look across the board, there’s probably some guy in there we haven’t even seen yet. I do watch the lower divisions, and occasionally there’s someone who bursts out of the block. I think everyone’s been saying that… but I think Roga is the guy I’d watch.

Going back to how Roga adjusts to situations: is that one of the key features in an up and coming rikishi? Not just the reactiveness or physicality, but to be someone who can read a situation and react to it, that makes you see them as being projectable? 

Most of them would say: “I’m going to do my sumo.” But sometimes their sumo doesn’t work, or doesn’t work against everybody. So, they need to adjust.

Mitakeumi is probably a good example of that in recent times. He was a pusher-thruster, and then developed some mawashi technique. His lack of intensity of his training shows him up when he gets into difficult situations. But he’s got that ability, because he’s developed his sumo, and I like that.

Takakeisho is a one -and-a-half trick pony, but it might be good enough. He’s strong and he’s smart. Whether he goes beyond Ozeki? I don’t think so. (There have been) not too many Ozeki pusher-thrusters of that height.

But if Hakuho drops out of sumo in the next year or two, sumo becomes a very different sport. Like now, we’re going to have a different winner every tournament, because Hakuho won’t be (a factor) at all. Kakuryu isn’t much longer for the mawashi I would think than the next 18 months.

Things will change. That could be for good. (Some) will say, “Oh, the authority’s gone, it’s like watching the B team when Hakuho disappears.” So for these folks who are just getting into sumo: Enjoy Hakuho. Once he’s gone, the “GOAT,” depending on what era you started watching sumo, will be gone. 

Staying in that stable, we have received quite a few questions about Enho. Corey Yanofsky says: “Does Murray think any of makuuchi’s current small men (Ishiura, Enho, and Terutsuyoshi) have the staying power of Mainoumi, or are they likely to be elevator rikishi, always bouncing up from and down to Juryo? With Ishiura we already have a bit of a track record…”

Yeah, Ishiura’s going to ride back and forth, he’s not going to stay, because he doesn’t quite have the technique. He has a lot of sideways movement, trying to get that inside grip, but is not (as strong at) his pushing and thrusting particularly, and he’s vulnerable for a decent slap.

Enho is a clever young man. His biggest issue will be injury. He’s already injured his right shoulder. He weighs under 100 kilos! The thing with Mainoumi is that he used to prepare for every bout. He and his brother would have a practise session the day before, for who he was going to fight and what he was going to do. It wasn’t every day, but he prepared himself for certain opponents. A lot of times, he was pushed out in the blink of an eye!

Mainoumi only ever fought at Komusubi and not successfully, but he was exciting to watch and I think all these guys are exciting because they’re small. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be greats. Enho will bring some joy to a lot (of people). He is fun to watch, the way Ura was. Poor guy (Ura), two ACL injuries.

It seemed like his weight became an issue, he added a lot.

He did put on a lot of weight. The style of sumo that he does, the bending of the knees at the edge, that sort of stuff is going to put more on the knees. Enho doesn’t do that kind of sumo, he’s more of a throwing (rikishi). It’s all upper body movement, it has to be. Great advice from Hakuho (for him) though: “if you want to be in sumo, what’s the point of coming here just to compete? You’ve gotta win.”

Who do you consider to be the most exciting prospect in sumo in the top 2 divisions [this is a question from Abi Fan which we modified as the answer was covered elsewhere]? We already touched on Roga outside the top divisions.

Within the top 2 divisions? I don’t think there’s anybody exciting. Enho’s exciting because of his stature and his movement. Abi is exciting at times, but equally disappointing. He can look like a Jonidan guy sometimes!

Do you think he will ever add a yotsu element?

I think he is what he is. His oyakata went to yotsu-zumo, and he was a failure (at that). Abi’s very light in the lower limbs, and he likes doing sumo the way he does it. It’s fun! He’ll just ride up and down the banzuke, but within the top division. I don’t think he’ll drop out of the division unless he gets injured, but he tries to stay away from that.

Yeah, I’d have to say Enho.

This is a question from Daniel Iliev: “Which of the two styles (oshi-zumo and yotsu-zumo) do you prefer watching, and do you think that one of the styles suits someone who’s trying to become a Yokozuna better?”

Yotsu-zumo does certainly (help make) a Yokozuna candidate. Whilst there are more oshi-zumo rikishi now than there were 30 years ago, the initial training in sumo is oshi-zumo. (Young rikishi) learn to push and thrust and keep people away, and then they go to the mawashi, and learn mawashi grips and mawashi holds, all the required elements.

You have to be able to do both. Usually, you can’t just be a pusher-thruster and become a Yokozuna. Even Akebono, who started out his career as a pusher-thruster, went to the mawashi. He was big, he could do that. Yotsu-zumo is required to become a Yokozuna in my opinion. Oshi-zumo will get you to Ozeki. It’s very difficult to be beyond that.

Is there a style that you find more enjoyable?

Not really. Some people don’t like oshi-zumo, people that have been watching it since the Chiyonofuji days. They say, “aww, that’s not real sumo.” But it is, it’s what they learn when they first start. The thrusting comes to that pushing sumo that they learn initially.

A lot of people don’t like the thrusting of (for example) Chiyotaikai, because it’s all over in a blink. They like to see chest to chest. But back in the ’70s, they didn’t touch the shikiri-sen either, (those rikishi) just stood up at the tachiai and grabbed each other!

To see a great uwatenage, or a great throw that has worked is exciting. But so is a dynamic thrusting attack that has someone on the move! I enjoy that.

Come back to Tachiai for the final part of our conversation with Murray over the coming days! [edit: click here to continue reading Part 4]

3 thoughts on “Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 3: “They’re Certainly Not Going to Get Me in a Mawashi!”

  1. I love that he brought up the Sumopedia. That is a great resource.

    “Most people would be surprised: there are many dedicated fans overseas that know more about sumo than most people inside of Japan! Of course, they are dedicated to following guys in Jonidan and Jonokuchi.”

    Definitely. My wife was raised two stops from Kokugikan. Her grandparents were huge sumo fans. She and her friends are continually amazed that I know more about sumo than they do because aside from the names of Yokozuna, it doesn’t really register for many. Sometimes I’m teaching them the Japanese words for stuff…and I don’t have anywhere near the mastery of the language as Herouth.

    The idea of going to a bar around here with sandanme playing on the TVs would be awesome. If the sport is to grow and be an international sport, it’s those bouts that connect it with the university and amateur level stuff.

    I like the contrast between the low-level newbies, learning that oshi-style, and young judoka who already have the grappling gravitas.

    • Heck – I would love to just see the sport get to the point in the states (for example) where there are a few izakaya you can go in most major cities to watch the top division(s) live with the NHK Premium feed! Azasu in NYC is one of these places – and that’s in literally one of the busiest parts of one the most populous city in America, so it works: https://tachiai.org/2019/07/29/scoring-a-kinboshi-at-azasu-in-new-york/

      But even at events like Sumo Stew, you’re seeing highlights from popular YouTube channels.

      Maybe there are more spots like that. I have a feeling that if I were to venture down to Torrance, for example, I could probably find a couple spots that might air it, maybe even earlier in the day since it is on quite late in America. Gotta dig deep (on the other hand, one needs to be there: I’ve been in Japan for most of the 75 basho days this year).

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