This evening Japan time, the news that we have been anticipating all week was made official: The 69th Yokozuna Hakuho has retired from sumo.
“The Boss” retires with the tremendous career record of 1187 wins and 247 losses as a rikishi, including a top flight record 1093 wins, 45 top division championships (plus 1 from Juryo), 6 special prizes, a kinboshi, and numerous other records. His run of 63 consecutive makuuchi victories in 2010, broken by the future Yokozuna Kisenosato, is bettered only by the legendary Yokozuna Futabayama.
Hakuho was and will remain known for, among other things, his incredible presence and aura in the dohyo, his peerless speed at the tachiai, ability to overwhelm almost any opponent of the several eras of his career with a variety of techniques, his power of motivation to find new records to break and new ways to challenge himself, his dedication to amateur sumo, his community work (especially in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami), his desire to connect sumo to global audiences, and latterly, the remarkable recruiting of new rikishi which he will bring into his coaching career.
Taking all of this into account, it is even more remarkable that Hakuho famously joined Miyagino-beya in a last ditch effort, after the oyakata took him in as a favour to groundbreaking Mongolian sekitori Kyokushuzan. Having been rejected by every other stable he reached out to, the skinny 16 year old was never regarded as a prospect of any sort, making his ascent to the very pinnacle of the sport’s centuries of history all the more remarkable.
Hakuho embraced modern medicine in a bid to prolong his career to the extent that he did, which often also brought him criticism from some within the sumo community who felt he should have retired earlier rather than taking repeated kyujo. This, combined with some cultural faux-pas which saw him in for disciplinary hearings more often than appropriate for a Yokozuna, often brought him scrutiny from those within the Association, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, and some within sumo’s wider fanbase.
We will no doubt spill more words over the coming days, weeks and months over the brilliant (and perhaps even some of the less brilliant) moments of Hakuho’s career. But let’s be clear that while he was an imperfect legend, he was a legend, an icon of his sport, and not only in the conversation for the best to ever do what he did, but it is not hyperbole to put him in the conversation for one of the greatest champions in sporting history. As mentioned in a previous post, John Gunning did a wonderful encapsulation of this in The Japan Times, and it is highly recommended as a read.
There had been speculation for years over when his retirement would come, and it was accompanied by the usual announcement from the Kyokai (above). We had debated not only when he would go out, and how. Those who are interested in the Sumo Association stock exchange had debated what elder name he might take, or if he would be allowed to continue as the greatest Dai-Yokozuna had, by using the privileged one-generation ichidai toshiyori.
It felt somewhat inevitable over recent weeks and months, given the controversy surrounding Hakuho’s various activities and performances and the aforementioned blots on his copybook, that “Hakuho oyakata” would not be named among the Kyokai’s members. And so it is that Hakuho will take the Magaki name, as had been rumoured earlier in the year. As the intai has been officially recognised after the banzuke committee’s meeting, it is more than likely that he will make his final appearance on the banzuke for the Kyushu 2021 basho at Yokozuna 1 West.
The Magaki kabu has moved around over the years, but largely has belonged to the Tatsunami/Tatsunami-Isegahama/Isegahama ichimon of which Hakuho’s Miyagino-beya is a member. Upon picking up the myoseki, Hakuho moved it back into the ichimon’s possession from Tokitsukaze beya and ichimon where it had spent the last several years. Its most famous occupant until now has probably been Yokozuna Wakanohana II – who as Magaki oyakata himself, recruited the 73rd Yokozuna Terunofuji before the Yokozuna’s move to Isegahama-beya where he developed and remains today.
Hakuho has become Magaki oyakata. If he later opens a stable under that name it will be the first time it has existed since 2013. Magaki Beya was where Terunofuji started his ozumo career. That building was torn down and replaced by an apt block.#間垣部屋#白鵬#Sumo#相撲pic.twitter.com/e2X42xNPWs
In terms of what happens next: Hakuho’s stablemaster and boss Miyagino-oyakata will retire next August at the mandatory retirement age of 65. It is likely that at that stage (or at some point before), Hakuho will takeover the heya as the new shisho. He may choose to rename the stable Magaki-beya, or, as has been done recently at other stables such as Tokitsukaze and Takasago, switch kabu with the outgoing shisho and assume the more prestigious Miyagino name for himself at that time. Rumours are already swirling in the press as we have previously detailed that Hakuho is looking at expensive new real estate for a blockbuster new construction project for the heya. That, combined with his prolific efforts at recruiting, will set the stage for a very eventful opening to Hakuho’s career as an elder of the Sumo Association.
