The Silver Lining of Nagoya’s Sweaty Mawashi

 

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 Yusho

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.

Hoshoryu’s Development

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.

15 thoughts on “The Silver Lining of Nagoya’s Sweaty Mawashi

  1. Apparently Hakuho gave Shodai some advice on day 3 (“warm up before your match”) and he went 10-2 thereafter. Imagine if all this time he’s been held back by a failure to warm up properly and we are now entering the era of sweaty, dominant Shodai.

    • If he truly did inspire such a turnaround then I’m coming to Hakuho for all kinds of matters and may hire him as my new accountant

  2. I commented before the tournament that Ichinojo was the best active rikishi not named Takayasu to have never won the yusho, and that the extra rest might give him a chance to remedy that. Now that he’s done it, who takes over that mantle? Abi?

    There have been 10 rikishi who’ve won exactly one yusho roughly since I started following sumo (though I just missed the first of these, Kotoshogiku’s breakthrough win). Two were longstanding Ozeki either finally overcoming Hakuho’s dominance (Giku) or taking advantage of his absence (Goeido). One was a late-career surge by a wrestler with great talent hampered by injury (Tochinoshin), and another a career-best performance from an incredibly consistent but not usually dominant veteran (Tamawashi). One was a complete and utter fluke. The jury is still somewhat out on the other five, who have time to add to their tally. I’d probably rank-order them according to the odds of that happening as follows: Asanoyama, Shodai, Wakatakakage, Ichinojo, Daieisho, but there’s plenty of room for argument here.

    • Let’s not forget that we also;

      1) Dodged the brain-inverting madness that a Tobizaru yusho would have wrought upon the earth.

      2) Saw Akua KK after losing his first 6. Go Flubber!!

      3) Watched Teru lose (to Ichi) in a proper belt battle since who knows when.

      4) Saw Shodai’a awesome zabuton catch.

      5) Witnessed the mesmerising sight of Mr Fantastic (Hokuseiho, finally) and the surprising stumble of Kinbozan.

      6) Were on the ground floor for the return of Asanoyama. How long back to Ozeki?

      AND we’ve had a different winner for every Yusho so far this year! Who’s next!?

    • You’re one of the absolute last people with whom I would raise a sample size argument, but I think by now we probably have enough information on Ichinojo what he is (in the way that I would argue we possibly don’t about someone like Wakatakakage whose ceiling is still projecting quite a bit higher than his accomplishments).

      I think Ichinojo was a guy who has the ability to get a yusho. Now he has a yusho, and he’s still a guy who has the ability to get a yusho. He could get more yusho or not, but I don’t think think we learned anything about him other than resting and healing is good. It’s possible there’s a knock on effect in terms of his mentals, to think that maybe now it might give him the belief required to go on and win more.

      There’s always a danger after a guy wins the yusho of dreaming about where they can go from there (ie “Tochinoshin will be the next yokozuna” – and for a period that looked possible), but I’d bracket him in the same category as Daieisho to be competitive in and around san’yaku on their day.

      Much as I would wish the answer to your question to be Abi, I think the actual answer is Hoshoryu.

  3. I was very glad to read your post Josh. It’s more in tune with my own views. I remember at the beginning how nobody in sanyaku could buy a victory and all was doom and gloom for the future of sumo, yet we ended up with double digit wins for two of the ozeki, jun yusho for the yokozuna, KK for one sekiwake and both komusubi, and a yusho for a rkishi who everyone knows has always had the potential to win one. So nothing bizarre there.
    As for the Covid policy, I flat out disagree with it. We have to get away from guilt by association, i.e. banning people with negative tests who have had contact with people with positive tests. My granddaughter had to endure 10 miserable days of quarantine when her college roommate got Covid. She didn’t get the disease. Later on, when her roommate tested positive again, her college had changed its policy, fortunately. Covid today isn’t the disease that put Andy in the hospital or led my daughter-in-law to write a farewell letter to her son, fortunately not needed. It’s another version of the flu, which I don’t minimize, because it put me in hospital for 6 days a few years ago, but nobody closes down the world because of it.

    • Thanks for your comments, I’m very appreciative of the nuance that you’ve shared here.

