Kyushu Day 6 Preview

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Greetings from a surprisingly windy Tokyo!

Now, look: the upside of all of this kyujo and injury business is that if you’re someone who writes match day previews, there’s less writing that you have to do. But honestly, I’d rather be writing another paragraph and get to see the likes of Tochinoshin and Goeido battle it out. What will 2020 look like for them… or any of us? These existential questions and more will not be answered on Day 6 of the Kyushu basho.

Leaders: Hakuho, Asanoyama, Meisei, Enho, Sadanoumi, Yutakayama, Shodai, Wakatakakage

What We’re Watching on Day 6

Daishoho vs Kagayaki – Daishoho looks disinterested at this point, so the last thing he probably needs is to face someone who’s fresh from a rest day. I wouldn’t be surprised if Daishoho runs into a couple “exchange” bouts with someone from Juryo in Week 2. Tough to pick against Kagayaki here.

Nishikigi vs Takanosho – Takanosho didn’t have to work too hard to dispatch Daishoho on Day 5, but Nishikigi found himself on the wrong end of a very genki opponent. Both of these guys (2-3) need to start putting up the white stars, otherwise they’re going to be looking over their shoulder. Both of these guys like a good grapple, so if they go strength against strength then it should be fairly entertaining.

Daishomaru vs Chiyotairyu – The Kokonoe man has been in good form the last few days, and he’s a jovial fellow so here’s hoping sumo’s good natured sideburn enthusiast can keep it up. His tachiai should be able to overpower Daishomaru, and I can’t shake the feeling that he’s also a bit more powerful all around than the Oitekaze man. Their career series is 5-4 and usually ends up with someone face down on the clay.

Shimanoumi vs Terutsuyoshi – Both of these rikishi are 2-3 and you can pretty much copy what I said about Nishikigi and Takanosho here, except I think this may be a bit more of a straightforward shoving match. We’re approaching the end of the first week and these guys have yet to blast off the ring rust, so here’s hoping they play themselves into form sooner than later.

Chiyomaru vs Shodai – I had really rather fancied Shodai to win against Kotoshogiku, but he didn’t seem to have any kind of answer for the most predictable move in sumo. Chiyomaru had an easy go of it yesterday, but Shodai may put up a bit more resistance than Ishiura. A clash of styles here, and whoever establishes their preferred method at the tachiai – oshi for Chiyomaru and yotsu for Shodai – should win the day. Surprisingly this is only the third meeting of these two, with honours even.

Ishiura vs Yutakayama – Mirror records for these two: 1-4 Ishiura meets 4-1 Yutakayama. Ishiura has looked really light on his feet this tournament and seems to be simply getting blown out of the ring, so he’s meeting the wrong opponent in Yutakayama, who relies on powerful pushing and thrusting. Don’t @ me, sumo internet…. but with Ishiura looking at a rough scoreline I just have a sneaky feeling we might see a henka.

Tsurugisho vs Kotoshogiku – The crowd has really been behind Kotoshogiku all tournament, so it was a relief to see him finally pick up a win. Tsurugisho has fared fairly well in this tournament up until Day 5. This is the first meeting of the two, and I do wonder whether the gaburi-yori from Kotoshogiku will be effective against an opponent who’s never seen it. If Tsurugisho’s never had to defend against it, he may be in for a tough day out.

Onosho vs Sadanoumi – Onosho showed more of his old self on Day 5 with a real powerful victory. Sadanoumi just keeps motoring along. This should be a pretty good clash, although I could see Sadanoumi trying to hit an early slap down to avoid a drawn out oshi battle. Sadanoumi’s best method here is probably to get Onosho’s arms wrapped up and use a grappling approach to usher him out or down via beltless throw. Onosho has won 3 of 4, but Sadanoumi won the most recent match and is in the better form making it a little more of a coin toss.

Shohozan vs Enho – Right on the halfway mark, we get the first real highlight bout of the day. Between honbasho and jungyo events, these two have loads of epic matches in the tank already. There’s so much narrative in these matches: the young upstart vs the wily veteran, the thrower vs the slapper, precise manoeuvers vs street brawling. All of that to say: Enho has won by oshidashi a time or two, and Shohozan isn’t afraid to go to the belt. Shohozan has won all three previous matches on honbasho clay, but I have a sneaky feeling Enho might just squeak this out and add a bit of needle to the growing rivalry. Anything could happen, and hopefully it will.

Kotoeko vs Ryuden – The schedulers give us another pair here who are below their usual level. These two have similar yotsu-accented styles, and I happen to believe that Ryuden is simply the stronger practitioner of that style. This is borne out in his 4-2 lifetime advantage over the Sadogatake man. It would behoove Ryuden to put a little run together, and I think this is a good place to start.

Aoiyama vs Okinoumi – It’s the 27th matchup of these two veterans, with Shimane-ken’s Okinoumi leading with 16 victories over the Bulgarian pummeller. Okinoumi’s in much better form than his 2-3 record would indicate, while Aoiyama (3-2) seemed a bit confused by Enho on Day 5. Despite his head-to-head advantage, Okinoumi rarely gets to execute his style of sumo over Aoiyama, and we’re probably primed for an oshidashi or tsukidashi affair. Okinoumi has looked more genki, so I’m tipping him here.

