Action doesn’t begin until Sunday morning in Japan, but let’s not waste time before taking a look at the opening day schedule for the July Tournament. It should not come as much of a surprise to our regular readers but Ozeki Takakeisho is out from Day 1. He really struggled to clear kadoban back in May. It is difficult to reconcile his current condition with the rope run that he had to start the year.
He has struggled with endurance over the course of his Ozeki tenure, not just during the course of a long bout but from tournament to tournament. If he ends up kyujo for this entire basho, he will be kadoban again in September. Let’s be honest. It is the smart move here. But it was also the smart move in his second tournament as Ozeki where the kadoban Ozeki faced demotion to Sekiwake but needed to heal. In this case, the rest could bring out of him a barn-storming yusho run in the Fall but something really has to change with his conditioning if he wants to go from kadoban to Yokozuna. Kyujo is the smart move.
From the AWOL-zeki to the Shin-Ozeki, this will be the first tournament that we get to see Ozeki Kirishima. If you were under a rock after the May Tournament, you may have missed the news that not only did Kiribayama secure enough wins to earn his Ozeki promotion, he also changed his shikona to Kirishima in honor of his coach, the first Ozeki Kirishima (now Michinoku-oyakata).
And if one Ozeki promotion wasn’t enough for you, we can close out this tournament with three (count ’em — 1, 2, 3) more! This is the first time since Takanohana Sr when there were three Sekiwake with Ozeki runs going into a tournament. Daieisho sits on 22 wins over the past two basho, while Hoshoryu and Wakamotoharu are on 21. We’ve heard rumblings from the Arashio camp that Wakamotoharu is nursing an injury and has already been dampening expectations but all three men will need to come out strong with convincing wins in Week 1 before their schedules get more difficult in Week 2. Simultaneous promotions would be cool.
Day One Match-ups
Aoiyama vs Hakuoho. Makuuchi action will start with the headline-grabbing, Hakuho’s (oops, HakuOOho’s) top division debut. Miyagino-beya’s ace recruit has rocketed into the ranks of Maegashira in just his fourth tournament. Aoiyama, on the other hand, narrowly escaped demotion by defeating Hokutofuji on the final day of a disastrous May. Morale may be low as Kasugano-beya buddy, Tochinoshin, just retired and the man-mountain, himself, has been struggling to find consistency of late. Hakuoho’s first professional loss was a surprise hatakikomi loss to Tamashoho. Can Aoiyama pull it off?
Endo vs Bushozan. Endo is at his lowest rank since 2016, when he spent a tournament in Juryo. Usually a solid, mid-rank maegashira, he pulled out early from a May tournament that he shouldn’t have started. We will find out quickly if he needs to stay out longer. This should be an easy win for Endo if he can get inside and get a hold of Bushozan.
Ryuden vs Takarafuji. Both men were rather busted up in May. Takarafuji is managing to cling on to the lower-third of the Maegashira. Ryuden is falling back to Earth after he rocketed up into the joi earlier this year. This bout could be a painful one to watch, and may be an early tea break in this household. Trying to pick a winner seems almost cruel. My concern for these two is not who will win the bout, but rather later in the tournament, will they be Juryo-bound to start Week 2? And if we add Endo and Aoiyama to the conversation of these veterans, which swan sings his song first?
Daishoho vs Shonannoumi. I am just surprised this pair will meet in Makuuchi and not in Juryo, this time. Congratulations are in order for Shonannoumi, reaching the top division for the first time. After years of languishing in Makushita, he finally started eating his Wheaties and appears to have turned a corner, rising quickly through Juryo with a handful of strong performances this year. Daishoho will probably struggle to grab hold of Shonannoumi and it would be nice to see the rookie off to a good start.
Gonoyama vs Kotoshoho. Goeido’s top recruit will face off against the elder Tebakari-bro. This will be a great match-up, assuming Kotoshoho is healthy. That is not a safe assumption, though, since he did leave the May tournament early and has been yo-yo-ing between the top two divisions as he nurses injuries.
