Shohozan: A Brawler We Will Miss

We’ve often talked about our uncertainty of the legacy and achievements we will see from the current crop of sekitori. A large part of the reason for that uncertainty is that we were blessed by a group of rikishi for much of the previous decade which provided us with plenty of undercard excitement and intrigue. When someone like Bruce or Andy knocks out 21 previews of matches every day over the 15 days of a basho, generally the hope is that there are 21 matches that are going to be worth writing about.

I’m not saying there hasn’t always been the odd M12 vs M15 dud. Of course, throughout the years, there are matches every day that just flat-out aren’t exciting or interesting. But for many fans who got into sumo during the 2010s, they could be thankful for the guys up and down the makuuchi rankings who put on a hell of a show every time they crossed the tawara. One of those, without question, was Shohozan, who announced his retirement this past week.

The storylines that permeate most tournaments are: who’s going to win the yusho? Who’s going to be the next Ozeki/Yokozuna? Who’s this new top division debutant and how is he going to fare?

But it’s a real credit to the Shohozans of the world, the Yoshikazes of the world, the Chiyonokunis of the world (yes I know, he’s still going… kinda) that there’s a lot of sumo that doesn’t necessarily generate the headlines that inspire NHK to invest in luxurious half-an-hour-long special programming, but that still captures the excitement and the essence of what sumo is. Sumo that makes the whole of the product, and not just the top six bouts of the day, worth our time.

I’m not going to sit here drunk on nostalgia and pretend that the retirement of Shohozan gives me #allthefeels that I had for the retirement of Ikioi. Shohozan wasn’t my favourite rikishi. But he might have been yours. And his permanent scowl on screen, and his unmistakeable all-out brawler style cast him as a vital character in the recent, if now-bygone, era of this centuries-old saga that we all can’t stop watching.

Here, in a raucous – if half full – Kokugikan (calling back to the times in which you could go to Japan to watch sumo and the atmosphere was amazing), a fan captured Shohozan’s first kinboshi from 2013. It was the first of five in total and three which he took from from Yokozuna Harumafuji:

His stern on-dohyo demeanour always seemed all the more stark in contrast – to my poorly educated ears anyway – to the apparently eloquent and articulate way in which he spoke off the dohyo. In a world of mumbling Endos, here’s a guy who looked like he may go on to really do things in a future career in the kyokai.

This made it all the more shocking to sumo fans when, after a string of popular sekitori of the last decade had seemingly little trouble succeeding to their oyakata careers, the kyokai announced simply that Shohozan had retired with no mention of the elder name he would be taking. Because he wouldn’t be taking one.

SumoForum’s Akinomaki quotes a news article from PostSeven postulating that he was unable to remain in sumo due to a poor relationship with his oyakata, and that he will move on to a career in the food & beverage industry in his second life (and that the former Matsugane/Nishonoseki oyakata, former Ozeki Wakashimazu, preferred Ichiyamamoto as the eventual successor to his stock). This is a real shame if it is true, with Shohozan having been the oyakata’s finest product as a shisho. [updated to add: Akinomaki now reports (via ZakZak and recommended for the full quote) that Shohozan stated at his intai press conference that he did not have an intention to remain as a coach anyway.]

But we can’t possibly know or cast a value judgement on what goes on behind the scenes. You may already think I’ve spilled too many words in an opinion piece eulogising the career of someone who posted a 46% win rate in the top division and never found success in five tries at his career high rank of Komusubi.

Shohozan’s best wasn’t really about winning or losing though, at least not to me. It was about his contribution to enthralling battles, such as his epic late career encounters with Enho, or this bloody tsuppari special from Aki 2017 that ends in a loss to Yoshikaze (courtesy of Jason’s channel):

The man himself would surely prefer this example of a signature victory, his tsuppari giving way to the oh-so-satisfying bodyslam into the gyoji of Chiyonokuni at Haru 2012 (video courtesy of Maarike11):

The other day when reading quotes of interviews that Kintamayama had transcribed, I noted that rikishi are often reported with a desire “to go all out.” I asked our friend what the Japanese term for this actually was, and he said it’s “Ishoukenmei” (いしょうけんめい), and used in almost every interview to the press by rikishi. Lots of them may say it, but perhaps few actually deliver on the concept in the way that Shohozan did. Cheers to him for that, and best of luck to the man from Fukuoka in his second life.

Haru 2022: A 42 Man Review

Here’s something I wanted to do for a long time, a rundown of all 42 makuuchi rikishi and how they performed in this tournament. Then I did it and realised that unlike doing a recap where there are usually 20 things to talk about, I had to have twice as many things to talk about, and it was going to take forever. Those of you who have been following the site for a while now will you know that while you may not hear from me often, usually when you do you get quite a lot of content, and this promises to be no exception…

M17W Ichiyamamoto (8-7)

Junior Abi had an up and down tournament, and seems like he might be someone who rides the elevator for a while. In a more competitive division he’d probably be more of a Juryo mainstay, but in the current climate we can probably revise his ceiling to someone who bounces around before settling into a low Maegashira role, maybe running into the joi-jin once or twice in his career (kind of like a Chiyomaru). This tournament for me reflected that any growth from Ichiyamamoto in the future, will, at 28, likely be down more to exposure to top division action than any real talent development. Perhaps it’s a puzzle for his new shisho.

M17E Kagayaki (7-8)

He should be entering his prime, but it seems like the 27 year old is instead on a (very slow) downward spiral. His return to the top division only came courtesy of a fusen-sho, and having dropped two bouts to Juryo opponents in this tournament, it’s likely that he’s heading back to the second division. We always rave here about his fundamentals, but too often in this tournament as in recent history, he simply failed to show up. As he already qualifies for elder stock, it’s worth wondering whether he could actually be someone to take early retirement in a few years.