Despite the fact that recruiting and prospect development are often somewhat drier subjects within the sumo world, it would appear that as with Hakuho’s career on the dohyo, the next chapter promises to be anything but quiet. Strap in folks, it’s gonna get interesting.
Congratulations to Yokozuna Hakuho, Magaki Oyakata on the most incredible of storied careers on the dohyo.
No matter how you feel about Hakuho (which seems crazy even to write), the sumo world is absolutely rocked not only by his retirement but the manner of it: out on his own terms, no matter how many veiled – thinly or otherwise – “encouragements” he had received, and at the top, unbeaten in his final tournament, and with almost every meaningful record you could wish to have.
What we can instead eulogise, in my opinion, is the end of a period of transition we’ve been discussing for the last few years. Or at least the end of the transition “out” of what was, as we now move “in” to what will be. While a handful of others from Hakuho’s era are still standing in some diminished status, he is the last meaningful domino to fall. And without his enormous presence casting a “will-he/won’t-he” shadow over literally every tournament – to say nothing of his other adversaries of the era: for example Kakuryu, whose own “should I stay or should I go now” drama was mostly informed by something as tedious as immigration paperwork – the next period can now finally begin in earnest.
Yokozuna Terunofuji of course has his own story, formed out of his battles with himself, and his own body, and it is right that he can set the tone for what is to come over the next few years. Whether or not his body can withstand the pressures of Yokozuna sumo for more than that is up to some substantial debate, but it is clear that he will be the wall that new talents will have to knock down. It seems reasonable to expect that for the next 2 years anyway, this will be the case.
It’s a clean time for the change, because everything below the Yokozuna is now up for grabs. There are no Ozeki runs in play, though Mitakeumi’s throughly uninspiring 9 wins from this tournament could eventually have meaning with a solid-if-unlikely 11+ in the next basho. We’ve seen it before. But while two enormous impediments in the shape of Hakuho and also Asanoyama have now been removed, the famous flat-track bully can’t seem to get it together to best his current score consistently enough to go to the next level. That the challengers from this recent tournament were all veterans unlikely to leave the rank-and-file does not speak incredibly well for the health of the division as a whole.
Relative newcomers like Kiribayama, Kotonowaka and Hoshoryu seem likely to have something to say about the shape of san’yaku to come, but it remains to be seen whether they can be more than this generation’s Okinoumi or Myogiryu or Endo. If there’s another rikishi who might be primed to take another step it could be the 26 year old Meisei, off the back of 8 consecutive winning tournaments. While he has a lower ceiling than the mercurial talents I just mentioned or even than those above him on the banzuke, he’s shown more consistency than any of them, as well as the ability to pull off upsets.
It’s also time to be honest about the state of the remaining veterans. For the Aoiyamas, the Tochinoshins, the Tamawashis, the Takarafujis… for sure their records may be informed by their various injury issues but the reality is that they are also of diminishing ability due to age and mileage. It’s probably fair to ask if we’ll see Takayasu in san’yaku again. Kaisei stated (credit to Kintamayama) during the basho that he simply had less power in his body with each passing year. Myogiryu’s face on senshuraku told us everything we need to know about his future: he knows that he would never have a better chance to win something. He’ll be 35 before the next basho. These guys may have, while the top division is a shadow of the quality it was five or more years ago, the chance to run into this kind of tournament one more time, but the reason for that is likely due more to the ability of the competition than their own ability to meaningfully challenge.
The new era is not going to take shape quickly. While there are interesting prospects, there are very few “can’t miss” talents banging down the door. A number of big prospects have fizzled recently atop Makushita (Roga, Oshoryu, Hokutenkai, etc.) and even for the next tournament, the Juryo promotees will be journeymen or slower moving college rikishi in their late 20s. Abi will almost certainly be the only Makuuchi promotee under 30 in the November tournament, and we know what he is already. It appears that there will be plenty of intriguing backing singers for this next era, but the identity of the frontmen is still very much in question.
