Ozeki Train Wreck Part 7 – This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things….

For some readers, you may not be happy with this post. Feel free to skip it – it’s Bruce’s opinion only.

Tachiai has been writing for at least 2 years about the trouble sumo has with kanban rikishi and injuries. When we first started, it looked bad, but we had no idea how ugly it would get at the end of 2019. We have 6 top division rikishi who are out of the the tournament, including 2 members of the OZeki corps, a Yokozuna and a handful of fan favorites. Some of these men are going to be out for medical treatment for months.

Worse still, the two remaining Ozeki are both hurt to the point where they are not doing sumo worthy of the rank right now, and are clearly degrading day after day of competition. I also suspect that Hakuho is banged up, but his ego will keep him in the tournament no matter what now. He knows the fans deserve to see the top men of sumo compete, and with Kakuryu out, it’s up to his leadership to show the lower ranks: no matter how much they hurt, that the top guy is willing to suck it up and compete.

The result? The sumo in Kyushu is thus far average at best. Even Hakuho hit the clay on day 2 against a delighted Daieisho. Where does this go now?

Kakuryu – I am sure the calls for him to consider resignation will start up again now. Last time he faced lower back problems, it lead to an extended series of kyujo absences that went on for 4 tournaments. That was when Kakuryu was 31, he is now 34. In broader context, I am expecting Kakuryu to try to stay engaged until such time as he can try to take up the Izutsu kabu, and succeed his Oyakata, which I suspect was Izutsu Oyakata’s wish when he passed away this year. This is a long shot for Kakuryu, but I would be delighted to see it.

Goeido – Once he went kyujo, he entered the traditional wall of silence that surrounds rikishi not competing during honbasho. But its known that he re-injured the ankle that underwent reconstruction in 2017. Now 33 years old, he is in a tough spot in orthopedic terms if the pins and screws that held that ankle together have come undone. Going into Kyushu, he was seen by everyone as the “stable one”, the foundation of the Ozeki corps for this tournament.

Takayasu – Its clear he’s still in bad shape with regards to his left arm / elbow. Everyone knows it, his opponents are exploiting it, and I would guess its getting a bit more injured every day he fights. Readers may note, that he was considered the next “hope” for a Japanese born Yokozuna, but the time for him to make that move was really this year. Now that his sumo is constrained by that elbow, those possibilities are now most likely lost. I find it a pity that Kisenosato’s promising understudy is now facing a similar outcome: an attenuated career due to an injury to his left upper body.

Takakeisho – Takakeisho was not ready to compete, we can now declare. While he has tried to bring his body back into fighting form, he’s not even fighting at Komusubi level now for most of his matches. Points for giving it a try, but now the question must be: what will it take for him to return to form? I worry that he’s not going to get that range of motion or power back from that damaged pectoral muscle, and this is more or less it for one of the most promising young rikishi in a while.

Tochinoshin – As we sadly noted on his ascendancy to Ozeki, Tochinoshin has been a glass cannon for years. When he is healthy he is unstoppable, but when he is not he’s a paper tiger, and it was really only a matter of time before that injured knee failed again, which sadly it has. He’s out now with a rib injury, which is quite debilitating, but the reason he was pushed down to Ozekiwake was that knee. With his withdrawal from Kyushu, he is now assured to plummet down the banzuke in 2020.

Yep, it’s a grim picture at the top. But what’s really going on here? We see injuries hitting the top division quite hard right now, and frankly for most of this year. Is it the jungyo schedule? Is it the training? Something is wrong in sumo, and some great competitors are paying the price. As a fan it’s heartbreaking, but we know that as our favorites succumb to injury, a new generation of heroes will rise. But will they face the same fate?

21 thoughts on “Ozeki Train Wreck Part 7 – This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things….

  1. This has been a hot topic of discussion in my house for a basho or two now. It is just injury after injury, and it’s making the bashos almost painful to watch. We just keep watching our favorites pull out, and wins coming from odd places as no one is facing a full lineup.

    I agree with you completely, something is broken and they need to figure it out.

  2. How can you not agree with everything Bruce says? It really isn’t an opinion piece. It is absolute and utter fact. Very very sad, indeed. You watch a young rikishi work and struggle and finally develop into a top division wrestler only to see, in seemingly a heartbeat, crippling injuries ruin him before our very eyes. Sumo wrestlers, by nature, I assume, must be a very fatalistic group of people,

  3. Great analysis Bruce. I told my wife last night now surprising the amount and extent of injuries in this hanbasho are. Superficially, I wonder if it’s partly due to timing being the last of the year, and after a year of relentless touring in between? That may play a very minor part, but as you say, it’s got to be more than that as it seams quite systemic. I just hope these lads, those left standing, and those injured can get some adequate rest and recovery by January.

