Rethinking the Heya Power Rankings

It’s been a bit since we published the heya power rankings.

This feature started off several years ago when I – and others! – were interested in the idea of ranking the performance of a stable.

Now, to be clear, this concept is not central to the idea of sumo at all. Heya do not compete with each other. Nor do they probably want to be told they are better or worse than another stable: they all have their own mostly distinct cultures, histories, chanko recipes, traditions, personalities, etc. While I also wanted to see performance of the various ichimon (the groups of stables organised largely for administrative and also historical purposes with many cross-stable relationships, training partnerships and links among oyakata and elder names), the idea was that perhaps training partnerships could show a correlation of performance over time and a rise in performance of associated stables under certain leadership.

It’s kind of an interesting concept, but I think the presentation was a bit ham fisted and while it was a good thought exercise, I’m sure there were plenty of number crunching people dwelling in the dark recesses of the sweat stain encrusted corners of the mawashi that is global sumo internet fandom slamming their faces into keyboards at the idea of measuring this kind of thing based off sekitori kachi koshi and various prizes.

Admittedly, when you follow the sport more on a personal level and also over a longer period of time you start to understand nuances that appear: Scouting partnerships, relationships, connections to the amateur world, details of the specific oyakata and so on.

For me the most problematic thing, if you look at the old model, is how we would have handled a stable like Michinoku: having a yokozuna and a high ranking maegashira, it would have scored high in 2020. But the reality is that the perma-kyujo yokozuna was transferred there against his interest, and apart from Kiribayama, almost everyone the stable has put into the salaried ranks over 20+ years have been inherited from other stables (and number of those guys were even bounced in the yaocho scandal, truncating their sumo careers significantly). So our old model would have given very inaccurate portrayals of a stable like that, and its development relative to the rest of the sumo world.

The series also spilled a lot of words on these pages about the supposed “fall” of Isegahama beya, as our model showed its numbers going ever lower, to the depths of some stables like (for example) Isenoumi. Again this is a misrepresentation. While Harumafuji’s retirement, Terunofuji’s injury driven fall out of the top ranks and Aminishiki’s intai certainly impacted the stable’s impression on the sport in the short term, this model did not take into account the incredible stream of talent coming up toward the top two divisions while this was occurring. Nishikifuji and Midorifuji have since impacted the top two divisions while Terutsuyoshi has turned himself into a makuuchi regular and even handed his stablemate Terunofuji an assist in his improbable yusho on his makuuchi comeback. This all while Takarafuji continues to be a solid fixture at the business end of the top division. There’s more that happened there in the fallow period following Harumafuji’s retirement than has happened in the total of Michinoku-beya’s 22 years, but our model won’t have seen it that way.

So the question is: how to measure the success of a heya on an ongoing basis? Is it a body of work that can only be measured when an oyakata retires, like a ramen chef who has spent a lifetime perfecting the craft? Or is it fair that like a baseball farm system, we can identify, analyse and grade new recruits and their potential impact on the top end of the sport? Similarly, while the banzuke shifts largely on numbers alone (apart from some strange whims of a group of old men and the interference of a pandemic), the performance and projection of recruits needs context: a 7-0 in Jonokuchi is more impressive from a fresh 17 year old than it is from a 23-year old with university sumo pedigree. Numbers might be able to project a sekitori (as some folks on the Sumo Forum exhibited years ago), but the eye test and other factors are probably required to determine the quality that can lead to improved performance across the board.

I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. But unlike those who find it a pointless exercise, I do think there is value in doing the analysis. There just needs to be a better way. I’d love to hear some thoughts from the community. To what extent should data factor into this? Should we be taking more advantage of Andy’s data visualisation tools (trick question, the answer is yes)? Should it contain large amounts of subjectivity from experts with potentially differing opinions, like farm team rankings? Let us know what you think.