Abi vs Daieisho – It’s a Saitama derby! Abi really showed up on Day 5, but again his footwork was sloppy and almost lost him the match. I don’t think that’s going to cut it against Daieisho who has been in great form, and will be rested after getting the day off after picking up a fusen-sho. What is almost guaranteed is that this will be an all out tsuppari battle. Daieisho won 4 of their first 5 matches, but Abi has since won four in a row from his smaller opponent this year. I’d make this a bit of a coin flip, Abi’s ability cancelled out by Daieisho’s stronger form.

Hokutofuji vs Kotoyuki – Hokutofuji has nothing to worry about after his Day 5 loss in my opinion, but he might if he drops this. Kotoyuki has more or less been in good nick. Both men are oshi-zumo practitioners, and Hokutofuji has been fighting at by far the higher level. It’s a good test for Kotoyuki and a win for him would certainly make it easier to envision him making it back to san’yaku someday soon. I just think Hokutofuji is going to have too much for him though. This could be the match where we see Kotoyuki head a few rows into the crowd, although he may well get slapped down to the clay first.

Asanoyama vs Endo – Asanoyama has looked strong and has to be a serious yusho contender. He came out to execute his style of sumo against Hokutofuji and was dominant in so doing. Endo has started to resemble the hit-and-miss Endo that we grew accustomed to in recent years before he really turned the corner the last couple tournaments to make his san’yaku case. This could and in fact should be a really good belt bout. Endo’s best chance might be to come out with a pushing attack and put Asanoyama on the back foot a bit, but it might be a risky move. Endo has won 4 from 6 overall in this rivalry, giving Asanoyama a little history to overcome… but I think Asanoyama will do it and keep himself firmly in the title race.

Mitakeumi vs Takarafuji – Mitakeumi looks awful to me, and he simply has to win this match. He’s reaching a point where he’s not only jeopardising his chances of Ozeki promotion this tournament (he probably needs to win out), but if he keeps coughing up matches to lower rankers then he might not have a chance to seal the deal in January. You know what you’re going to get from Takarafuji: a strong defence against any kind of mawashi or grappling strategy, so Mitakeumi is best served reverting to a powerful oshi attack to try and blow the veteran away.

Takakeisho vs Tamawashi – It’s surprising to me that Takakeisho has owned Tamawashi to the degree that he has (7 wins out of 10). This should be a cagey pushing-thrusting battle with either rikishi capable of throwing a few wild tricks into the bargain. Takakeisho will be the narrow favourite, with oshidashi the nailed on favourite no matter who takes the kensho.

Myogiryu vs Takayasu – Myogiryu has coughed up a couple easy ones this basho, which may be what Takayasu needs. I thought Takayasu was strategically sound in his Day 5 loss to Meisei. He picked the correct style of sumo to deploy, but simply wasn’t able to execute at the same level of his opponent. He did worryingly start to feel his injured arm again after that match. If he doesn’t go kyujo (and I don’t think he will), Myogiryu might be the type of opponent he needs to face: speedy, but with no one skill that’s better than any of Takayasu’s.

Meisei vs Hakuho – The highlight bout of the second half of the day, and one featuring a first meeting of two men who are in no mood to lose. Meisei’s defensive work was fantastic against Takayasu, but he’ll need to take that to another level to cope with The Boss. Hakuho looks in good shape as he can smell opportunities to win. He should keep his focus though, because this could be a real banana peel for someone who’s been serving up more kinboshi lately than anyone would like. He’ll need more than he did against Myogiryu, and he’ll probably noticed that a weakened Takayasu had Meisei on the ropes with a strong pushing attack. Add to that a stronger tachiai and better finishing moves, and Hakuho should still be a strong favourite to get the job done here.

Kyushu Day 5 Preview

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Incredibly, the Kyushu injury curse continues! Wakatakakage will be kyujo from Day 5, which means that we’ve lost one sekitori per day in addition to Ichinojo, who started the tournament on the sidelines. He has not been officially added to the NSK’s list at the time of writing, but if reports are true, injury has taken one of the co-leaders off the board (and handed a useful win to Kagayaki). It’s a good job these tournaments are only 15 days…

[Edited to add: Tochinoshin has now been pronounced kyujo as well with an abdominal injury. Apart from the extremely unlikely scenario in which he miraculously returns from Day 8 and wins out, this will end his attempt to reclaim his Ozeki status.]

What We’re Watching on Day 5

Terutsuyoshi vs Daishomaru – Daishomaru came with a game plan on Day 4 and he’ll need to show more of the same energy in his pushing attack against an undersized opponent in Terutsuyoshi. Both men are struggling a bit to find their best sumo, and the head to head is split one apiece.

Daishoho vs Takanosho – Woof.

