The Unpredictable Wizardry of Arashio

Arashio-oyakata (former Maegashira Sokokurai) promotes his upcoming intai-zumo event. Photo credit: Nihon Sumo Kyokai

Many rikishi are unable to craft a second act in sumo that’s as good as their first. That’s normal: the requirements to become an oyakata are such that you either need to create a career of some achievement, or just hang around long enough to have done your time in the dohyo and you’re then entitled to extend your career in the sport out of it.

In the former camp, there are plenty of oyakata who will have raised dozens of deshi over the course of their decades in the sport, never to see one come close to their own achievements. In recent years, former Yokozuna like Onokuni and Musashimaru come to mind, along with Ozeki like Chiyotaikai or Kirishima. Even the riji-cho, former Hokutoumi, who has raised plenty of top division talent, has yet to develop someone to even come close to his own achievements in the ring, as he nears the mandatory retirement age. Guys like the former Asahifuji (Isegahama oyakata) are rare: a champion who has raised (multiple) champions.

And on the flip side of the coin you have the long time coaches whose own careers didn’t amount to much beyond their longevity, but who have scouted and developed talent that has surpassed their own ability on the clay. The former Oginohana had a 44% winning record in the top division, never going higher than Maegashira 2, and he’s developed 3 time champion Ozeki Mitakeumi. Like his brother Terao, the former Sakahoko had a stellar top division career but never won a Yusho or made the top 2 ranks, and while the storied heya bearing the Izutsu name was more barren in later years, he still produced Yokozuna Kakuryu. Most famously of course, the former Chikubayama, veteran of a mere 2 tournaments in the top division, gave us the gift of record setting dai-Yokozuna Hakuho.

Over recent weeks, months and years, as many of our longtime favourites in the previous generation have gradually retired, our thoughts have turned to the question of “what kind of oyakata will they be?” Most people who read this site and some people who write on this site will be experiencing their first mass turnover of rikishi we have watched for years, as they become those blue-jacketed security guys we see next to the hanamichi when a rikishi is preparing himself for battle.

So the conversation has been: “wow, Hakuho has really recruited a lot of guys already,” or “Kisenosato is building an incredible new heya,” or “what’s going to happen with Takekaze’s new place now that he had Yoshikaze have split the rikishi from Oguruma beya” or “Goeido’s just branched out and already has a sekitori.”

But there was one guy that no one really talked about when he became an elder, and that’s ex-Maegashira 2 Sokokurai, who is now Arashio oyakata.

Arashio beya is a unique place. The previous oyakata, former Komusubi Oyutaka, coached for 15 years before branching out to open his own spot, and had a short and totally unremarkable sekitori career of his own. The heya became notable in later years among sumo fans for two things: 

If you have ever tried to visit a heya (in the before times), you’ll know that it’s not terribly difficult with the right connections, but that also a strict set of guidelines will apply for your visit. At Arashio beya, fans could simply walk right up on the street and peer in the giant window outside to watch morning keiko. The stable’s rikishi were known for being friendly with tourists and willing to snap a photo at the end of practise. It appears that after a stoppage to this practise during the pandemic, viewers may once again peep through the window to get a real live look at asageiko.

The other curiosity of this stable was the rise to prominence of its two cats, Moru and Mugi. During the days when rikishi were more able to share their lifestyle via social media, it offered sumo lovers and animal lovers a glimpse into the lifestyle where the stable’s rikishi cared for these two creatures. A coffee table book exists where fans can learn more. 

Oyutaka only ever produced Sokokurai as a sekitori over the 18 years he spent running the place, until Wakatakakage made it to Juryo just before he retired. Wakatakakage was always a talent of immense potential ever since his arrival on the scene, and is someone we’ve followed since his Sandanme tsukedashi debut. A skilled technician and incredibly athletic rikishi, it has been clear for some time that as long as his dedication and mental attributes were tuned to top level sumo, he could have a very high ceiling. This of course paid off in one way earlier this year as the now-Sekiwake clinched his first Emperor’s Cup.

