Haru Basho – yokozuna’s last fortress ?

2020’s Haru basho gave us a great finale, which a yusho deciding bout on the very last bout of the very last day – senshuraku’s musobi no ichiban – between both grand champions, Hakuho and Kakuryu.

What’s more normal ? Plenty of things, actually. As we know, recent times have provided us a fair amount of surprise winners, unlikely scenarios and crazy bashos.

Some venues have provided more drama than others. Let’s put a diagnosis on each yearly basho. Which ones are still mainly held by the yokozuna ? Which ones are brillantly conqueered by the rest of the field ?

Hatsu basho : complete meltdown

The first basho of the year is probably the most vandalized basho in recent times. Is it worth mentionning Tokushoryu’s improbable win, while sitting in banzuke’s unenviable place of the “makuuchi’s ass” ? Remarkably, a makuuchi spot wasn’t guaranteed to him at all, as he benefited from Tomokaze’s demotion to juryo’s first spot.

In my opinion, of of the craziest basho we could witness in recent times came in Tokyo, in January of last year. My prediction of all yokozuna plus ozeki not getting more than thirty wins combined seemed bold to the great Jason Harris, only for that prophecy to be accumplished fifteen days later. Tochinoshin went kyujo shortly after Kisenosato’s sad but inevitable retirement. Kakuryu did not finish the tournament. The yusho seemed to be given to Hakuho (who at some point had a two win lead), but the dai yokozuna couldn’t stand an injury sustained on the basho’s early days, and did not fight on senshuraku.

The eventual winner ? Sekiwake Tamawashi.

Arguably, the transitional period we’re witnessing began in that very same place. It all started with Tochinoshin’s surprise win, just a couple years ago. It eventually proved to be the first sign of the old guard paving way – before the future ozeki ending up demoted himself.

By the way, when’s the last time a yokozuna won that basho ? Neither in 2017, which saw Kisenosato’s consecration, being promoted from his long time ozeki spotright after the basho. Nor in 2016, where a Japanese won a yusho for the first time in ten years, namely Kotoshogiku.

Always better with Jason’s reactions: ozeki Kotoshogiku (10-0) v yokozuna Hakuho (10-0), Day 11 of Hatsu basho 2016

Hakuho is the last yokozuna to have triumphed there, in 2015. That will make six years, come 2021 !

Natsu basho : contested

Let’s skip Haru basho for now and turn to the May tournament, in Tokyo. It could be named “the contender basho”.

Remember last year’s basho ? It started with Tochinoshin’s apparent revival as an ozekiwake. The Georgian piled up wins before seemingly reinjured himself in the process, and struggling to get his desired ten wins. The story ended with an infamous henka on Kakuryu, which sealed the yusho for Asanoyama, then ranked maegashira 8. Maegashira 8 !

Several awards were presented to Asanoyama – who received instructions on how to collect them, shortly before the ceremony – by no one else than Donald Trump. Has the US president handed several rewards to our next yokozuna ? We will see.

Newly promoted ozeki Asanoyama Hideki

Anyway, another rikishi became an ozeki shortly after winning a yusho in may – namely Terunofuji. Back in 2015, the then man in form benefitted from heya mate Harumafuji’s help to leapfrog Hakuho on quest of the Emperor’s Cup. He was promoted to sport’s second highest rank before July.

Finally, how not to mention Kyokutenho’s unlikely yusho, back in 2012 ? After a slow start – he was 2-3, the Mongolian benefitted from an incredible drop of form of the upper ranks, most notably Kisenosato, who blew up a two win lead after day 11. It all ended with a nervous playoff against Tochiozan.

Nagoya basho : holding its own

Yokozuna record in Nagoya is pretty good. From 2008 to 2017 included, only Hakuho and Harumafuji (twice as an ozeki) have won it.

I wouldn’t call Nagoya a fortress, though, as the 2018 basho was the first one in a while to be a “nokozuna” : Kisenosato did not compete, while Hakuho, Kakuryu (and ozeki Tochinoshin) had pulled out by day 6. Sadly, that feat would repeat several times since then – so eventual winner, Mitakeumi, definitely opened Pandora’s box.

