I welcome the start of this basho, even though it takes place under somewhat hazardous circumstances. As we have been following, the Japan Sumo Association tested everyone for COVID 19 in the past few days: rikishi, yobidashi, oyakata, and gyoji. The net result was a massive swath of people removed from competition. Entire heya are kyujo now, with many fan favorites benched due to risks of spreading COVID-19. Many have asked “Why would the NSK proceed with this? It seems dangerous and unnecessary”. Those people have a point, but there is a deeper theme in play now. The NSK is traditional and cautious organization, but they are in a tight spot. Their funds are dwindling, and we can assume some of the stables are running on fumes financially. With Jungyo, supporter club events and most avenues of athlete-fan interaction off limits, there are struggling. I honestly believe they would forego Hatsu if they could afford it. Right now their best way to raise much needed cash is through a basho, so in spite of the dangers, the show must go on. For our readers who are spiritual, I suggest following the example of the tate gyoji in Saturday’s dohyo matsuri, offer a prayer to the divine that these rikishi, and everyone associated with this event, stay safe and everyone stays healthy for the next 15 days.
With the ranks pre-thinned by COVID testing, the torikumi is going to be light, and possibly get lighter as the basho moves ahead. Some fans are already wondering if they are going to make it to 15 days, and I honestly hope they do. The situation is worse in Juryo, where there are only 9 matches instead of the normal 14. But let’s get things going, and make the most of Hatsu 2021.
What We Are Watching Day 1
Sadanoumi vs Daiamami – With the number of rikihsi out sick our in isolation, there is a schedule imbalance from the start. Thus we get Juryo 1 Daiamami up in Makuuchi to provide a match partner for Sadanoumi. Sadanoumi had a dismal 5-10 in November, and to my eye shows the drop off in sumo skill that seems to be endemic of rikishi who don’t get much chance to practice against others frequently since the start of COVID restrictions. He holds a 2-0 career advantage over Daiamami.
Akiseyama vs Kotonowaka – Its been nearly 5 years since Akiseyama made an appearance ranked in the top division. At 35 years old, he is getting near the end of the expected power band for a rikishi, so this may be our last chance to see him fight. He holds a 2-1 record against Kotonowaka, with the last 2 going to Akiseyama.
Hoshoryu vs Yutakayama – I have been a big booster of Shodai’s stable mate Yutakayama, who I had pegged as a stronger rikishi when he debuted in the top division in 2017. But since then he has racked up a large number of lingering injuries, and his sumo has suffered terribly. His last outing in November saw him with a 6-9 result, and he simply must do better this tournament if he wants to remain in the top division. Hoshoryu won their only prior match, which was in November.
Akua vs Midorifuji – Its Akua’s second ever basho in the top division, and the first for Midorifuji, who Team Tachiai has been following for some time. Akua has a 4-2 career lead, and in their last match (November day 3) it was an Akua slap down that took the win. In terms of size, fans will group Midorifuji in with team pixie, while Akua is definitely a “Heavy Cruiser” size.
Ichinojo vs Terutsuyoshi – Fans never know which version of Ichinojo is going to show up, it seems from the join practice before Christmas that Ichinojo continues to have back troubles, so his performance this January may be governed by that. This is his first ever match against compact power rikishi Terutsuyoshi. It would be easy for Ichinojo to dominate this match on sheer size, but only if his body is moving well.
Kotoeko vs Aoiyama – Aoiyama finished November is 6-9, and did not look even a little genki. Kotoeko fared no better, and I have to wonder what combination of training injuries and lack of sparring will puts these two solid journeyman rikishi in this condition. There is a slight 2-1 advantage for Aoiyama, but it’s anyone’s guess for today’s match.
Shimanoumi vs Myogiryu – Oddly enough, these two finished November with mirror-image records. Myogiryu at a dismal 4-11 and Shimanoumi at 11-4. Shimanoumi has not been able to beat Myogiryu yet (0-3), but maybe today can be his day.
Tokushoryu vs Kiribayama – Reports in the sumo press in the days leading up to the basho say that Kiribayama is struggling with a knee injury picked up in training. If so this will likely be a tough tournament for him, and that struggle may start day 1 with his match against veteran and last year’s Hatsu yusho winner, Tokushoryu.
Tobizaru vs Kagayaki – I am eager to see if Kagayaki keeps his dark / Goth mode mawashi for Hatsu, or if he reverts to gold or bronze. Goth mode Kagayaki could summon no better than 5-10, which is a terrible score for him. Tobizaru ended November with a sharp reality check, and a stinging 6-9 record. Their only prior match went to Kagiyaki.
Ryuden vs Meisei – As we mentioned in our podcast, Ryuden took to including odd hip gyrations (twerking?) to his pre-tachiai stance. It faded over the latter half of the basho, and I am curious if he will bring it back for Hatsu. Who knows, maybe it helps keep COVID-19 away. It certainly seems useful to induce social distancing.
Endo vs Okinoumi – These two veterans have 18 matches over their career, with Endo holding a 2 win advantage. This has my interest for a really solid match, as both men are high skill and will work to out maneuver the other.
Tochinoshin vs Tamawashi – That number can be topped by the thirty three(!) career matches between Tochinoshin and Tamawashi. The Georgian glass canon holds a 21-12 advantage, and his performance will all come down to how that damaged right knee is holding up.
Takayasu vs Onosho – Very excited for this match, it pits two of my favorites against each other. Both of them tend to apply over-powered, out of control sumo at times. For Takayasu it imparts poor lateral stability, and for Onosho poor forward stability. I will be waiting to see who makes the first mistake. Slight edge to Takayasu who practices daily with the former Kisenosato.
Takarafuji vs Takanosho – Can a man with no neck defeat the human onigiri? If you never thought you wanted to know the answer to this question, you may be surprised. I think this is going to be a solid match as we will get a fresh Takarafuji trying to deflect and detune every Takanosho attack.
Terunofuji vs Kotoshoho – Their 3-0 career indicate a one-sided advantage for the Kaiju. I am eager to see what blend of caution, strength and skill Terunofuji is going to apply to his first match. Now ranked Sekiwake 1 East, he is perfectly positioned to play spoiler to any number of rikishi’s final records, to his own benefit.
Asanoyama vs Daieisho – Kadoban Ozeki Asanoyama has an easier road than expected to his necessary 8 wins with both Yokozuna out. But he starts against Daieisho, whom he has a 6-7 career record. The last 5 in a row have gone to Asanoyama, so I am looking for the Ozeki to start with a white star.
Hokutofuji vs Shodai – Very high interest in this bout. I am eager to know if Shodai has gotten his body together enough to make a run at 8 wins, or are we going to get to watch him struggle for 15 days. He holds a 6-1 career advantage over Hokutofuji, who is always a mystery if he will show up genki or hurt.
Takakeisho vs Mitakeumi – With both Yokozuna benched for January, Takakeisho has a clear road to making a bid for the rope. He starts against Mitakeumi, who can deliver high performancce / high impact sumo when he’s in the right mode. It may come down to the first step, if Takakeisho can land a strong thrust and keep Mitakeumi away from his belt, he should be able to win.