It’s impossible to say whether Wakatakakage’s triumph was inevitable, but it is clear that since Sōkokurai took over the Arashio name, his coaching methods have translated to stark improvements in development across the heya. Both of Wakatakakage’s brothers had been languishing in Makushita, and Wakamotoharu has made a rapid ascent not only into the salaried ranks but all the way to the joi-jin, where he’s claimed an Ozeki scalp and taken the Yokozuna to the brink of a shocking kinboshi. He looks to be someone who can at least consolidate his place in the top division over the next couple of years, and certainly finish his career with the 30 sekitori basho needed to qualify for elder status himself.

The Onami family has some pedigree, with the three of Arashio’s Fukushima-hailing siblings descended from a grandfather who also plied his trade in Ozumo. But despite the lack of progress made by Makushita longtimer and eldest brother Wakatakamoto, the new Arashio-oyakata’s achievements don’t stop there.

Viewers of Makushita over the past several years will be familiar with Kotokuzan, the Filipino-Japanese rikishi who is surely sumo’s only Jasper. Kotokuzan (pronounced Ko-toku-zan, not “koto” like a Sadogatake beya rikishi) had struggled to make his way through sumo’s third highest division for nearly seven full years from his division debut until finally making the breakthrough to Juryo late last year. Kotokuzan is a pusher-thruster and possesses a very different style both to the other successful rikishi in his heya as well as how his shisho performed his own style of sumo (as a skilled yotsuzumo-technician) while he was active, and it’s perhaps most surprising of all that in his second bite at Juryo (after a quick demotion in mid-2021), he stormed his way into the top division.

Kotokuzan only has fought two tournaments as a Maegashira, both unsuccessfully and both looking somewhat overmatched, but at 28 still very much has time to solidify his place as a sekitori and go again. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to see him settle into an Azumaryu or Daishōmaru style role in playing out most of his remaining career in Juryo, putting it together once in a while for a fleeting crack at the top division. It bears reminding that for a rikishi who didn’t seem to really look like he’d make the breakthrough to Juryo as of 3 or 4 years ago, that’s quite an achievement in itself. The success of Kotokuzan in recent years is perhaps the most indicative of Arashio’s ability to coax performances from his top talent, as other serial sekitori-impresarios like Kise, Oitekaze and, until recently, Oguruma-oyakata have shown the ability to get rikishi to the promised land with a wide variety of fighting styles.

While Arashio has never been a large stable, and very infrequently added new recruits, the new shisho has started to bring in his own deshi now that he’s got his feet firmly under the table. Famously sumo’s only Chinese rikishi for a period, and one who wasn’t short of opinions about the fate of his beloved Inner Mongolia region, it’s no surprise that his first foreign recruit hails from his own shusshin. Daiseizan has moved quickly to the top of the Sandanme division following three consecutive 6-1 tournaments, and that fortuitous banzuke placement this time out will give him a chance to make an auspicious debut in Makushita with a good score in the upcoming Aki basho.

16 year old Tanji has started his career with identical scores from his first two basho, and Jonidan pair Dairinzan and Sonoshun (18 and 19 respectively) may be intriguing prospects over the long term, with the latter the first rikishi to inherit his the prefix of his stablemaster’s shikona into his own ring name. We are in a period where other oyakata such as Nishonoseki, Naruto, Miyagino and others have been making waves for the sheer volume (and often quality) of their recruits putting their celebrity drawing power to good use, but it’s possible that the slightly more pinpoint recruitment strategy of the former Sokokurai will pay dividends for the heya when allied to his apparent coaching ability. And he seems more than willing to talk about his work, as evidenced by a series of appearances on NHK’s sumo content throughout the pandemic, showing how, as a new head of a stable, he was attempting to adapt his new home to the challenges presented by the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 in the sumo world.

