Sometimes you get news in your life that makes you gasp audibly. I am sure if you are reading this, you have had a moment like that. Maybe it was something you saw on the news, or that you heard from a family member. I am not too proud to admit that I had that kind of reaction upon hearing of the shock retirement of Ichinojo.
Ichinojo is – or was – not a rikishi for whom there is a universal opinion. He performed his entire career – even after winning a yusho – in a constant state of “the jury’s still out.” He prompted us – and I need to give Bruce credit here – to often ask: “is big a strategy?” But, at the same time, we all knew that somewhere in there, inside of whatever you called him… boulder, behemoth, bridge abutment… there was a hell of a technically proficient sekitori.
I don’t often intend to set out to write something on sumo topics just for the sake of it – and Andy, blessedly, was on the spot to cover the news when it broke. But I just have this feeling about Ichinojo’s retirement that I haven’t had about other recent intai – even Ikioi’s, who was my favourite rikishi and whose haircut I will attend in a few weeks.
Most retirements are easy to analyse. Maybe the rikishi was old, fighting at a diminished capacity, or in danger of tumbling out the salaried ranks. We see that a few times a year these days. Maybe it’s a Yokozuna who can no longer perform at the required level, due to age or injury. Maybe it’s a bright talent like a Yutakayama who calls it quits because injuries have blighted his career to the extent that he may or may not achieve the type of ceiling he might have hoped, and wants to have a healthy “second life.”
Ichinojo, to be sure, had his injury problems. But, especially with rest, he was still a top, top performer on his good days. That was always part of the issue with Ichinojo, the feeling that he was just wasn’t dialled in all the time, or that he wasn’t motivated to make it to the highest level, or that he didn’t know how to manage his body to keep himself consistently on the dohyo.
This past year, however, has seen some of the best sumo of his career. His age 29 year brought his first makuuchi yusho in which he racked up an incredible 9th kinboshi (while his mentals were often questioned, he was known to always rouse himself for the bouts with big kensho stacks on the line). Following a suspension for off-dohyo alcohol-related behaviour, he stormed back in the most recent basho to claim a near-perfect yusho in Juryo and clinch a return to makuuchi, upstaging the higher ranked former Ozeki Asanoyama’s own redemption arc.
In one respect you can say that, with a yusho and a stunning kinboshi tally banked, the man’s potential was achieved. On the other, the current up-for-grabs state of the sumo world means the final counting stats for Ichinojo could have yet been greater. In a world where sports analysis is increasingly mobilised to be black-and-white, we need to acknowledge that Ichinojo’s career lived in the grey space in between. It is possible to applaud his career-end achievements while also lamenting what could have yet been.
No one doubts that injuries have taken their toll on the man, but it’s hard therefore to believe that, coming off the back of one of his most convincing basho (albeit at the second level and facing only two top division opponents), they were what definitively caused his intai. One suspects a more full version of the truth will emerge over the long run.
It’s also difficult to reconcile the lurid tabloid reports of his bar room antics with the gentle giant who we have come to see, or the reputation he’s had as a loner in the sport, even among his compatriots. Perhaps this won’t have been helped by difficult relations with his shisho. But unless we know for sure, all we can do is speculate.
For many followers of the sport, the reporting of his extra curricular activities was surprising because he had long been associated with the term “gentle giant.” One of our last memories of the man in the ring will have been his enduring sportsmanship, especially in holding Takakeisho from falling off the dohyo in a bout where it seemed the Ozeki had suffered a head/neck injury.
Of course, Ichinojo entered makuuchi as a zanbari-clad prospect of unbelievable potential. But nine years on, much of that potential was actually still there. Having claimed that first yusho, and in a period lacking reliable Yokozuna and Ozeki, he certainly would have been primed for more success. He didn’t seem cooked, and that’s part of what makes it feel off. This isn’t like Aminishiki retiring, this feels like we might still have missed out on something good. Intai moments are rarely satisfying, this one particularly not so.
It’s not a massive surprise that he won’t enter the kyokai. He appeared to be a very unlikely leader, and with Minato-oyakata still a decade from mandatory retirement (by which point Ichinojo would be 40), the stable won’t be needing someone to inherit it anytime soon.
I don’t know much of Ichinojo the man, but over time I became a fan of Ichinojo the rikishi. As fans, I hope we can know someday what really led to his exodus from the sumo world. As people, I hope we can all agree to wish him the best whatever those reasons were, as he navigates at a younger age than most, his new life.
14 thoughts on “Ichinojo: A Curious Intai”
I believe his suspension was for breaking covid protocols alone and that the drinking and such was in the pas and was blown up by the tabloids. They seem to have achieved their goal of spreading poison around.
It’s difficult because it appears very clear that the relationship with the oyakata is not a good one. It’s fair to posit that the tabloids have fanned the flames but at the same time, in a kyokai culture that lacks transparency, it’s also hard to believe there was no smoke without fire. But all we can do is speculate until more becomes clear, which I imagine it will at some point unless Ichinojo’s exit terms were in some way fully negotiated.
This seems the gentlest way of handling a forced retirement: call it an injury concern and move on. Highlight his health concerns and downplay the drinking and his sour relationship with his shisho and the heya. Letting Ichinijojo retire, rather than resign, is a kindness. We will remember the talent over the troubles. Somewhere, though, a whistleblower is waiting for their moment.
I tend to believe he was tired of being injured, or having his back hurting all the time, constant nagging pain. It seemed that at every basho, he had the cupping marks on his back. Most tournaments where he seemed disinterested, he also moved less fluidly, more upright. He also had a reputation for giving up at the edge without putting up a fight which also ties to back issues.
I think he’d pinned his hopes on the surgery and when he found he was still in agony he simply couldn’t bear to carry on. He couldn’t see a way forward within sumo, I so hope he does find a way to recover.
Maybe he’s hoping to lose weight because of the back pain? Or maybe “sumo culture” just made it too easy to get into trouble with the booze. Time may tell…
The sumo culture explanation makes sense as something that may have contributed to this sad situation. People in recovery are urged to find new companions, not go in bars, etc. Yet I also wonder if the pain in turn contributed to the excessive drinking? He’ll be missed and I wish him well.
He will be missed !!!! – I always made sure to watch his bouts ..sad that he had to deal with the overly stringent Sumo rules on his way out.
I wish him better health and more happiness than he’s had lately. And a place where he feels at home, and people who care about him.
He reminds me of the ‘big john’ character in the tom hank’s movie Green Miles. Sad eyed innocent big fella. Have a nice second (rural) life, ichi. You deserve it.
Of all the rikishi Ichinojo was the one and only one I wanted to cuddle me.
Lower back problems are often very debilitating. Whenever the legs move (e.g. walking, running, sumo wrestling) the spine has to absorb the shock and it’s impossible to move without pain. And it will take a crapload of painkillers to provide any relief to someone Ichinojo’s size – a dosage that no sane person would want to put into his body on a regular basis. The best way for him to recover is to lose weight and then have another surgery.
Speculation (as you said Josh) but between the back problems, not quite fitting in, not getting on with his oyakata, and the drinking (the latter two exaggerated or no) it all signals to me that he was just really unhappy. I’ll miss watching him complete, but if my hunch is right, well, good on him for making a hard choice for change.
Aloofness tinged with sadness seemed to hover about him. But he also maintained a notable sense of dignity. Was always hoping he could get over the hump and become a dominant force. However, it seems the obstacles confronting him were just too insurmountable. I will certainly miss watching him on the dohyo. He was special.