Tunnel at the End of the Tunnel: A Glass Somewhat Full Opinion

Hands up if you’d like some wins – photo by @nicolaah

Look, let’s not bury the lede: I think Hatsu was one of the poorest honbasho in recent memory. And the recent worrying events around Coronavirus and the “will it/won’t it happen” predicament of future tournaments (imminent or otherwise) are somewhat detracting from the sport’s actual issues.

Most storylines entering the Hatsu basho were reduced either to non-events (Hakuho defending the Emperor’s Cup entering the final year of his career), or damp squibs (Takayasu’s ozekiwake challenge, Goeido in kadoban, Tochinoshin and Mitakeumi’s rebound attempts). Furthermore, the top division is worse for the injury-inspired losses of recent (Wakatakakage, Tomokaze) and less recent (Ichinojo) talents.

The best sumo of the last tournament may have been displayed early doors by Endo, a thoroughly enthralling victory over Hakuho that led to the dai-Yokozuna’s early exit from the tournament. While I joked with the other Tachiais on Sumo Twitter™ that an Endo yusho would be the worst thing for those of us who like to buy tickets to sumo (owing to the revelation in our recent interview with BuySumoTickets that it was Endo’s top division promotion that inspired the dearth of recent years’ ticket availability to begin with), the sumo world would have been better for a sustained title challenge from the Oitekaze pinup. Instead, the wily technician’s trademark inconsistency reared its head and a string of losses knocked him from the race.

Are there silver linings? Yes. But until Tokushoryu burst into tears on the dohyo on Senshuraku, it was a struggle to conjure them up. Takakeisho’s consistency at the thick end of the yusho arasoi bodes well for at least one san’yaku man’s longterm standing in the game. Those who thought Enho would struggle against top division opposition have been proven wrong – not only is he adding excitement but racking up scalps against san’yaku rikishi and consistently challenging for a kachi-koshi. And down in Juryo? I’ll hold my hand up and admit I never saw Terunofuji coming back, at least not like this. You can argue with the sumo, but it’s hard to find fault in the results.

As for Shodai, his delight at winning matches flies in the face of the stoicism that the game demands. He’s worked hard over the years at making himself difficult to love, so it is good to see him loosening up. Can it continue? I hope so.

The problem we now face is that, in an era of transition, the transition can’t actually take place if the new stars aren’t able or willing to take the place of those they are charged with deposing. The ozeki corps as we knew it have now been almost completely destroyed. At least one if not both Yokozuna are ready to mount up for their final sunset.

Andy recently covered some potential Ozeki runs, but at the moment, while I respect and am quite honestly jealous of his boundless optimism, it’s looking like a grim year. I’d love to be proved wrong, but while Asanoyama is technically on an Ozeki run now, I think it will require a another tremendous improvement from him in Osaka off the back of his OK performance in the Hatsu basho, and Natsu may be the earliest that he can realistically punch his ticket to sumo’s penultimate rank. As for the other candidates, I think we’re looking at 2021 as the moment when wheat will be separated from chaff.

In the meantime, the maturity of Takakeisho will be tested – because the spotlight will be firmly on him. Whatever we get from the two Yokozuna is great, but we know now not to expect anything. Takakeisho has to deliver. His fitness has proven to be a bit of a question mark since his Ozeki promotion, and he has at times had to grind out results. It’s been four years now since we had a truly great (or even good) Ozeki worthy of the rank, so the Chiganoura beya man’s cementing of his position with a steady succession of 10 or even 12+ win tournaments would be a much needed victory for the sport as a whole.

With sumo being a zero sum game, there has to be a light at the end of this transitionary tunnel. That light should signify a new emerging star. At times, it’s felt that that light is in fact a train coming to blast a Tomokaze or Murata into a devastating period of kyujo and that at the end of the tunnel there’s only another tunnel. Promising prospects like Naya and Hoshoryu haven’t been able to get it together yet, Yago lost it, and Mitoryu may not have had it. Somewhere in one of these waves there has to be hope: the smart money is on Kiribayama and Kotonowaka to make serious inroads in 2020.

People have different reasons to follow sports. I’m interested in the stories and the narrative. I’ll be in Osaka whether or not there’s a basho, and where Hatsu fell short, I’m hoping – if not expecting – to see a return to the story arc that makes sumo so compelling.

37 thoughts on “Tunnel at the End of the Tunnel: A Glass Somewhat Full Opinion

  1. A bit on the gloomy side, but fantastic write up, full of insight and cutting but correct analysis. I think Takakeisho is being regulated by pectoral injury, and he will struggle with it a bit longer. I also think that Asanoyama is still not quite ready yet. I think it comes down to who he has to work against. Right now the potential big rivalries are not forming up. These rivalries will drive the next champions, but when we have a basho like Hatsu, its tough to see anything other than a mass of “could be” talent.