Nishonoseki (former Kisenosato) has certainly positioned himself as a leader of the future by way of his remarkable rethink of what a heya should be, his political manoeuvring and what appears to be an interesting (if slightly voluminous) batch of early recruits. Miyagino (former Hakuho)’s pulling power and talent development has already made an impact on the top two divisions and had long before he hung up the mawashi himself. What Arashio is showing us is that there it doesn’t take a headline name to be an above average developer of talent, and that he does so in such a media- and fan-friendly environment is a welcome breath of fresh air in the sumo world.

The Silver Lining of Nagoya’s Sweaty Mawashi

 

We don’t need to beat around the bush: we have just witnessed what was in many ways a deeply unsatisfying tournament which culminated in a day-by-day missing persons storyline that wouldn’t have been out of place from some low budget horror film or an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

But in some ways, obsessing over what we didn’t have in the Nagoya basho is to miss the point (and, by the way, this is in no way a counter-point to Bruce’s excellent opinions from yesterday). Culturally, the purpose of a basho is not to ensure that every rank and file dude is present for 15 days, “otherwise the whole thing might as well have not happened.” That doesn’t mean I think it’s cool that a third of the top division was absent or that I especially enjoyed this tournament. As a spectacle, I didn’t. I always love to watch sumo, and still, “endured” might be a more accurate descriptor of how I experienced this tournament. But I’m firmly in the camp that thinks the Kyokai was correct to finish the basho, even if I’m also in a camp that thinks they are correct to err on the side of caution (firmly agreeing with Andy’s comments from earlier in the week) and I’m also on the team that hopes they can evolve their covid-kyujo policies. There is room for nuance.

There are those who will say: “well whatabout if Isegahama or Minato beya had been visited by the coronavirus, forcing the removal of Terunofuji or Ichinojo?” Well, that didn’t happen. And yet, conspiracy theories aside, we have to concede that the departure of an exciting potential title contender like Kotonowaka from the race is not what we want to see. It weakened the basho.

But there were other things about this tournament that were good, so amongst all of the noise about things that were bad – because we really can and will talk about that quite a bit more – let’s take just a minute to focus on some of those good things:

Ichinojo Yusho

Ichinojo is not a popular rikishi in most senses of the word, but it is very unlikely to hear a bad word against him. No one will begrudge him this championship and it is likely that his ability would have merited a championship at some point in his career. And now he has one.

Since his debut, the jokes about “is being big a strategy” have largely served to offset the frustration that a rikishi of his obvious physical and technical gifts had been unable to put together the kind of run of success that – especially in recent years – seemed ripe for the taking.

The overwhelming feeling about Ichinojo over the past few years is that he’s someone who perhaps lacked focus, who could always find a way to get up for the big matches (as evidenced by his lengthy and impressive list of kinboshi victims), but who could never find the consistency to regularly succeed in sumo. Some of that has been down to his challenges to use and maintain his physique, and his back struggles have been well-documented. A staple of his sumo from across the past several years was that if you got him moving backward, it was very difficult for him to reverse that momentum.

But his weaknesses are offset by remarkable strengths. He is an above average yotsu-zumo practitioner, and when locked with an opponent, there are very few rikishi with the ability to outlast or go toe-to-toe with the giant. He is in an elite category when it comes to lengthy bouts, and has often displayed strong composure in the ring to complement that stamina. He is not someone given to losing the plot.

Longer term side effects aside, it should also not be lost on us that the covid-kyujo which enforced Ichinojo’s absence from the Natsu basho potentially led to him arriving in Nagoya fully rested and in better fighting shape than we have seen him in years. We can of course only speculate about this – much in the way that we can speculate without actually knowing whether Shimanoumi’s dreadful basho was the result of too much wedding cake.