Nishikigi vs Chiyotairyu – For me, Chiyotairyu was at his absolute best on Day 4. It was an unrelenting forward moving machine. He needs to avoid getting his arms locked up by Nishikigi in this match, which feels all about direction. If Chiyotairyu can go forward in a straight line from the tachiai, he’s got a great chance, but if Nishikigi can redirect him into lateral movement, the match will favour the Isenoumi man.

Ishiura vs Chiyomaru – Ishiura proved that it’s more about the size of the fight in the dog on Day 4. Interestingly he seems to do better against smaller opponents while miniature stablemate Enho claims to do better against the larger opponents. Ishiura is definitely not getting his arms around Chiyomaru’s belly so again it’s going to have to be mobility that gets used as a primary weapon here. And it seems to work: Ishiura has taken 8 of 12 from the Kokonoe man.

Kotoshogiku vs Shodai – It’s another Kyushu derby, as Fukuoka’s Kotoshogiku gets Kumamoto’s Shodai. There are contrasting fortunes here as the former Ozeki is winless, while a win for unbeaten Shodai would move him into sole possession of the lead. Shodai took more initiative than we’ve seen at the tachiai in the previous day’s fixture and it worked out well for him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he reverts to type in this match as it will allow him a better grip on Kotoshogiku’s mawashi. The Sadogatake man hasn’t drawn a lot of luck in the fixture list so far, and I don’t think that will change here.

Sadanoumi vs Shimanoumi – Sadanoumi has won both the past matchups and appears to be yet again quietly putting together a nice tournament. Shimanoumi might be a tough character to move but after his impressive performance against Yutakayama, Sadanoumi will be coming into this match full of confidence. He’s won both prior matches against Shimanoumi.

Shohozan vs Yutakayama – Local fan favourite Shohozan has been at the peak of his powers in this tournament, running roughshod over the middle of the rank and file. I predict a riot in this encounter: after the frantic grapple and throw action on Day 4, I think he has recharged his harite and tsuppari machine. Yutakayama was really motoring along but the manner of his defeat on Day 4 means he will be open for examination here: was it just a blip or is he still coming to grips with routine opposition?

Tsurugisho vs Kotoeko – Tsurugisho seems to be adjusting well to top division life. Kotoeko seems a little bereft of confidence at the moment. This will be the 11th bout between the two, who have registered five shiroboshi apiece in their previous encounters. The form guide would indicate Tsurugisho to hold the best chance.

Aoiyama vs Enho – It’s a first time meeting of two rikishi with vastly different styles, builds and fanbases. I tend to be in the camp that thinks actually, Enho’s on a great career trajectory. That he hasn’t hit a huge 12 or 13 win tournament yet means that he’s slowly adapted to the higher quality of opponent, and he’s been tested gradually rather than getting thrown in at the top end and getting his confidence wrecked. He will still take his lumps from time to time, and there are few better to dole those out than Big Dan. I have a hard time thinking that Aoiyama is going to be able to keep up with Enho’s mobility and simply blast him out of the dohyo, so I think he reverts to the form that has served him well recently and tries a slap or pull down. Spare a thought for Enho, who is likely to try and bury his head in Aoiyama’s… well, let’s not mention it.

Onosho vs Kotoyuki – Here’s a matchup of two pusher-thrusters in rather different form. Kotoyuki has continued his impressive, forward moving, sumo. While there’s not much difference in their records this early on, it’s the manner of Onosho’s defeats that I would consider to be concerning. These guys have split their past matches one apiece, but Onosho’s win came in 2017 and both these guys are different animals now in terms of their genki level. This should be a very quick match, and one that presents Kotoyuki with a great chance to keep up his momentum.

Tamawashi vs Ryuden – I think Tamawashi has the beating of Ryuden in this match, as Ryuden has become a bit of a Tochinoshin-lite for me. While he has great heart, he doesn’t possess the dominating mawashi ability of the Georgian former-ish Ozeki, and he’s also susceptible to pusher-thrusters.

Hokutofuji vs Asanoyama – This has to be the highlight bout of the second half of activity. Both of these 3-1 men have a real legitimate shout at yusho contention and/or further san’yaku promotion in their current form. I loved that Asanoyama just shrugged off his bodyslam by Hakuho to come back and reel off another victory. Hokutofuji has been absolutely fearless, and similarly overcame an early defeat to the GOAT to put massive dents in Ozeki promotion and retention challenges from Mitakeumi and Takayasu. Surprisingly it’s only the 5th meeting (past matches have been split two apiece) of these two rikishi, and it could be a rivalry that takes centre stage over the coming years. Hokutofuji must keep up his speed off the tachiai: if he can establish his pushing attack early he has a real chance. But if Asanoyama is allowed any opportunity to pull him off balance with a slap or a mawashi grip, then the former yusho-winner will have a great shot himself.

Abi vs Endo – Both of these guys enter the match in disappointing form. Abi has been far short of his usual energetic self, and has displayed sloppy footwork over his opening matches. That would appear to hand the opportunity to Endo, an inconsistent technician with extremely sound ring sense. But Abi still has it in his locker to blow Endo away, which is going to rely on a storm of tsuppari straight from the tachiai. The longer this match goes the more likely the momentum shifts to Endo. Abi has a 5-2 edge in the rivalry.