Triumphant in Nagoya: Mitakeumi Hisashi

Last year’s winner was yokozuna Kakuryu, who got his sixth – and currently last – yusho.

Aki basho : melting down

Why is Aki basho melting down ? Since 2005, it has notably been won by Asashoryu (thrice), Harumafuji (twice), Kakuryu (once), and, of course, Hakuho (seven times).

However, last editions have had a fair share of drama.

Back in 2015, Kakuryu – the sole yokozuna competing – benefitted from Terunofuji’s first grave knee injury to pip him on the yusho race, although he got dragged into a playoff by the ozeki.

The 2016 edition came as an enormous surprise as Goeido, then a kadoban ozeki, not only won the yusho, but with a zensho yusho ! The runner up, in the process, was crowd favorite Endo.

With a famous stare down : yokozuna Harumafuji (10-2) v ozeki Goeido (12-0), Day 13 of Aki basho 2016

In 2017, right before the infamous scandal that prompted his retirement, Harumafuji recovered from a three (!) loss deficit to Goeido, who himself melted down, before defeating him twice on senshuraku – once in regulation, and once in the ensuing playoff.

If 2018 occurred with a fine share of normality – Hakuho the winner -, how not mentionning the 2019 edition ? Another nokozuna, with endless contenders : Meisei, Tsurugisho, Okinoumi (who could have clinched the whole thing with a different scenario on senshuraku) all got in the process.

Eventually, the basho gave way to an original playoff between both sekiwake : Takakeisho and Mitakeumi, the winner.

Kyushu basho : not quite, but almost a fortress

Calendar year’s last basho could have been called “yokozuna’s second fortress”, had two of the last three editions not be so dramatic.

As already mentioned, the 2017 edition saw Harumafuji’s regrettable scanda land subsequent retirement. Hakuho emerged from chaos, not without providing his share of controversy, as he openly contested the shimpan’s decision of not calling a matta on Yoshikaze’s bout.

Should have stayed longer : yokozuna Harumafuji

Next year’s tournament provided a very rare occurrence of a komosubi win. I twas Takakeisho’s landmark ozeki run, thanks to a fine 13-2 record, with a bit of help of Mitakeumi, who defeated Takayasu on senshuraku. The ozeki could have sealed a place in a playoff, had he not succumbed to pressure.

Haru basho : yokozuna’s last fortress

Chiyotaikai won this basho in 2003, as an ozeki. Hakuho won it in 2007, but as an ozeki (that was the tricky part of this basho’s statistics !). From 2008 (with the 2011 edition having been cancelled), this basho has only been won by yokozuna.

One small exception to that: Kakuryu won it as an ozeki in 2014. To be more exact, following a 14-1 playoff loss in January, Kakuryu’s 14-1 win in Osaka cemented his yokozuna promotion.

One could say that the 2014 edition saw a half yokozuna winning it ! We can’t close our discussion without mentionning the 2017 edition, which saw Kisenosato’s yokozuna debut and only yusho at the top rank, despite sustaining a career ending injury.

It all started so well… Kisenosato began his yokozuna career with a yusho

In a sense, the Ibaraki born contributed to establish Osaka as the last yokozuna’s fortress.

Banzuke prediction for Haru 2020

The first basho has been pretty eventful, with a yusho deciding bout on senshuraku, a surprise winner, and, unfortunately, injuries and a big name retirement – Goeido.

The dust has vanished by now, so this should be a good opportunity to try to guess next basho’s banzuke !

First of all, let’s have a look back at last basho’s banzuke:

Who will drop out ?

How to demote an injured rikishi hasn’t always a clear-cut answer. However, having seen Tomokaze demoted to juryo in January hints at subsequent demotions for Kotoyuki (M3, 0-0-15) and Meisei (M5, 1-7-7). Apart from these inevitable downfalls, everybody looks to have hold up his own, except Kotoeko, whose 2-13 record asks for an obivous demotion – let’s hope he can bounce back.

