Natsu Storylines, Day 5

Tochinoshin sky-craning the Yokozuna back in September

With ten days of action left in the Summer basho, much is still to be decided, but we can begin to see the outlines of the stories that will define this tournament. Here are the storylines we’ll be following the rest of the way.

Who will take the yusho?

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it got late early. Judging by historical precedent, the yusho race is likely already down to two undefeated rikishi: Yokozuna Kakuryu and Sekiwake* Tochinoshin. How can I say this on Day 5? Well, although we all remember Tamawashi winning the Hatsu basho after a 3-2 start, that’s the only time this has happened in the last 20 years! Now, there have also been two tournament victors with 2-3 records on Day 5: Kyokutenho in 2012 and, memorably, Harumafuji in his final full tournament, Aki 2017. But with these rare exceptions, we can pretty much count on the winner racking up at least four shiroboshi by the 5th day.

Who else has met this threshold? We have M8 Asanoyama (5-0) and M4 Abi, M7 Shodai, M14 Enho, and M15 Kotoeko, all 4-1. Given the track record of this group, and the rarity of hiramaku (rank-and-file) yusho (four in the last 20 years), I just don’t see it.

Will Tochinoshin regain his Ozeki rank?

Everyone’s favorite Georgian has not only recorded five victories in five days, but has looked impressive in doing so. He needs to go 5-5 the rest of the way to reclaim his Ozeki rank one year after his promotion, and seems very likely to do if he stays healthy [crosses fingers, prays to all relevant kami]. Tochinoshin’s quest will be aided by the absences of Hakuho and Takakeisho, who accounted for two of his losses in Osaka. That leaves him with only four opponents ranked above him; he faces the first of these, fellow Sekiwake Ichinojo, (2-3) tomorrow.

We’ve seen some titanic battles between these two, but the head-to-head favors Tochinoshin 16-5, including 6 victories in a row, unsurprisingly all by yorikiri. Tochinoshin handed Ichinojo his only loss in Osaka, depriving him of a shot at the yusho and us of a first-ever playoff between 15-0 rikishi. Unless the big Mongolian draws strong motivation from that defeat, current form favors Tochinoshin.

Who will occupy the San’yaku ranks in July?

How are the Sekiwake and Komusubi ranks faring? West Sekiwake* Tochinoshin seems likely to vacate his slot via promotion. West Komusubi Mitakeumi has put himself in a good position with a 3-2 record during the most difficult part of his fight card, and should be favored against his remaining opponents with the exception of Goeido and Tochinoshin (he won’t have to face his nemesis, Kaisei, who is too far down the banzuke). East Sekiwake Ichinojo has dug himself a bit of a hole with a 2-3 start, with his toughest bouts yet to come, and his fate really depends on whether he can reawaken his inner beast from Osaka. Finally, East Komusubi Aoiyama (1-4) will have to turn things around in a hurry if he wants to stay in the named ranks.

While it’s way to early to know who will be in contention to occupy any San’yaku slots that open up, M2 Daieisho (3-2) and M4 Abi (4-1) currently sport the only winning records among the upper maegashira.

Who will be in Makuuchi in July?

Five of the rikishi in the bottom 8 ranks (M13w-M17e) have posted a 2-3 score over the opening 5 days, so we could be in for another messy demotion picture. The positive exceptions are M14w Enho and M15w Kotoeko, who have sprinted out to 4-1 records while bringing exciting sumo to the dohyo every day. Each likely needs only 3 more victories to stay in the top division. On the flip side, we have M16w Ishiura (1-4). Barring yet more miraculous banzuke luck, he will need to go 7-3 or better the rest of the way, and do it mostly against higher-ranked opposition, for Hakuho’s dream of performing a dohyo-iri with his two uchi-deshi as attendants is to stay alive for Nagoya.

Down in Juryo, J1w Ikioi (0-5) continues to be a trainwreck, and it seems likely that we won’t see him back up in Makuuchi any time soon. On the other hand, fellow demotees J1e Toyonoshima (4-1) and J5e Yutakayama (4-1) are making strong pushes to keep their second-division visits brief. They are joined in the promotion queue by J2e Takagenji (5-0), who is seeking to make his top-division debut, and J3e Kyokushuho (4-1), who is seeking to return for the first time since March 2017. This quartet is also your Juryo yusho leaderboard.