    I still say we sunset one or two Yokozuna this year, and we get at least one new Ozeki.

    • I think your point just piles on the need for Takakeisho to establish consistency in spite of those injuries. For him to be a kadoban ozeki limping across the finish line – or worse yet losing his rank again – would be a disaster. A nozeki situation isn’t really on the cards when the Yokozuna are both readying (one maybe more vocally than the other) to turn in their rope. That said I think Kotoshogiku is probably still likeliest to be the next big name intai having taken his kabu back, which obviously won’t impact the current ozeki.

      I tend to agree with you regarding Asanoyama, I haven’t quite seen enough yet. But I do wonder whether he gets an easier ride in the current circumstances, especially if Takakeisho struggles and/or Kakuryu goes AWOL again.

      Endo/Shodai is kind of looking like the rivalry that never was – with them both in san’yaku together I’d love to see that really happen if a bit belatedly. But Hokutofuji/Asanoyama/Takakeisho could be a good mix for the next 2-3 years – those are the matches I look forward to the most now.

    • The Yokozuna will survive through to 2021 only with artificial resuscitation. That is, they will be given kyujo lenience because of the lack of Ozeki.

  2. I know most people don’t believe it a possibility, but J League just postponed all matches till mid march,

    So there might be a real risk of the Osaka basho being affected. I agree with most what you say, but not with the fact that Endo is related in ayn way to the shortness of Tickets. It’s all on Kisenosato(and to a lesser extend Takayasu). Natsu basho in 2017 was the first one that got sold out so quickly (in 15 minutes or so). After that they also stopped the sale at the ticket booth in front of Kokugikan. It wasn’t such great PR back then to have people lining up at the kokugikan for hours where the sales started at noon, while the online sales started at 10am and not a single ticket was left when the ticket booth opened. It has become slightly better since, but weekends are still a lottery.

    • Hey there Savaros – thanks for the comment. You might want to check out the feature with the BuySumoTickets folks that I linked if you haven’t yet: https://tachiai.org/2019/10/31/tachiai-interviews-buysumotickets-there-arent-enough-sumo-dates-in-the-year/

      I actually quizzed them about this when we spoke, because I also thought that the Kisenosato promotion was the catalyst for ticket sales. But for folks on the ticket market, they told me that it was easy to get virtually any ticket you’d want before Endo’s promotion, and that’s when things really changed in terms of availability. Of course, Kisenosato’s momentus promotion only moved the needle even further. I agree it was easier to get A ticket through the NSK before that, but not necessarily ANY ticket, which was a key distinction (since of course not everyone wants to sit in Arena C if they don’t have to).

      We’ve definitely been kicking around the Osaka debate on Twitter. I’m slated to be there on Day 2, and am very much hoping that A) everyone can stay safe and healthy and B) that the show will go on :)

      • If being able to get any ticket is the breakpoint here (I would be somewhat curious, if that was really true for the ringside seats), thats obviously a different matter. However I still remember being able to show up on a weekday and buy same day tickets in 2015 in Tokyo (and I think I never had anything other than Seat A). Also went with about 10 guys where we had box seats together (not sure if it was B or C). Those were great times. In 2010 I could just walk up to the venue on a weekend and had plenty of choice. 2015 was a great year. Other than Nagoya I visited every basho and I think I watched about 10 days of the Natsu basho alone ;)
        Endo probably had some influence or maybe it was just some coincidence that enough time had passed after the scandals.
        While I’m strongly convinced that tthis insane scarcity got caused by the Kisenosato’s promotion, I think that ticket resellers also play a big part. I just wish they would personalise sumo tickets and completely cut out resellers.

        • If it was Kisenosato, don’t you think ticket sales would dwindle after his intai.

          They haven’t. It really has nothing to do with Kisenosato.

          And you can still get same-day tickets. Those were not available for advance sale, they are not “leftovers”. In Tokyo, they are going to cut down the number of same-day tickets by 100 starting Natsu, though. Kisenosato, though, is gone.