When A Man Wants Takarafuji to Win The Yusho

OK, so I’ve said it, and it’s out there. There’s no taking it back now! Look, it even makes me uncomfortable. I’m normally a fan of rikishi who do exciting sumo, going flying around the dohyo, nobody knowing where they may end up, even if it’s all the way to the cabaret club. Takarafuji, at face value, is sort of the antithesis of that.

It’s not that I dislike his sumo style, in the way that I do someone like Aoiyama’s: a one dimensional, aesthetically displeasing, attack. It’s more that on the surface, it’s just kind of the equivalent of Al Gore’s macarena. Normally, if asked if you’d like to see him do it again, you’ve already forgotten what it was and moved on to the next bout.

But that line of thinking ignores the deft art to the Aomori man’s defensive sumo. A lot of times, to the untrained eye, he’s just standing still, eventually suffocating or draining the life out of his opponents. He’s raised his level this tournament, and what has heretofore appeared to be the stalemating of any and all comers has transformed into an anti-terror bomb disposal unit. It’s the Isegahama veteran, in these crazy pandemic times, methodically clipping the wires, defusing, and safely disposing of any dangerous materials between him and the kensho. Perhaps no win summed this up as much as Day 9’s stunning reversal of Okinoumi’s seemingly unstoppable advantage at the tawara.

He’s a big man, not in the category of an Ichinojo, who you think of when you consider a rikishi who can rely on being “immovable object” as a strategy. In the absence of one defining all-around physical characteristic, he’s just strong all over.

Why do I want him to win? Without question it’s been a strong couple of years in terms of veteran journeyman yusho champs. While Takarafuji has never excelled in the san’yaku ranks, certainly there’s an argument to be made he brings more to the table than a Tokushoryu, and while other one-note rikishi have proven triumphant with their one-great skill – see Tochinoshin, Takakeisho – those Ozeki past and present have done so offensively. It’s arguable that we haven’t really seen a yusho champ who can lay claim to being a defensive specialist of any type since Kisenosato (there’s an argument for Kakuryu, but I see him less of a defensive specialist and more of someone with a good counterattacking Plan B). While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – attacking sumo – like in many sports, it’s more thrilling and attractive – there’s a place at the top table for technicians as well.

The other element is: who else? Sumo does not need another Maegashira 17 yusho champion, so someone please take care of Shimanoumi – or at least stop giving him Juryo 4 ranked opponents. Takakeisho has been impressive, but I still feel it’s too early and too unlikely that he can mount the run that would lead to him becoming a convincing Yokozuna, and I’m hopeful someone (anyone) can step up to be a worthy challenger in that race in the meantime. If he does become Yokozuna, I want it to be because he actually had to take down Ozeki and Yokozuna in consecutive basho… not because literally all of them were kyujo.

As for Terunofuji, it’s hard to argue that he wouldn’t be a more thrilling victor than Takarafuji. While there are the inevitable fitness-derived weaknesses in his sumo, there’s no question he has been overwhelming when he’s been on. And either would be a credit to their mutual stable master.

Isegahama himself (former Yokozuna Asahifuji) has proven more than adept at scouting and developing waves of successful rikishi. We’re about to see yet another makuuchi debutant from the stable next basho, as Midorifuji prepares to make his bow. And yet, despite the incredible work he’s done over the years, as he enters his final act as an oyakata it would be some achievement to see him also develop a champion of yet another style. One that in contrast to Harumafuji’s energy and chaos, and Terunofuji’s power, simply displayed unbeatable fundamentals.

Now that I’ve said it, he’ll probably lose today and lose out. But for once, I’m cheering for Takarafuji.

Aki 2020 Day 1 Preview

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Tachiai-Aki-Banner.png

It has been a strange start to the basho – and it hasn’t even started! As Bruce reported earlier in the day, both Yokozuna have officially withdrawn, along with injured Ishiura and suspended Abi. And then there’s the matter of an entire heya being kyujo owing to a coronavirus infection.

However, as friend and reader Tigerboy1966 said in the comments of this site, maybe we shouldn’t let that overshadow what has the ability to be, at least on Day 1, a great day of sumo. Good ‘ol Tigerboy.

