A Surplus of Almost

“Close doesn’t count – except in horseshoes and hand grenades.” – Jim Kaat

There’s a rhythm in sumo, you know. Famously a so-called zero-sum game, a meritocracy, where the rankings get redrafted every 8 weeks or so on the balance of wins and losses. It has an element of both predictability and unpredictability: you know that this guy will get promoted and by about how much and this guy will get demoted and by about how much.

Except at the top end. At the top end, you need to demonstrate sustained dominance. You have to have to be a winner, you have to be a killer. You can become enormous, you can become skilled, but you need to demonstrate consistency and the mentality that’s required of winners. “Close” doesn’t count.

These are strange times, you don’t need me to tell you that. Most of us would be happy to watch a basho regardless of which 42 guys composed the top division. But there’s a serious issue hanging over sumo right now that is only going to get more and more murky with time: the current Yokozuna are only fit for action about half the time. Their dohyo health is declining as both men have entered their 36th year and have about 2500 (official) matches on in the ring between the two of them. That’s a lot of mileage.

The problem is, they might have to keep going for a while.

Yes, I know it’s possible to have sumo without a Yokozuna. No doubt, someone’s furiously beating their fingers into bloody stumps doing SumoDB queries to shove all of the great Nokozuna moments that yielded great new champions right back into my face. And yes, I also know Hakuho’s going to have to take the reins of what’s presently called Miyagino-beya before August 2022 when Miyagino oyakata is forced to retire, and Kakuryu’s probably playing out the string until his own citizenship developments allow him to pursue similar work.

But: transitional moments between eras usually came with a newcomer stepping up (or in the process thereof) who would dominate: it was clear. It was clear Takanohana would emerge the next star after the Chiyonofuji-Asahifuji-Onokuni-Hokutoumi era. Asashoryu only spent THREE basho as a rank and filer as he rocketed to the fore after the Waka/Taka-Akebono-Musashimaru era. It’s been Hakuho ever since, with sidekicks of various tenure alongside.

Those are just the recent examples. But in this moment, it’s unclear. Most sumo observers will fully expect Asanoyama to be the 73rd Yokozuna. I expect it, you probably expect it, we’ll probably get an NHK preview show in the next few days where we find out they expect it as well. He’s the best of the current bunch right now, but he’s has further steps to take.

There’s no question Asanoyama is a hugely talented rikishi. But he needs more arrows in the quiver. While he is not totally uncomfortable to the extent of a Tochinoshin in oshi-zumo, it’s clear he also relies heavily on a right hand inside/left hand outside grip. Yotsu-zumo techniques are an overwhelming majority of his wins and when you look at his losses, in the oshi-zumo category you’re seeing the names you’d expect (plus Hakuho): the Abi’s, the Daieisho’s, the Tamawashi’s, the Hokutofuji’s.

These are the names of the joi-jin you have to beat with consistency, and the names of the rikishi who stand between his current level of a reliable 10-12 wins and a champion level of 13+ wins a tournament. Oh, and by the way: you have to start not reaching that level, but in consecutive basho.

I said in the recent Tachiai podcast that Asanoyama’s debut basho as an Ozeki was a success. It was, especially in light of other recent Ozeki performances, and I don’t think any of the above commentary detracts from that. The problem is, the inability of those behind him in the banzuke to deliver has meant we now hope for more from the new top Ozeki.

Behind him, there are promising scenes, but also much of a muchness. Any one of Shodai, Mitakeumi, Daieisho, or even Endo, Hokutofuji and Terunofuji of the immediate challengers can put enough together to mount a run to become the new Ozeki. But none of them have displayed either the consistency, health, mental toughness, or technique (or in some cases all four) required to become serious Yokozuna candidates. We’re still waiting to see what the generation behind them is really made of at the top level: the Kotoshohos, the Kotonowakas, the Hoshoryus. It will be some time until we can develop real expectations there.

And the problem is, while we all love an underdog story, every Maegashira 17 yusho means we look even further down the line for the next great champion. These are great moments, heroic moments, great for the sport, the rikishi, the supporters and the stables. The flip side is that each of these moments trashes a rope run, an Ozeki run, a chance for someone of great expectation to make their next step.

