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.

When a Day is More than a Day

Sometimes, it’s just not all going your way. The world continues to confuse, variants are running mad, your favourite rikishi’s just retired, the far-flung country you work in could be subject to another lockdown, you’re not getting into Japan any time soon, and you got heartburn off some poutine at a Canada Day party. It’s a serious challenge to your status as Tachiai’s “man in foreign lands,” as they call you. But then – mercifully, out of nowhere – a day of sumo.

Day 1 of the Nagoya basho, for me, was everything I could have hoped for or needed or wanted. 

Bruce or Andy or someone will no doubt pop up with a more comprehensive analysis of the matches later on today. In terms of the fan output, I have to say I was impressed with the atmosphere generated by the sub-50% crowd on hand at the Dolphins Arena/Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium/Heatseeking Doombox of Hellish Celciuses. The crowd at Kokugikan has given it bifters but I think sometimes the Tokyo crowd can take the “scream inside of your heart” guidance a bit too literally. Nagoya, with a thousand fewer people, seems to have brought a real sense of applause to the event on Day 1. They’re limited to non-alcoholic beverages which honestly is the only sensible thing to ingest in those temperatures anyway, although it does feel a bit cruel. Still, times are tough.

The sumo, on the other hand, was at least what I needed. Not because it was all beautiful and brilliant and textbook stuff – far from it. You could say many – if not most – of the matches in the top division were won by the more defensive rikishi on the day. But realistically – especially after Takayasu’s withdrawal – there were three main stories: Hakuho, the dueling Ozeki, and the return of Ura. We got the right results from all of them.

Before we get on to that, let’s give a special shoutout to debutant Ichiyamamoto, who spares us the agony of watching someone have to wait an age for that first makuuchi win and the trip to the interview room. Most of us only had him pegged for 8 wins at best, and now he can just get on with it.

The Ura match was just a carnival of madness, a typical production where 90% of the way through, you still have no idea which way it’s going to swing. Apparently even the gyoji was flummoxed by the chaos to the extent that he ended up inadvertently participating in the bout. Still, Ura dances yet again out of danger and snatches a win from the jaws of defeat. Who knows how the next 14 days go but in an era of fallen heroes, a kachi-koshi from Ura is what sumo needs.

The Ozeki… wow. Shodai, of whom nothing is expected, reminded us what got him here. For Takakeisho and Terunofuji, I’d argue the content of the sumo this early in the basho isn’t actually all that important. It’s more about grinding out the first week and trying to reach that magical Day 13 when the fantasy three-way deathmatch of dreams with Hakuho is set to start, both 12-0 or as close to it as possible. They got the white star in their own ways, job done, hearts intact, we move on. 

Hakuho’s match was just breathtaking for all of the right reasons. Let’s not kid ourselves, Meisei had the better of the match. Hakuho has got his grip, but was just not as quick or powerful. I’m a defender of Hakuho’s normal harite, but thought this attempted harite or elbow blast or whatever he was trying was actually a bad move as it left him much too slow to the mawashi. Hakuho got his grip, but not before Meisei was also able to implement the game plan he brought to the arena against a Yokozuna who is specifically known for being one of the fastest out of the blocks in the history of the sport.

In the end, as you’ll have seen it, Meisei goes for the leg hooking manoeuvre and tries to pull a throw, Hakuho counters and uses his momentum against him and wins the match by a few milliseconds, both men crashing onto the dohyo. It’s theatre.

The facial expression from Hakuho says everything and nothing. I’ve already seen and heard plenty of conjecture on his outsized reaction to the match. Usually, Hakuho gives it plenty of face when he’s got away with one, knows it and is displeased with himself. Others have postulated the feelings of relief, of triumph, of the feeling that nowhere near his best is still good enough. Here’s the thing: no matter what he or anyone says, none of these things are mutually exclusive. You can be upset with yourself and relieved, or victorious and determined to improve. You can be all of these things, and this is why there are a million substories within this moment!

The first thing is that you’d better believe every rikishi in that joi “meat-grinder” is going to take inspiration from this match. Meisei lost, but his upcoming opponents may feel the Boss is there to be got at. Hakuho may and hopefully will grow into this tournament, but it’s better for sumo, this basho, and the Hakuho legend for these opponents not to enter the dohyo already defeated in this moment. We gain nothing by seeing him beat rikishi who lack belief. Meisei’s effort will hopefully ensure that doesn’t happen.

