Where is my kinboshi?
Where are the zabuton?
Where even is the shikiri-sen?
Where have all the cowboys gone?
… I didn’t think the day was ever going to happen when I channeled Paula Cole in a post about sumo either.
The performance of Yokozuna Hakuho has been much discussed through the first week of the tournament. Before the basho, I posted here and went through each of his likely opponents, and looking at what type of fight they might be able to put up against The Boss.
I have to say, maybe I gave them all too much credit.
While the first couple days of the tournament were high on value – and also the excitement of seeing high stakes matches at the end of the day, from the first day of a tournament – by and large we haven’t really seen what I expected to see.
Namely, I thought more rikishi would have smelled the blood in the water.
— ヘルット (@SumoFollower) July 10, 2021
At this point, it’s pretty clear that Hakuho is nowhere near 100%. One of the most used cliches in sumo during the later Hakuho era is that Hakuho at 70% is going to beat pretty much everyone. And, after seven days, he’s 7-0.
While Endo hobbled out of the tournament himself, noted kinboshi thieves like Ichinojo haven’t posed much of a problem at all for the Yokozuna. I actually applaud Tobizaru’s approach to try something different and confusing. The match itself (see above with updated soundtrack courtesy of Herouth) was an incredible spectacle, and highly entertaining. Like most of you, I literally did not know what was going to happen. But in the cold light of day, the likelihood is that the rank and filer only served to annoy the Yokozuna, who eventually, authoritatively, tossed him out with disgust.
Herouth reported a comment from Isegahama which I think is important to present here:
Isegahama on Hakuho's first week: "He is not doing proper sumo, but I guess it's good he is accumulating wins. I'm looking forward to the second week. I guess he is not going all out because of his bad knee, but only the man himself knows". https://t.co/ZkKNommX8V
— ヘルット (@SumoFollower) July 10, 2021
The problem is, you can only beat what’s in front of you. If the opponents aren’t really interested in doing overwhelming sumo themselves, you can’t, with a somewhat freshly surgically repaired knee, put your body at risk for no reason. Hakuho has, most of the time, simply defused the opponent and moved on. For sure, there has been the odd scare. He’s got away with a couple. Meisei, for one, really went into the match with the intention to win. Meisei is someone who is going to be in san’yaku a lot. Meisei has a winning mentality. We like Meisei.
But many of Hakuho’s other opponents seem to be failing to grasp the scale of the moment. Many Yokozuna throughout history have been put down by an up-and-comer. The future Takanohana putting down an aging Chiyonofuji is sumo folklore. Even if he himself didn’t ascend to the title of Yokozuna until sometime later, it was a pivotal moment. Hakuho’s opponents look more like they’re fighting him for the first time rather than potentially the last time.
To know what the Yokozuna is truly made of these days, we want to see rikishi going full bore. If you’re a Kotoeko, who faces Hakuho tonight (possibly by the time you have read this), this is a career highlight moment. Possibly the most used verb in sumo is ganbarimasu. More rikishi should do it.
At this stage, with Asanoyama and Takakeisho out of the basho, and Takayasu and Shodai looking to be very out of sorts, it’s hard to see anyone other than noted summertime streak-killer Mitakeumi putting dirt on the dai-Yokozuna going into the presumed showdown with Terunofuji on senshuraku. And while I make the match with Mitakeumi a coin flip, and the Sekiwake has put up a decent score, he also hasn’t been in the best form. While Hakuho can certainly be beaten, he’ll still be the nailed on favourite for every other match.
Which leaves, perhaps, the name the fans want to see most between now and then: Hoshoryu. While I don’t see a whole lot technically in his sumo even to this point that differentiates him from compatriot Kiribayama, what he has seemed to do is grow enormously in belief and intent. He is coming to his matches with a winning mentality that was absent in past tournaments. The hatred of losing is becoming visible. Until such time as Hakuho sees Mitakeumi and Terunofuji, should this matchup happen it could possibly be one of the most intriguing bouts of the final week, and also the opportunity to provide the type of storyline that has underpinned sumo for generations.
To be clear, I am not rooting for anyone to put dirt on the Yokozuna. Far from it. But I do want to see the best of what he can do, in this moment, now. While Isegahama is correct to say that Hakuho’s sumo has not been dominant Yokozuna sumo, the idea of Hakuho tailoring his game plan to his opponent is nothing new: he’s been doing it for the past several years and arguably it’s why he can still compete today. Isegahama – of all people – should know from his coaching efforts over the past few years that if an incredible talent needs to manage their sumo to what their physical state can handle for the sake of their career and the sport, it’s better to do so. The past year has been incredibly entertaining. But it has also shown us somewhat conclusively that at this moment, Sumo will not be better for the absence of Hakuho from the dohyo.
Hakuho and Terunofuji should be held to different standards. One is the Yokozuna and whether or not you believe he is the greatest, he’s at the very least in the conversation for greatest of all time. Terunofuji is an Ozeki with an incredible story who is attempting to become a Yokozuna. But we should be honest that we have been celebrating Terunofuji over the past year not because he has been going all out, but because he has learned a new type of sumo to overcome his medical limitations and make best use of his incredible physical gifts. He has shown the mental agility of a Yokozuna. I don’t believe that Hakuho, one of the sport’s great improvisers and thinkers, should lose credit for relying on his mind to overcome the defects of his body now.
Questions have been posed on Twitter about whether we should have expected more of Hakuho’s week 1 opposition. I think the answer is yes, but I think the analysis will need to wait for another post, maybe after the tournament. And to be clear, I don’t think Terunofuji’s been made to work even as hard as in past tournaments either. The one thing we do know is that it has to get more difficult – for both men riding a zensho – from here. If nothing else, that makes the second week one to enjoy. Saddle up.