Daieisho vs TochinoshinTochinoshin has done well to bounce back from an 0-2 start, and may feel he’s finding enough form to make his 10 win challenge to regain Ozeki status a reality. Daieisho is probably the worst opponent to run into at that moment, as the smaller pusher-thruster has won the past two from the Georgian (who leads 6-3 overall), has a style of sumo Tochinoshin typically finds it difficult to cope with these days, and is also fighting at the peak of his game to date. Even if he is the presumptive favourite on paper, a win here for Tochinoshin would go a long way to restoring the confidence that he can win at the top level. [Edited to add: there are unconfirmed reports at this stage that Tochinoshin may also be going kyujo, which would be incredibly significant as it would end his efforts to automatically regain Ozeki status. More to follow.][Edited again to add: Tochinoshin is now confirmed kyujo and will be set for significant demotion if as expected he does not return. Daieisho will get the fusen-sho victory and improve to 3-2.]

Mitakeumi vs Okinoumi – Okinoumi has had a really horrible fixture list so far, picking up only a fusen-sho in four days of action. But he can take a lot of heart from pushing Hakuho all the way in his previous match, and should be a tough customer for Mitakeumi. The Sekiwake has very little margin for error going forward in his Ozeki promotion push, having dropped another match he would have been expected to win to Daieisho. Okinoumi has won 2 from 3 against Mitakeumi, whose challenge here is to establish a strong pushing-thrusting attack from the off. While Mitakeumi’s all around game has improved immensely, he is not a match for the veteran on the mawashi and needs to tailor his attack appropriately here.

Meisei vs Takayasu – While the form guide would suggest we should be fearful for the Ozeki here, I think Takayasu has a good chance to win this. Meisei has really turned his game up several levels since the start of the Aki basho, but if you look at where Takayasu has been blown away in Fukuoka, they have been in matches against extreme pusher-thrusters: which Meisei is not. Meisei is a tenacious young rikishi who may be a san’yaku fixture for years to come… but I think unless he has lost all confidence, a one-armed Takayasu desperate for wins should be able to get the job done here.

Takakeisho vs Takarafuji – By this point, against a depleted field, Takakeisho probably expects to be in a yusho race no matter what. But the immediate aim is a healthy 8+ wins to retain his Ozeki status for the first time without falling back into kadoban. Takarafuji is probably a good opponent for him, as the defensive specialist needs to be able to actually get a hold of his opponent to stalemate them, and this is not an opportunity that Takekeisho typically affords to his opposition. I’ll tip another win for the Ozeki in this match, with the 3-1 Takakeisho leading their head-to-head rivalry 3-1.

Myogiryu vs Hakuho – Hakuho’s won 19 of 20 from Myogiryu, and the last 8 have all come via different kimarite. The Hakuho of old would be searching to try and win with another different move just to keep himself interested, but at this point in his career, any win that keeps him in the yusho race and on the dohyo will do. Hakuho was given a real mawashi battle by Okinoumi in the previous match, and he’d do well to start to stay away from his opponents’ strengths from now on. Myogiryu is a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type, but his calling card is often – like his stablemate Goeido – his speedy attack from the tachiai. Don’t be surprised to see Hakuho deploy another harite off the mark here to blunt and divert that attack.

Kyushu Basho Day 1 Preview

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Welcome, sumo fans! The final basho of 2019 is upon us. Cooler temperatures may have already come to Japan, but the action on the dohyo is set to be intense, with many intriguing storylines set to be resolved over the next couple of weeks. I will be joining the action at the Kokusai Center later in the basho, and hopefully will find some more intriguing details to share.

Set the controls for the heart of Hakata, because the Day 1 torikumi has been posted!

What We Are Watching on Day 1

Daishomaru vs Wakatakakage – Arashio’s relatively new heyagashira makes his makuuchi bow against the returning Kansai meatball Daishomaru. These fellas have met in the four preceding basho with honours even. Wakatakakage tends to be a slow starter, so it would be nice to see him set the jitters aside and get an early trip to the interview room. Certainly his soon to be incoming oyakata Sokokurai will want to see that as well.

Terutsuyoshi vs Nishikigi – Nishikigi returns to his spiritual home of Maegashira 14 where he meets a Terutsuyoshi who had a rough basho last time out, and will be looking to replicate the success he found four months ago. Terutsuyoshi wants to establish a pushing attack from down low here, as any devolution into a grappling battle will favour the larger man.

Takanosho vs Chiyotairyu – It’s a little bonkers to see these two drawn against each other, what with Takanosho having spent most of his recent days in Juryo and Chiyotairyu having been a regular fixture in the joi. Chiyotairyu needs to rediscover his cannonball tachiai if he is to have a chance of rebounding up the ranks, so this match should tell us a bit about his genki level.

Shimanoumi vs Yutakayama – This will be an interesting basho for Shimanoumi, as we get to see how he rebounds from his first real setback to his top division career. Yutakayama looks to continue his renaissance, and probably possesses the more powerful thrusting attack here when he is on song. Shimanoumi won their only ever meeting, earlier this year in Osaka.