  4. If we compared Sumo to an ENTIRE season of Football, we’d probably see more injuries in sumo during a 15 day Basho period vs an entire season of American Football.

  5. Sadly, lots of injuries and withdrawals are not a new phenomenon in sumo. But as some quantitative support of your point, of the 371 basho in the 6-basho era, 26 have featured 5 or more fusen victories, and three of those have taken place this year. The record, with 8, is shared by Nagoya 2002 and Nogaya 2005. This January is next with 7, there were 5 in September, and of course we’re already at 5 after only 6 days of Kyushu. This doesn’t capture sitting out the entire basho.

  6. Your comments don’t even include “lower level rikishi” like Ura, Ikioi, and Tomokaze. It’s one thing to just have the upper ranks dealing with a lot of damage. In reality, it’s a lot of damage all the way down.

  7. The jungyo period needs to be cut back and there needs to be a system put in place, similar to an injured list in baseball or American football, where sumotori are examined by doctors not connected to the JSA and banned from training or competition if their doctors determine they’re not medically fit to compete. 7-10 days for each jungyo period instead of one full month would be much better and easier on the sumotori. And if sumotori become injured then they should be banned from competition until cleared by a doctor, and they should not drop lower in the rankings if they’re unable to compete due to injury. Guaranteeing the sumotori his rank if he can’t compete due to injury would encourage the sumotori and his heya not to push his recovery too fast and cut down on repeat injuries.

  8. I suggested this a couple months back as a way to give injured rikishi some recovery time while still “encouraging” them to battle through minor injuries. Is there any chance the notoriously hidebound JSA could move in this sort of direction? I don’t think this is optimal, but I can’t see the JSA ever allowing for unlimited injury recovery kyujo without loss of rank.

    “I’ve been wondering whether a modified form of the old injury outage rule could work. How about this: At the start of their career, each wrestler is given one “major” injury exemption where he can miss up to 3 consecutive bashos without rank reduction and one “minor” injury exemption where he can miss up to 1 basho without reduction. Upon becoming sekitori, they receive one more major exemption. This allows a wrestler to get needed surgery and recover, but being able to go kosho a maximum of three times in their career prevents abuse.

    If a wrestler can begin by taking a minor exemption and the issue is more serious than they thought, they can switch it to a major if they have one remaining. They can even take them consecutively if it’s really bad.

    Example: Ura has his first horrible injury in Aki 2017, where he went 1-2-12 at M4. He went kyujo for the next five tourneys. Instead, he would use a major and minor exemption to miss 4 and then drop from M4 to M16 in his return. He maintains M16 until Hatsu 2019, where he tears the knee ligaments again. He uses his remaining major exemption to hold at M16 until September, when his 0-0-15 drops him to the bottom of Juryo. If he misses another basho, he’ll start 2020 in upper-mid Makushita, but that’s a heck of a lot better than Jonokuchi or Maezumo.”

    As Janelle said, jungyo also needs to be cut back some. How viable is it for them to both shave a few days off each jungyo, as well as put in some system so that each sekitori only has to attend 3 out of 4 tours? 2 out of 4 would be even better, but I imagine that it’d never fly with the JSA.

    Load management is being practiced by more and more sports; it seems like sumo must adopt something similar in order to provide quality competition.

  9. Bruce, yes agree with your description, and? Wrestlers practice the same as always, eat the same food, fight 6 tournaments per year, fighting styles haven’t changed and size, material and shape of dohyo is traditional. After years of stable sumo, we have a number of older and injury prone wrestlers at the top. That’s the period we are in. Give it couple of years and most of the 30 somethings will be gone and the problems will be different. It is what it is and it’s not the first time.

    • Part of the issue is likely due to the ever increasing weight of the rikishi, Every year, the weight average is rising, and that in and of itself creates health complications without even taking into account the brutal nature of the sport. Add to that the age of the top division, and it’s a recipe for problems.

      It’s been stated over and over again that the sport is currently in flux, as older rikishi are winding down their careers and beginning to retire. From what I see, sumo is a long-game type of sport- one basho is exciting, but with the constant vicissitudes of the current ranking system, it’s the overall arc of a wrestler’s career that is fascinating. Which makes me wonder if, after the elder sekitori finally step down, the new crop will face the same challenges in regards to health. I suppose a lot depends on whether we’re seeing new, younger faces or if opening slots in the upper divisions simply allows other, aged wrestlers the opportunity to fill the void. It constantly amazes me to see the upper limits of ages in divisions like sandanme and makushita. At 35, is it reasonable to expect to make it to the paid ranks if you’ve been stalled in lower makushita for the past decade? I can’t imagine so.

      It’s a complicated puzzle to chew over, for certain.