One of the reasons why the debates about the content of Hakuho’s sumo and what to make of his controversial legacy and what it means to be a champion will wait is that, well… we’re going to have a lot of time to discuss it. If the new era starts now, and we don’t know what it’s going to be, then we can look at what was in better detail in the cold light of day where there is no more Hakuho. Well, no more Hakuho on the dohyo anyway, as rumours already swirl about a new $17M heya in swanky Nihonbashi. We can think about how all of that stuff from this past era made us feel, and what we want the next era to be. And hopefully as we analyse all of that, names will surface and performances will materialise that allow us to dream a bit again.
While there is no Takanohana-defeating-Chiyonofuji moment here to provide the kind of punctuation mark that a satisfying transfer of power deserves, and the vacuum created by the absence of fond names can be a bit dispiriting, it feels like we can approach the next basho, the next year, and the tournaments and years to come with a renewed focus on the excitement of what could happen.
Just like that, we are headed into the first weekend of the 2021 Aki basho. On the whole, I think we’ve seen some at times pretty compelling stuff, even if the top division is shorn of many top rikishi. Yesterday’s sumo, with much of the top division struggling to sort their footwork, reminded me of this thing I had when I was a kid, called a slip-n-slide. Basically you would shoot a hose down the plastic track and you were supposed to be able to have a DIY waterslide in your back yard. Unfortunately, though, the thing never really worked and you ended up flying off into the patchy grass and getting all banged up. Yesterday was a lot like that.
Chiyonokuni (5-0) vs. Juryo Guy Sadanoumi (4-1) – Despite all the myriad kyujo going on and guys coming back, we still can’t get an even number of top division rikishi, so Juryo’s very own Sadanoumi gets called up to make up the numbers in what may be reflected upon later as a check of his credentials in the event of a promotion/demotion edge case. Chiyonokuni has looked good so far, and is in the yusho favourite rank of Maegashira 17 so surely he’s going to win this.
Kagayaki (3-2) vs Ichiyamamoto (1-4) – This is a first time meeting, and you sometimes forget just how long future oyakata (probably) Kagayaki has been in the top division. When Ichiyamamoto came up we all talked about how he looked like Good Abi. Lately, in his injured form, he looks like Bad Abi. All sauce and no bottle. Despite Kagayaki’s strong grasp of sumo fundamentals, he does at times get distracted by chaos which, if Ichiyamamoto were in good nick, might give the Nishonoseki heyagashira more of a chance. But he’s not, so I make Kagayaki the pick.
Tokushoryu (1-4) vs Tsurugisho (2-3) – Tsurugisho got a nice win on his return from his fever. Tokushoryu has looked shorn of confidence, and not really able to execute his counter attacking style. I don’t really like this match up for either of them, and it’s a fairly even rivalry (5-7), so it’s a bit of a coin toss for me.
Yutakayama (3-2) vs Tochinoshin (1-4) – Tochinoshin has won all their previous encounters but it’s hard not to make Yutakayama the favourite on form. Tochinoshin appears to be generally in decline and has not looked especially genki after Day 1. Yutakayama has been on and off, but he has a chance to make a big statement here, and given how susceptible the former Ozeki normally is to a disruptive pushing-thrusting attack, I’d be looking for the Tokitsukaze guy to take this.
Endo (3-2) vs Chiyomaru (3-2) – On paper this is a total mismatch. Not only is Endo frankly just a much higher class rikishi but also dominates their previous matchups 6-2. I’m a little surprised he’s already at 2 losses however, and I think it’s the usual case of his losses being self-inflicted against weaker opponents. Endo at M11 should really be in the yusho race until the final weekend. Chiyomaru started well but has dropped the last two and I would go as far as to say Endo losing this might be the upset of the day, barring a kinboshi at the other end of the torikumi.
Chiyonoo (2-3) vs Kotoeko (2-3) – Blah.
Kaisei (2-3) vs Myogiryu (4-1) – Myogiryu looked alright before his slip on Day 5. It’s worth remembering for both of these veterans, a strong kachi-koshi from low down in the division actually can have the effect of extending their career by another 4-6 months or so. Myogiryu has a decent career advantage (12-7), but there are two very different sumo styles at play here, Kaisei’s steady pragmatic sumo which is all based around balance vs Myogiryu who is a bit of an animal out of the tachiai with fast movement, looking to unbalance his opponent into a push out or to set up a throw. I think Kaisei’s style has aged better but it’s harder to compete when Myogiryu is on song, which he is now, and I think he’ll take this.