What We’re Watching on Day 1

Ichinojo (M17E) vs Hoshoryu (M16W) – An intriguing matchup. Many oohs and aahs followed the surprise return of Ichinojo to the top division in a slot that has yielded two surprise champions already this year. His opponent makes his much awaited makuuchi debut, having shown steady progress and consistency since his entry into the sumo world less than 3 years ago. Ichinojo also made his top division debut as a hyped 21 year old in this tournament six years ago, and nearly made the biggest splash of all. This matchup will give us one of the first indications of whether Hoshoryu can fulfil his own promise.

Kyokutaisei (M16E) vs Shohozan (M15W) – Moviestar Kyokutaisei returns to the top division after a lengthy period in Juryo facilitated by an injury on his last visit to makuuchi two years ago. He’s done well in the past couple of tournaments, and I’d make him a narrow favourite against a Shohozan whose feistiness and slaps have looked a little weaker in the past few tournaments. It sort of reminds me of the end of Yoshikaze’s career, when you see a wily ol’ dog who’s still capable of grinding out wins but with less gas in the tank.

Tobizaru (M14E) vs Shimanoumi (M15E) – Sumo’s latest poster boy Tobizaru makes his top division bow against a rikishi who has had a deeply disappointing twelve months, with just one kachikoshi and some pretty bad results. Both rikishi come from stables deep with sekitori talent and should be fairly tuned up for the basho. The lifetime series is fairly even at 4-5 and I’d give Tobizaru the tip to even it, given he’s been in better form recently.

Kotoshoho (M12E) vs Meisei (M13E) – Kotoshoho continues his upward ascent, having still only suffered one makekoshi in his career, a 3-4 reverse down at the lower end of makushita. His reward for continued success is a first time meeting against a rejuvenated Meisei, back in the top division following a triumphant Juryo campaign last time out. While Kotoshoho isn’t against mixing in the odd throw, yotsu-zumo is an element of his game that he is still developing and an area that the energetic Meisei will look to exploit. Having ended the last tournament with a bit of a whimper, I’ll make Kotoshoho the slight underdog here.

Kaisei (M12W) vs Kotoshogiku (M11W) – Alleged newlywed Kaisei gets the hump n’ bump master Kotoshogiku in the battle of grizzled vets. With both men preferring the mawashi, this will likely be won or lost at the tachiai. Kotoshogiku has an overwhelming advantage in their rivalry: excluding fusen-sho it’s 12-1 to the Sadogatake man. The Brazilian hasn’t displayed much of an answer for Kotoshogiku’s main move.

Chiyotairyu (M11E) vs Kotoeko (M10W) – It’s a battle of unlikely and perhaps temporary heyagashira of two massive stables, as Kokonoe’s Chiyotairyu gets Sadogatake’s Kotoeko. Kotoeko has been much improved lately in terms of his endurance and stamina on the dohyo, and if he can survive the tachiai he’d have to be favoured here. That said, Chiyotairyu’s two wins out of five against Kotoeko have been the two most recent encounters, and a big cannonball tachiai could well blow him away. I’d make this a coin flip, we’ll see whose style wins the day.

Sadanoumi (M10E) vs Onosho (M9W) – Onosho dominates this rivalry against the achingly consistent Sadanoumi. Again, I think this gets won at the tachiai. If Onosho fails to establish his pushing attack or gets too much forward lean, the veteran Sadanoumi should be able to easily slap or toss him down. Onosho had been having a little bit of a renaissance before his disastrous 2-13 last time out: he’ll be trying to prove this isn’t his true ceiling after all his injury problems. Sadanoumi, meanwhile, you look at, and go: “yeah, Maegashira 10 sounds about right.” It’s really up to Onosho to take the initiative here.

