The just-released Day 11 torikumi shows Mitakeumi (5-2-3) returning from a 4-day absence. His opponent to ease him back in? None other than currently undefeated Dai-Yokozuna Hakuho. Thanks, schedulers!
Mitakeumi will be looking to pick up 3 victories in 5 days to hold on to his rank. Barring that, he’ll be aiming to at least minimize the magnitude of his demotion. Team Tachiai hopes that he is not risking further injury in the attempt.
This also resolves the last remaining uncertainty in Hakuho’s slate of opponents—barring further withdrawals, they will be Okinoumi, Mitakeumi, Tamawashi, Takakeisho, Goeido, and Takayasu. Hakuho’s combined record (not counting forfeits) against this group is, if I counted correctly, 96-10!
With the first eight days of the January tournament in the books, here are the storylines we’ll be following as the concluding week unfolds.
The Yusho Race
Yokozuna Hakuho (8-0) leads by one in his quest for a record-extending 42nd yusho. He is chased by a trio of lower-ranked rikishi with 7-1 records: M8 Kaisei, M13 Yago, and M15 Chiyonokuni. Still in the hunt at 6-2 are the two Sekiwake, Takakeisho and Tamawashi, as well as M6 Onosho and M12 Meisei. Hakuho’s opponent tomorrow is M4 Kotoshogiku, aganist whom he is 55-5 on the dohyo. Barring further withdrawals, the Yokozuna’s remaining opponents should include the two remaining Ozeki, the two Sekiwake, and two maegashira—probably Okinoumi and either Chiyotairyu, Onosho, or Kaisei, depending on their performances in the next couple of days.
How many of the Ozeki will be able to reach the eight wins required to not have their rank on the line in March? With today’s absence, Tochinoshin is mathematically unable to do so, and will need to accumulate eight wins in Osaka. After today’s losses, Takayasu will need to go at least 4-3 the rest of the way, while Goeido needs a 5-2 finish. Given their current form, this will be touch-and-go, even with the depleted field. A key bout tomorrow is Takayasu vs. Tamawashi. The two have met often, and their career series is nearly even at 11-10 in favor of the Ozeki, who reversed Tamawashi’s earlier edge by winning all five of their meetings last year.
Takakeisho’s Ozeki Run
The shin-Sekiwake picked up right where he left off in Kyushu, dropping only two bouts (to Mitakeumi and Tochiozan) on his way to a 6-2 record. With 11 wins likely needed for promotion, he needs a finish of 5-2 or better, which probably means running the table against his remaining maegashira opponents and picking up at least one victory against the three remaining Ozeki and Yokozuna. The quest continues tomorrow against M2 Nishikigi (4-4), who gave the Sekiwake a scare on senshuraku in what ended up being his yusho-clinching victory in Kyushu.
Takakeisho is enjoying a strong basho in his debut as Sekiwake, while Tamawashi looks set to defend the rank he seemed to own for a while before a five-basho hiatus. Mitakeumi’s unfortunate injury makes it unlikely that he’ll stay Komusubi (he’d need to return and pick up three victories against a tough slate of opponents), and Myogiryu (3-5) needs a near-perfect finish to make his return to sanyaku last more than a single tournament. It’s thus likely that either two or three slots in the named ranks will open up, depending on whether or not Takakeisho moves up. There is a lot of competition for these slots, and too many bouts are left to forecast how it will play out, but currently M1 Ichinojo (5-3) and M2 Hokutofuji (5-3) have a lead on the rest of the pack.
Normally, the number of demotions from the top division has to match the number of promotions from Juryo. However, we have the unusual situation of two retirements (Takanoiwa and Kisenosato) opening up two extra slots in Makuuchi, so there will be two more promotions than demotions. The only near-certainty right now is that M16 Daishomaru (0-8) will be going down to Juryo after a three-year run in the top division. Fellow M16 and heya-mate Daiamami (2-6) looks most likely to join him; among the other maegashira, M12 Kagayaki (1-7), M14 Chiyoshoma (3-5), and M15 Kotoeko (4-4) have the most work left to do.