Kotoshōgiku vs Sadanoumi – Sadanoumi has done a decent job of stabilising himself as a mid-table rank and filer, and faces an opponent who should draw loud cheers on his homecoming. Kotoshogiku hasn’t been ranked as low as M9 for a year, when he reeled off double digit wins in front of his adoring home fans. We all know the score here: if he sets the hug-and-chug then it’s game over. But can he? Narrative fans rejoice: The former Ozeki leads the career series 5-2 and a win here would take him closer notching his 800th career win in his shusshin later in the week.

Shohozan vs Kotoeko – Another homecoming, and another veteran who performed very well in front of his hometown supporters a year ago. Shohozan also sits within touching distance of a 500th career win that we can expect him to achieve this basho. He’s developed in to a much more able grappler which adds intrigue to a match against an opponent who is very able on the mawashi but perhaps possesses less street smarts than Shohozan. The 35 year old is 2-0 against Kotoeko and I’m tipping him to win again here.

Tsurugisho vs Enho – Much has been made of Enho fighting now at by far his highest rank and the new, higher level opponents he will encounter. First things first, however, as he meets a known rival. Tsurugisho is also now fighting as his highest rank and has taken all four previous encounters from the Ishikawa fire pixie. As ever, Enho’s mobility will be the key to a victory, and Tsurugisho will be attempting to lock his movement out of the gate in order to usher the tricky customer towards another shiroboshi.

Onosho vs Ryuden – A lot of what we can expect to see here depends on the health of Onosho, whose career has been blunted by injury but who slowly seems to be getting himself back on track. Ryuden has faced some brutal trips into the joi. At Maegashira 5 he will no doubt be called upon to face high level opponents later in the tournament when the kyujo announcements begin to roll in, but he has a good opportunity to pick up key early wins in the meantime. Onosho’s pushing attack has proven too much for him in the past however, and the popular tadpole owns a 3-0 record over Ryuden.

Aoiyama vs Kotoyuki – This is a bit of an undercard play, but it’s probably the best shot we have at a good old fashioned bloodbath on Day 1. Ever the pugilist, Big Dan takes on an entertaining opponent in Kotoyuki who has been in inspired form for the past several months. Both men somewhat improbably are past sekiwake. While conventional wisdom would dictate that the gunbai will fall in favour of the man who can establish a pushing attack, look for Aoiyama to hit the slap down against an opponent who is notoriously wild on his feet: several of the Bulgarian’s seven wins against Kotoyuki have come via this strategy.

Tamawashi vs Tomokaze – Tamawashi has spent half the year as a sekiwake, but apart from his stunning yusho ten months ago, looks to be settling into a spoiler role in the joi late in his career. Tomokaze has a good early chance to respond to his first ever make-koshi, and we could learn much about his genki level from this match. He was clearly haunted by the loss of senpai Yoshikaze and struggling for form at the Aki tournament, but up against a high octane pusher-thruster, we should get an opportunity to see which tools the ivory tinkler has been able to sharpen over the intervening months.

Abi vs Takarafuji – Fresh from a much ballyhooed apology over the his recent bondage scandal, Abi looks to play the dominator as the Shikoroyama man has established consistency at the Komusubi rank and targets a yusho. Takarafuji, unfortunately, will likely play the role of the submissive in this encounter: Abi’s whole attack is the full throated thrusting that has become his signature, whereas there are few rikishi in the top division that have been able to make as much of a career of stalemating, defensive sumo as Takarafuji. Abi leads the career series 4-3, and would probably be the favourite if not affected by recent events.

Meisei vs Tochinoshin – The Georgian will attempt for the second time this year to regain his Ozeki status, and also for the second time in history to do it twice. The Ozekiwake starts his 10 win campaign against Meisei, who returns to the joi following a successful September meet which saw him spending much of the basho in the yusho race. This should be a mawashi battle and we should learn much about the state of Tochinoshin’s health in what should be a tenacious fight. Meisei has won their only prior meeting, but the smart money is probably on the veteran.

Mitakeumi vs Myogiryu – Not enough words have probably been said about how impressive Myogiryu’s return from kyujo was last tournament to snatch an unlikely kachikoshi. OK, now we’ve said that, we can focus on one of the huge stories of this tournament, current yusho holder Mitakeumi’s latest Ozeki challenge. With all of the high rankers starting the basho, Mitakeumi has to win probably half of the matches against those ranked above him and be flawless against those ranked below him. Both of these men are known for quick powerful manoeuvres from the tachiai, and while their lifetime rivalry is locked at 3 apiece, I have a hard time believing that the Mitakeumi’s Ozeki challenge will come undone on Day 1, so I’m going to tip him here.

Takakeisho vs Okinoumi – Day 1 throws up a number of rematches of critical bouts from Aki, and in this match, veteran Okinoumi gets a chance at revenge for his elimination in last tournament’s final day of action. Again, we will learn much about Takakeisho’s health and chances of success in this tournament here. Okinoumi typically should not be a match for his overwhelming oshi attack, but should the Shimane man get a chance to land a grip, then it is likely the Ozeki may not have the power owing to his recent injury to keep the veteran away. That said, I’m tipping Takakeisho to continue his good form, as he should be able to win this on ability.