M16W Kotokuzan (7-8)

Even before this tournament, I had planned to write a piece about Arashio beya and I still plan to do that, and it’s a shame that the heya’s latest top division debutant was not able to score his kachi-koshi on day 15. I felt he gave a good account of himself in week 1 before the week 2 fade, but maybe the buoyant mood around the place will lead to some intense training. Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that he was languishing around the top of makushita for ages and his rise in the past year has been very fast, and I think what we’ve seen in this tournament is just a lack of high level experience catching up with him a bit. HIs oshi-zumo was fairly unspectacular, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for me to see a kachi-koshi next time especially from M17 if he sticks around. I think we need to see probably two more tournaments to understand what we can expect from him at this level.

M16E Nishikigi (9-6)

Very impressive return for Nishikigi, who hadn’t scored a kachi-koshi in the top division for what seemed like donkey’s years. After his 3-0 start I was convinced he would be the guy from the lower half of maegashira ranks to hang around the yusho race before getting absolutely pumped in week 2, but as it happened, he just settled into a consistent and competitive top division return. At 31, he’s at or around what will be his peak performance level, rank-wise.

M15W Tochinoshin (9-6)

The end of Tochinoshin has been postponed, and although he faded badly in the last 4 days to be denied a double digit winning record, these are the kinds of tournaments that can add 4-6 more months onto a veteran’s career, being that it might take him 2 more make-koshi to end up at M15W again, dependent on banzuke luck. One thing I noted from his performance this tournament was that it felt like there was an increasing desperation from the big man to land the left hand outside grip. This has always been his calling card, but it seems like these days he feels that’s the only option he has to win a match.

M15E Akua (4-11)

He’s an intriguing rikishi of a few curious techniques, but ultimately I’ve always found him a bit wanting at this level. He’ll be back down in Juryo, and after a pair of 11 loss tournaments it’ll be intriguing to see how he regroups or if he continues to free fall. Clearly he underperformed but even with a 4-11 there’s an argument to be made he didn’t underperform as much as…

M14W Yutakayama (7-8)

Yutakayama really should be hitting kachi-koshi at this level, and I know he took it to the death, but in the end you have to make it happen. Physically and talent-wise, he has all of the tools to be ranked consistently about 10 spots higher, but fitness and possibly mental reasons continue to keep him ranked quite low. He’s had a winning record in 8 of 23 top division tournaments, and it’s just not good enough for someone of his ability. He’s another who may well end up in a one-off appearance in the joi again some day, but I think it’s clear now with performances like this at this rank that his current career high rank will likely always be his career high rank and until he manages to find some consistency and power in his oshi-zumo game, he’ll struggle just to stay in the division.

M14E Kotoshoho (9-6)

This was a really good tournament for the youngster after a year (!!) out of the top division. I’d give it a solid B+, as he needed to consolidate his spot after regaining promotion after Hatsu. He’s become noticeably more comfortable on the mawashi. Despite being overtaken by his stablemate Kotonowaka, he has always been someone with the tools to make it at a high level, and at only 22 I still think that he can at least achieve Sekiwake in his career. Hopefully this basho can be the platform from which he can at least spend the next year consolidating his position in the upper half of the division.

M13W Chiyonokuni (5-6-4)

It’s an incomplete, as Chiyonokuni channeled peak hospital ward-era Ikioi with his countless bandages. I give him credit for coming back and trying to at least pick up the few wins that it might take to stay in the division – he got one which may or may not be good enough (lksumo says no). He displayed good enough sumo for the level when he was on, but he just physically wasn’t able to compete.

M13E Chiyomaru (5-10)

He started ok but lost 6 of the last 7, with the only win being against hapless Meisei, and there’s just no defence for that kind of performance at this rank. Sumo doesn’t work like this, but the argument could be made he deserves to be sent down in Chiyonokuni’s place (they both could, but of course if anyone will be spared it will be Maru on account of the half rank advantage). He’s put together a fine career riding the Juryo/Makuuchi elevator and using the limited tools at his disposal to put together a long career (over 50 basho now across the top two divisions). But I do think that his continued presence in Makuuchi despite not adding much is probably a symptom of the perceived slide in quality of the top tier.

M12W Chiyotairyu (7-8)

In May he’ll reach his 60th basho as a sekitori, a full 10 years at the salaried levels. It’s a remarkable achievement, and he continues to flummox fans and foes with his unbelievable inconsistency, sometimes perfectly executing his blast em out or pull em down strategy and sometimes being caught so wildly out of control that he “ole”s into the crowd or pushed down on his backside. He’s 33 now and we’ve seen for the last few years that the lower maegashira ranks are his level in this late phase of his career, so you can probably say this performance was about a C. Whether he’s 7-8 or 8-7 now it doesn’t really matter, he entertains and the performances are just about fine.

M12E Kotoeko (9-6)

Kotoeko always has such tenacity and I wouldn’t call this a breakout basho, but he did at least show a renewed ability to put opponents away. In previous tournaments he has often taken the upper hand against his opponent from the tachiai, but failed to actually find the technique to despatch them. This time he largely beat up on those ranked beneath him, dropping only 3 of his matches to lower ranked opponents. You don’t expect him to compete with Endo or Kiribayama on ability but for him to put away guys ranked M13-17 is what he needed to do, and by and large, he did.

M11W Terutsuyoshi (8-7)

While we all love to dream on the little guys, the harsh reality is that this score is a complete victory for a rikishi who’d been without kachi-koshi since last summer. What we can say about Terutsuyoshi’s performance is that he showed an awful lot of fighting spirit. While the sansho “fighting spirit prize” is almost awarded to a rikishi with a much more robust score, Terutsuyoshi reminds me more of the meaning of the term, and this part of the banzuke looks set to be his home.

M11E Myogiryu (7-8)

Look, there’s not much between his score and the man on the west side, and this also would have been a decent result for Terutsuyoshi all things considered, but the truth is that by and large, Myogiryu has been a mess since his improbable yusho challenge four tournaments ago. Partly it’s injury, but father time may also have zapped his energy, as the veteran looked lethargic in many Haru bouts.