The expectation is that in seven days’ time we are going to see a basho with no Yokozuna grand champion, no dohyo-iri, no great pageantry, no storied legend who electrifies the room the moment they walk down the hanamichi. Don’t think for a minute that Asanoyama, Shodai, and Mitakeumi don’t know that this is their moment, that no matter how many times we say “they may never get a better chance,” they really may never get a better chance.

But now it’s time to deliver it. Close doesn’t count.

25 thoughts on “A Surplus of Almost

  1. I fear Asanoyama has that awful position of the next one. if he beats Hakuho in a basho “well it’s only because Hakuho was old and broken down”. If he gets to Yokozuna but Hakuho’s absent “well he never really beat Hakuho when it mattered”. And even if he has reasonable amounts of success “yes well Hakuho had 44 wins, Asanoyama’s not that good really”.

    The next one is a cursed place.I personally think he will be the next Yokozuna, but I expect to hear people made these yes but’s about him for the next 10 years.

    • Yeah, I take your point. It’s unfair to compare anyone except the very best all time greats to Hakuho. In fairness, I don’t think anyone looks at the achievements of Harumafuji and Kakuryu (or to a lesser extent Kisenosato), who became Yokozuna after Hakuho and during his reign, in a lesser light because of that. If anything it’s possible to make the argument that they might compare favourably to Chiyonofuji’s supporting cast and the end of his career (a group that’s also full of some of the more prestigious names atop today’s Kyokai).

      Likewise, someone like Akebono is never going to be compared to Chiyonofuji, even though he was on his way up the division when Chiyonofuji grabbed his final yusho. I think it will just be a different era post-Hakuho, and the hope is that like that, if it’s Asanoyama, he and whoever comes up with him are able to define the new post-Hakuho era the way that those defined it after all timers like Taiho and Chiyonofuji.

      • I like this article very much! Hm, you did not mention Kiribayama at all; you don’t think he was what it takes?

        • I wouldn’t put him in a category with Asanoyama or Mitakeumi right now, no – those guys have been competing consistently at the san’yaku level and won championships.

          I’ve been very high on Kiribayama in the past, both on the site and in podcasts, but like a Hoshoryu or whoever, it’s just too early to have a good understanding of his ceiling. He’s on the one hand saying he wants to emulate a Harumafuji, while then making bonehead tactical moves like going chest to chest with Takarafuji. He needs a lot more top end makuuchi development IMHO against opponents M5 and above.

          It’s important to remember though that Harumafuji spent a few years as a rank and filer and a couple more adjusting to san’yaku before he made the big jump. It’s not unreasonable to think Kiribayama will make (at least) Ozeki, but I think it’s also fair to give him the benefit of a few years before that might happen. By which point, Hakuho and Kakuryu will be long gone.

      • I actually think Asanoyama is a (kind of) repeat of Akebono. Akebono was the one who inherited the field when the Chiyo-Ono-Hokuto-Asahi era ended (not Takanohana. He was a bright young newling when he caused Chiyonofuji’s retirement, but he took a couple of years more after Akebono to get into the “close doesn’t count” zone). He was a good wrestler and a good Yokozuna, but not really dai-Yokozuna (despite 11 yusho – the number is necessary but not sufficient). I think Asanoyama may walk the same path. He will become yokozuna, but not in 2020, and maybe not even in 2021. He will fill the void. But he will probably be outshone by somebody else. Maybe Hoshoryu, maybe someone younger like – I don’t know – Hokuseiho or Hagiwara, or even someone who has not entered Sumo yet.

        I think, however, that we have a problem similar to global warming here. Talent in sumo is dwindling. It’s a long term process. People move to other sports. Mongolia’s economy is improving and young people are less likely to be prepared to endure the sort of stuff the great Mongolians of the past were willing to endure – and also join in at later ages, with at least a high-school diploma (which Asashoryu also had, but he was a kind of trailblazer in that respect). Other third-world countries are not showing tendencies to supply youngsters. That maezumo ichiban-shusse photo which floated recently, showing three Yokozuna in the same generation of recruits (Waka-Taka-Akebono) is very unlikely to repeat itself.