As far as Hakuho’s concerned, I think the win does him the world of good, no matter how it came. A loss wouldn’t have been a kinboshi seeing as his opponent was a Komusubi, but after all of that time off, it would have been devastating. The pitchforks would have immediately come out. Like the Ozeki, we need Hakuho to not only amble into week 2 but to get there firmly in the title race. Terunofuji or Takakeisho may well win the title (or not), but if they do you want them to have to beat the best in order to claim that rope. A loss on Shonichi was unthinkable. After 6 months out and a knee operation, we saw that a diminished Hakuho can still win matches at the highest level against a quality opponent. This is a good thing.

Takayasu may yet enter later in the basho, but with him at least temporarily out of the picture, things may get easier on the Yokozuna after Day 2.

But… about Day 2: It’s only one of the best fixtures in sumo, the rematch of Hatsu 2020’s match of the year against Endo! He’s a tough, unpredictable, normally highly mobile, wily, technical bugger with his own health issues. He continued on Day 1 to be a thorn in the side of 2021’s best rikishi. The two have met twice in the intervening months since Endo’s stunning win (Hakuho having avenged it twice, once en route to his last yusho), but let’s not forget Endo also contributed to the end of the career of the last Yokozuna to hang up the rope. Both the dai-yokozuna and the expert kinboshi thief will be highly motivated for this match.

For now, forget all of that. Here’s the important thing: At five minutes to two in the morning, I leapt off the couch, fist pumping and celebrating the result of a sumo match, and I am so thankful for that. If Day 2 delivers on the level of Day 1 (especially if Mitakeumi can get his act together), then in spite of all of the challenges that face this tournament and the rest of us, this will be a couple of weeks for the ages. You still got it, sumo.

Hakuho: What’s It Gonna Be?!

Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson asked the age old question in the title of this post. Presumably, they weren’t talking about the Hakuho experience at Nagoya 2021 (unless the titular subject matter was the drainage from that man’s surgically repaired knee), but for a track whose content focuses heavily on the emotions of anticipation, there are, at a stretch, some parallels with the return to dohyo of the Boss. What will he look like? How will he perform? What’s it gonna be!?

So let’s go a bit into the weeds here and look at his likely opponents. I’ve picked the 15 guys directly below him who are in competition from Day 1. Some may go kyujo, some may come back from kyujo (not Asanoyama), and as a word of caution some overzealous mid-level maegashira or lower rank and filer with ideas above his station (Ura, you have been summoned) may get thrown into the mixer in the second week, as is wont to happen.

M4E Kotoeko, M4W Chiyotairyu, M5E Okinoumi

You’d call this group the intai-makers. The group of lowest-ranked opponents, Hakuho can’t be losing to this lot. If he does, and especially if it’s not a fluke, you’d have to say we’re looking at the end. Mostly, these guys have had the benefit of generous promotions and none of them look like they’re going to be bothering san’yaku any time soon. Okinoumi and Chiyotairyu of course are wily vets with previous when it comes to kinboshi, but this just isn’t the place to cough one up. Sumo-wise, there just isn’t anything that should catch a meticulous preparer like Hakuho out unless he’s really off form. Kotoeko and Okinoumi are predictably straightforward belt guys. Chiyotairyu may lead with a big hit followed by a pull down attempt, or a weird hit-and-shift or some kind of push-me-pull-you combination of both, but if Hakuho can survive this tournament he’s going to need the mobility that would make him too agile for the Kokonoe man. Kotoeko will meet the Boss for the first time but the others are a combined 1-32 against him.

M3W Tobizaru

After his showing in May, the Flying Monkey can perhaps be fortunate to find himself in with a chance for a kinboshi here. Nevertheless, he’s the Wild Card. Against someone with a dodgy knee, the chaos created by his boundless energy and “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to sumo makes him possibly one of the slippiest of the rank and file opponents for Hakuho. This would be a first meeting.

M1E Endo, M2W Ichinojo, M3E Hokutofuji

The kensho thieves. These three, while not displaying the consistency needed to regularly bother the san’yaku rankings, have racked up 22 kinboshi between them and turn it on when it’s all on the line. Ichinojo, balancing his enormous potential and ability with his creaking figure, famously only seems to get up for the big ones. Hokutofuji consistently acts as a thorn in the side of the top rankers and the maddeningly on/off Endo has possibly 2020’s greatest sumo match in his locker – vs none other than Hakuho – and the rematch will be greatly intriguing. While they sport a poor 8-33 ranking combined against Hakuho it’s worth noting that’s a better win rate than most and each of them have served him a black star multiple times. Apart from Hokutofuji – who will absolutely lead with a head-first upward tsuki/oshi attack aimed squarely at the Yokozuna’s “centre mass” as Bruce likes to say – they also are somewhat unpredictable (especially Endo) in terms of what approach they’ll bring to the match.