          • As a matter of a fact I had no problem to get tickets for the January tournament in 2017 and may was sold out in 15 minutes with the ticket server not being accessible for about 2hours. The 15minutes have later been reported on tv, the 2h I can personally confirm.
            Kisenosato has triggered that huge spike in public interest in sumo. That doesn’t mean it has to dissapear with him.
            Ura became quite popular in 2017, Takayasu had a Yokozuna run in 2018 and Kisenosato actually resigned in 2019, which neatly tags along with the emergence of Enho as a crowd favorite. Starting in 2018 we had Yushos by Mitakeumi (twice), Takakeisho, Asanoyama and ofcourse Tokushoryu, all Japanese and a fresh Japanese Ozeki in Takakeisho. In all likelihood, looking at the top of the banzuke, the next Yokozuna will probably be Japanese too.
            Once you got people hooked to sumo again, they don’t run away so quickly again, but it often needs some sort of trigger and the trigger was Kisenosato becoming a Yokozuna. There was such a huge spike in media coverage and that dragged on for quite a while with all the injury coverage.

            • 100% agreed with Savaros’ various comments in this thread.

              “It really has nothing to do with Kisenosato”, my goodness.

        • I understand the concept around ticket personalisation, and it’s something that a lot of sports deal with. It’s tricky when I want to go to a european football match – tickets are hard to get so a lot of times you have to get them from a season ticket holder, who is then liable for your behaviour.

          As regards sumo, the reality as a foreign fan is that resellers like BST are a huge part of access to the sport. Other resellers of course exist as well. Ticket Oozumo is a really poor service, the site is unreliable and the sumo association can choose how many tickets they want to hold back, how many get distributed to the various heya, chaya, etc and so on. The ticketing system and the cadence of the event is so far from traditional sporting events which makes it in some ways a blessing and some ways a curse.

          • The problem with resellers is that often times they hugely inflate the prices, also box seats are sold separately and stuff like this. If a services charges 10% or 20% maybe even 30% to arrange your tickets, that would be acceptable, but resellers often double the price. I have seen 4 or 5 times the regular price for weekends and they are actually part of the problem why ticketing websites become hard to access. A lot of people/bots who never have any intention to go to the event produce traffic and compete with those honestly interested.
            I agree that Oozumo Ticketing is poor, but at least its available in English now and the actual process of picking up your tickets at a 7 Eleven or Family mart is quite convenient.

  3. I thought much the same. Hatsu basho was not very exciting and I watched some of the days very partially. It’s a strange situation. It’s like the whole sumo world is two levels below what it was only 3-4 years ago, and nobody really cares or has the talent and health to break through. Everything is lethargic.

    The Terunofuji thing may be a result. If the current sekitori were better, the man would probably have been struggling to get a kachi-koshi. The same may be true for Enho.

    My main story for Haru is whether Hakuho will be able to do a comeback after that devastating, unprecedented loss. Kitanofuji said it’s going to be a psychological blow, and that if it happened to him, having been a much less decorated Yokozuna, he would have wanted to quit. I feel that unlike previous ‘oops’ moments, this one may have been a turning point in the rusting dai-Yokozuna’s career. He may be relieved if the basho is cancelled.

    But of course I may be wrong and he may come back and do one of his zensho-yusho and stick his tongue right back at Endo. Hakuho is nothing if not unpredictable.

    And if the only thing I have to look forward to in the next basho is how Hakuho will do, I’m in real trouble, as I’m not a Hakuho fan, and I need something else to engage my interest.

    • Or maybe after a few years of paying more than casual attention to sumo you’ve simply reached the point where the initial excitement with everything has worn off.

      And the level of competition in juryo is currently quite good, thank you very much. If you think Terunofuji had an easy ride last basho, I shudder to imagine what you’d have made of juryo 10 years ago.

  4. I have none of the expertise of the other posters here but I’m thinking that if this basho gets cancelled it could be the best thing to happen. All the rikishi get a chance to heal up and rest up and come back like gangbusters in May. It would be worth waiting for.

    • That’s only if you believe that time heals all wounds. The problem in most cases is that they don’t undergo necessary procedures because they know they will require lengthy rehab. Now, if they knew the basho was to be cancelled right when they got injured, they could perhaps schedule an operation then and taken all this time to rehab. But as it stands, they get rest, but those with physical damage stay damaged.

  5. It is water long under the bridge, but I wonder whether some of the powers-that-be now wish that they’d found a way to discipline Harumafuji in a manner that would have kept him on the dohyo.

      • It wasn’t that long ago that people were making similar comments even about Asashoryu. Truly flabbergasting attitude, as though there’s no physical decline in that alternate universe where either guy never got ousted.

    • The decision to retire wasn’t forced on him by the NSK. He didn’t want to retire and though there was a way he could get away with it. The YDC would probably have kicked him out if he didn’t, but the one who told him to retire in what the Japanese consider “no uncertain terms” was the head of the Isegahama Koen-Kai (support group). They are the guys who pay the heya’s budget for reals.