Enho (M9E) vs Wakatakakage (M8W) – These guys have met three times, all down in Juryo. Enho triumphed last time, but these are the matches where I worry about him: against a technical opponent with good mobility, which can limit his strengths. Wakatakakage has been extremely consistent in recent basho – which must be of great joy to his new shisho – and I would expect him to continue his progress this time. I make Wakatakakage the favourite here.

Ryuden (M7E) vs Tokushoryu (M8E) – For a time it looked like Ryuden was going to regularly trouble the joi-jin but he’s settled in as a mid table guy. Tokushoryu did well to stabilise himself last basho after bounding up and then down the banzuke after his championship. These two guys have two very different objectives: Ryuden wants to prove he can move and stay up the banzuke whereas Tokushoryu, near the end of his career and having spent much of the recent years in Juryo, wants to hang around these parts as long as possible. I actually think if he’s in good shape, Tokushoryu can win this. Ryuden seems to have problems putting away tricky customers and Tokushoryu’s twist down technique at the edge could work for him here.

Aoiyama (M7W) vs Kagayaki (M6W) – Aoiyama had won the first six encounters, but Kagayaki has won the last three and I make him the favourite here against an opponent that continues to just not show a whole lot. Kagayaki has looked determined to add a bit of the steel to his sumo that makes him hard to beat, and while he suffered a 5-10 last time out, I think he has a good chance against some treading-water opponents to reverse course in this basho. No details as yet as to whether any part of this match will be pixelated.

Takayasu (M6E) vs Takarafuji (M5W) – Both of these veterans seem determined to make it back to san’yaku. Takarafuji has the better of the training situation with two other high rankers in his stable, and perhaps that will help him this basho (it certainly didn’t last time). Takayasu needs to deploy a strong tachiai and use an oshi-attack against a rikishi who will be intent on stalemating him and wearing him down. Takayasu is the rare opponent for Takarafuji who can probably match him for stamina and isn’t afraid of a long match, but coming back from the injuries he’s had, I’m not sure if that’s good for Takayasu. It’s a slight edge for me to the former Ozeki here, on account of having more in his locker to put away the Isegahama man.

Kiribayama (M5W) vs Tochinoshin (M4W) – This is a really intriguing matchup. Kiribayama has tried to adopt some of Tochinoshin’s lifting technique, although it’s possibly ultimately not where his sumo lies long term. Kiribayama’s issue for me is he’s not approached matches at this end of the banzuke with a real game plan, often playing to his opponent’s strengths. If he can stay mobile and use his throwing techniques to his advantage in getting uncomfortable grips for a strong but predictable opponent like Tochinoshin, he can consistently win these types of matches. I don’t know if he’s there yet.

Yutakayama (M4E) vs Terutsuyoshi (M3W) – Terutsuyoshi seems to have really benefitted from the resurgence of his heya as a whole, with several strong rikishi and prospects now in the top two divisions. However, having motored up to a new career high placing, this is where things are going to get really difficult. Yutakayama, on song, has a pushing attack that will blow the little man away, so he’s going to have to try something special to manoeuvre his larger opponent into a position from his he cannot defend. Yutakayama looked to have turned it around recently, but simply has not been able to deal with top rankers, so in a No-kozuna tournament that pulls him firmly into the joi again this time, Terutsuyoshi should be a welcome first opponent.

Okinoumi (K1E) vs Myogiryu (M3E) – Okinoumi’s late career resurgence continues, and his reward is a date on shonichi with fellow veteran Myogiryu. Given recent performance, it’s hard to believe a couple years ago we might have felt both of these guys were lost to chronic and serious injuries. Okinoumi barely leads the lifetime series 13-12, but if he can blunt the speedy Myogiryu’s tachiai with a strong grip, I’d make him the favourite on paper again here.

Daieisho (S2E) vs Tamawashi (M2W) – This is almost a master and apprentice match, with two practitioners of very similar styles of sumo. The eight basho Sekiwake Tamawashi and debutant Daieisho both share the trait of upward thrusting to keep their opponents out of focus and off balance. Daieisho has been a revelation in the last twelve months, and at times looks almost to win matches through sheer will. The naysayers will point to his two fusen-sho last time out detracting from his 11 win performance, but his presence at the rank of Sekiwake should put some fire under the two other holders of the rank. Recent history favours Daieisho here, and he’s going to want to prove he can hold this rank.