M10W Aoiyama (7-8)

Contextually, this is a disappointing result for Big Dan. When you open with two wins against the guys ranked just in front of you, you have a bit of a stacked deck with a majority of your matches to come against lower rankers. But the newly Japanese-Bulgarian went on a 1-6 run that reversed his odds, and he looks set to cede the heyagashira role at Kasugano beya back to Tochinoshin. He still has his days, but more often than not he looks like he’s playing out the string and benefitting from a weak division. Some may say I’m being a little harsh and that he was unfortunate to be paired up with a Maegashira 1 for his “Darwin” match, but the reality is that if he had put away M16 Nishikigi, it would never have come to that. I think we’ve probably seen the last of him in the joi.

M10E Shimanoumi (8-7)

He’s a weird case and continues to confound me. He’s inconsistent, and may just be an average middle of the pack guy, which is a reasonable ceiling having arrived late to the top division and already approaching 33 years of age. The eye test tells me that he’s someone who really needs to be dialled into his technique on a given day, which is odd because he doesn’t have the appearance of a technical rikishi to me in the slightest. Still, decent result.

M9W Wakamotoharu (9-6)

His brother will take all the plaudits, of course he will, but this was another really solid tournament and you can see how the Onami brothers’ fundamentals just continue to improve. I think there will be an inevitable setback and adjustment when he reaches the joi but for the meantime he’s performed very admirably, and the real question is why the third brother, Wakatakamoto, continues to fail to challenge to reach Juryo in a stable that is really surging under the guidance of the former Sokokurai. I think Wakamotoharu won’t have nearly the ceiling of Wakatakakage, but it wouldn’t surprise me for him to eventually reach san’yaku once he adjusts to the top end of the division, even if just for a brief stint.

M9E Tobizaru (9-6)

I bracket this achievement alongside Terutsuyoshi’s kachi-koshi. Tobizaru just continues to give us thrilling sumo. It’s worth remembering he languished in Juryo for 2 1/2 years while we were marvelling at the rise of Enho, but the consistency of Tobizaru to entertain and keep himself in the mix and continue to find himself pitted against higher pedigree opponents – and win – is a real credit. His final flourish here to win 5 of 6 and make it look ultimately comfortable was positively Hokotofujian.

M8W Sadanoumi (5-10)

Here’s a guy who never seems to be anywhere near a good score and yet this was actually his first make-koshi since last May. No disrespect at all to the soon to be 35 year old, but the quality that has been lacking in Sadanoumi’s sumo to me is reflective of the division’s downturn. We’re seeing at best Juryo level sumo from a Maegashira 8 in the middle of the rank and file. I have nothing against him and he may well go on to be a good coach. The fact that two of his wins came against up-and-comers like Kotoshoho and Wakamotoharu, and not losing to anyone whose star could be considered to be on the rise (apart from, charitably, Takayasu again), means that sumo is just not ready to dispense with mediocrity and move to a new era.

M8E Chiyoshoma (5-10)

The Mongolian’s finish in this basho was horrendous. As with Aoiyama, he picked up a couple really nice wins against fumbling veterans to start the basho, but then was just completely overwhelmed for much of the tournament. We also didn’t see much in the flying henka department this time out, and maybe that explains a 1-2 win deficit from where we’d expect him to be. His future home is probably in the bottom half of the division though, and that’s where we’ll see him in Tokyo.

M7W Okinoumi (5-10)

He’s 36 and the interesting thing is, he’s really the example of someone who can keep themselves going for a year off the back of just one or two kachi-koshi. After another double digit loss basho he’ll be right back around where he started the May basho a year ago (M12). In some ways you’d say it was a shocking tournament in that he started the first week looking like anyone could beat him (except Sad Sadanoumi apparently), and the Day 9 make-koshi released some kind of inner gambarism that took him up to an almost respectable final scoreline after a handful of matches preying on losers. 

M7E Takayasu (12-3)

I’ve been dreading writing this, so it’s a good job I’ve already catalogued his previous history of misses. While some of those were tragic, this felt different. While the veteran conspired to throw away 3 of his final 5 regulation matches to bring others back into the title race, and 3 in a row counting the playoff after his spectacular final weekend collapse, this wasn’t like those previous blowups. Takayasu in week one was the picture of calm, perfect through ten days and cruising. Like last year’s invitation for Terunofuji to jumpstart his sensational promotion run, he threw this away by losing composure at key moments in the final week. But this time, going into the final day, it remained in his own hands even into a playoff after his rivals also lost. And the look of how desperate he was for his yusho was all over his face and visible into the first throes of the playoff match itself – rarely have I seen Takayasu hit an opponent harder or with more intensity. But it ended the way that one felt it was destined to end. Still, he’ll get another bite at the big time as he will end his exile from the joi-jin, and get another chance to do it all over again. But how many chances will he ever have again like this?

M6W Kotonowaka (11-4)

Also dropping 3 of the last 5, this was still an inspired tournament from the youngster, who stayed around the yusho race until the death. A final day win that would have banished Hoshoryu to the rank and file might have just opened a san’yaku spot for himself and added spice to the playoff, but instead he’ll make do from surely a new career high rank. He’s long been tipped as a future ozeki, and I think it’s the next tournament that will tell us more about his ability to challenge the top rankers after his previous stint in the joi was blighted by injury. He has a real physical presence and, from the lower ranks, has started to show that he’s learning how to use it. He’s been one win off the pace heading into senshuraku now of consecutive basho. I don’t think we can expect a yusho next time out on his first real run through the gauntlet, but he’s starting to show that he may have what it takes to revise what currently looks like a ceiling of Sekiwake up at least one notch.

M6E Hokutofuji (9-6)

9-6 isn’t a bad score, and Hokutofuji always seems to finish strong, as he did again, winning 5 of the last 6, but this tournament feels extremely underwhelming by his standards. For several years now he’s been a fixture at the top end of the division and this rank felt way below his level, and so seeing him drop early matches without much punch (although admittedly two of those first four losses were to yusho candidates) was a real surprise. I expected a double digit score here. Many years ago, I thought he had ozeki written all over him, as if he could be this generation’s Chiyotaikai, but he’s just never really had consistency since Ryuden cleaned his clock a few years back. He seems like a real confidence rikishi who’s destined to be streaky, as his performance in Haru again showed.