Chiyoshoma vs Tsurugisho. This is an eagerly awaited rematch because of Tsurugisho’s beautiful henka when these two last met, on Nakabi in May. A henka here, by either opponent, should be expected. So that should mean that it won’t happen and both will have a rather light meeting at the tachiai. I expect a subsequent hit-and-shift from Chiyoshoma as he bowls Tsurugisho into a celebrity in the front row.
Kotoeko vs Myogiryu. This will be a fun, lively brawl between fan-favorite, Myogiryu, and Kotoeko. Kotoeko’s odds improve if Kotoeko can work some mis-direction into the bout early. Otherwise, he is bound to get bounced.
Kinbozan vs Hokutofuji. This is an intriguing rematch from May’s tournament, and another firework-friendly event. Hokutofuji took the win in that first meeting by getting behind Kinbozan.
Takanosho vs Nishikifuji. Nishikifuji may not be healthy so the heavy favorite would be Takanosho.
Sadanoumi vs Tamawashi. Why is Tamawashi up here and not down in the swan song matches that we discussed earlier? He’s a beast, that’s why. Sadanoumi holds the edge in their rivalry but Tamawashi knows how to get business done. No ring rust here.
Takayasu vs Oho. I’m not dancing around this one. Takayasu for the win. He’s far enough down the banzuke where he should be churning out wins in Week 1 and in the conversation for the yusho race in Week 2.
Hokuseiho vs Onosho. This is another second-time match-up where both wrestlers fought in May for the first time. Onosho, the makuuchi mainstay will face the upstart Hokuseiho, looking for revenge. Hokuseiho has the physicality and strength. But that lumbering stance of his leaves the door open for someone like Onosho, who is no stranger to the joi. Onosho has claimed kinboshi from Harumafuji and Hakuho but has not been ranked in the sanyaku since 2017! (With this sudden surge from Wakamotoharu…an Ozeki run, no less, I couldn’t believe that.)
Hiradoumi vs Ura. Suddenly, Hiradoumi is the featured face at Sakaigawa-beya. He’ll take on the wild-card in Ura in their second meeting. Hiradoumi needs to stick to his fundamentals and have patience but I think he can claim his first win in the short rivalry.
Asanoyama vs Meisei. Asanoyama must have his eyes on sanyaku in his return to the joi. This tournament will be his biggest test since returning from suspension as he should face only the elites. Meisei is among the easier match-ups on his card, and he defeated Meisei back in Tokyo as he churned through low-rankers.
Kotonowaka vs Midorifuji. When I see a lop-sided record like this, where Kotonowaka has won six of their seven bouts, I often think, “ooo, now is time for an upset!” Unfortunately, the ring-rust on Kotonowaka would have to be substantial here. Keep your feet under your frame, keep Midorifuji in front of you, and you’ve got this.
Mitakeumi vs Wakamotoharu. We’ve got a reversal of fortunes here. Where Mitakeumi had been obviously injured during his short tenure as Ozeki, he appears to be healthy and should be in the mix in Week 2. With three top-division titles already, it would be great to see him back in the hunt rather than fighting while hurt. Wakamotoharu, on the other hand, is already downplaying any chances of promotion. “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” I have been known to fall victim to reverse psychology. I hope Mitakeumi does not.
Shodai vs Daieisho. In this duel of a former Ozeki against a future (?) Ozeki, who is surprised that Daieisho leads the rivalry 17-8? Both have won top-division yusho, a fact that I still can’t wrap my head around. Shodai would probably relish playing spoiler to Daieisho’s Ozeki run.
Hoshoryu vs Tobizaru. Neither of these men have won a title.
Nishikigi vs Kirishima. Fresh off Kirishima’s promotion and with a title under his belt, Kirishima will figure to start out strong. Jitters against a mid-maegashira regular, like Nishikigi, would be an auspicious start. Let’s hope Kirishima breaks the recent trend of weak Ozeki.
Terunofuji vs Abi. Abi will not let this opportunity go to waste. He will aim for a strong start, and there’s no start stronger than a win over the Yokozuna. He will have to watch out, though, and make sure Kaiju doesn’t rip those arms off and banish him from the dohyo. This should be a highlight bout.