        Like having been able to ignore the changing climate for quite a while (some still deny it), we are feeling the effects but are still trying to draw comparisons to history even though the conditions are changing. Part of it is dismissing it with “every generation thinks the youth of today are no good”. But in truth, the lack of dominance, the fact that the Emperor’s Cup is passing from hand to hand like a hot potato, that the ranks of Ozeki have not produced a yusho in 3½ years, that being Ozeki is no longer a a job you have for many years and then retire… These are all indications of failing talent.

        After all, there is no vacuum in sports. Somebody will always win the cup even if the whole field is comprised of Hattorizakuras, even if the winner is decided by the toss of a coin in every match. A large number of yusho winners, a lack of real differentiation between the elite and the less elite other than age – they are all indications that we are closer to coin tosses than to what the sport should look like. A sport with a large enough recruitment base will include enough gold nuggets to cause the coin to be unfair. With a low recruitment base, no gold nuggets and a very “competitive” but boring, uninspired performance.

        • You write this at a moment when it is 43º C where I am so I am intimately familiar with that analogy!!

          I fully agree with you about the part that Asanoyama may have to play – which even so, would be a raging success. I think the hope, because of a lot of what you describe at the end regarding the coin toss yusho, is that he gets there sooner than later. I’m also really happy that you embrace the nuance of the Akebono analogy. I think what held me back from fully presenting that is that, Akebono in a lot of ways ushered in an era of its own, especially with his style, his background, as a real trailblazer to the Yokozuna role who brought sumo to a wider audience. People can say “how dare you compare what this guy is doing to the great so and so!” Beyond being the man in the place at the time to lift the USA Trophy in front of the global cameras (which was less about the rikishi and more about the cup), Asanoyama’s part culturally as well as in the sumo landscape is still very TBD and likely not going to be anywhere near on that scale even if he does become a 10-yusho Yokozuna.

          The other thing I fully agree about is the level of talent coming through the ranks. I don’t think that’s just because a guy like Kitazakura decides to accept all comers before his wife decides to feed them bad rice. The declining population, the rise of other opportunities even for Japanese in a globalised market, and potentially poor levels of coaching and certainly awful levels of injury and health care contribute to it – you get bad development and early retirements at every level.

          I guess it’s hard to know who is predisposed to becoming a good coach. It’s hard to be able to propose a talent development system for young rikishi that isn’t a massive change to the way sumo is traditionally run, which in many ways is more of what sumo… IS. But when you have so many dead or dying heya seemingly run by folks who aren’t interested in bringing the future along, it puts you in the place we are now and it’s the kind of thing that could take a generation to change. Isegahama and Hakuho can’t be the only leaders with a scouting and production line. It’s shocking to see 8 coaches at Kasugano and only 1-2 prospects of any note in the whole heya.

        • Failing talent, or failing bodies? Using your climate change metaphor, have we reached a runaway greenhouse effect where mass exceeds a muscles’ ability to stay attached? Tochinoshin, Terunofuji, Kisenosato, Kotoshogiku, Ichinojo, Takakeisho…even Mitakeumi, even Ura. The game seems to be adapting to slaps and hatakikomi…running and hiding instead of grappling and throwing. Hakuho had amazing skill but his durability was remarkable. It is very hard to compare skill across time but it would be amazing to pit Hakuho against Wakanohana I or Tochinishiki. I’d take Hakuho any day.

    • Hakuho’s streak gets discounted because of the lack of quality rivals. If Asanoyama has those rivals in Takakeisho, Mitakeumi, Shodai, Daieisho…he’ll bring about a new Golden Age.

  2. thanks for spotlighting this
    less elephant-in-the-room feeling, now that you’ve thrown it out onto the table

    as to possible solutions, would we place a bet on asanoyama, shodai, or mitakeumi improving enough to consistently give us the feeling of a chiyonofuji, or anything close to such a feeling?
    all three provide good bouts at times but we are looking at different calibres, neh?

    the unending kisenosato ordeal makes clear enough what happens when extra ‘support’ is there,
    but the fighter just doesn’t have enough stuff
    poor ozeki showings for years, same- too often more flower sumo than real contests

    the coming authentic powerhouse looks far more likely to be from the next cohort you mention, especially hoshoryu
    needs more practice and weight but one can see the fire in him that the rest are lacking

    • I wouldn’t place that bet, simply because you’re talking about probably one of the three best rikishi in the modern history of the sport in Chiyonofuji. I agree though that all three of Asanoyama, Mitakeumi and Shodai are different calibre and with different ceilings.