M1W Daieisho, M2E Takanosho

The upstarts. Daieisho gave Hakuho a run for his money the last time we saw his abortive attempt to return to the dohyo. Both of these guys seem to have been found out a bit in recent months following their high-altitude exploits in recent tournaments as far as their banzuke position is concerned. It could be argued they both need a bit of a Plan B and that probably isn’t what you want when facing Hakuho. Takanosho is 0-1 against the dai-yokozuna while Daieisho brings a 2-7 record to the party.

K1E Wakatakakage, K1W Meisei

The pair of shin-Komusubi may both be in for a rough ride as is traditional for debutants at the rank, although they’ll be boosted by the disappearance of a Sekiwake and an Ozeki respectively. Only Meisei has faced Hakuho before, losing once, and I think both will be better served looking for their 8 wins elsewhere. Wakatakakage’s technical sumo has enormous potential in my book but is still too easily unpicked by Yokozuna level opposition, while Meisei – who has improved his belt ability to go with his thrusting – may be the likelier bet to spring a shock. Still, I’ve been wrong before but I don’t see it.

S1W Mitakeumi

The underachiever. You know, if he ever had completed an Ozeki run, he’d still be there. When you talk about the disappointing tenures of some of those who have made the rank, it’s possible that one of the better Ozeki who remind you of Kaio – long tenure of doing enough, big fanbase, gets a yusho every once in a while – of this generation is the Ozeki who never became one. That said, he has form for big big wins over Hakuho, especially in Nagoya (twice), and has a huge opportunity to get an inside track on that Ozeki run later in the year given the weakened field this time out. Another who has improved both the mawashi and pushing attacks, Mitakeumi has let himself down mentally in the past. Like Hakuho, his ability in many facets of sumo means that he chooses the technique he takes to his opponent. Unlike Hakuho, he gets it wrong too often. What will he do here?

O2E Shodai

The forgotten one. In fairness, it’s less than a year since Shodai’s thrilling (yeah, I said it) yusho. But after a middling start to ozeki life, the spotlight’s firmly off him here in a year where the headlines and intrigue have been stolen away by others. He took his last match from Hakuho but otherwise his record is not good and I think the fact that everyone knows what his tachiai is going to look like means that Hakuho will be able to devise a way past him even if Hakuho’s brain is stronger than his body. Shodai only needs 8 wins (and not even that, really), and he’ll probably rack them up elsewhere.

O1E Terunofuji, O1W Takakeisho

The challengers. Both men, with different odds, likelihoods, back stories and momentum are gunning for the rope in their own way. Terunofuji has a 4-9 record against Hakuho but hasn’t met him since he was last an Ozeki in 2017. He hasn’t beaten him since 2016, but still has the best record against him of any likely opponent, and all of the momentum following back-to-back yusho and with the tsuna on the line. Takakeisho meanwhile has only taken one from six against the GOAT. While Takakeisho will have nonetheless have been sharpening his unique style of sumo in anticipation of yet another memorable match against Hakuho, one gets the feeling Hakuho may yet again just stand there and encourage the separation and look to exploit a mistake. He may also try and get separation against Terunofuji, who with bad wheels of his own will be trying to take advantage of his position as strongest man in the division to go chest-to-chest by all means. These two matches – coming in the final two days of the tournament unless something crazy happens – are arguably the show stopping events of Nagoya 2021. And it’d be tough after all of the time out to bet on Hakuho winning both.

Hakuho’s return is one of the most riveting stories of sumo in recent months (and we’ve been blessed with plenty of them – good and bad). There’s something to watch for in each of his likely battles, assuming he goes the distance. Whether a yusho is likely or not is the biggest question of all, but what is sure is that each day’s musubi-no-ichiban will be must-see viewing. HAKKEYOI!

An Ikioi Moment of Reflection

As good a time as any to bust out this old edit I did for Andy years ago…

As you may have seen or heard elsewhere, Ikioi retired last week.

This isn’t the post to do a comprehensive post-mortem on his career, I don’t really have the ability to eloquently summarise that right now or the patience to get “whatabouted.” Instead, the retirement of Ikioi instead makes me think about the passing of time with sumo, life, etcetera and so on. So, I want to talk about that. 