Hokutofuji (M2E) vs Mitakeumi (S1W) – It’s not that long ago we were talking about Hokutofuji as an Ozeki candidate. It’s been for a long time that we’ve been talking about Mitakeumi as an ever-present Ozeki candidate. Both have suffered injury problems, but it’s the decorated Mitakeumi that has spurned more good opportunities, and he will be desperate to take advantage in this tournament. While Hokutofuji has done well to consistently keep himself among the division’s elite, Mitakeumi simply has more up his sleeve than Hokutofuji’s push/thrust/slap attack and will be the presumable favourite to win a match he really can’t afford to be losing.

Shodai (S1E) vs Takanosho (M1W) – I like this matchup, because again, there are a lot of shared characteristics both on and off dohyo. Both men have almost quietly risen to the business end of the banzuke while more vaunted competitors (or in Takanosho’s case, stablemates) have received the majority of the headlines. Shodai, having almost been written off as a serious talent, has added an enormous amount of power and stamina to his game which in some ways has compensated for his continually weak tachiai. Both men aren’t afraid to go chest to chest to grapple and both men can win with a pushing/thrusting attack, and it’s in the latter area that Takanosho particularly excels. Shodai is the favourite but this may be a potential upset encounter.

Terunofuji (M1E) vs Takakeisho (O1W) – He came from the bottom to the top: Terunofuji’s stunning yusho might have been the icing on the cake of his remarkable comeback from knee problems, health problems, and being-in-Jonidan problems, but the cherry would be reclaiming his place in san’yaku. Or even, say it quietly, his old Ozeki position. The hard work continues here against a newly-engaged Takakeisho who has struggled with his own injuries and only had two good basho in the seven since he’s assumed the Ozeki rank. Indeed, his percentage of quality tournaments is starting to look rather like that of his opponent during his own Ozeki tenure. Given that he’s the current holder, I’m going to make Terunofuji the favourite here: while the two have only met once, with Takakeisho being triumphant in that match, it was years ago at the start of Terunofuji’s slide down the ranks. Terunofuji has more dimensions to his sumo, and if he’s been able to keep himself fit, he may do well here.

Asanoyama (O1E) vs Endo (K1W) – All eyes are on Asanoyama as the man at the top of the tree this tournament. His 4-6 record against Endo shows that these matches against his near rivals are the ones he needs to start to win with more consistency if he is going to take the next step in his career development. I’d go as far as to say that with the number of hungry rikishi behind him, these are the matches this basho that he simply cannot afford to lose. While Asanoyama favours a right hand in, left hand outside grip, Endo is a famously tricky customer who, despite frustrating with both his inconsistency and interviews, is probably still one of the more multi-dimensional and gifted tacticians in the sport. His 7 kinboshi are proof that Endo revels in underdog bouts. There are no kinboshi on offer this tournament, but with a huge pile of kensho on offer at the end of this one and a big scalp on the line, he will turn up. Asanoyama needs to land his preferred grip early and dispatch Endo with authority, as a good start in this basho may prove crucial.

A Surplus of Almost

“Close doesn’t count – except in horseshoes and hand grenades.” – Jim Kaat

There’s a rhythm in sumo, you know. Famously a so-called zero-sum game, a meritocracy, where the rankings get redrafted every 8 weeks or so on the balance of wins and losses. It has an element of both predictability and unpredictability: you know that this guy will get promoted and by about how much and this guy will get demoted and by about how much.

Except at the top end. At the top end, you need to demonstrate sustained dominance. You have to have to be a winner, you have to be a killer. You can become enormous, you can become skilled, but you need to demonstrate consistency and the mentality that’s required of winners. “Close” doesn’t count.