      I look more at where you come out of the Chiyonofuji era, can any of those guys – or whoever the next Yokozuna is – replicate the achievements of even a Wakanohana or Akebono, who emerged in the years following the end of that era? I think, post-Hakuho and before the next big dominant Yokozuna, it would be respectable for the next 1-2 Yokozuna to have 5-10 yusho careers where they are at least constantly at the top end of the arasoi, if not necessarily winning every time. This might even be a bit disrespectful to Akebono who could have won far more titles if not for Takanohana.

      The important thing to remember about Kisenosato I think in context of the current crop of up-and-comers and especially the most recent group of Ozeki, is that he was a very good and consistent Ozeki – maybe not inspiring, maybe not able to deliver titles, but also never in kadoban trouble and reliable for good technical sumo. Sumo needs this just as much as it needs new Yokozuna.

  3. Man, it’s sad when I think back exactly one year ago.
    Asanoyama had his ‘fluke’ yusho, but I was not fully convinced he could make the next step.
    So back then, I would have bet on Tomokaze as the next Yokozuna for sure. I my eyes he was (still is?) the prospect with the highest potential I saw in years.

    But I am also strange, in that I often don’t see what is apparent to others. Like how I still thought nothing of Asashoryu, even as he posted double digit win records as a Komusubi in a 10 men Sanyaku field. ;)

    • I was very, very high on Tomokaze from the start, but a little nervous about how – before his injury – he started to abandon his pushing and thrusting attack in favour of pulls to try and eke out cheap wins. There may have been something mechanical going on, but it looked like he was low on confidence.

      He’s going to face a long, long road back from his serious injury.

  4. That was a very insightful post, with excellent comments. It truly described the current situation.
    My only additional comment is that it can’t be very helpful knowing that the GOAT can rest up for a basho or two then reappear to beat you when you are still recovering from the previous one, not to mention jungyo, In theory it shouldn’t matter, a rising star should mop up the opposition when Hakuho isn’t there, but I/m not sure that motivation and self-belief work that way. I don’t think you can succeed by aiming to be second best.
    Until one of the contenders truly believes that he is better than Hakuho (as he is now, not as he was) and backs it up on the dohyo, I don’t think we will see them producing yokozuna quality sumo.

  5. Can team tachiai host a Jason’s sumo channel style contest? Pick 5 wrestlers from selected ranks and compete 4 most wins? Its pretty simple and a lot of fun

  6. It’s hard to say anything certain about the future of sumo during a time like this. If anything were to change the sport in meaningful ways, maybe it’s the pandemic. Injuries definitely seem to be the leading cause of rising stars not reaching their potentials. Could there be permanent changes, such as less jungyo, that would help keep wrestlers healthy and thus keep talent rising?

    • I can see the jungyo coming back in a different or reduced format compared to what it was in previous years…. but as many of our interviewees have pointed out on this site, it’s not only an important revenue source for the kyokai but also an extremely important recruiting tool. So they’d need to solve for both of those problems.

  7. The problem is this: to get to yokozuna a wrestler must, at least in the short term, be able to dominate the competition. It’s a measure of relative, rather than absolute performance. Put me into a makuuchi division with 41 pacifist sloths and I would make yokozuna in no time, despite being 54 years old and hideously out of shape (if I donned a mawashi facemasks would be worn over the eyes, by law!).

    Now let’s look at five our potential next big things. Asananoyama, Takakeisho, Shodai, Mitakeumi, Daieisho. Is there any real hierachy here? Everyone’s favourite Asanoyama is lifetime 5-7 vs Daeisho, 2-5 vs Mitakeumi, 4-3 vs Shodai and 4-3 vs Takakeisho. That is not dominance, in fact it’s less than 50%. The truth is that there is really very little to choose between any of these guys. They are all very, very good, but not good enough relative to the opposition to make yokozuna anytime soon. And none of them are kids: they might improve, but they aren’t likely to improve that much from this point.