Who will join maku’uchi ? Lower maegashira issues

Firstly, it’s important to note that, due to Goeido’s retirement, another slot will be opened at maku’uchi’s bottom. I wonder when’s the last time we had a maegashira 18 in the top division…

Just retired: former ozeki Goeido, now Takekuma

It means that the three demotions and Goeido’s retirement will provide four spots. I think the solution is quite easy this time – Nishikigi and Daimami’s impressive 11-4 records will bring them back to maku’uchi, whereas Kotonowaka and Hidenoumi’s 8-7 at juryo 2 has brought uncertainty, but they seem the ideal candidates to complete our banzuke. Kotonowaka would then be shin-maku’uchi.

Set for his maku’uchi debut ? Kotonowaka

Chiyoshoma (J1, 7-8), Wakatakakage (J5, 9-6), Daishoho (J5, 9-6) and Terunofuji (J13, 13-2) all seem to have narrowly missed their chance. But they will all be in good position to storm back to maku’uchi in May.

The middle of the pack – mid maegashira issued

Having determined who will (most likely) be demoted and promoted, let’s not see how our banzuke should shape up:

Our answers about promotions have settled a few spots at the bottom of the banzuke.

The middle of the banzuke has been pretty hard to draw. If you acknowledge Ryuden, Yutakayama and Kagayaki are due to fill some upper spots, and seeing a bunch of make-kochi starting from M9, the result looks a bit artificial.

I surprised myself, in particular, moving Aoiyama down to quite a few slots, despite an afwul 4-11 record at M8 – he finds himself no lower than M12.

Some rikishi (Takanosho, Sadanoumi, both 7-8) haven’t lost a single rank – they’ve just been moved from East to West.

Anyway, I think the banzuke has a pretty decent configuration.

The san’yaku battle – upper banzuke issues

Let’s finish our topic in original fashion – with the top ranks !

Both yokozuna, having won just one bout, should just retain their ranks. As a consequence, Kakuryu, the west yokozuna, will be marked as both yokozuna and ozeki – Takakeisho is the only remaining ozeki after Goeido’s retirement.

Asanoyama failed to get ozeki promotion but has secured his east sekiwake slot with a 10-5 performance.

The debate on who will fill the remaining places is wide open, and guessing right is no simple task. Three candidates are needed after Takayasu, Abi and Daieisho’s make kochi. All three are easy guesses, would I say – Endo (M1, 9-6), Hokutofuji (M2, 11-4) and Shodai (M4, 13-2).

Some believe Tokoshoryu will reach san’yaku. However, I’m quite certain he won’t be promoted that far. Remember Kyokutenho, back in 2012 ? He won the yusho at M7, with a 12-3 record – and ended up at maegashira 1.

Last basho’s surprise winner: Tokushoryu (left)

I might have promoted him a bit too shily, though…

Anyway, the order of Endo, Hokutofuji and Shodai’s promotion is anyone’s guess. I believe the key here is to have in mind that the board is looking for ozeki candidates – the sooner, the better. And I tend to believe Hokutofuji, of the three, will be first on their minds – hence, he’ll grab the second sekiwake slot. And finally, Shodai’s impressive 13-2 record should outclass Endo’s 9-6 result at M1.

What’s your opinion on this banzuke ?

What to expect from Hatsu’s second week ?

The Hatsu basho’s first week has been pretty eventful, seeing both yokozuna pulling out win just one win under their belts. The yusho race is open as ever, and a few interesting sidestories are quite promising, too. So, what should one expect from the seven last days of the tournament ?

1. Can the “ozeki old guard” salvage its status ?

This question, unfortunately, calls for a quick answer for Takayasu. Mathematically, he is still on track to regain is ozeki status, as the five losses he has allow him to hope for a 10-5 results. However, the chances to see that happen are very slim. Takayasu’s sumo is weak and sloppy ; his arm is in no good shape, and each bout looks like a pain for him.