Daieisho vs Takayasu – I almost ran out of superlatives for Daieisho in the last basho, as he notched a kinboshi and came from well down to win four in a row and score a kachi-koshi which leads to his highest ever placement on the banzuke here, at Maegashira 1. No matter the opponent or the odds, he simply did not stop doing his style of explosive oshi-zumo. And in this match, I am going to tip him to upset kadoban Ozeki Takayasu. It is clear that Takayasu is not in full health, with his brutally damaged elbow having not fully healed, and I don’t know that even someone as good as him, short of form and fitness, can blunt the thrusting attack of an awkward customer like Daieisho.

Goeido vs Endo – Another critical match from Aki replayed, as Endo scored a big time upset of the Ozeki which helped dismantle early hopes that Goeido could be a yusho challenger last time out. Endo went on to score his first ever sanyaku kachikoshi. Goeido will likely be looking for a manner of revenge here. Endo has won the last 3 and 7 out of the last 9 of their matchups, and with both men being very able technicians, Goeido is going to have call on his hallmark speed from the tachiai in order to overcome the popular pin-up.

Hokutofuji vs Hakuho – The last time Hakuho was seen on the dohyo, he was walking off clutching a broken finger having been upset by a thoroughly fired up Hokutofuji on Day 1 of the Aki basho. If there’s one thing you can say about Hakuho, the legend has a knack for a narrative. And while he’s more GOAT than Elephant, he certainly never forgets. With that in mind, a chance to settle a score and put things right straight from the off against the man ranked Komusubi 2 is probably exactly what Hakuho is looking for. And it will be most exciting to see what kind of technique the Yokozuna chooses from his library to blunt Hokotofuji’s amped up pushing and thrusting attack. I’m tipping the Yokozuna here to win a gripping match.

Kakuryu vs Asanoyama – Growing superstar Asanoyama gets his sanyaku debut in this tournament, having scored his first yusho earlier in the year and his first kinboshi in the previous tournament against Day 1’s opponent. It’s yet another rematch of a key Aki battle, Asanoyama having dealt the Yokozuna his first of the consecutive losses which knocked him out of the tournament. This match in the musubi-no-ichiban is their third meeting. Asanoyama is one of few yotsu-specialists among the current crop of new stars, and the Yokozuna may be best served avoiding strength against strength if he can manage a pushing attack. Kakuryu is always susceptible to move backwards, however, and with questions over his health, this may be one of the more likely upsets we could see on Day 1.

Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 4: “The objective is to fight the best”

Murray Johnson
Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

Welcome to the final part of our interview with NHK’s esteemed sumo presenter Murray Johnson. Thank you for everyone who has followed along with the preceding parts of the series thus far. If you missed them, here are the links: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

As Bruce notes, we are going live with this final part on the day that Murray’s latest work on the NHK Sumo Preview airs, and just before the upcoming Kyushu basho. This final piece focuses mostly on our reader questions, so thank you to those who submitted them on the site! I had this conversation with Murray during the Natsu basho, so while a few questions may feel slightly out of date, I will caveat that I included many here where the commentary felt relevant and important. As ever, the interview has been edited only for length and clarity.

Tachiai: A reader named Tom asks: “What will sumo look like in the absence of Hakuho when he retires: (with regards to) up and comers like Hoshoryu and Roga, or top division rikishi who are waiting to find that consistency like Ichinojo, or just a general change in the atmosphere of the sport with such a dominant figure (who wasn’t always afraid to speak his mind) departing from sumo?”

Murray Johnson: I say quite often we don’t know where or who this person [the next dominant rikishi] is at the moment. I suggested those that might be factors and regular contributors to the top division who have spunk in their delivery. But the old nail sticks up in Japan, you get knocked down. When Hakuho leaves, it’ll be a relief for a lot of them. But it will be a disappointment, because the objective is you’re supposed to fight the best. The best is gone, a new best comes in.

Just before Hakuho came along, Asashoryu was the only guy. It was looking pretty sad, and some people thought “oh, this is boring, this guy keeps winning everything.” I didn’t think that, but a lot of people did. When Hakuho came along, he still had to work hard because he had reasonably tough opponents.

There will be another. Who he is I don’t know. I mentioned guys who I think have chances to go on. They could get injured, all of a sudden no one’s there. They’ll be relieved though, it will give all of them a chance to win a tournament.

Do you think the diversity of winners that we’re seeing right now will prepare us for the vacuum that will come?

Yeah. Some people will say, “oh this is dull with no Hakuho,” but someone will emerge from the pack.

A reader named Nerima asks: “With NHK World’s coverage in English being available all over the world, does Murray think we are going to see any more top level rikishi from English speaking countries any time soon? And what about about the prospects of any emerging from Australia, given that there seems to be an upsurge of interest in sumo among Australians?” Of course Ishiura studied abroad in Australia.

He went there for six months and worked with the local association people for a while.