Who is likely to take their places? J1 Terutsuyoshi (6-2) leads the promotion race by a sizable margin, and needs two more victories to clinch a top-division debut. Fellow M1 Daishoho (4-4) should join him if he can finish with a winning record. At the moment, J3 Ishiura (5-3) and J6 Chiyomaru (6-2) are in the best position to benefit from the extra openings in Makuuchi. Also in contention is J5 Toyonoshima (5-3), with undefeated Shimanoumi making a push from all the way down at J11. The veteran Toyonoshima has been in sumo since 2002, rising as high as Sekiwake, a rank he last held in March of 2016 before injuries dropped him into Makushita. Shimanoumi, about whom I didn’t know much until now, entered sumo in 2012, rapidly rising all the way to Makushita 4 (and picking up a Sandanme yusho along the way) before sitting out five basho and dropping all the way back to the lowest Jonokuchi division. Upon his return, he made quick work of Jonokuchi and Jonidan, with two 7-0 basho and two yusho, and then spent three years fighting through the Makushita wall, followed by five unremarkable tournaments in Juryo. Shimanoumi seems to be having a breakthrough basho, and perhaps someone who follows the lower divisions more closely than I do call tell us more about him, and what’s been different in this tournament.
We’ve reached nakabi: the middle Sunday of the tournament. The torikumi makers appear to have thrown the banzuke out the window in drawing up the matchups for Day 8, and we get some unusual pairings. To be fair, the bouts were set before today’s results were known, and in particular, could not anticipate the losses by Aoiyama and Onosho.
We start with M14 Yutakayama (4-3) vs. Juryo 1 Terutsuyoshi (6-1). Terutsuyoshi is making his second visit to Makuuchi this tournament, having defeated the hapless Daishomaru on Day 1, and needs two more victories to secure the top-division promotion he was denied (wrongly, IMO) last basho.
After this opening act, we get to see two of the 6-1 chasers in action early, when M13 Yago (6-1) takes on M16 Daiamami (2-5) and M15 Chiyonokuni (6-1) takes on M12 Kagayaki, who sports a mirror 1-6 record. Raise your hand if you had Yago and Chiyonokuni in the thick of the yusho race.
The next bout of note is M4 Kotoshogiku (4-3) vs. M8 Kaisei (6-1). Kaisei has never beaten the former Ozeki on the dohyo in 10 attempts—the only victory he owns in the series was by fusen.
Let’s see if facing M2 Nishikigi (4-3), who’s lost three in a row after his surprising start, can wake up M1 Ichinojo (4-3), who’s never lost to Nishikigi in five meetings going back to Makushita.
The bouts for what’s left of the upper rank start with Komusubi Myogiryu (3-4) taking on M1 Tochiozan (2-5). This is today’s pairing with the longest prior history: the two have met on 26 previous occasions, and the series is deadlocked at 13-13.
In the first torikumi surprise, the schedulers skipped past a number of available higher-ranked opponents and picked M6 Onosho (6-1) as the next hurdle in Sekiwake Takakeisho’s (5-2) Ozeki campaign. This clash of two top tadpoles, close friends, and rivals is always exciting, and especially so given the stakes. Onosho will look to stay in the yusho race and build a case for a big promotion in March, while Takakeisho can likely afford only two losses the rest of the way if he wants to secure his claim to sumo’s second-highest rank. This is the fourth meeting between the two, with Onosho taking 2 of the previous 3.
The two Ozeki face challenging opponents in their quests for eight wins. It’s 3-4 Goeido vs. Sekiwake Tamawashi (5-2), with the career series favoring the Ozeki 11-7, and 4-3 Takayasu vs. M3 Shohozan (2-5). Takayasu has a 4-bout winning streak in the rivalry.
Finally, in the musubi no ichiban, the undefeated leader, Hakuho, faces a surprising opponent in M5 Aoiyama (5-2). Hakuho has won all 18 of their previous meetings on the dohyo (Aoiyama owns one fusen win). Aoiyama has famously not done well against Yokozuna opponents: in 48 matches not decided by default, he’s won only 3, all against now-retired Harumafuji, the last one coming exactly four years ago.
We start right at the bottom of the torikumi, where M15 Chiyonokuni (5-1) takes on M14 Yutakayama (4-2). When healthy and fighting well, both men belong much higher on the banzuke, and both are enjoying a strong start to the Hatsu basho after managing only 10 victories between the two of them in Kyushu. The pair split their four previous bouts, all of which took place last year, and we could see a spirited battle between two pusher-thrusters.