      In any case, it would not have mattered in the current situation. Harumafuji is a year older than Hakuho and had serious issues with his elbows. If he didn’t retire in that situation, I think by 2019 he would have been gone anyway.

  6. I started watching Sumo around just before Kisenosato got promoted and was bless watching sumo in a era with 4 Yokozunas. I’m not sure it will happen anytime soon.

    So what happened to the Banzuke if one or both Yokozuna retired and Takakeisho remains the sole Ozeki or worse lost the rank?

    I read that there must always be 2 Ozekis on the banzuke and that means even marginally result may get a rikishi promoted to the 2nd rank. But what happen if even relatively lenient criteria yields no worthy candidates?

    Personally, regardless of the gloom, I am fascinated to see how things play out in the months and years ahead.

    • I agree with you, and thought that the peculiar state-of-play created an exciting basho at Hatsu. If one’s focus is on individual performances in individual bouts, then there is much to be excited about these days.

  7. “I think Hatsu was one of the poorest honbasho in recent memory.”

    I have been watching Sumo since 1996 and I couldn’t disagree more..
    It was an interesting, entertaining, surprising basho even if the Sanyaku’s performance was rubbish. there were many many memorable moments and very good battles.

    I woul rather see a basho like this Hatsu basho was than another Hakuho yusho that is already decided on day 13.

    • I have to agree with this perspective. Nothing is less fun than a predetermined outcome, and when it’s just a small handful of rikishi sharing out the Emperor’s Cup, where is the anticipation? The surprise? Maybe it’s an unpopular opinion, but I like watching this flux in the sport, where the old guard are clinging by their fingernails and the new boys are struggling to establish themselves. For me, the appeal in sumo are the long-term storylines- the career arcs of individual rikishi, the overall trends in style and the influence of foreign wrestlers, etc etc etc.

      Sumo is a sport like no other, and I think in order to appreciate it best we have to also appreciate it at its messiest. And a little chaos can sometimes be good. If nothing else, think of all the higher-ranked rikishi with pricked prides over being defeated by the makujiri. You have to hope it lights a fire under some of them.

  8. “Sumo is a zero sum game.” This is the most common sentence in every analysis article, but I get the feeling it is still not fully taken in by some.
    Because it cuts both ways. The moment the competition drops in quality (like arguably now) is the exact moment ‘above average’ becomes great by default!
    That is why situations like ‘less than two Ozeki/Yokozuna’ never happens, somebody is going to win enough to qualify almost automatically.

    So, for example, if we say that Hakuho and Kakuryu will only be there a third of the time, then we also have to say in the same breath that Asanoyama becomes the second best fighter in sumo.
    I know it is hard to swallow, but he will absolutely not “require another tremendous improvement” in the coming bashos! Just show up and repeat your past performance and you wake up Ozeki.
    Retroactively, people will claim to see big an improvement in his mentality or whatever, like they always do.

    Takakeisho never needed to “integrate yotsu into his style” to stand on the top now and be the favorite in every basho this year.

    Same goes for all the other hopefuls. This notion that they are not ready yet is laughable, because it implies an objective reference frame to judge them by. Like one could actually say that they have to have this good a technique, versatility and mental strength in order to become Ozeki.
    But that is just not the case. The only condition one has to achieve, is that there are fewer than 3 or 4 sumotori higher up the banzuke that are actually better than you and that is it. Because sumo is a zero sum game…

    • I see your point, but the problem is that at the top end, you need to not only be second or third best but also to do it consistently – them’s the rules.

      For sure, anyone can gravitate up to san’yaku by being in the mixer for much of the basho. But right now the top talents in some cases (Takayasu, Mitakeumi) aren’t even capable of putting up back to back winning records – which is kind of important to become an ozeki.

      Sumo’s still a zero sum game if everyone goes 8-7 and 7-8 every other basho. The problem is that that doesn’t separate out the great rikishi from the good rikishi, which is what you need for them to ascend to Ozeki and Yokozuna status. Just because the competition drops in quality, that doesn’t mean that the next wave of talents on the cusp (e.g. Asanoyama, Hokotofuji) automatically are going to get their 13 and 14 wins. Otherwise we would have seen it this time. No ones going to become a Yokozuna with a 12-3, 9-6, 11-4, 7-8 string of performances (ask Goeido).

      So in that sense, my point is that sumo being a zero sum game will for sure create some of the gravity that pushes someone towards the top. It creates the conditions during which someone can take the next step (much harder when Hakuho was winning every tournament). But even though that should give us hope, or be the light at the end of the tunnel, the reality is that really, no one is displaying the performance to take advantage of that right now.

