We don’t need to beat around the bush: we have just witnessed what was in many ways a deeply unsatisfying tournament which culminated in a day-by-day missing persons storyline that wouldn’t have been out of place from some low budget horror film or an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
But in some ways, obsessing over what we didn’t have in the Nagoya basho is to miss the point (and, by the way, this is in no way a counter-point to Bruce’s excellent opinions from yesterday). Culturally, the purpose of a basho is not to ensure that every rank and file dude is present for 15 days, “otherwise the whole thing might as well have not happened.” That doesn’t mean I think it’s cool that a third of the top division was absent or that I especially enjoyed this tournament. As a spectacle, I didn’t. I always love to watch sumo, and still, “endured” might be a more accurate descriptor of how I experienced this tournament. But I’m firmly in the camp that thinks the Kyokai was correct to finish the basho, even if I’m also in a camp that thinks they are correct to err on the side of caution (firmly agreeing with Andy’s comments from earlier in the week) and I’m also on the team that hopes they can evolve their covid-kyujo policies. There is room for nuance.
There are those who will say: “well whatabout if Isegahama or Minato beya had been visited by the coronavirus, forcing the removal of Terunofuji or Ichinojo?” Well, that didn’t happen. And yet, conspiracy theories aside, we have to concede that the departure of an exciting potential title contender like Kotonowaka from the race is not what we want to see. It weakened the basho.
But there were other things about this tournament that were good, so amongst all of the noise about things that were bad – because we really can and will talk about that quite a bit more – let’s take just a minute to focus on some of those good things:
Ichinojo is not a popular rikishi in most senses of the word, but it is very unlikely to hear a bad word against him. No one will begrudge him this championship and it is likely that his ability would have merited a championship at some point in his career. And now he has one.
Since his debut, the jokes about “is being big a strategy” have largely served to offset the frustration that a rikishi of his obvious physical and technical gifts had been unable to put together the kind of run of success that – especially in recent years – seemed ripe for the taking.
The overwhelming feeling about Ichinojo over the past few years is that he’s someone who perhaps lacked focus, who could always find a way to get up for the big matches (as evidenced by his lengthy and impressive list of kinboshi victims), but who could never find the consistency to regularly succeed in sumo. Some of that has been down to his challenges to use and maintain his physique, and his back struggles have been well-documented. A staple of his sumo from across the past several years was that if you got him moving backward, it was very difficult for him to reverse that momentum.
But his weaknesses are offset by remarkable strengths. He is an above average yotsu-zumo practitioner, and when locked with an opponent, there are very few rikishi with the ability to outlast or go toe-to-toe with the giant. He is in an elite category when it comes to lengthy bouts, and has often displayed strong composure in the ring to complement that stamina. He is not someone given to losing the plot.
Longer term side effects aside, it should also not be lost on us that the covid-kyujo which enforced Ichinojo’s absence from the Natsu basho potentially led to him arriving in Nagoya fully rested and in better fighting shape than we have seen him in years. We can of course only speculate about this – much in the way that we can speculate without actually knowing whether Shimanoumi’s dreadful basho was the result of too much wedding cake.
Ichinojo has flirted with titles in the past, most notably taking an undefeated Hakuho all the way to senshuraku in an incredible 14-1 tournament a few years ago (fans will also remember his 13 wins, title challenge and kinboshi in his top flight debut). However, that 14-win runners-up basho from 2019 featured the unsustainable tendency to retreat and pull, a pattern which saw his results normalise when opponents were not lured into cheap slap-downs.
This basho’s success was of an altogether higher quality. Ichinojo took control of several bouts from the beginning, executing a game plan and landing a strong belt grip to square off and drive his opponents out. His yusho-clinching victory against Ura similarly displayed a strong sense of strategy to raise the centre of gravity of a much smaller and notoriously difficult opponent.
The championships we are likely to see over this next year will come from the Yokozuna, or rikishi who can take advantage of the odd occasions where the Yokozuna isn’t able to execute at 100%. Terunofuji is unquestionably the best rikishi in sumo. The only difference in this basho between Ichinojo and the Yokozuna is that Ichinojo beat the Yokozuna. You can’t say he isn’t deserving of the crown.
Like Andy, I think that Hoshoryu’s demeanour on the dohyo (a general observation, although it is punctuated with moments of greater petulance) makes him due for an attitude correction (be that in the form of mentorship or results). I do, however, believe praise is due for the way he turned around a frankly awful start in Nagoya to display some of the outstanding sumo of this tournament.
I don’t find a lot of difference technically between Hoshoryu’s sumo and Kiribayama’s (and I find the latter to be quite a bit more likeable and entertaining to watch), but the slight difference in results is owed to Hoshoryu’s will to win and the way that has manifested itself in many of his victories.
His positioning in order to execute throws has improved dramatically. He has always had good legwork – to the point that he is at times over-reliant on leg sweeps and trips that everyone can see a mile away. However, an under-discussed element of the ability to pull a routine or spectacular throw is the way that a rikishi can find the correct foot placement or manoeuvre their leg into the position that gives them the fulcrum upon which to rotate their opponent. We have been able to see Hoshoryu continually improve this feature of his sumo over the past several tournaments.
The continuing unreliability of the Ozeki to keep out of kadoban and mount consistent challenges has opened up an opportunity for Hoshoryu in particular to go on and become the next star. Wakatakakage is ahead of him in the current pecking order and also in terms of what’s in the trophy cabinet, but Wakatakakage is also more advanced in terms of age and Hoshoryu’s true rival over the next few years may be Kotonowaka. We may have been robbed from experiencing Kotonowaka’s breakout basho by the virus, so we can make do with the continued technical gains of Hoshoryu (even if the overall results will leave room for improvement). Hopefully, Aki will give us a proper look at the development of both rising stars.
The King of Comeback
You can’t bury Shodai. Not yet anyway. He seems set to prove John Gunning’s often repeated point that Ozeki is the easiest rank to hold, being that you only have to win 8 out of every 30 matches (albeit in the same tournament).
True though that may be, the willingness of some Ozeki to stoop down to that low bar has also provided some depressing sumo. However, there is something a bit thrilling in Shodai’s ability to conjure yusho-pedigree sumo when he looks dead and buried. And make no mistake, some of the wins he put together after digging himself into a 1-4 hole, winning 9 of his last 10, were absolutely yusho quality sumo. In some cases he defused his opponent from his tachiai, and on multiple other occasions we saw him battle back from the brink of the tawara in stunning fashion to take a match. If he could only show us his top quality sumo for all 15 days every time, we’d still be talking about how he wouldn’t be long for the Ozeki rank, but for very different reasons.
That being said, I don’t ever expect him to put together the kind of consistency that it will take for him to move to the next level. But against the current field, he has more than enough in his locker to put together 9 and 10 win tournaments with good content. While I and many others expected to leave this basho lamenting his inability to put it together, it was instead a happy surprise to exit the Nagoya tournament wishing for more of the same from Shodai.