M5W Ishiura (2-7-6)

I know the prevailing thought (certainly said by no less an authority than our friend Kintamayama himself!) is that Ishiura should have just stayed put at 1 win and kyujo, but I think we have to put these things in some perspective. If he’s 22, then sure, he has his whole career in front of him. Ishiura is 32, and the one extra win he picked up may likely be the difference between staying in makuuchi (almost certainly will with two wins) and not (demotable with 1). Some people may say, you still collect a salary in Juryo, and it’s true, but he’s someone with a family, at the back end of his career and who will presumably want to stay salaried as long as possible, and that means trying to do whatever you can to get back on the dohyo and find an extra couple of wins. So I don’t begrudge him that, but I was sad not to get more from him at a career high rank, because – even taking the injury into account – he looked pretty awful in the 8 matches we did get.

M5E Takarafuji (6-9)

Takarafuji turned 35 before the basho, and he’s another who ends up with a creditable enough score despite the eye test telling us he was just missing his mojo. Nothing different about his sumo, he just didn’t have enough power to defend and then extend. Natsu may tell us whether this was a one-off, or the sign of a decline.

M4W Endo (8-7)

Par for the course: all kinds of wacky technical hijinks, maddening inconsistency, a smattering of kimarite and a whole lot of fun. Endo, now that we’ve given up the hope of him becoming some great star, has really turned into a bit of a treat these days, win or lose.

M4E Kiribayama (10-5)

I’ve been high on him for a while, and make no mistake, this is a good result having had to fight everyone of note apart from Takayasu and the absent Terunofuji. Most impressively, he beat an awful lot of folks ranked higher than him, in what was his first double digit winning record since his debut in the top division over two years ago. Unlike others, given that he’s only 25 I do still think he has the ability to go on and reach Ozeki, but I don’t think it’s necessarily in the next 2 years. It would be good to see him get a kachi-koshi in the joi next time out and join the youth movement starting to apply upward pressure on the san’yaku veterans.

M3W Meisei (1-14)

A penny for Takanosho’s thoughts, having been the only one to suffer a loss to Meisei in what was a tournament to forget for the Tatsunami beya star. He will absolutely be back, but having finished the previous basho softly, the signs are worrying and can only be reversed by a return to fitness or opponents of lower quality. This score was so bad he’s guaranteed himself the latter next time out. Sometimes you’ll see a rikishi who throws everything at his matches and can’t buy a win, but there was nothing truly unlucky about this result. He just wasn’t there.

M3E Onosho (6-9)

Another disappointing basho for Onosho, who started okay enough and will continue to ride the elevator in and out of the joi. Not much to say that we don’t already know: powerful thrusting when he’s on, too much forward lean and he’s down. He’s been in the top division nearly 5 years, but at only 25 he can still improve. On current form however he doesn’t look likely to best his career high Komusubi rank.

M2W Tamawashi (7-8)

I would give Tamawashi a B+ for this basho. He was in with a shot at his kachi-koshi until the last day, added to his kinboshi collection for the second straight basho, and continues to be sumo’s Ironman, despite carrying some worrying knocks to his midsection. He continues to be the definition of gambarising, showing up every day, built well and will keep hanging around the top dogs next time out at 37. He can’t be killed.

M2E Ichinojo (9-6)

This is a really good result for an Ichinojo who seems to have realised there’s really nothing but himself keeping him away from san’yaku these days. Entering the final weekend 9-4, he could have punched that ticket but coughed it up in two admittedly tricky matches firstly against his direct opposition Daieisho, and then against the wily Tobizaru in an entertaining final day bout. Sumo is better for him being on form, and injuries aside, it doesn’t look like the boulder is meaningfully moving soon.

M1W Ura (4-11)

One more win and we’d be saying this was actually a decent basho from Ura, punching well above his weight at his career high rank. If that seems like a surprise it’s because through the second weekend he was an unstoppable loss machine, starting 1-10. If you go through his matches, there just weren’t too many of the usual surprises and he was easily squared off, his mobility not really much of a factor. Still, he racked up 3 from 4 in the final days from mid-table underachievers and that should still keep him middle of the pack himself when we see him in Tokyo.

M1E Daieisho (8-7)

The margins are so fine and the standards have been set so high by the man himself, that losing any one of the final three days would have felt like a disaster. Daieisho started by knocking off the top Ozeki and taking another kinboshi from the Yokozuna, but it was a big downhill from there as he needed a huge effort over the final weekend to claim his winning record. He’s having trouble sticking in san’yaku these days, but at 28 and conceivably in his prime, it’s possible he still has room to cement his place.

KW Hoshoryu (8-7)

Here’s another situation where whether a guy is perceived to have a successful tournament or not comes down to one win, and I often think that’s a little unfair. Hoshoryu is improving slowly but surely, but truth be told this is more of a mental victory than anything else, as a 7-8 result that dropped him to M1 wouldn’t have been a bad tournament either. The impressive thing for me is seeing the mental resolve to come from behind with a losing score deep into the second week, and turning it around against some good quality opponents where other san’yaku debutants have faltered.

KE Takanosho (4-11)

Dreadful basho for Takanosho, who’s spent the last 18 months in and around the san’yaku ranks, holding his own at points. The big guns beat him up early but for him to fall to 11 losses without even facing the Yokozuna, and having the advantage of not having to face one of the Ozeki, is very poor. Like Meisei (to whom he granted the fellow ex-Sekiwake’s only victory), he just looked absolutely listless at points in the tournament, although hopefully he will take heart from beating up some easy prey in week 2.