Ikioi was my favourite rikishi. I said that many times on this site, in podcasts, in interviews with other folks throughout the sumo world. There was something special and unique about him, even in the beginning, when I started following sumo, before I knew anything. At that point I think he was the only single kanji name in the top division, and he had a strange but powerful, relatable shikona.

Ikioi was all over the place. When I started watching the sport, he could just as soon rattle off 9 wins in a row as he could lose 13 or 14 in a tournament. He was a kinboshi threat, would go crashing into the dizzy heights of the san’yaku and be sent swiftly crashing back out of it.

His sumo was so intense. I always called it heavy metal sumo. For sure, that was partially influenced by my theft of that term from association football and that term’s association with the beloved manager of my beloved club. But it applied here. Ikioi only had one speed, which was all the way on.

A lot of rikishi say that their will is to do “forward moving sumo.” This is the only way that Ikioi ever really operated. From the tachiai he would rush in, grappling or thrusting or with a big right hand to the mawashi, normally with an attempt to just overwhelm the opponent, and dominate. Did he win? More often than not. Well, one time more often than not as his career 546-545 record would indicate. But it was the approach that was the exciting thing.

For sure, some of his mannerisms in the dohyo seemed to be influenced by my other great sumo love, Hakuho (even if his results certainly were not). There’s not really much denying that. As the iron man, he was ever present in the top division, famously never missing a day of work. Our friend Kintamayama described him at times variously as a “walking ambulance” or “walking hospital” owing to the state of the many bandages covering him and the challenges he often seemed to have in his latter years even entering and leaving the dohyo, always gingerly and sometimes with a grimace.

The first time I ever interviewed someone for this site, John Gunning explained the concept of shin-gi-tai: heart, technique, physique – the three qualities you need to be successful at sumo. It’s no good if you just have one or even two of them. To be great you need to have all of them. I’ve watched sumo at this point for many years (not as many as some, longer than others), and no one epitomises heart to me like Ikioi. Of course he had the physique to be successful in the top division and he sometimes displayed the technique to back it up, but it was his heart that kept him in matches he had no business winning, and it was his heart that kept him coming back onto the dohyo when his body clearly didn’t agree.

It has been said that of the three, perhaps that’s the most important quality.

I haven’t been in Japan for a while now. It’s hard to say I miss the basho experience because the experience that exists now isn’t the one that I and so many other readers of this site have had. So it’s not that I miss going to a basho, but I miss moments, like the one I had meeting the follower of Ikioi who showed up to Kokugikan in a Hanshin Tigers jersey and walked around the upper bowl of the arena for an entire afternoon holding up his Ikioi cheer sign.

A well known Ikioi fan graciously allows Tachiai to take his photo at Kokugikan in 2019

I have a deep love for the city of Osaka and there is just no replicating the atmosphere that the fans of that city provide to one of their own during the Haru basho. I was lucky enough to witness this in person several times for Ikioi. The Kansai experience is not for everyone it must be said, but I’ve often said it’s my favourite place to watch sumo and for me, watching this guy in that place was often the best part of all of it.

The worst part for me here isn’t the retirement, it’s the manner of it. And I don’t mean an injured guy dropping into Sandanme while the Kyokai works out a myoseki shuffle before he can retire. It’s that an Ikioi was robbed of that last appearance in front of hometown fans, much like a Kotoshogiku never got to make a final appearance in front of supporters in Kyushu. Those places would have provided the best backgrounds for these long serving veterans to make their final bow, to say nothing of long-serving lower rankers whose most passionate support, perhaps even the support that helped to keep them going, might have come from one of the regional basho.

We recorded some podcast content for Tachiai the other day, and Bruce remarked that much of this incredible class of the 00s has now ridden off into the sunset in their blue jackets as the wave of retirements of that generation of rikishi gathers pace. Just as the sumo world doesn’t stop, that progression through the ranks from rookie to retiree doesn’t happen in isolation – it’s hard not to think how the world has moved and changed around us as well. Of course, there will be another great generation soon, maybe we’re seeing the start of it now. If you’ve got a favourite rikishi, enjoy it. If you haven’t, maybe you and I will find one from this new generation soon. And let’s hope this mad world gets back to normal soon so that we can have special moments in our temples of sumo again.

Anyway, here’s that video of the main man hawking an iron, if you haven’t seen it. Enjoy.