Sometimes, it’s just not all going your way. The world continues to confuse, variants are running mad, your favourite rikishi’s just retired, the far-flung country you work in could be subject to another lockdown, you’re not getting into Japan any time soon, and you got heartburn off some poutine at a Canada Day party. It’s a serious challenge to your status as Tachiai’s “man in foreign lands,” as they call you. But then – mercifully, out of nowhere – a day of sumo.
Day 1 of the Nagoya basho, for me, was everything I could have hoped for or needed or wanted.
Bruce or Andy or someone will no doubt pop up with a more comprehensive analysis of the matches later on today. In terms of the fan output, I have to say I was impressed with the atmosphere generated by the sub-50% crowd on hand at the Dolphins Arena/Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium/Heatseeking Doombox of Hellish Celciuses. The crowd at Kokugikan has given it bifters but I think sometimes the Tokyo crowd can take the “scream inside of your heart” guidance a bit too literally. Nagoya, with a thousand fewer people, seems to have brought a real sense of applause to the event on Day 1. They’re limited to non-alcoholic beverages which honestly is the only sensible thing to ingest in those temperatures anyway, although it does feel a bit cruel. Still, times are tough.
The sumo, on the other hand, was at least what I needed. Not because it was all beautiful and brilliant and textbook stuff – far from it. You could say many – if not most – of the matches in the top division were won by the more defensive rikishi on the day. But realistically – especially after Takayasu’s withdrawal – there were three main stories: Hakuho, the dueling Ozeki, and the return of Ura. We got the right results from all of them.
Before we get on to that, let’s give a special shoutout to debutant Ichiyamamoto, who spares us the agony of watching someone have to wait an age for that first makuuchi win and the trip to the interview room. Most of us only had him pegged for 8 wins at best, and now he can just get on with it.
The Ura match was just a carnival of madness, a typical production where 90% of the way through, you still have no idea which way it’s going to swing. Apparently even the gyoji was flummoxed by the chaos to the extent that he ended up inadvertently participating in the bout. Still, Ura dances yet again out of danger and snatches a win from the jaws of defeat. Who knows how the next 14 days go but in an era of fallen heroes, a kachi-koshi from Ura is what sumo needs.
The Ozeki… wow. Shodai, of whom nothing is expected, reminded us what got him here. For Takakeisho and Terunofuji, I’d argue the content of the sumo this early in the basho isn’t actually all that important. It’s more about grinding out the first week and trying to reach that magical Day 13 when the fantasy three-way deathmatch of dreams with Hakuho is set to start, both 12-0 or as close to it as possible. They got the white star in their own ways, job done, hearts intact, we move on.
Hakuho’s match was just breathtaking for all of the right reasons. Let’s not kid ourselves, Meisei had the better of the match. Hakuho has got his grip, but was just not as quick or powerful. I’m a defender of Hakuho’s normal harite, but thought this attempted harite or elbow blast or whatever he was trying was actually a bad move as it left him much too slow to the mawashi. Hakuho got his grip, but not before Meisei was also able to implement the game plan he brought to the arena against a Yokozuna who is specifically known for being one of the fastest out of the blocks in the history of the sport.
In the end, as you’ll have seen it, Meisei goes for the leg hooking manoeuvre and tries to pull a throw, Hakuho counters and uses his momentum against him and wins the match by a few milliseconds, both men crashing onto the dohyo. It’s theatre.
The facial expression from Hakuho says everything and nothing. I’ve already seen and heard plenty of conjecture on his outsized reaction to the match. Usually, Hakuho gives it plenty of face when he’s got away with one, knows it and is displeased with himself. Others have postulated the feelings of relief, of triumph, of the feeling that nowhere near his best is still good enough. Here’s the thing: no matter what he or anyone says, none of these things are mutually exclusive. You can be upset with yourself and relieved, or victorious and determined to improve. You can be all of these things, and this is why there are a million substories within this moment!
The first thing is that you’d better believe every rikishi in that joi “meat-grinder” is going to take inspiration from this match. Meisei lost, but his upcoming opponents may feel the Boss is there to be got at. Hakuho may and hopefully will grow into this tournament, but it’s better for sumo, this basho, and the Hakuho legend for these opponents not to enter the dohyo already defeated in this moment. We gain nothing by seeing him beat rikishi who lack belief. Meisei’s effort will hopefully ensure that doesn’t happen.
As far as Hakuho’s concerned, I think the win does him the world of good, no matter how it came. A loss wouldn’t have been a kinboshi seeing as his opponent was a Komusubi, but after all of that time off, it would have been devastating. The pitchforks would have immediately come out. Like the Ozeki, we need Hakuho to not only amble into week 2 but to get there firmly in the title race. Terunofuji or Takakeisho may well win the title (or not), but if they do you want them to have to beat the best in order to claim that rope. A loss on Shonichi was unthinkable. After 6 months out and a knee operation, we saw that a diminished Hakuho can still win matches at the highest level against a quality opponent. This is a good thing.
Takayasu may yet enter later in the basho, but with him at least temporarily out of the picture, things may get easier on the Yokozuna after Day 2.
But… about Day 2: It’s only one of the best fixtures in sumo, the rematch of Hatsu 2020’s match of the year against Endo! He’s a tough, unpredictable, normally highly mobile, wily, technical bugger with his own health issues. He continued on Day 1 to be a thorn in the side of 2021’s best rikishi. The two have met twice in the intervening months since Endo’s stunning win (Hakuho having avenged it twice, once en route to his last yusho), but let’s not forget Endo also contributed to the end of the career of the last Yokozuna to hang up the rope. Both the dai-yokozuna and the expert kinboshi thief will be highly motivated for this match.
For now, forget all of that. Here’s the important thing: At five minutes to two in the morning, I leapt off the couch, fist pumping and celebrating the result of a sumo match, and I am so thankful for that. If Day 2 delivers on the level of Day 1 (especially if Mitakeumi can get his act together), then in spite of all of the challenges that face this tournament and the rest of us, this will be a couple of weeks for the ages. You still got it, sumo.