SW Abi (8-7)

Another case of just one win, the final day victory, deciding the difference between a successful and unsuccessful tournament. Abi’s debut at the rank was yet more evidence of his ability to hold his own in the division’s upper echelons. He had a pretty brutal fade in the second week which was reminiscent of the old Mitakeumi, but put dirt on Takayasu on senshuraku in impressive fashion. The stakes will be raised next time, but having beaten everyone he was expected to and having held serve, you’d give his tournament a solid B+ or even A-.

SE Wakatakakage (12-3 Yusho) 🎉

Hard to imagine one’s debut at a new rank going better. The new star’s last three tournaments had hinted at a breakout, as he struggled against the top rankers from his position in the upper maegashira ranks in the first week, only to put it together comprehensively against rank and file opposition in week two (winning the last five matches, all against maegashira in each of the previous three basho). At the Sekiwake rank, he faced the rank and filers early and that momentum gave him the confidence to push on late in the basho, despite dropping a pair of the last three to Ozeki opponents. His two sensational victories over Takayasu ultimately opened the race and provided the silverware, but the entire body of work was remarkable, and reminiscent of the control and poise of a certain one of Takayasu’s former stablemates at their peak. Unlike that legend of the dohyo however, Wakatakakage’s maiden yusho came in his first title challenge, and just his 30th overall tournament – not a bad way to cap off a sensational rise over just 5 years in professional sumo.

O2W Mitakeumi (11-4)

Talking of debuts at a new rank, the man who’s been performing like an Ozeki for years finally is one, and having hung around the yusho race to the end, did exactly what was expected of him. I’d give his tournament an A-, because I felt like he got the results without really needing to get out of second gear, and coughed up a couple key bouts when it mattered. But all in all, he’ll be sumo’s second highest ranked rikishi in the next tournament, and that feels about right, because he’s probably sumo’s second best rikishi.

O1W Takakeisho (8-7)

After the opening week, I’m not sure anyone would have picked him as the Ozeki to finish with the worst overall score, but he cleared kadoban which was the most important thing. Still, 4 straight losses to finish against key opponents (in which I include Shodai, also fighting to clear kadoban) was a brutally disappointing way for the two-time champion to round out the basho. Much has been made of his endurance or lack of it, and he did lose some fiery bouts, so you can’t say he didn’t at least show up and give it his all. While questions will inevitably be asked about his fitness given that he’s been plagued by some frankly frightening looking injuries in the past, there’s also an open question about his ineffectiveness in bouts where opponents have looked to lengthen the match and deflect his attack. Has he simply just been figured out a bit? As Tochinoshin will attest, it’s easy to be a one trick Ozeki when your one trick is so good. And as Tochinoshin will attest, it’s very hard to be a one trick Ozeki when everyone knows the trick AND it’s not working at 100%.

O1E Shodai (9-6)

He just doesn’t make it easy, does he? After giving himself an 0-4 and then a 1-5 hole against not the toughest opposition he might face, one has to say it was a remarkable achievement by a rikishi not known for his mental toughness to pull himself out of an almighty jam with a thrilling winning streak into the second week. While he had a couple memorable wins, the icing on the cake for me will be the thrilling Day 14 win over Takayasu in which he literally threw the latter’s almighty collapse into full motion, removing the Ozeki himself from the danger zone.

Y Terunofuji (3-3-9)

It was pretty obvious that something wasn’t right with Terunofuji from the off, and someone with his health history who has to already very carefully manage his fitness will have potentially have been thrown a wrench by any covid-related complications. No one should be surprised that the Yokozuna is going to struggle from time to time to maintain his fitness, we knew this would come with the territory when we signed up for Yokozuna Terunofuji. But hopefully he can give us at least 4 fit basho a year while we scan the ranks for someone who might be able to be his rival and maintain the position for a bit longer. Fun fact: the five kinboshi he has conceded have come at the hands of only 3 rikishi, as Daieisho and Tamawashi each racked up their second gold star from the Yokozuna in this tournament.

Takayasu Catches the Garter

The word “bridesmaid” has been attached to Takayasu for some years. “Always the bridesmaid but never the bride,” the hugely talented but hugely erratic former ozeki has a fat stack of Jun-Yusho, but has yet to capture an Emperor’s Cup. His spotless Week 1 performance in the Haru 2022 basho, therefore, raises the question over whether this can be the time where he goes on and wins.

On some occasions, the Tagonoura-beya man has thrown the yusho away, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. So before we analyse what makes his chances so compelling on this occasion, let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane at some of his “nearly” moments:

2011 Nagoya (M11): Takayasu made his makuuchi debut in the first proper basho following the yaocho scandal, and ran out to a 7-1 record, one off the pace after the middle weekend. But Harumafuji was perfect through nakabi and a Day 9 loss ultimately sent the rookie on a spiral to a 9-6 record.

2012 Haru (M7): Takayasu sat at 7-2 after day 9 and again just one off the pacesetting Yokozuna Hakuho. Hakuho would indeed go on to lose another match in this basho, but Takayasu coughed up 3 straight losses to finish well off the pace.

2012 Aki (M9): Takayasu went stride for stride with Harumafuji through Day 8, matching the Yokozuna’s perfect record and sitting atop the leaderboard after nakabi. But while the 70th Yokozuna went on to a zensho, Takayasu got rocked for 5 losses in the second week.

2013 Hatsu (M7): Takayasu’s first Jun-Yusho had him off the pace from Day 1: a quality basho which included 9 straight wins started with a loss, which was all Harumafuji needed to overcome for another zensho.

2014 Nagoya (M11): Again, Takayasu made a perfect 8-0 run through nakabi, matching Yokozuna Hakuho. Hakuho ultimately dropped a couple of bouts in this tournament, and while Takayasu remained 1 off the pace after Day 10, he once again dropped the majority of his second week decisions. He entered the final weekend in contention, but caughed up the decisive loss to Ozeki Kotoshogiku.

2015 Natsu (M8): A theme will emerge here, as 7-1 Takayasu was co-leader on nakabi of a basho that Terunofuji eventually went on to win, for his first yusho. Having matched the future Yokozuna and the pair of Hakuho & Harumafuji through the first 8 days, he only fortunately finished with double digits thanks to a late fusen-sho.