I don’t know of any. There’s only one guy in Australia who’s any good, and he’s a former rikishi. I don’t know of anyone coming on from Australia in that sense.

I think Europe is the breeding ground for potential champions of the future. You’ve got Kotooshu (Naruto oyakata) with his own heya now, who’s taken someone on who seems to have disappeared [nb: Torakio, who has officially since retired]. The biggest problem they have is to adapt to the Japanese way of life: the hazing and all of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. No matter how big you are, if there’s five or six (rikishi) doing it to you…

There was a well known Canadian (Homarenishiki) [who was in sumo and left], and it’s never going to come out what happened to that poor kid. And probably it shouldn’t.

Tachiai: It seems like Musashigawa – who’s got two Americans – Wakaichiro being technically Japanese, and Musashikuni – at least they have a buddy in there so maybe that helps as opposed to someone like Torakio. [nb: Musashikuni has recently himself retired due to injury and is now starring in sumo exhibitions in America.]

Musashigawa is quite smart, he’s not trying to race (rikishi) through. It takes time. If you’re good at a certain age and you just build on it, maybe you’ll get there. It’s hard work!

A lot of people don’t want to train for 15, 20 years, and go “is that all there is?” There have been plenty of foreigners that have been through sumo from all sorts of countries. That will continue to happen, but it will come in waves. There’s a bit of an interest now with Filipinos, because of these young Japanese-Filipinos who have taken it on, who have inspired them. Brazil, maybe? It’s a long way away, but there’s a pretty big fanbase in Brazil. That doesn’t necessarily mean you want to get up on the dohyo. Someone will emerge, but whether they become the ultimate, there’s nobody I can see.

Well there’s a decent segue, because Tomscoffee asks: “Hi Murray! What do you think needs to happen for Takayasu to finally achieve his first yusho. He has gotten achingly close too many times for it to be simple luck. Many of us are desperate to see it happen, but what is the rate limiting factor?”

He needs some fire in the belly. He’s developed this calmness in his sumo that works most of the time, but when the pressure comes and someone bustles him, he doesn’t have that comeback. When he started his sumo he was a pusher-thruster, and then went to the mawashi, and now has both skills. He doesn’t know when to use which one. I think he makes mistakes. He’s trying not to lose instead of trying to win. If he doesn’t win one this year, he’ll never win one. He could join that short list of ozeki who have never won a tournament.

Do you think he’s adopted that bridesmaid mantle that Kisenosato had for so many years?

Well, I’d stop practising with him! I’d go somewhere else. It’s not doing him any good. He’s still getting beaten by a guy who’s retired? And he’s proud of that! His practise was going really well and then it fell off the rails. The biggest problem is we do the preview show 16 days before the tournament. That was all dictated by the holiday.

Well, at the recent soken…

The soken’s a waste of time. An absolute waste! The soken in front of the public is ok, it’s a PR exercise. But the soken in front of the small amount of media and the YDC? I’ve been going to those for 20 years. And I see no reason to have them.

Do you think it gives an opportunity for people within the community who have opinions to have another platform to air them?

Someone like Kitanofuji? No. Kitanofuji’s probably got more bitter as he’s got older, but that’s his job. He’s kind of taken it on board to become the negatory of all the rikishi.

I think at least his opinions are perhaps a little more reasoned than people in the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee (YDC). 

The YDC is an honorary job and they get paid. They’re there to uphold the traditions of sumo.  They’re the conservative face of sumo, so when Hakuho does the three claps, it’s a bit of a brain fade. Now, I thought it was charming! But it was wrong. Most people don’t get to see something like that, because they’ve all left the building. You bring out the newcomers to sumo, and they all stand around, and that’s the last thing that’s done. He usurped that tradition by trying to figure that “we’re losing an era and we’re going into a new one.”

It was embraced by many people, but not the traditionalists. If any YDC member gets one nasty letter from a traditionalist, then it becomes: “we’ve got to discuss this.” But for three hours? It was three hours because they all stood up and had their say. They weren’t straight into him for three hours. I felt sorry for him, but he was wrong.

Stonecreek says: “What is the single biggest reform or change you think needs to be made to ensure a solid future for the sport of sumo?”

I think it’s injury. They’ve got this cash cow which is the jungyo, the provincial tours, to promote sumo to the masses, where people can get up close and personal. And we talk about interest from overseas, but (the jungyo is also) to encourage Japanese boys to take on sumo. And it does work.

Unfortunately, they flog these guys, the idea being that they put these guys out there because they’re employees of the Sumo Association. The whole process, the procedure of going out 28 days in a row, on a bus… you ever sat next to a rikishi on a plane? I’d rather be on the wing!

They have to go out and do (the jungyo). I would like to see that reduced. And then bring in some sports officials with an overseeing view of sports injuries within sumo. There have been excercises that have been carried out by professors that have come from the United States (regarding) body mass and weight and went back and wrote a thesis. But the Sumo Association doesn’t care about that.

Also there’s a diversity in body mass just in the top division and it doesn’t mean that one build creates success or not.

