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

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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.

An Abi Fan Asks: How to solve an Abi like Abi?

The author, in a rare moment of sumo purikura not featuring Ichinojo

Hello! My name is Josh. I am an Abi fan.

Let me just put that up front to make it clear, this is an opinion piece, it’s not news (unless you didn’t know that, and had been wondering for some time).

I’m unashamedly such a fan. In my line of work, I’ve met a lot of notable people. I don’t get photos with them. It feels weird to me. But of course, I have a photo with Abi (yes, a real one, not the one above). He has added to my enjoyment of this sport I love.

Is he fun to watch on the dohyo? Yes. Obviously he is. He’s never going to be a Yokozuna. Most Abi fans know he’s never going to be a Yokozuna. The on-dohyo experience of Abi is part of what makes him such great fun: the beautiful shiko, the long limbed oshi-zumo, arms and legs flailing everywhere, dancing circles around the perimeter of the tawara, to the point that you’re unsure if he lost a match just from getting dizzy. And on the days when his thrusting attack is on, it’s great entertainment. Abi matches don’t last long. Don’t blink! You’ll miss it.

If you’re an Abi fan though, you know it’s not just about what’s happening on the dohyo. Up until last year, his social media activity was can’t-miss hilarity. Abi and a tsukebito (usually the now-retired Wakakoki) up to various hijinks, from constantly waking up a snoring rikishi (maybe Chiyomaru) on jungyo to some other kind of good natured pranking. Inevitably, in the eyes of the association and some fans it eventually went too far, and all of sumo got banned from social media. Whoops!

What attracts us as fans so devoutly to the sumo world is that it is full of tradition, full of mystique. Abi would just lift the lid on this notoriously insular world and allow all of us a peek inside, be that a delicious sushi meal out with his tsukebito or twisting some random sekitori’s nipple before stepping on the hanamichi at an exhibition. It’s why, in spite of him ultimately costing us the view into the world, Abi fans still showed up, in their numbers, at the basho, with their cheer towels, and bought up Abi memorabilia and merchandise.

It’s no surprise really, that a rikishi with such a reputation for causing mischief and mayhem, would then invariably find himself at the wrong end of a disciplinary matter again at some point. And there’s no excuse for what he did: breaking the NSK’s quarantine – over and over, reportedly upward of a dozen times, with and probably at the behest of a benefactor, along with lower ranked rikishi, to a hostess club, venues which have been epicentres of coronavirus transmission in Japan. We already lost one basho this year, and, tragically, one rikishi, and in so doing he may have endangered the public, more rikishi, and more tournaments in the process. And embarrassed the sport. It was wrong.

(A quick sidenote for those who are curious: hostess clubs – and host clubs – are popular in Tokyo’s nightlife scenes. They are not prostitution venues, as some readers have inquired to Tachiai writers on Twitter. They are places where you have drinks and share conversation with a companion, in a venue which is possibly themed but probably just staffed by attractive hosts and hostesses with whom to drink and talk. Given the close proximity of people in these venues, along with the fact that people may be going there privately and not necessarily discussing it, they have become places where the coronavirus has been known to be transmitted.)

It was, then, an unbelievable surprise, that the NSK decided not to accept Abi’s resignation papers, and instead to dock him salary and suspend him for three tournaments (in so doing, effectively relegating him from the salaried ranks upon his return). In the past, the NSK has been known for zero tolerance banishment of rule breakers, and especially those who attempt to cover it up: Osunaarashi driving a car and lying about it? Gone. Harumafuji, Takanoiwa and Takanofuji beating up lower ranked rikishi? All gone.

It’s hard not to be cynical. Sumo fans and media have criticised the NSK in the past for “killing the golden goose” by way of intense jungyo cycles and injury mismanagement that lead to us not always being able to see the best rikishi on the dohyo every tournament. And in an era where revenue by way of ticket sales and sponsors will be reduced owing to capacity limits and event cancellations, it isn’t hard to envision a situation where the NSK would be further hit by losing one of their top stars (in terms of fanbase and merchandise sales) permanently. In that context, it is easier to understand their decision.

But their decision just doesn’t jive with history. It’s hard for me not to wonder what would have happened if this had have been a workmanlike rikishi who doesn’t put butts in seats or sell refrigerator magnets (yes, I have one), tote bags or t-shirts. If it had been – for example – Sadanoumi, and not Abi, is he getting off with the same punishment, given the NSK’s track record of meting out justice? I don’t know.

No doubt, Sumo Internet will be full of thoughts and opinions about what this latest faux pas and reprieve means for the future of Abi. The NSK has held his resignation papers, meaning they could later be accepted should he commit further faux pas. In the short term, obviously, we have to hope he, like all rikishi, upholds the duty and the quarantine in the face of the global pandemic so that we can all safely continue to enjoy sumo (especially those fans in Japan who may have an opportunity to watch it live), and the rest of our lives.

But how do you solve an Abi like Abi in the long term? The reality is… you don’t. No doubt, he’ll find another way to get himself into trouble again. And some of us just won’t stay mad at him forever about that, even if it results in his dismissal. What would be upsetting is if he doesn’t attempt a comeback at all, in light of the stories of so many actual hard-luck rikishi who have bounced back from far further down the banzuke, in poor health, to achieve something notable. But after all… however much he makes you want to cheer, sometimes he makes you cringe. That’s Abi.