Hello dear readers, with the Kyushu Basho now behind us, I wanted to share my opinions on sumo and 2020 with all of you. Those of you who think I can be a big gloomy, feel free to skip this post. I do see these as honest, rather than gloomy. I maintain that the future of sumo is awesome, but the transitional period will be new for sumo fans who came to the sport in the Asashoryu / Hakuho era. Simply put, we have been in an anomalous serious of stability and dominance by a handful of top performers. As that has given way, it’s sometimes anyone’s guess who will show up genki, and who will be competing for the cup by day 10.
I think the first thing that has really not been much of a topic anywhere was the ban on social media that took hold just before the basho. This came about from the NSK due to a video posted on the internet by a top-division rikishi. I am 100% it was done in good fun, but the NSK was in no mood for the outrage mob to once again take aim at Sumo. As a result, all rikishi were banned from posting to social media. Why does this matter? To anyone younger than 35 (and some older), social media channels are a vital and important part of any activity they enjoy. It would be as if the NSK had suddenly declared that TV coverage would no longer be allowed.
As a result, the chances of sumo finding favor and following in Japan are diminished by the action. In the present age, sumo needs all the fans it can get (maybe more on that later). But it seems to be part of a broader overall pull-back from visibility that seems to be a theme with the NSK. The format of sumo makes it a challenge to follow at times, and reducing the interaction rikishi have with the public (say, isn’t that the point of the jungyo?) really will hurt the sport over the longer term. Ideally, the NSK would have someone aboard who actually “gets” how things work now that the Edo period is some 140 years in the past. Maybe like some former Yokozuna who was excited to bring new ideas and new media into the sport. Nah, let’s throw that guy out. He’s bad news. Rocks the boat. (Yes, I am grumbling about Takanohana).
While the NSK is trying to ignore social media and streaming, in hopes it will go away, they are facing a business problem of the first order. They are in the entertainment business, and their stars are not performing much of the time. As a result, we get a basho like Kyushu. I credit everyone who stayed in, or gave it all they had before they were just too injured to continue. I do NOT fault the rikishi. In my opinion it is the sole responsibility of the sumo elders to manage their talent, and ensure that the best possible roster of competitors is ready for their media events. That means Honbasho. That means the best rikishi fighting fit and ready to compete.
Instead we get day 15 torikumi that features a die-hard Yokozuna, and a recovering from brutal injury Ozeki. This is not their fault, it IS the fault of the sumo elders. They have constructed a system that grinds these guys up, and provides no mechanism to keep them healthy. Yes, its a combat sport, and people get beat up and hurt. For some, that’s part of the attraction of sumo. But when 4 out of 11 san’yaku rikishi are out due to injury by day 10, you have a problem managing your talent. While folks may insist that people still show up, the still sell out the Kokugikan, all is well, I would point out that these systems are large, complex and the path between stimulus and response are full of lag and complexity. Actions today that limit the sumo eco-system may not manifest themselves for a year or two. I promise you, its going to hurt their bottom line by this time next year. And the last thing I want to see is for sumo as sport and a global phenomenon suffer.
But know that it’s only going to get worse. I think 2020 is a year we lose at least 1 Yokozuna and 1 Ozeki. Both Yokozuna will turn 35 in 2020, and for both its clear the cumulative damage is starting to keep them out of the action more frequently. People rightly point to Hakuho showing up damaged and still claiming a 14-1 yusho. I will point out he only completed 3 of 2019’s 6 basho. If we expand that out to 2 years, he’s sat out all or part of 7 of the last 12. He seems to be carefully managing what he has left, and I applaud him for that. But as I posed in the comments this week – I wonder which young up and comer is going to be the one who convinces him its time to hang up the rope. I dearly dearly hope we never see Hakuho in the giant wheelchair.
Much like Kisenosato, I do harbor hope that Hakuho will realize this, and own the evolution that must happen soon. Do it with pride, dignity and in the way an unassailable champion should exit. Do it while you are still on top.
But as much as I hope the old guard will sunset with style, I can’t help but look the the future with a great deal of excitement. Kintamayama added quite a few comments about Abi to his video’s this November. I would guess that Abi has many detractors on the sumo forum, which is a shame. To me, especially this basho, he’s starting to remind me a bit of Akebono. I loved Akebono’s sumo.
And who could help but love what Asanoyama is doing? The guy loves sumo, and every day he steps on the dohyo seems to be a happy day to him. Each basho he’s a bit stronger, a bit harder and a bit more skilled in his sumo. I predict this guy is going to be the man to beat a year from now.
Mitakeumi? I know that some fans find him a grave disappointment. He has two freaking yusho! The knock he took on the head on day 3 really put him at a much lower energy level, and you could see him struggle with balance, coordination and motor activity. I do hope they had him checked by a neurosurgeon, as he was showing classic signs of concussion.
Lastly, maybe the Grand Tadpole, Takakeisho. He had only 9 wins against a middling crew at Kyushu. I am impressed that he was able to reach kachi-koshi with his pectoral muscles still not quite right. Please note we did not see even one wave action volley from the man. Many people may wonder about that day 15 match with Hakuho. After grabbing Takakeisho’s mawashi, I am sure Hakuho knew for a fact there was nothing that Takakeisho could do to escape, or even really counter whatever The Boss was going to do next. But I think he was trying to see if the young Ozeki would try. I too found myself hoping he would muster the gall to attack in a position where he had no chance of victory. But given his partial recovery, it was probably best that he just rode it out.
In spite of what some might consider an odd basho, with a spate of injuries, the rikishi that managed to compete gave us quite a few excellent matches. My hat tip to team pixie, and also to (not kidding here) Shodai. Please do keep it up, we are grateful for you stepping into the gap when the others can’t compete.