Natsu Banzuke Postmortem

The crystal ball was full of clouds

With the official rankings released, it’s time to examine how my forecast did. I noted a number of uncertainties clouding the predictions. How did they turn out?

Will Mitakeumi (7-8) get to stay at Komusubi with a half-rank demotion, or will that slot go to Kotoshogiku instead?

As predicted, Mitakeumi is the West Komusubi. I guessed that after confronting this choice, the banzuke committee would give Kotoshogiku the consolation prize of top maegashira, but that honor went to Hokutofuji instead, leaving Kotoshogiku to settle for M1w. That’s two half-rank misses for the crystal ball.

How far will Tamawashi (5-10) fall from West Sekiwake? Based on recent precedent for sanyaku rikishi, I’ve given him the mildest possible demotion, to M2e, but he could easily end up a rank lower.

The banzuke committee went with a rank and a half lower, placing the former Sekiwake at M3w. Endo, Daieisho, and Chiyotairyu each benefited by sliding up half-a-rank relative to the forecast. Myogiryu also ended up a rank lower than predicted, with Okinoumi and Abi moving up half a rank as a result.

How big will Shimanoumi’s promotion be? Ranking him at M8e seems pretty reasonable to me, but anywhere from M7e to M8w wouldn’t surprise me, and the banzuke committee could opt to go even lower.

Well, color me surprised. The 13-2 Juryo yusho winner from the top rank in the second division ended up four full ranks lower than I predicted, all the way down at M12e. Notably, this is only one rank ahead of Chiyomaru (J1w, 10-5) and two ranks ahead of Tokushoryu (J4w, 9-6)! The last equivalent performance, by Osunaarashi in 2016, saw him promoted to M7w, so it’s hard to see how the committee would justify this decision. As a result, basically all of my picks from M8 to M12 were off by half a rank, with Kaisei the biggest beneficiary, sliding up from M9e into Shimanoumi’s predicted slot.

How far will Kaisei and Nishikigi fall? I’ve given them relatively lenient demotions because of their places in the joi and the caliber of the opposition they faced, but one could easily argue for placing them a rank lower. The same can be said about Tochiozan, but it’s harder to see who could move ahead of him.

As a result of Shimanoumi’s snub, Kaisei ended up higher by a full rank, and Nishikigi and Tochiozan by half a rank.

What will they do with the mess at the bottom of the banzuke? Having four exchanges between Makuuchi and Juryo makes the most sense to me, but anything from two (with Toyonoshima and Ikioi surviving) to five (with Takagenji trading places with Chiyoshoma) is possible. And when it comes to the precise rankings, any solution that avoids promoting someone with a losing record is a victory.

This is where the crystal ball shined, correctly predicting the exact composition and order of the final eight ranks.

To sum up, of the 42 ranks, the forecast hit 23 on the nose, and had the correct rank but wrong side for 8 more. Of the remaining 11 misses, 4 were by a rank or more, as noted above: Tamawashi, Myogiryu, Shimanoumi, and Kaisei.

Better luck next time. Does pretty much calling the Makushita joi count for anything?

Natsu Banzuke Crystal Ball

How will these March rankings be reshuffled for May?

Do you want to know where your favorite rikishi is likely to be ranked for the Natsu basho without waiting for the official announcement on April 30? Never fear, the crystal ball is here. This time, I’ll give you my predicted banzuke right at the start, and then go through some of the biggest moves and uncertainties.

Haru winning records in green; losing records in red.

Biggest Rises

The biggest rise, 10 full ranks, belongs to Shimanoumi, who vaults all the way from Juryo 1 to Maegashira 8. After spending the better part of four years in upper Makushita and lower Juryo, Shimanoumi broke out with two consecutive 13-2 championships in the second division, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in his top-division debut. If my prediction is correct, he will be doing so at the highest rank in about a decade.

Other notable jumps belong to Ichinojo (M4 to Sekiwake), Aoiyama (M7 to Komusubi), Kotoshogiku (M8 to M1), Ryuden (M11 to M5), Yoshikaze (M12 to M6), and Chiyomaru (J1 to M12).

