Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?

Paula Cole music video ©WMG. Hakuho photo courtesy of Tachiai photographer Nicola. Crude Photoshop edit by the author.

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.

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:

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.

12 thoughts on “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?

  1. As fun as it would be to see, barring any withdrawals, Hoshoryu is one step below the top 16 on the banzuke, and I don’t see them skipping Chiyotairyu & Okinoumi on days 9 & 10. After that, the Yokozuna should face the remaining san’yaku opponents in order, unless something really unexpected happens.

    • With how bad Chiyotairyu is fighting at the moment, he will be almost guaranteed 2-6 tomorrow. Aoiyama without his thrusting game is quite mediocre too, so there is a good chance that Hoshoryu will be 6-2. I think this will be a good enougfh reason to pull him up, unless there is a secret agenda to not put too much strain on Hakuho ;)

    • They have form for it to be honest. In fact we’ve even seen them skip guys in the san’yaku before who were well on their way to losing records (I believe this happened with Goeido at least once, I think Mitakeumi has also been passed over before while at sekiwake with a poor record and wasn’t thrown to the wolves). I certainly don’t think they’ll skip Okinoumi but it wouldn’t be surprising at all if they opt for Hoshoryu over Chiyotairyu. He could be at 6 or 7 losses by the time they have to make the call on that, Hoshoryu could be at 6 or 7 wins by that point.

      Equally, if Kotonowaka goes on a crazy run and ends up being 11-1 by the time they do the scheduling for Day 14 on Day 13, I could see them throwing him into the mixer if Shodai has already put himself into the kadoban position for the next basho.

      • Right, I could see something breaking the pattern later on in week 2, but the call on Chiyotairyu being the day 9 opponent will be made in the next few hours, and I don’t think they’ll depart from scheduling by banzuke order this early. We’ll find out soon enough.

        • That we will! I think with so much on the line and how poor (in my opinion) the opposition has been for both Hakuho and Terunofuji over the past few days in particular, it will be intriguing to see where the schedulers decide to stick on precedent and where they decide to twist. After that wacky banzuke, who knows ;)

          For any other readers who have made it this far: A lot of my commentary above wasn’t meant to be critical of Isegahama (who has a lot to do with all of these conversations in his kyokai role) so much as acknowledging clearly even he sees Hakuho’s not having to do much despite not looking incredible. I know for these guys the manner is sometimes as – if not more – important than the result.

  2. Great write up Josh, and it really does capture this late transition era basho. Hakuho has run out of worthy opponents, and may in fact be disappointed on the final leg of his competitive career. He’s outlasted them all, and even the ones he was interested in (Asanoyama, Takakeisho) are nowhere to be seen now.

  3. Whatever Kotoeko has in store for his bout, it’s got to be better than Tobizaru. I mean if you demonstrate the best of your brand of sumo against a Yokozuna, Tobizaru’s brand is a joke.

    • It’s hard for me to see Kotoeko doing anything other than going chest-to-chest and I have to imagine Hakuho has a plan for that, especially given how poorly Kotoeko has been executing in this basho so far. But! Anything can happen.

      Re: Tobizaru, I think he just tried to get too clever for his own good, I think he wanted to confuse Hakuho. Remember the band Muse? Matt Bellamy used to add all this crazy MIDI stuff to his guitars and do all these weird effects and everyone was like “wow! This is crazy music!” But there were still choruses. Then they just went too prog and started singing about conspiracies all the damn time and lost the plot a bit. My point is that you can get too far up your own bum. I think that’s what’s happened here. I do think he was enjoying himself. You could see well before the bout, he goes back to the corner and he had a smirk. I think he was just delighted to be there and to try and do something crazy. But if he had attacked Hakuho like he did Shodai, he might have been getting payouts from it the rest of his career!

      In the end if I re-read my post it’s a good thing because to your point if the king is going to have his head cut off it should probably be by someone trying to be new king.

      • Don’t be too harsh on Kotoeko, he didn’t write the banzuke. He always tries his hardest and has done the best to convert his undersized physique into a slab of muscle. Unfortunately, this basho he finds himself well outside of his natural habitat which is a couple of ranks either side of M10. When your biggest challenges tend to be Chiyomaru and Terutsuyoshi it must come as a hell of a shock to find yourself facing Hakuko and Terunofuji. If he gets five wins this time he will have broken par.

  4. I totally agree! Being a good Yokozuna cannot be measured only by the body shape, technique, strength but also by the mindset and mental strength. Hakuho wouldn’t have been a Yokozuna for a long time if he hadn’t had the right mindset and had always took in consideration his resources.


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