Shimanoumi (3-2) vs Chiyotairyu (2-3) – It’s hard to believe Chiyotairyu has been in the top division almost 10 years, and he just keeps on doing his brand of big tachiai oshizumo. Shimanoumi is turning into one of those guys who’s always kinda just there, having not ever really looked in danger since arriving a couple years ago. As with almost all Chiyotairyu battles this will be won and lost at the tachiai, and the steadier Shimanoumi might just about be the favourite.
Hidenoumi (2-3) vs Terutsuyoshi (2-3) – The workmanlike Hidenoumi has a pretty even record against excitement machine Terutsuyoshi, who has clearly looked genki, potentially motivated by the results of his newly minted Yokozuna stablemate. The challenge for Terutsuyoshi is going to be to continue moving and not to allow a belt grip, because if he does he’s likely to be walked out by the much larger and steadier opponent.
Ura (2-3) vs Aoiyama (2-3) – It feels like everyone is 2-3. Ura finally gave us the exciting victory we all have wanted from him yesterday, although the identity of the opponent was equally surprising. A comedy win here might be less surprising, and with the two having only met once (victory to the Bulgarian), there is certainly potential for trickery from Ura. Aoiyama started this basho quite poorly, and has the ability to blow Ura away with his pushing attack, but the longer this goes the better the potential is for a fun victory for the Kansai native.
Tobizaru (4-1) vs Onosho (4-1) – The winner of this is going to be firmly in the yusho race going into the middle weekend and that’s somewhat astonishing. Tobizaru has looked good, he’s someone who clearly adores the limelight of coming up against big opponents, but his style of chaos is a little bit more effective when he can blend it with fundamentals against middle of the pack opponents. Onosho in terms of ability will be the favourite here as he has been able to consistently execute the strong pushing-thrusting sumo which brought him to the attention of the sumo world to begin with, but this is certainly a potential banana peel (pun intended) for a rikishi who has a history of overcommitting from the tachiai and ending up flat on his face.
Okinoumi (3-2) vs Takarafuji (3-2) – It’s the 26th meeting of these veterans, with the Isegahama man having grabbed 15 wins to date. It’s nice to see two top division stalwarts this far into the second half of the day’s action, albeit mostly because of the withdrawals above them. If you’re a fan of belt sumo this is going to be a match for you. Okinoumi is going to want to try hard to establish his grip from the start and move forward, because the longer this goes, the more likely it will fall in favour of Takarafuji, who seems to have rediscovered his ability to defend, extend and counter attack.
Chiyoshoma (0-5) vs Takanosho (2-3) – This is probably exactly the match that Takanosho needs, coming the day after a vital fusen-sho having looked pretty banged up earlier in the week. Chiyoshoma, the only un-feated makuuchi man – has had a pretty hapless start to life this basho, and Takanosho will desperately want to win this to relaunch his campaign for san’yaku repromotion. Watch out for a henka.
Takayasu (1-4) vs Ichinojo (2-3) – It’s the Komusubi showdown! Takayasu’s fusen-sho has kept him from joining Chiyoshoma at the bottom of the scoresheet, and hopefully he used the day off to reset. Ichinojo has been classic Ichinojo, looking astonishingly up for it some days and not bothered on others. Takayasu leads this rivalry 7-6, a good enough sample size to indicate that despite Takayasu’s overall higher pedigree, Ichinojo’s record of turning up against the big names holds true in these matches. The only thing that gives me pause is Ichinojo’s most comprehensive victories are still largely coming via pull down, and I think it’s hard to plan for that against someone like Takayasu who can hang in matches for a while. This could be another 3 minute bout.
Mitakeumi (4-1) vs Kotonowaka (2-3) – This is the type of basho where Mitakeumi should absolutely be in the championship race, and the flat track bully has not massively disappointed so far. Kotonowaka got cannoned out of the dohyo yesterday against Takakeisho, so it will be intriguing to see how that affects him mentally. This is a first time matchup which may tell us a lot about the future of both rikishi. I think Kotonowaka’s best strategy here is to try and get into a belt battle, where he is very skilled. While Mitakeumi also has developed into an accomplished yotsu-zumo rikishi, he can be walked out by larger men when put in a weak position and doesn’t always have the ability to counterattack from those grips as he does in a pushing and thrusting matchup.