2015 Kyushu (M12): After an 8-1 start, Takayasu was level with the eventual winner Harumafuji and one off the pace set by Hakuho, who would eventually lose the final three matches. Yet, Takayasu was nowhere to be seen in the final reckoning, losing 5 of the last 6 against low Maegashira opposition.

2016 Hatsu (M8): Takayasu exited nakabi at 7-1 and one off the pace set by the historic victor Kotoshogiku, but he never got a chance to face the Ozeki after another week 2 fade left him with 4 losses.

2016 Nagoya (K): The first of Takayasu’s title challenges from any rank of high fixture difficulty, an 8-1 start actually had him in front of eventual winner Harumafuji and Hakuho and level with stablemate Kisenosato. Even with the benefit of the two heya-mates not facing each other, Takayasu let Harumafuji back into the race on Day 10 before coughing up two more to lower ranked opposition later in the week, and leaving Kisenosato with the questions of whether he himself would ever shed the bridesmaid tag.

2017 Haru (S): In one of the all time classic basho of the era, Takayasu and Kisenosato both raced to perfect 10-0 starts, Takayasu giving Kisenosato a crucial assist by beating challenger Terunofuji earlier in the basho. But while Kisenosato performed the all time great moment of winning after suffering what would eventually be his career dooming injury at the hands of Harumafuji in his first Yokozuna basho, Takayasu was downed by both Yokozuna and then, crucially, Yoshikaze to remove the spectre of an intra-heya playoff.

2017 Nagoya (O): A fine start on his Ozeki debut had Takayasu 7-1 after nakabi, and one off the pace. But five week two defeats including a crucial match to eventual champion Hakuho left him way off the pace.

2018 Hatsu (O): Takayasu’s second Jun-Yusho wasn’t much to write home about despite an 8 match winning run to finish, having been 2 losses off the pace of Tochinoshin by the middle weekend.

2018 Haru (O): Ultimately doomed by an 0-2 start, Takayasu’s third Jun-Yusho had him finish winning 12 of 13, but the final day victory over Kakuryu was academic, the Yokozuna already having wrapped up the title.

2018 Aki (O): Another 7-0 start as Takayasu matched Hakuho step by step through week one, but 4 week two losses left him well short of the Dai-Yokozuna’s zensho.

2018 Kyushu (O): His fourth and most recent Jun-Yusho had yet more heartbreak, as Takayasu reached nakabi one off the pace set by Takakeisho and continued as such all the way to senshuraku, where, having already beaten Takakeisho, he coughed up a loss to Mitakeumi in a match which could have sent him to a yusho playoff.

2019 Haru (O): One off the pace of zensho winner Hakuho at nakabi, second week fade which took him out of contention before he got the chance to put dirt on the Yokozuna.

2021 Haru (K): Back from injury and amidst his challenge to regain his Ozeki rank, Takayasu actually had a two win lead on Terunofuji in this basho. Instead, he would capitulate, with losses to Tobizaru, Aoiyama and Wakatakakage handing Terunofuji the yusho that would kickstart the run of championships taking him to the white rope.

It’s pretty grim reading. The first thing that sticks out is how close he’s been to the top in some of the most noteworthy yusho of recent years (Kotoshogiku, Tochinoshin, Kisenosato, Terunofuji – and he was also in the chasing pack for Goeido’s zensho). Those could have been his triumphs, and the narrative of the last several years might well be different. Obviously, it’s incredibly difficult to win a yusho, and only one man can do it per tournament. But Takayasu’s track record of not being able to carry out a sustained challenge is well documented and it’s a big file. And if it’s ever going to happen for him, it has to be now.

While it’s Mitakeumi who has long had the reputation for being a flat-track bully, running up the score against poorer opposition in the first week before running into a wall against the top rankers in week 2, Mitakeumi has largely gained that reputation from a consistent position in the joi-jin where he’s actually facing those top rankers every tournament. And he’s converted his talent into three championships. Takayasu’s similar record of beating up on inferior opposition in the first week before falling out of contention, however, leaves him with little to show for it beyond an injury-wrecked stint as an Ozeki, and someone whose assists helped elevate the career of a stablemate who – perhaps unpredictably so – became one of the most beloved Yokozuna of recent times. Someone who failed to receive the same benefit in-kind, as Kisenosato’s dohyo career was largely over by the time Takayasu became Ozeki.

In this basho, Takayasu deserves credit for navigating the first week with a clean record. He hasn’t been pushed to do his best sumo, and he’s been given the benefit of 4 months of preparation and time to heal injuries due to his stable’s kyujo from the Hatsu basho. He’s also been given the benefit of a first week schedule against massively inferior opposition at a time when the bottom two thirds of makuuchi is as lacking in quality as any time in recent memory. The second week, if he can hold serve, will undoubtedly bring challenges and it will be fascinating to see when he starts to get pulled up to battle other title challengers, with 4 san’yaku rikishi involved the chasing pack directly behind him. Now that Terunofuji is no longer involved, the Ozeki and Sekiwake will need to face someone else this week and that someone should probably be him (Takayasu faces Komusubi Hoshoryu on Day 10 in his first real challenge of rank).

From a sumo point of view, the advantage Takayasu has long had over opponents is that he is a powerful, multi-faceted rikishi, having developed from a pusher-thruster into a hugely capable yotsu-practitioner and defensive specialist who can win almost any stamina bout. However, with the Yokozuna removed from the equation and yet more bouts against beatable opponents to come, his battle for a first Emperor’s Cup is not with his ability. What we’ll see over the coming days is whether he has the mental ability, preparedness and intensity required to win a championship in his brain.

Heya Hunters International

As detailed by Andy in his recent post (and via Twitter from Herouth, and throughout the usual dispatches from our friend Kintamayama over the preceding weeks), a number of heya changes have recently taken place. Additional changes will follow in the coming days… and in fact, there will be even more changes yet to follow later this year!