Both in real trouble : sekiwake Takayasu (3-5, left) and ozeki Goeido (3-5, right)

It’s doutbul he’ll even manage to keep a san’yaku spot. Sadly, it looks like his late career will take place on the maegashira ranks.

What about Goeido ? For once, we have to say he’s fighting. The problem for hi mis that he’s kadoban, diminished, and with only three wins so far. He’ll need to end up 5-2, at least, to sake his ozeki rank ; otherwise, he’ll end up as an ozekiwake, like Takayasu this tournament.

Another problem for him ? He’ll have to face tougher opponents like Asanoyama, Takakeisho, etc. He might snatch a win against a weakened Takayasu, and perhaps find a way to pull down Enho tomorrow.

Still, the future for both rikishi looks grim.

2. What about the “ozeki new guard wanna-be” ?

The higher ranks are in increasingly urgent need for new blood. The situation that has arisen or that is about to rise may well lead, in my opinion, to one or two cheap ozeki promotions, as it already happened in the past. But who is likely to step up ?

Asanoyama has been the leading candidate for a few months, but an average 5-3 record is not really what one could expect from him. His losses were against Abi, Endo and Shodai – solid opponents, sure, but a solid ozeki should, at most, end such a first week with two losses – at most.

Disappointing so far : Asanoyama (5-3)

What does it mathematically mean for him ? Basically, ozeki promotion in Osaka is about to be over, unless he finished the basho with a storming 12-3 record. That would mean probably being jun-yusho at least, and, more significantly, having beaten both ozeki. He would have gotten 33 wins during the last three honbashos, and, given the aforementioned situation on the ozeki ranks, might be sufficient.

But it does not look likely to happen ; Asanoyama, on track for ozeki promotion, rather delivered a Mitakeumi-like performance. More reallistically, he’d better preserve his chances for the next tournament or two – that means, getting at least ten wins, and beating one of the two ozeki. If not, his tournament will have brought no quality, and he’ll be good to start all over again.

The situation is almost the opposite for Endo : having been 7-8 last tournament, he is in no run whatsoever, but delivered fantastic performances, beating both yokozuna in the process. That means, the current basho is an excellent start for an ozeki run. Being at 6-2, he’s perfectly capable to reach, say, 11-4, and kick on in Osaka.

Other possible future candidates have been quoted from time to time: Abi, Hokutofuji, Mitakeumi. But none of them does better than 5-3, so any ozeki talk is pretty much premature. A word about Mitakeumi, who aims to regain a san’yaku spot. It seems that this would be the best he can hope for – being 4-4, ozeki hopes are hibernating for the time being.

3. Who is in danger to drop to juryo ?

Kiribayama is the only newbie in makuuchi this tournament. He showed interesting things so far – today’s win against Kotoeko was good. But he’s been a bit irregular, and gave away some light losses – to Terutsuyoshi, for example. He’ll need a kachi koshi to save his makuuchi place.

No honeymoon in makuuchi : Kiribayama (4-4)

I like to watch his rise – having Kakuryu as mentor is of a great benefit for him. I’m afraid, however, the end of the tournament might prove a bit too tiring for him. He’ll perhaps finish at 6-9 and have to rise again from juryo. I’m not too worried about him having a bright future, though.

The situation is more critical for Ikioi, whose foot is a real worry for him during this basho. He’s at 2-6 and doesn’t seem to be able to produce consistent performances. He’ll probably drop again to juryo.

The “yo-yo old guard” – experienced rikishi who had to endure a recent juryo stint, like Kaisei, Tochiozan, Azumaryu, are doing pretty well, all at 5-3. Still, they’ll need to be careful to maintain their form, as they haven’t reach the safety zone yet. Azumaryu could be safe with just one more win, while Kaisei and Tochiozan need two, or three. While expressing a few doubts about Tochiozan, I believe they should scrap their way to safety.