Daieisho (3-2) vs Meisei (2-3) – We projected in our podcasts before the basho that Meisei would struggle to stay at Sekiwake, and that looks to be the case. There’s no lack of effort from the Tatsunami man, but he’s had a tough start to life at his new career high, which will get tougher here against an opponent who will no doubt have been shocked by the manner of his own loss on Day 5 to Ura. Daieisho is actually at his lowest rank for almost 3 years and has a commanding 6-2 advantage in this matchup, and is motivated to get back into san’yaku. Meisei, who came up as a pusher-thruster but has developed his belt skills nicely, will want this match on the mawashi to have a better chance of avoiding an upset.
Shodai (4-1) vs Kiribayama (4-1) – It seems I raise some eyebrows every time I say that actually Kiribayama’s sumo isn’t actually that different to Hoshoryu’s, but he’s not as lauded as his compatriot because he seems to be a jovial fellow who likes coffee and doesn’t go around scowling at shimpan and refusing to bow when he loses to higher ranked opponents. But anyway, he’s extremely good value for his 4-1 and has got himself into some serious battles of endurance in the past few days. However, he has never beaten Shodai, who started this tournament in awful form but somehow finds himself a win off the pace. The most shocking thing is that he actually had some kind of tachiai on Day 5 against Wakatakakage, which will have given Kiribayama something to think about. The ozeki is the undoubted favourite here, but Kiribayama has an outstanding chance to seal a san’yaku debut in the next tournament and this could be a crucial match towards that goal. If these two go chest to chest, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a leg trip or leg sweep attempt from the Mongolian, which could result in any number of outcomes either in or out of his favour.
Tamawashi (2-3) vs Takakeisho (2-3) – Tamawashi is probably getting this match at the wrong time, with Takakeisho having apparently willed himself back into form. Takakeisho leads the rivalry, and owing to the gap in stature between the two, is not really the right type of opponent for Tamawashi’s signature nodowa. At this point we basically know what we’re going to get from Tamawashi, so it’s all about the condition in which Takakeisho brings himself onto the dohyo.
Wakatakakage (3-2) vs Terunofuji (5-0) – There wasn’t a whole lot to learn from Wakatakakage’s latest loss, as the whole world would have been shocked that Shodai launched as forcefully as he did out of the tachiai. That won’t make Wakatakakage any more wary than he already would have been against the top dog. There hasn’t been anything to criticise in Terunofuji’s sumo since his Yokozuna promotion, and the weight of the rank doesn’t seem to be affecting him at all. He hasn’t lost on the dohyo to Wakatakakage since they met in Juryo, and the Yokozuna will go into the match the overwhelming favourite. As he should.
Where is my kinboshi? Where are the zabuton? Where even is the shikiri-sen? Where have all the cowboys gone?
… I didn’t think the day was ever going to happen when I channeled Paula Cole in a post about sumo either.
The performance of Yokozuna Hakuho has been much discussed through the first week of the tournament. Before the basho, I posted here and went through each of his likely opponents, and looking at what type of fight they might be able to put up against The Boss.
I have to say, maybe I gave them all too much credit.
While the first couple days of the tournament were high on value – and also the excitement of seeing high stakes matches at the end of the day, from the first day of a tournament – by and large we haven’t really seen what I expected to see.
Namely, I thought more rikishi would have smelled the blood in the water.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that Hakuho is nowhere near 100%. One of the most used cliches in sumo during the later Hakuho era is that Hakuho at 70% is going to beat pretty much everyone. And, after seven days, he’s 7-0.
While Endo hobbled out of the tournament himself, noted kinboshi thieves like Ichinojo haven’t posed much of a problem at all for the Yokozuna. I actually applaud Tobizaru’s approach to try something different and confusing. The match itself (see above with updated soundtrack courtesy of Herouth) was an incredible spectacle, and highly entertaining. Like most of you, I literally did not know what was going to happen. But in the cold light of day, the likelihood is that the rank and filer only served to annoy the Yokozuna, who eventually, authoritatively, tossed him out with disgust.