The kabu stock market tends to be an interest that’s restricted to the most intense of sumo anoraks. It’s not a topic of conversation for most normal sumo fans, confusing to others, and many changes and name transfers are often administrative in nature. However, for those wishing for a deeper dive, it seems like a good time to do some recap and analysis.

Nishonoseki Ichimon

The major story is the former Yokozuna Kisenosato taking over the prestigious headline Nishonoseki name, renaming his relatively new heya from Araiso beya to Nishonoseki beya. We have often wondered what kind of heya Araiso beya would be, and we don’t have to wonder anymore, because it won’t exist. Nishonoseki beya will be augmented by the arrival of eight rikishi from the soon to close Oguruma beya.

Oguruma oyakata reaches retirement age this spring, and the stable had long been rumoured to split into Yoshikaze (Nakamura oyakata) and Takekaze (Oshiogawa oyakata) factions. We have known for some time that Oshiogawa beya would be a new stable opening this year, but the division of the rikishi and what would happen to the existing stable and Nakamura oyakata had yet to be announced.

It was somewhat of a surprise, then, that Nakamura oyakata will make the big move up to Ibaraki prefecture to join up with Nishonoseki beya. And it was equally a surprise that the vast majority of Oguruma beya’s rikishi will not accompany the outgoing oyakata or the former Takekaze, with whom they will have had a much longer relationship, but instead be heading north with the former Yoshikaze to work under the former Yokozuna at his new stable. Kisenosato had long spoken – and even published a paper as part of his studies – about how to run a new type of modern sumo stable, and it seems that alongside his own recruits, 8 of the Oguruma beya rikishi will get a chance to experience that first hand when his new lodging opens.

Additionally, Nishonoseki beya gets an immediate quality boost with the presence of former sekitori Tomokaze, who will now almost certainly be the first sekitori of the new Nishonoseki beya as he continues his rehabilitation in the Makushita joi over the next couple of basho. While the former Yoshikaze certainly could have inherited and renamed the former Oguruma stable, and also qualifies as someone able to branch out and create a new heya in the future, he is also known to have a number of extra-curricular circumstances outside of sumo that would seem to have prevented him from running a stable at this time.

Working with Nishonoseki oyakata in the meantime, of course, does not prevent him from branching out in the future, and would appear to be a great experience for all involved: a number of the former Oguruma rikishi will certainly relish the opportunity to work under a former Yokozuna known for his fundamentals, and both coaches had very different sumo styles serving them well throughout their lengthy top division careers. And with Nishonoseki oyakata known to be both ambitious about his plans for the stable and shorthanded in the support department (most stables have an okamisan on hand to help with stable running – although this is certainly not a requirement and may be viewed as another way that Nishonoseki is progressing the tradition of stable management), the addition of a capable, young new coach should certainly help a stable master who is known to be extremely busy, between overseeing heya construction, kyokai and frequent media duties, and his various brand partnerships and endorsement deals.

As for Oshiogawa beya, former Takekaze will bring Oguruma oyakata, current sekitori Yago, and a couple others along with him to his own innovative new building (which was at one point said to include lodgings for students, and with the absence of a gym as his rikishi will apparently make use of community facilities as he seeks to integrate the stable with the local community).

Meanwhile, the man who held the Nishonoseki name for most of the last decade, former Ozeki Wakashimazu, continues as a consultant using Kisenosato’s former Araiso name. A number of his stable’s rikishi have retired following the Hatsu basho, but those opting to continue will do so under the tutelage of former Sekiwake Tamanoshima, who has long held the name of Hanaregoma oyakata, and as such, with the transfer of power complete at the former Nishonoseki beya, will run the stable – also soon to be at new premises – under the name Hanaregoma beya. The longtime shimpan and sometime heartthrob Hanaregoma will look back fondly at his move from Kataonami beya – where he was developed himself as a rikishi – to work under the former Wakashimazu, a move that certainly paid off in the long run as the legendary Kataonami beya (once home to Yokozuna Tamanoumi) fell into sharp decline.

Hanaregoma oyakata will preside over a stable with no fewer than three sekitori, as Wakashimazu’s (presumably) final recruit to make the jump to the salaried ranks, Shimazuumi, will move to Juryo in the forthcoming basho (joining stablemates Ichiyamamoto and veteran Shohozan there). I had pegged Shohozan to retire and inherit both the name and stable from Wakashimazu, having been his greatest success story as an oyakata and given Shohozan’s advancing years, but the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, transferring names and stables, caught many sumo observers as a bit of a surprise. It’s probable however, that the deal for former Tamanoshima to take over the stable from former Wakashimazu had been in the works for a long time.

Dewanoumi Ichimon

It’s not quite as complicated here, as former Ozeki Goeido (Takekuma oyakata) and his new haircut have branched out from Sakaigawa beya, taking Makushita champ Nishikawa and promising youngster Goseiryu with him, to form Takekuma beya.

Given that Goseiryu has taken the first character of Goeido’s shikona, it will be interesting to see if this is an indicator of future shikona in the new Takekuma beya, and if more rikishi will take a “Go” prefix in deference to the new yusho-winning stablemaster. That said, the character also matches the first character of the rikishi’s given name, so it’s a little early to call.

Curiously, it’s the first time since the war that Takekuma beya will exist outside of the Tatsunami-Isegahama ichimon, and Goeido’s assumption of the name upon his retirement a couple years back marked what may become a more normal transfer of less prestigious names across ichimon lines.

Isegahama Ichimon

2021 had been a big year for this group of stables, but largely for reasons on the dohyo, with the retirement of Yokozuna Hakuho (Miyagino beya), the elevation of Yokozuna Terunofuji (Isegahama beya), and the kanreki dohyo-iri of Isegahama oyakata.

But a series of moves are now in the offing outside of the ring, and the first of these is the administrative name switch of Tomozuna oyakata (former yusho winner Kyokutenho) and Oshima oyakata (former sekiwake Kaiki), who ran Tomozuna beya for many years before his retirement, developing current sekitori Kaisei and long-time former Ozeki Kaio (for the vast majority of Kaio’s career, anyway).