People have talked about “why don’t they have cushions around the dohyo,” or a softer floor, things like that. That’s not going to change. And the elevated dohyo, why it’s elevated when they don’t practise on an elevated dohyo. Well, they learn to roll, and most of the injuries don’t happen from falling off the dohyo, they’re injuries on the dohyo that are sustained during a bout. If there was a flat dohyo, it just wouldn’t be sumo.

I’d say reduce the jungyo, and introduce a realistic sports medicine assessment of injuries where they have people that say, “OK, we’re checking him out of the clinic, and we advise he doesn’t fight for six months. Here’s the submission.” Then the Sumo Kyokai (can) say: “OK, oyakata, this is what we’ve been told, we don’t want to see him on a dohyo for six months.”

Now, if that happens, people will say, “oh, well they’ll lose their rank.” Tough! That’s the system. Maybe you introduce the old system (Kosho Seido) which was abused before, and allow maybe one or two tournaments without losing rank. That’s what I would like to see. 

I totally agree about the raised dohyo, and I would go as far as to say…

It should be higher?

It should be higher! No. Actually, we post sometimes about an amateur tournament that Hiro Morita went out to last year in Long Beach in the States, the USA Sumo Championships. It is not something that traditionalists, people who like the sport as it is here in Japan, are really attracted to. I think they try and appeal to more WWE audience. It’s on a flat dohyo, and I think it does take away from the presentation and the fan experience. There is something about where your eyes are drawn to when you’re at the Kokugikan. 

That same guy who does the US Open is trying to set up two tournaments in Australia: Sushi and sumo. He’s advertising sumo’s years and culture coming to Australia. I think that’s rather interesting! You can get a premium package. It’ll be held in Sydney and Melbourne. No venue, no dates, just prices! Hmm.

Watch this space. Philip Noyed says: “Ichinojo has been up and down in performance over the course of the past couple of years, but (earlier this year) discovered how to swat other rikishi down to the defeat with a slap down to win 14 matches. Will other rikishi figure out a way to defend and counter attack this one-dimensional attack or is he too big and powerful?” [nb: this is now an out of date question given Ichinojo’s injury troubles, but Murray’s analysis related to his long-term career challenges was interesting and I wanted to include it.]

I think firstly the reason he was better is he went to degeiko. He didn’t stay at home fighting one guy. There’s nobody there. He got a bit of a rocket from Hakuho, saying: “You gotta do something, you’re a big guy, you’re huge, use it to your advantage.”

Forget the actual number – 12 of the 14 bouts he won by slap down. He’s been working on moving forward and that’s not been working out well for him. So now automatically he’ll retreat. For people who say, finally now Ichinojo’s turned the corner – I want to wait, let’s see if he can put two together. You can beat him at speed. All (rikishi) have to do is hit and shift. If he starts well, he’s a massive man to move, but the lower back problem he had comes and goes. 

Do you think defending his rank would be a success?

He doesn’t care about rank. He actually doesn’t care if he becomes a Yokozuna or an Ozeki.

It’s been suggested before that he is motivated by kensho, and he turns up for the big matches.

Oh he likes to win the big ones, but he doesn’t always win them with great sumo. He’s a bit of a loner, he does hang out with the other Mongolians. I think he will “ride the elevator” for quite some time. He could go on for quite a long time, he’s not an old guy. He could probably still fight for another five years with a sore back. Whether he stays with numbers like 14, that’s pretty unlikely in my opinion.

George has a big question: Can you predict who might become the next Yokozuna, from people that we already know?

I always said Asanoyama. He had two tournaments were he was looking very light on his feet, which was very surprising to me. The two tournaments prior to that he was moving so well, and adjusting. [nb: a reminder to readers that we spoke right before Asanoyama won his yusho.]

If he gets his act together, Mitakeumi could make Yokozuna – but I don’t think he will. That means full practise! Not just for the cameras.

Speaking of that, one person who practises a lot but doesn’t turn it on in tournaments is Goeido – he’s kind of the opposite of Mitakeumi. What does his career look like from here?

He’s at the end of his career, he’s probably got another year or two year in him. As the opposition gets not as troubling, he might win one more yusho. He’s a flake when the pressure is on. Like Kisenosato was, then he got his act together. Goeido doesn’t handle pressure well, though he did once, his unbelievable zensho yusho. I’m still having nightmares about that!

Why is that?

Oh, I never thought he should have been an Ozeki. I never thought Kisenosato should have been a Yokozuna. I was supposed to eat a straw hat – I had an on-air bet with John Gunning!

Those are the worst ones to lose!

I haven’t seen that hat. Normally, I would say I don’t support any particular rikishi: I’m supposed to be impartial. I like the guys who, when push comes to shove, they pull out the big wins. Goeido elevated in my opinion by getting a zensho yusho but every now and then…

A broken clock’s right twice a day?

Yes, there you go. 

I think those are all the questions we have time for – so, thank you!

Very welcome.

Thanks again to Murray for taking the time to speak with us! You can enjoy his commentary on NHK’s Grand Sumo Preview and also during selected days of the upcoming basho.