      • Try 25 rather than 35. A rikishi in his mid-20s who’s not already competing near the top of makushita is very, very unlikely to become sekitori later on. We do occasionally get late bloomers who first make it to juryo in their late 20s or rarely even after turning 30, but almost without exception they’re guys who were close to making it for a long time and just weren’t able to take that one last step.

        That being said, there are more reasons than just “still dreaming of the big time” for a rikishi to stay in sumo. Some like the camaraderie. Some have become an important part of the support network for a steady sekitori as his tsukebito, or help run the heya (as head cooks, managers, player-coaches). Some don’t have any idea what else they’d want to do with their lives. Some just love doing sumo. Any probably dozens of other reasons.

        In any case, I agree with Hokutoaussie’s take. Rehashing the situation every couple of basho may feel satisfying, but I’m not sure what it achieves. A generation of top-rankers is aging and their physical states are somewhere between deteriorating and completely broken; it’s not going to change now, no matter how often or by how many it is being lamented. The additional injuries among younger rikishi are, sadly, just business as usual. Sometimes they come back (Endo, Tochinoshin back in 2014), often they just fade into obscurity. Who here remembers or has even been around long enough to know the kind of expectations fans used to have for the likes of Kyokushuho, Chiyoarashi or Chiyonokuni? Or somebody completely gone such as Masuraumi?

  10. I think it’s more the who than the number. Murray addressed this on Friday’s broadcast. Having not totalled the numbers up myself, I was pretty surprised that actually, 2019 has seen 5 less kjuyo than 2018 (so far!), and actually 25% less than 2017 (the record year)! So in that sense, probably they can argue it’s getting better. But it didn’t address the duration of the kyujo, or how that might have been skewed by the number of Yokozuna absences.

    The even more damning thing for me right now is that – Takakeisho aside – look at someone like Mitakeumi who will now in all likelihood have to restart his ozeki run, and is doing more damage to himself every day by likely fighting with a head injury while jumping back up on the dohyo. Injuries will always catch up with older veterans, but it’s starting to have an impact on the folks who were meant to be the future stars, which is why the 30-somethings are still in those advanced positions on the banzuke to begin with.

  11. I think that the jungyo issue needs addressing as the number of dates has gone through the roof in the last decade. I counted 78 days of jungyo exhibitions in 2019, not including traveling days. Four times a year the guys finish a basho, then, with zero recovery time they hit the road for four weeks: that’s not sensible. How about 3 tours of 2 weeks each?

  12. I know you were focusing on the top ranked rikishi, but the most distressing injury of all this basho, in my opinion, is the one Tomokaze sustained. Here is a rikishi who shot up to the jo’i with 13 straight kk, and only suffered a slight setback at 7-8 his first time at M3. And now he’s going to miss about a year of action, which means at least another year to get back into the paid ranks. And if he does make it back, he’s going to have a significantly weaker knee. It’s all very sad.

    I don’t know of another professional sport that does so little to protect it’s top athletes. Surely something has to change. Oh wait, sorry, this is hidebound sumo. Nevermind.

  13. I was of a mind to agree that jungyo should be reduced but I think that’s less of a problem than it seems. What really matters is that injured rikishi be free to sit out jungyo and recover. We always see them making returns mid-tour, presumably because they are under pressure to make appearances for PR. Simply cutting down jungyo days won’t make a difference if all that results in is a day less here, two days there. That won’t help rikishi who need to rest up for a period of time. They’d have to cancel entire tours to give rikishi a chance to recuperate. But then the question is … when? Cancelling the spring tour won’t help someone who gets injured in the autumn. Thus the only reasonable solution is to genuinely give rikishi time off between basho to get healthy. It’s not as if jungyo are THAT important. Honbasho bring in the money.

  14. Maybe the wrestlers could unionize and thereby collectively bargin for their needs? Seems the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL have all done so to positive effect…and fans still pay…

    Maybe there should be a labour action…force the hand of the Sumo administration and its apparatus?

    I’m recent to sumo, and I love watching with my son, but the more I see it’s hard not to feel like there is uncompensated exploitation going on…

    • Are you under the impression that there’s somebody in Ozumo who is pocketing huge profits at the expense of the wrestlers? That is not the case.

      • Of course it’s profit driven. Are you saying that moving to 6 bashos a year or continually adding extra jungyo dates is driven by anything else? It’s not NFL money or anything, but that extra money is going somewhere.

      • Of course it’s about money. Chris Gould nailed it. The longer the star rikishi hang on, the more money comes in the door. Many rikishi probably keep wrestling long after they should retire because they need the income themselves, and they feel guilt about leaving the stable short an income earner.

  15. Sumo needs to adopt best practices from other high impact sports in order to survive in the modern world. They need to get on board with the most up to date rest and rehabilitation practices or this will continue to happen, and how then do they acquire new recruits? If I were a young fellow, would I choose baseball, soccer or sumo? By the end of a sumo career, one is a physical wreck!

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