Kyokutenho was brought up in the now legendary former Oshima beya under the tutelage of ex-Ozeki Asahikuni, who oversaw a decades-long production line running from Yokozuna Asahifuji (possibly now the best developer of talent in sumo as Isegahama oyakata) all the way through to Kyokutenho and his younger mates Kyokutaisei (as detailed in the film “A Normal Life”) and the newly-retired Kyokushuho.

Following the successful merger of the former Oshima beya with Tomozuna beya following former Asahikuni’s retirement, Kaiki ran the stable until his mandatory retirement in 2017 when Kyokutenho switched elder names to continue running the stable under the Tomozuna banner, in deference to Kaiki. Kaiki continued as a sanyo (consultant), and as he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 for sanyo this summer and leaves the kyokai for good, the two have switched names again to allow Kyokutenho to revive the Oshima beya name, which he will presumably run for many years to come. There are no fundamental changes to the stable beyond the name swap.

This, of course, will generate debate as to who will take the Tomozuna name when it becomes available later this year. Isegahama ichimon has no shortage of aging rikishi that may require a myoseki. And while there are those in other stables (Miyagino, Isegahama) who meet the requirements, Oshima beya will have its own coaching logjam. Former Asahisho is already using a loaner kabu (Kiriyama), which, coming from the Isegahama stable, is presumed to be Takarafuji’s in waiting. Meanwhile, Kyokutaisei, having been beset by numerous injuries and punted out of the salaried ranks, may need a kabu himself in the near future if he wishes to continue his career as an elder in the kyokai, having reached the required number of basho. While he hadn’t always seemed an obvious choice to become a coach, he assisted in the recent recruitment of one of the stable’s relatively few new recruits under Kyokutenho, the fellow Hokkaido native Kyokutaiga. It is possible he may unlock further recruits in the future from his home in the north.

All of this of course ignores the presence of 35 year old Kaisei, the veteran most closely linked to the Tomozuna name, having been the last sekitori to have reached the top division from the old heya under Kaiki’s tutelage. The Brazilian born rikishi has already taken Japanese nationality, but has also given mixed signals in the past about his desire to remain in sumo. In any case, it would be a major surprise not to see the Tomozuna name ultimately go to Kaisei, but in the meantime the name may be shuffled around the heya to protect the employment statuses of others.

If you’ve made it this far, you can accuse me of burying the lede a bit, because August brings the mandatory retirement of Miyagino oyakata in what will signal the official power transfer of the storied stable to the former Yokozuna Hakuho. Hakuho – now Magaki oyakata – has of course already become one of the sport’s most prolific recruiters and developers of talent in recent years, even while still active (to some extent) on the dohyo.

Hakuho was made to sign a statement by the Kyokai with regards to his future conduct and behaviour upon retirement, but this is not thought to be an impediment to the future transfer of the stable into his control at this time. We already know that Hakuho has indicated an intention to build a new home for the heya, but the two questions currently unresolved are 1) whether he will switch names with the current Miyagino oyakata so that the stable can continue to operate under the Miyagino name, or if it will be given a fresh start and renamed Magaki beya; and 2) whether the current Miyagino oyakata and Takashima oyakata, who reach age 65 within a few days of each other, will both continue as sanyo for another five years in support of Hakuho. If either the current Takashima or Miyagino decide to leave, it could free up a name to be used for – speculatively – Ishiura. Hakuho has longtime links to the Ishiura family – Ishiura’s father runs the powerhouse Tottori Johoku sumo club, and the continued employ of the 32 year old Ishiura in the stable after his career could further deepen the recruitment pipeline for Hakuho’s stable over the next two decades.

Takasago Ichimon

Not much happening here, but the Oyama name will become available for the first time in 36 years by October, when former Onobori reaches the mandatory sanyo retirement age of 70. The Nishikijima name was also occupied by the former Takasago oyakata and Ozeki Asashio before his scandal related departure from the Kyokai last year. Speculatively speaking, either name could come into play on loan for the former Kotoyuki, who is currently borrowing soon-to-be-37-year-old Okinoumi’s myoseki Kimigahama. Both names could also be acquisition targets for Hokutofuji, who turns 30 later this year.

Tokitsukaze Ichimon

Michinoku beya’s Tatsutayama oyakata reaches the retirement age of 65 in June, and has yet to indicate whether he intends to continue as a sanyo. This will be of interest largely because of the situations regarding the former Toyonoshima (currently borrowing Izutsu from the deceased former shisho of that stable, Sakahoko) and former Yokozuna Kakuryu (currently operating under his ring name as the rank allows for a temporary period of up to 5 years). At some point, both former rikishi will need to acquire their own name.

Toyonoshima was said to have been making payments towards the Nishikijima name for years, and the Nishikijima name belonged to the Tokitsukaze ichimon for decades before being picked up by the Takasago family more recently. So, it would not be a surprise to see it come back into play as an option for him, especially if Tatsutayama (or Isenoumi beya’s coach and a former stable master in his own right, Kagamiyama, upon his retirement in 12 months) elects not to continue as a sanyo.

The wild card in all of this is that the former Izutsu’s widow was rumoured to be adamant the name would go only to the rikishi who married her daughter, and the rikishi to have taken that particular challenge on is none other than current maegashira Shimanoumi, of Dewanoumi ichimon’s Kise beya. While Shimanoumi seems likely to qualify for elder status by 2023, it seems incredibly unlikely that the prestigious Izutsu name, having never been associated with any other ichimon (barring a brief period under Kitanofuji’s control in the 70s), would be moved to Dewanoumi ichimon (though stranger things have happened).

So, in summary, watch this space in 2022 as there may be an update regarding the statuses of former Toyonoshima and Kakuryu, as any one of the Nishikijima, Tatsutayama, Izutsu or Kagamiyama names could come into play… or maybe not!