      • “…the reality is that really, no one is displaying the performance to take advantage of that right now.”

        Sorry to come of as pedantic, but your last sentence is exactly what I disagree with.
        There is no ‘performance to display’!

        Shodai, Takakeisho and Asanoyama where the best three sumotori last basho (Tokushoryu opponents were 85% non-yoi, so I exclude him).
        The basho before it was Hakuho, Asanoyama and Takakeisho.
        Before that it was Mitakeumi, Takakeisho and Asanoyama.

        Asanoyama is already ‘performing to take advantage’ of the situation.
        With Goeido/Ichinojo/Tomokaze gone and Mitakeumi/Takayasu in a slump he would get a 11-4 or better if he just repeats what has done the last three times, no ‘next step’ required…

        • Asanoyamas last 5 tournaments were 12-3 (Yusho) at M8, 7-8, 10-5, 11-4, 10-5. So while fighting the top guys he had exactly once the number one wins he consistently needs to be promototed to Ozeki, which would be 11. He lost to Endo in all 3 of the last tournaments and twice to Shodai, but in the last tournament alone he also managed to lose to Abi and Tochinoshin (both having abysmal tournaments) and Enho (who had a good tournament, but whom an Ozeki has to beat). This is exactly the inconsistency he has to overcome. so far unfortunately he hasn’t. And that is exactly the problem with all the candidates … they are too inconsistent until now, losing too many matches they should win.
          I think you are right that they don’t need to add another level to there game. They just need to perform consistently and that is probably the mental step you mentioned before.

          To be honest, I also don’t see Takakeisho the favorite in every basho. Maybe there are still some underlying health issues, but the last two tournaments haven’t been that convicing. Contender yes, favorite no.

          • Ozeki promotion criteria is not fixed for a reason. When there is a shortage of men in the rank of Ozeki/Yokozuna (and 3 is low), then the bar get naturally lowered.
            Plenty of sumotori got promoted with a 31 or 30 win record in the past.
            So, losing against Endo/Shodai is not pretty, but absolutly not prohibitive.

            • This is fair enough as a theory but even in the current climate and regardless of any Yokozuna kyujo/intai, I have a hard time believing that the NSK will look at Asanoyama as both “the automatic second best” if he were to end up with 30 over 3.

              In all of the recent promotions, quality of win was spoken of frequently as being a factor regardless of the final tally.

              • He’s currently at 21 over 2. Sure, 9 wins next time out won’t get him promoted, and 10 is highly unlikely to, but I’d say it’s even money if he gets 11, and highly likely with 12.

      • You’re overstating Hakuho’s role in keeping down the next wave of rikishi. His presence might have been relevant concerning yokozuna promotions (but even so three rikishi made it during his tenure…), but for an ozeki run he still only constitutes 3 out of 45 matches and 3 out of 12 “allowed” losses. And even winning all three of them against an ozeki hopeful, how much better than an average yokozuna is that, really? One win? If that’s the margin between somebody becoming ozeki or not…

        • That’s a totally valid point. I think sometimes I sort of refer to the era of Hakuho dominance as if it is the responsibility fully of Hakuho himself, and that’s a bit misleading from me. I do think though it’s fair to suggest that Hakuho’s dominance did inspire the likes of his rivals at the time of his post-Asashoryu dominance to raise their level however – and that combination is not especially something that is present at the moment. You are totally right that Hakuho would be 3 out of 45, but when you go back 4+ years and consider a more fit and youthful Harumafuji, Kisenosato, Hakuho and Kakuryu would have been ~12 out of 45, and that some of the recently deposed ozeki also would have been formidable, I think it shifts the calculus.

          Recently pretty much everyone O and above has been consistently unfit (with moments of genius here and there), and I think that’s kind of the indictment against the crop just below that haven’t shown the ability to break through. The wins from higher rankers disappearing aren’t automatic as we know.

          • It’s fairly impressive that Takayasu broke through against a reasonably formidable slate of Hakuho, Kakuryu, Harumafuji, Goeido, Terunofuji, and Kotoshogiku. His 34-11 over 3 basho included 10-6 against that group. And of course he didn’t have to face Kisenosato.

  9. The knock against Asanoyama is inconsistency, as Josh says. He loses bouts he should win. In the last basho, he had 5 losses (Abi, Shodai, Enho, Tochinoshin and Endo, for the third time running) His one quality win was against Takakeisho. I agree with you that there isn’t an absolute quality standard to become an ozeki, but I do think that a new ozeki should have clearly separated himself from his peers, and Asanoyama hasn’t done that yet.


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