Herouth reported a comment from Isegahama which I think is important to present here:
Isegahama on Hakuho's first week: "He is not doing proper sumo, but I guess it's good he is accumulating wins. I'm looking forward to the second week. I guess he is not going all out because of his bad knee, but only the man himself knows". https://t.co/ZkKNommX8V
The problem is, you can only beat what’s in front of you. If the opponents aren’t really interested in doing overwhelming sumo themselves, you can’t, with a somewhat freshly surgically repaired knee, put your body at risk for no reason. Hakuho has, most of the time, simply defused the opponent and moved on. For sure, there has been the odd scare. He’s got away with a couple. Meisei, for one, really went into the match with the intention to win. Meisei is someone who is going to be in san’yaku a lot. Meisei has a winning mentality. We like Meisei.
But many of Hakuho’s other opponents seem to be failing to grasp the scale of the moment. Many Yokozuna throughout history have been put down by an up-and-comer. The future Takanohana putting down an aging Chiyonofuji is sumo folklore. Even if he himself didn’t ascend to the title of Yokozuna until sometime later, it was a pivotal moment. Hakuho’s opponents look more like they’re fighting him for the first time rather than potentially the last time.
To know what the Yokozuna is truly made of these days, we want to see rikishi going full bore. If you’re a Kotoeko, who faces Hakuho tonight (possibly by the time you have read this), this is a career highlight moment. Possibly the most used verb in sumo is ganbarimasu. More rikishi should do it.
At this stage, with Asanoyama and Takakeisho out of the basho, and Takayasu and Shodai looking to be very out of sorts, it’s hard to see anyone other than noted summertime streak-killer Mitakeumi putting dirt on the dai-Yokozuna going into the presumed showdown with Terunofuji on senshuraku. And while I make the match with Mitakeumi a coin flip, and the Sekiwake has put up a decent score, he also hasn’t been in the best form. While Hakuho can certainly be beaten, he’ll still be the nailed on favourite for every other match.
Which leaves, perhaps, the name the fans want to see most between now and then: Hoshoryu. While I don’t see a whole lot technically in his sumo even to this point that differentiates him from compatriot Kiribayama, what he has seemed to do is grow enormously in belief and intent. He is coming to his matches with a winning mentality that was absent in past tournaments. The hatred of losing is becoming visible. Until such time as Hakuho sees Mitakeumi and Terunofuji, should this matchup happen it could possibly be one of the most intriguing bouts of the final week, and also the opportunity to provide the type of storyline that has underpinned sumo for generations.
To be clear, I am not rooting for anyone to put dirt on the Yokozuna. Far from it. But I do want to see the best of what he can do, in this moment, now. While Isegahama is correct to say that Hakuho’s sumo has not been dominant Yokozuna sumo, the idea of Hakuho tailoring his game plan to his opponent is nothing new: he’s been doing it for the past several years and arguably it’s why he can still compete today. Isegahama – of all people – should know from his coaching efforts over the past few years that if an incredible talent needs to manage their sumo to what their physical state can handle for the sake of their career and the sport, it’s better to do so. The past year has been incredibly entertaining. But it has also shown us somewhat conclusively that at this moment, Sumo will not be better for the absence of Hakuho from the dohyo.
Hakuho and Terunofuji should be held to different standards. One is the Yokozuna and whether or not you believe he is the greatest, he’s at the very least in the conversation for greatest of all time. Terunofuji is an Ozeki with an incredible story who is attempting to become a Yokozuna. But we should be honest that we have been celebrating Terunofuji over the past year not because he has been going all out, but because he has learned a new type of sumo to overcome his medical limitations and make best use of his incredible physical gifts. He has shown the mental agility of a Yokozuna. I don’t believe that Hakuho, one of the sport’s great improvisers and thinkers, should lose credit for relying on his mind to overcome the defects of his body now.
Questions have been posed on Twitter about whether we should have expected more of Hakuho’s week 1 opposition. I think the answer is yes, but I think the analysis will need to wait for another post, maybe after the tournament. And to be clear, I don’t think Terunofuji’s been made to work even as hard as in past tournaments either. The one thing we do know is that it has to get more difficult – for both men riding a zensho – from here. If nothing else, that makes the second week one to enjoy. Saddle up.