    I don’t want to go harping on about this (pats self on back for a Sadogatake pun!) but I see stacks of ozeki potential, and nothing more. But there is always Terunofuji…

    • It’s a fair point. However I think you also reinforced my point about his exposure to oshi-zumo… with the exception of Shodai, all of those guys’ strengths is Asanoyama’s known weak spot. But to your point, relative to the rest of the makuuchi pack, I think on balance he’s stronger and certainly more consistent than them. I think that’s what gives him the inside lane to Yokozuna at the moment, but he’s got to learn how to consistently deal with those types of practitioners.

      The problem is, to your point, if you’re no more than a 50/50 shot against the 4 guys immediately behind you, it makes the odds of losing no more than 2 to them and none to anyone else (a pusher thruster like Hokutofuji, for example) in consecutive basho quite small.

      But I think that improvement is one step. The other guys all have more problems IMHO.

  8. It seems hasty to lump Shodai, Mitakeumi, Endo, dieasho, Hokutōfuji, and Terunofuji all together as Ōzeki only runners. And I feel you must agree partially (at least on the grouping together aspect)by the later comment about Asanoyama, Shodai & Mitakeumi needing your know they must seize the opportunity now.

    Terunofuji May yet be Yokozuna worthy if his body holds out. He’s demonstrated past top level consistency, skill, power, and ability to handle yotsu & oshi opponents. I know the knees are iffy.

    Mitak & Shodai need to show consistency, but have skills and power;no innate weakness to Yotsu or oshi, and have proven durable. I remain biased on Shodai as he’s one of my favs but his methods/timidity/reactionary style prevent injuries and that is a huge part of consistency and success in this sport.

    Meanwhile Hokutōfuji, Daieisho,& Endo all lack a little more. I think we’ll see D & E push each other farther given the vivid rules as the tachiai team so eloquently highlighted in your recent podcast.

    Daieisho is quick and powerful but lacks technique and depth of strategy. He doesn’t match to takakeisho who has sustained despite injury but also seems unlikely to climb.

    Endo suffers from the opposite, at times easily overpowered or out sped. I love watching Endo but he needs to become stronger, faster or even better at reactionary sumo. If he can gain power without losing a step or a bit of skill, maybe he can climb beyond his semi permanent M1 spot.

    Hokutōfuji is the new Tamawashi. Tamawashi light. And the fact that the new batch of top wrestlers are, imo, gonna keep him at K at the highest for a long period speak to the new joi jin’s overall skill level. We’ll lose Hakuho, but rikishi like Hokutōfuji will still be kept at arms length from Ōzeki or Yokozuna.

    • Not saying they’re the only candidates for Ozeki or indeed that that is their ceiling. Just saying that they are the likely next group to provide the future Ozeki, and have all of them have struggled in one way or another to display a combination of the consistency, health, technique or mentality required to get there. Looks like we came to a similar conclusion!

      • Yes, that makes sense and yes it appears we are on the same conclusion.

        I think I’ll refrain from trying to comment on my phone from now on as it comes out a bit messy and typo riddled. :)

        Was just trying to express my opinion (and hope) that Asanoyama, Shodai & Mitak don’t waste their skills and shot at more.

        I enjoyed the read BTW.

  9. Fantastic post, Josh – thanks for adding it to the blog. If you would have asked me 3 years ago, I would have said that the smart bet was we would be down to 0-1 Yokozuna at the moment, and the mad war to evolve to a higher level of performance would be on at full throttle. But the old guard is proving impressively resilient. A nod to Okinoumi at the Komusubi East slot, and some other long serving regulars hanging tough in the Maegashira ranks.

    With Aki possibly being No-kazuna, it may add to the surplus of “Almost”, as I think there are multiple rikishi who are going to make a strong case for the yusho. It’s not about how capable Asanoyama, Mitakeumi or even Terunofuji are going into the 3rd act of Aki, it’s if any of them can consistently start winning yusho, which is what it takes.


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