Moving up, we have top-division newcomer M13 Yago (5-1) taking on winless M16 Daishomaru. Daishomaru seems determined to show that the banzuke committee erred for a second-straight basho in keeping a struggling ‘maru (Chiyomaru after Aki) in the top division instead of promoting a more deserving Juryo performer (Yago after Aki, Terutsuyoshi after Kyushu). Yago, like Chiyonokuni, is one off the pace in the yusho race, and if he can pick up another 5 victories in the final 9 days, should claim a fighting spirit prize. The last seven men to do so in their Makuuchi debut are something of a mixed bag: Shodai, Ishiura, Onosho, Asanoyama, Abi, Ryuden, and Kyokutaisei.
Skipping over some less consequential bouts, we come to the first candidate for match of the day: M8 Kaisei (5-1) vs. M6 Onosho (6-0). Kaisei’s surprising loss to Sadanoumi today took only a little shine off this matchup between our co-leader and one of the chasers. There’s not much history between the two: they’ve only faced each other once, with Onosho prevailing during his breakout Makuuchi debut in May 2017 against a struggling and Juryo-bound Kaisei. The bout presents a classic contrast in styles between a mawashi man and a pusher-thruster. With all the withdrawals in the upper ranks, the remaining Ozeki and Yokozuna will need to face opponents ranked at least as low as M5. Given the poor records of Yoshikaze and Chiyotairyu, it’s easy to see Onosho being thrown into the fire, especially if he is still in the yusho race in a few days. I’m guessing that he will get a couple of easier bouts next against opponents like Asanoyama and Endo before getting tested against someone like Kotoshogiku or other upper maegashira. If he comes through all that with a share of the lead, it could be time for a big jump up the torikumi.
Another chaser, M5 Aoiyama (5-1 but should be 6-0), takes on M6 Chiyotairyu (2-4). Aoiyama has dominated their previous meetings 7-2 and is having much the better basho.
Word on the street is that Komusubi Mitakeumi (5-1) is planning to show up for his bout with M2 Hokutofuji (4-2) tomorrow, despite having left the arena in a wheelchair. Much as I want to see Mitakeumi fighting for higher rank and the yusho, I hope he only returns if his injury is truly much more minor than it looked—I don’t want to see him fighting on one leg and risking further damage. Edit: Mitakeumi is kyujo for day 7.
The other Komusubi, Myogiryu (2-4), takes on M2 Nishikigi (4-2). This is one bout where a Nishikigi victory would not qualify as a surprise: he leads the series 5-2, with most of those bouts taking placing much lower down the torikumi. Indeed, Myogiryu’s return to sanyaku, after a couple of years spent struggling at the bottom of the banzuke and taking two detours to Juryo, makes this a meeting of two Cinderellas.
M1 Tochiozan (2-4) faces Sekiwake Tamawashi (4-2), whom he has completely owned during their careers. Over the past ten years, the two have met 15 times, with Tochiozan winning 13, including the last 12.
Next we have another potential match of the day: Sekiwake Takakeisho vs. M1 Ichinojo. Both men are 4-2, and both picked up dispiriting losses today after a strong opening five days. Will Takakeisho give up his belt again? Will Ichinojo yield easily for the second straight day, or revert to being an immovable object? Answers to these questions will determine whether this will be a great bout or a dud. The two have met regularly, facing off in eight of the last eleven basho, and Takakeisho leads the series 6-2.
Ozeki Takayasu (3-3) looked powerful today against Nishikigi. Tomorrow, he faces M4 Kotoshogiku (4-2), who is pulled into the joi as a consequence of the kyujo in the upper ranks (note the complete absence of intra-sanyaku bouts today). Kotoshogiku is having a second consecutive strong tournament, and the career record between the two is seemingly quite even at 14-11 in favor of Takayasu, but this is deceptive: Kotoshogiku dominated the early days of the rivalry, when he was the Ozeki, but Takayasu has won the last 11 in a row.
In the penultimate bout, it’s struggling M3 Shodai vs. struggling Ozeki Goeido. Both men are 2-4. Shodai managed to pull off the upset in 4 of their 12 prior meetings. And in the musubi no ichiban, the other struggling M3, Shohozan (2-4) is still looking for his first victory against the last Yokozuna standing, Hakuho (6-0), in their 15th meeting.
After four days, 6 undefeated rikishi remain, with two of them facing off on Day 5. I’ll quickly run through the bouts involving the other four, as well as a few other matches of note, before moving on to the main event.