Ichinojo has flirted with titles in the past, most notably taking an undefeated Hakuho all the way to senshuraku in an incredible 14-1 tournament a few years ago (fans will also remember his 13 wins, title challenge and kinboshi in his top flight debut). However, that 14-win runners-up basho from 2019 featured the unsustainable tendency to retreat and pull, a pattern which saw his results normalise when opponents were not lured into cheap slap-downs.

This basho’s success was of an altogether higher quality. Ichinojo took control of several bouts from the beginning, executing a game plan and landing a strong belt grip to square off and drive his opponents out. His yusho-clinching victory against Ura similarly displayed a strong sense of strategy to raise the centre of gravity of a much smaller and notoriously difficult opponent.

The championships we are likely to see over this next year will come from the Yokozuna, or rikishi who can take advantage of the odd occasions where the Yokozuna isn’t able to execute at 100%. Terunofuji is unquestionably the best rikishi in sumo. The only difference in this basho between Ichinojo and the Yokozuna is that Ichinojo beat the Yokozuna. You can’t say he isn’t deserving of the crown.

Hoshoryu’s Development

Like Andy, I think that Hoshoryu’s demeanour on the dohyo (a general observation, although it is punctuated with moments of greater petulance) makes him due for an attitude correction (be that in the form of mentorship or results). I do, however, believe praise is due for the way he turned around a frankly awful start in Nagoya to display some of the outstanding sumo of this tournament.

I don’t find a lot of difference technically between Hoshoryu’s sumo and Kiribayama’s (and I find the latter to be quite a bit more likeable and entertaining to watch), but the slight difference in results is owed to Hoshoryu’s will to win and the way that has manifested itself in many of his victories.

His positioning in order to execute throws has improved dramatically. He has always had good legwork – to the point that he is at times over-reliant on leg sweeps and trips that everyone can see a mile away. However, an under-discussed element of the ability to pull a routine or spectacular throw is the way that a rikishi can find the correct foot placement or manoeuvre their leg into the position that gives them the fulcrum upon which to rotate their opponent. We have been able to see Hoshoryu continually improve this feature of his sumo over the past several tournaments.

The continuing unreliability of the Ozeki to keep out of kadoban and mount consistent challenges has opened up an opportunity for Hoshoryu in particular to go on and become the next star. Wakatakakage is ahead of him in the current pecking order and also in terms of what’s in the trophy cabinet, but Wakatakakage is also more advanced in terms of age and Hoshoryu’s true rival over the next few years may be Kotonowaka. We may have been robbed from experiencing Kotonowaka’s breakout basho by the virus, so we can make do with the continued technical gains of Hoshoryu (even if the overall results will leave room for improvement). Hopefully, Aki will give us a proper look at the development of both rising stars.

The King of Comeback

You can’t bury Shodai. Not yet anyway. He seems set to prove John Gunning’s often repeated point that Ozeki is the easiest rank to hold, being that you only have to win 8 out of every 30 matches (albeit in the same tournament).

True though that may be, the willingness of some Ozeki to stoop down to that low bar has also provided some depressing sumo. However, there is something a bit thrilling in Shodai’s ability to conjure yusho-pedigree sumo when he looks dead and buried. And make no mistake, some of the wins he put together after digging himself into a 1-4 hole, winning 9 of his last 10, were absolutely yusho quality sumo. In some cases he defused his opponent from his tachiai, and on multiple other occasions we saw him battle back from the brink of the tawara in stunning fashion to take a match. If he could only show us his top quality sumo for all 15 days every time, we’d still be talking about how he wouldn’t be long for the Ozeki rank, but for very different reasons.

That being said, I don’t ever expect him to put together the kind of consistency that it will take for him to move to the next level. But against the current field, he has more than enough in his locker to put together 9 and 10 win tournaments with good content. While I and many others expected to leave this basho lamenting his inability to put it together, it was instead a happy surprise to exit the Nagoya tournament wishing for more of the same from Shodai.

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.