Biggest Falls

There are some doozies here. As you can see in my Juryo forecast, Chiyonokuni will fall from M12 into the bottom half of the second division, but this is due to injury, not performance. He’ll be joined there by M16 Yutakayama, whose drop is entirely due to performance. And Ikioi, who should have sat out the last tournament, will manage the rare feat of falling all the way from M9 to Juryo, becoming the highest-ranked rikishi to drop to the second division without sitting out since Toyohibiki three years ago.

Staying in Makuuchi but falling from the joi-jin into the bottom half of the division are Kaisei (M1 to M9), Nishikigi (M3 to M9), and Tochiozan (M4 to M12).

Best Banzuke Luck

Good banzuke luck refers to being either under-demoted or over-promoted given one’s rank and record as a consequence of other performances. In my forecast, such good luck is entirely concentrated at the bottom of the banzuke. Tokushoryu and Enho are very fortunate to be promoted from Juryo to Makuuchi at all, much less to be ranked M14, but the losing records by everyone ranked M14-M17 at Haru make it pretty much impossible to do anything else. And among that make-koshi crowd, Ishiura and Chiyoshoma are very lucky to cling to the bottom of the top division, and Terutsuyoshi would be ranked lower except for the fact that there’s no one to move ahead of him.

Worst Banzuke Luck

Actually, no ranking in my forecast is unreasonably harsh. The only rikishi with any right to complain are Onosho and Shohozan, and they only drop half a rank further than they “should.”

Biggest Question Marks

Let’s take it from the top of the banzuke.

  • Will Mitakeumi (7-8) get to stay at Komusubi with a half-rank demotion, or will that slot go to Kotoshogiku instead?
  • How far will Tamawashi (5-10) fall from West Sekiwake? Based on recent precedent for sanyaku rikishi, I’ve given him the mildest possible demotion, to M2e, but he could easily end up a rank lower.
  • How big will Shimanoumi’s promotion be? Ranking him at M8e seems pretty reasonable to me, but anywhere from M7e to M8w wouldn’t surprise me, and the banzuke committee could opt to go even lower.
  • How far will Kaisei and Nishikigi fall? I’ve given them relatively lenient demotions because of their places in the joi and the caliber of the opposition they faced, but one could easily argue for placing them a rank lower. The same can be said about Tochiozan, but it’s harder to see who could move ahead of him.
  • What will they do with the mess at the bottom of the banzuke? Having four exchanges between Makuuchi and Juryo makes the most sense to me, but anything from two (with Toyonoshima and Ikioi surviving) to five (with Takagenji trading places with Chiyoshoma) is possible. And when it comes to the precise rankings, any solution that avoids promoting someone with a losing record is a victory.

Tune in at the end of the month to find out how the crystal ball did!

Breaking: Ex-NFL Star Rob Gronkowski to Join Professional Sumo

Following his surprise retirement last week, the former Patriots tight end has revealed that his next step will be to move to Japan and see how high up the professional sumo ranks he can climb. Gronkowski, who has previously moonlighted in professional wrestling, said that the move was inspired by Tom Brady’s visit to Japan in 2017, when the Patriots quarterback visited Sakaigawa beya and trained with none other than Ozeki Goeido. He plans to use the connections Brady made during the visit to enter the sumo world.

Gronkowski, who stands 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m) and weighs 268 lb (122 kg), knows that while he is big for an NFL tight end, he will need to put on some weight to succeed in professional sumo. Having famously not touched any of his career NFL earnings, “Gronk” says that he is prepared for heya life and looks forward to doing the chores that are expected of low-ranked rikishi. “I’ve read John Gunning’s article (on foreigners entering sumo), and I am not taking this lightly,” he said.

You can read the full interview with Gronkowski here.

John Gunning on Hakuho

Japan Times

John Gunning has written another great piece for Japan Times, Dominant Hakuho continues to redefine greatness. In the article, he discusses the magnitude of Hakuho’s achievements and the preposterousness of the claims that they can be attributed to weaker competition. Here’s a snippet, but I highly recommend the whole thing.

In terms of pure numbers, there is no one that even comes close.

A few years ago, some German sumo fans compiled ELO-style ratings for sumo going back to the 1950s. A few different methods were used but all of them reached essentially the same conclusion — Hakuho is the best there has ever been, and by a significant margin.

The yokozuna passes the eye test as well, constantly adjusting his style of sumo over the years either to cope with age and injury or just to challenge himself and maintain his position at the head of the pack.