M15e Chiyonokuni, the lowest-ranked of the 4-0 group, is having a strong bounce-back tournament after managing a combined total of only 9 victories in the previous two. He takes on M13e Yago (3-1), who is off to a great start in his top-division debut.
M8e Kaisei (4-0) seems to be fully recovered from the injury that hampered him in Kyushu, looking more like the rikishi whose previous two tournaments earned him a sanyaku rank. In an intriguing contrast of body types and fighting styles, he takes on M10w Abi (3-1), who’s prevailed in 3 of their prior 4 meetings.
M6w Onosho shouldn’t really be in the undefeated group after being completely dominated by Aoiyama today, but he lucked out by a finger entwined in his hair. He’ll look to do better against the ghost of M5w Yoshikaze (0-4). Aoiyama, whose DQ dropped him out of the undefeated ranks, will look to take out his frustration on Ryuden (2-2).
Moving up the banzuke, M2w Hokutofuji (3-1) will look to bounce back from his first narrow loss today against M4e Kotoshogiku (2-2). Kisenosato’s intai should pull Kotoshogiku up into the joi rotation later in the tournament.
Undefeated West Komusubi Mitakeumi has looked like the class of the field in the opening days. He will seek to continue his strong performance against West Sekiwake Tamawashi (3-1), whom he has owned to the tune of a 14-2 career advantage, including victories the last 6 times they’ve faced off.
Ozeki Takayasu (2-2) came out strong and determined today following his senpai’s retirement. Tomorrow he faces struggling Shodai (1-3), with the career record favoring the Ozeki 7-3. The hapless and winless Ozeki duo of Tochinoshin and Goeido take on what have historically been difficult opponents for them—Shohozan and Tochiozan, respectively.
And in a really fascinating bout, Yokozuna Kakuryu (2-2) faces M1w Ichinojo (3-1). They have met twelve times in the ring, and Kakuryu won the last eleven. The lone victory for Ichinojo came in his breakthrough top-division debut, at Aki 2014, when, ranked M10, he went 13-2, defeating two Ozeki and a Yokozuna and claiming the jun-yusho. This performance earned him two special prizes, a promotion all the way up to Sekiwake, and the mantle of “future Yokozuna.” Ichinojo has not remotely lived up to it since, but this Ichinojo is starting to look like that Ichinojo, and if he can pick up his second-ever victory over Kakuryu, we can start to believe that his turnaround is for real. Kakuryu, on the other hand, can’t afford a third loss this early in the tournament.
The Main Event
Finally, and I honestly can’t believe I’m writing this, we have the highlight match of the day when the undefeated Dai-Yokozuna Hakuho, winner of 41 yusho, faces the likewise undefeated [checks notes] M2e Nishikigi in the musubi no ichiban, with at least a share of the tournament lead on the line. The two, unsurprisingly, have not met before.
Let’s review just how unlikely Nishikigi’s recent rise has been. He entered sumo in 2006, and took a full two years to work his way up through Jonidan. Two years in Sandanme followed (with a brief visit to Makushita), followed by 27 tournaments in the third-highest division before he finally made it into the sekitori ranks in 2015. After a year in Juryo, Nishikigi made his Makuuchi debut in May of 2016. He rose as far as M6 before dropping to Juryo in May of 2017, where he immediately won the yusho and returned to the top division. He spent the next 8 tournaments ranked near the bottom of the banzuke, with multiple narrow escapes from demotion. Most notably, just last March, he went 5-10 at M14, a record that led to demotion to Juryo in every one of the previous 40 instances since 1960. Nishikigi survived, hanging on to the final M17e slot, only because there were no plausible promotion candidates in Juryo to take his place.
Following a good but unremarkable 10-5 record at M12w in September, Nishikigi benefited from one of the greatest pieces of banzuke luck on record, vaulting to M3e for Kyushu. Everyone anticipated that he’d be completely overmatched at by far his highest career rank, but the rise to the joi seems to have transformed him. After opening the basho with four losses, he recovered to post an 8-7 winning record, defeating Ozeki Goeido along the way. This led to a promotion to M2e for Hatsu, where Nishikigi started things off by defeating two Ozeki and a Yokozuna before picking up a freebie when Kisenosato, his scheduled Day 4 opponent, retired, probably depriving Nishikigi of his second kinboshi. Now he takes on the greatest rikishi of all time. Will the fairy tale continue, or will the clock strike midnight? Tune in to find out!