      I think the toughest thing right now in sumo is the fact that these guys all live together at such close quarters, and the work itself is so physical with heavy breathing and blood and sweat everywhere. When my partner got sick, I was able to fully quarantine myself from them and I didn’t get sick. But these guys live and sleep in such close conditions that I understand that it’s such a hard call to make on what to do, and I have to assume the Kyokai were as horrified as we were by the call to pull stables out mid-basho for the first time. And then like most things that are initially horrifying, if you do it enough times it seems normal and then looks insane in hindsight.

      Like you, I’m really hopeful that cool heads will prevail and that in the next tournaments, we can see an evolution. But I don’t envy the folks having to make the decisions – I’m no more of a health expert than they are. It’s a tough spot. Let’s see what happens.

  4. Ichinojo has been in my stable of favorite rikishi for several years. I lived in Japan during the Konishiki years and not impressed by the Hawaiian’s lumbering sumo. For a big guy, Ichinojo moves quite well and wins matches on the belt, with tsuppari or slap down. I find him much more interesting to watch than the one-trick Takakesho. Speaking of Takakesho, he seems to have PTSD when fighting Ichinojo. Ichinojo is inconsistent so I doubt he will make Ozeki. However, he can win against any sanyaku and thus makes each basho more interesting. I was happy to see him win and I expect at least one more championship from him before he retires.

  5. I liked your comments Josh as I do like to remember the positive whenever anything goes horribly bad.

    Iksumo – great points and questions.

    I am wondering however, a lot of people point out Terunofuji has the jun Yusho, but so does Takakeisho – same record – or did I miss something?

    Anyway, thanks for the positives!

  6. Thanks Josh. I enjoyed Andy’s and Bruce’s reviews but I agree with you on taking the good things from this basho, the form of Ichinojo and Shodai’s resurrection. I love a good comeback but gee, Shodai… he’s a worry. I also enjoyed seeing Midorifuji back in form, the best of the small man rikishi imo so I hope his injuries are behind him and he can push on.

  7. I liked your article very much and I loved the Nagoya basho.
    True, covid was not nice, but it really only took Takanowaka (and maybe Takayasu) out of the yusho race and that can happen with normal injuries too.
    But to watch Ichinojo‘s run was fantastic. After day six and his convincing win against the Yokozuna a zensho yusho wouldn’t have surprised me much. I guess he then began to think about the yusho too and to struggle.
    That was when I was afraid he wouldn’t even get double digits wins. Then of course he fooled me again and took the yusho even without a playoff. And i.m.n.v.h.o. he deserved it very much.

    I see sumo in a thrilling transitional phase. Terunofuji is clearly the best but even more clearly he is struggling because of his chronic injuries. So who will follow him? Takakeisho and Shodai seem too inconsistent, but still they „only“ need two great tournaments in a row and they are Yokozuna. The same goes for Mitakeumi, who seemed to the strongest contender before his shoulder injury. Then there are the young ones, who seem to get a little bit better from basho to basho. Takanowaka, Hoshoryu, Wakatakakage and maybe also Abi and Kiribayama could all be future Yokozunas. And there are three dark horses in Ichinojo, Takayasu plus, not to forget Asanoyama who might produce a Terunofuji like comeback, but without the injuries.

    Twelve really strong rikishi plus Daieisho, Takanosho and Tobizaru (wink, wink): I‘m loving it.

  8. FYI. For some reason, no one wants to mention Ichinojo’s SPECIAL PRIZE!

    Shukun-sho(Outstanding Performance Award)
    West Maegashira #2 Ichinojo(Takashi Miura)
    (12-3)
    Minato Beya
    Date of Birth: April 7, 1993 (29 years old)
    Place of Birth: Mongolia
    2014 January Debut

    Kanto-sho(Fighting Spirit Prize)
    East Maegashira #17 Nishikifuji(Ryusei Ogasawara)
    (10-5)
    Isegahama Beya
    Date of Birth: July 22, 1996 (26 years old)
    Place of Birth: Aomori
    2016 September Debut

    Gino-sho(Technique Prize)
    no prize winner

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