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.