These are strange times, you don’t need me to tell you that. Most of us would be happy to watch a basho regardless of which 42 guys composed the top division. But there’s a serious issue hanging over sumo right now that is only going to get more and more murky with time: the current Yokozuna are only fit for action about half the time. Their dohyo health is declining as both men have entered their 36th year and have about 2500 (official) matches on in the ring between the two of them. That’s a lot of mileage.

The problem is, they might have to keep going for a while.

Yes, I know it’s possible to have sumo without a Yokozuna. No doubt, someone’s furiously beating their fingers into bloody stumps doing SumoDB queries to shove all of the great Nokozuna moments that yielded great new champions right back into my face. And yes, I also know Hakuho’s going to have to take the reins of what’s presently called Miyagino-beya before August 2022 when Miyagino oyakata is forced to retire, and Kakuryu’s probably playing out the string until his own citizenship developments allow him to pursue similar work.

But: transitional moments between eras usually came with a newcomer stepping up (or in the process thereof) who would dominate: it was clear. It was clear Takanohana would emerge the next star after the Chiyonofuji-Asahifuji-Onokuni-Hokutoumi era. Asashoryu only spent THREE basho as a rank and filer as he rocketed to the fore after the Waka/Taka-Akebono-Musashimaru era. It’s been Hakuho ever since, with sidekicks of various tenure alongside.

Those are just the recent examples. But in this moment, it’s unclear. Most sumo observers will fully expect Asanoyama to be the 73rd Yokozuna. I expect it, you probably expect it, we’ll probably get an NHK preview show in the next few days where we find out they expect it as well. He’s the best of the current bunch right now, but he’s has further steps to take.

There’s no question Asanoyama is a hugely talented rikishi. But he needs more arrows in the quiver. While he is not totally uncomfortable to the extent of a Tochinoshin in oshi-zumo, it’s clear he also relies heavily on a right hand inside/left hand outside grip. Yotsu-zumo techniques are an overwhelming majority of his wins and when you look at his losses, in the oshi-zumo category you’re seeing the names you’d expect (plus Hakuho): the Abi’s, the Daieisho’s, the Tamawashi’s, the Hokutofuji’s.

These are the names of the joi-jin you have to beat with consistency, and the names of the rikishi who stand between his current level of a reliable 10-12 wins and a champion level of 13+ wins a tournament. Oh, and by the way: you have to start not reaching that level, but in consecutive basho.

I said in the recent Tachiai podcast that Asanoyama’s debut basho as an Ozeki was a success. It was, especially in light of other recent Ozeki performances, and I don’t think any of the above commentary detracts from that. The problem is, the inability of those behind him in the banzuke to deliver has meant we now hope for more from the new top Ozeki.

Behind him, there are promising scenes, but also much of a muchness. Any one of Shodai, Mitakeumi, Daieisho, or even Endo, Hokutofuji and Terunofuji of the immediate challengers can put enough together to mount a run to become the new Ozeki. But none of them have displayed either the consistency, health, mental toughness, or technique (or in some cases all four) required to become serious Yokozuna candidates. We’re still waiting to see what the generation behind them is really made of at the top level: the Kotoshohos, the Kotonowakas, the Hoshoryus. It will be some time until we can develop real expectations there.

And the problem is, while we all love an underdog story, every Maegashira 17 yusho means we look even further down the line for the next great champion. These are great moments, heroic moments, great for the sport, the rikishi, the supporters and the stables. The flip side is that each of these moments trashes a rope run, an Ozeki run, a chance for someone of great expectation to make their next step.

The expectation is that in seven days’ time we are going to see a basho with no Yokozuna grand champion, no dohyo-iri, no great pageantry, no storied legend who electrifies the room the moment they walk down the hanamichi. Don’t think for a minute that Asanoyama, Shodai, and Mitakeumi don’t know that this is their moment, that no matter how many times we say “they may never get a better chance,” they really may never get a better chance.

But now it’s time to deliver it. Close doesn’t count.