A solid makuuchi return: Kaisei (5-3)

Ishiura raised expectations after a combattive Kyushu basho, but fails to deliver with a 2-6 record. He needs three more wins to be entirely safe. Having lost the first three bouts, and the three last ones, I’d advise him to start collecting wins sooner rather than later. Perhaps another juryo drop here.

Kotoeko is in real danger at maegashira 13, with a 2-6 record. He lost the five (!) last bouts, and will have to find solutions soon.

Shimanoumi is also one to watch. After a convincing start of the year 2019, and reaching a career high maegashira 6, he got make kochi is the two last tournaments, and his sumo seems to have evaporated. I’d tip him to join the juryo drops.

Tsurugisho had a big injury scare, which saw him use the wheelchair. Fortunately, the hospital report concluded that no bone had been broken, and that he was in sufficient condition to wrestle. If I expect him to end up the basho with a make kochi record, his relatively safe maegashira 12 spot may preserve him from the drop.

Still fit to fight ? Tsurugisho (3-5)

Things are different for Kotoshogiku. After a poor start, he seemed to find his energy back, and evened scored at 4-4. Fortunately, we’ll probably see him again in Osaka.

Let’s have a thought for Meisei, who had to pull out of the tournament. He’ll en dit up at 1-7-7, and may well drop from his maegashira 5 spot right to juryo. 

And, finally, the situation will be similar for Kotoyuki, the maegashira 3 who does not compete this basho.

4. Who will win this basho ?

My tip for the yusho : ozeki Takakeisho (7-1)

The most straightforward question for the end ! My answer will be as clear cut : Takakeisho. After a hesitant start, his sumo is looking good, solid, albeit still not perfect. Although he has serious rivals, I doubt Endo or Shodai could maintain their winning habits indefinitely – that’s exactly what happened to Endo today. Tokushoryu, Terutsuyoshi, Kagayaki and Yutakayama are having good tournaments, but don’t look likely to end up lifting the cup. Should they go on winning, they would be paired together, if not against stronger opposition.This is definitely Takakeisho to lose that one, and I wish him to finish strongly to initiate his yokozuna quest.

Sumo debates for 2020 – 3/3

10. Will a rikishi win a yusho for the first time in 2020 ?

Last years showed us we’re not immune to great upsets, during a troubled period where top ranks are ageing and youngsters are struggling to meet up expectations. Indeed, 2018 and 2019 saw a maegashira lifting the Emperor’s Cup (Tochinoshin in 2018 and Asanoyama in 2019).

Anyone up for another surprise in 2020 ? At the risk of being a party spoiler, I’m not !

11. Will Hoshoryu reach maku’uchi ?

Lower divisions have seen the emergence in 2019 of Hoshoryu. Often called “nephew of…”, I’m sure he’ll want to prove his own strengh, in order to me remembered, not just as Asashoryu’s nephew.

A future star ? Hoshoryu Tomokatsu

His rise from jonokuchi has been pretty fast, although it took several honbasho for Hoshoryu to break the glass and reach the salaried ranks : from March of last year at makushita 7, 4-3, 4-3, 3-4 and 4-3 records saw him finally reach juryo. His first stint there did not bring much joy either, as he barely managed to save his rank, thanks to a senshuraku victory – he ended the tournament with a 7-8 make kochi.

Can he raise up his lever in 2020 ?

My prediction: Asashoryu has had harsh words towards him last year. I’m sure he will be a major help towards maku’uchi promotion in 2020.

12. Will Kotoshogiku stay in maku’uchi ?

Lots of words have been written about the way Kotoshogiku failed to regain his ozeki status, as an ozekiwake in March 2017. Since then, much less has been said about Kotoshogiku’s rather anonymous, albeit decent later career in maku’uchi – he even defeated Hakuho in Nagoya.

Former ozeki Kotoshogiku Kazuhiro (left)

Lately, his form has plunged, however. The former ozeki is on an unfortunate four make kochi streak (6-9, 7-8, 6-9, 6-9). He’ll turn 36 this month.

Can he find the winning formula again ? I’m afraid not.

13. Will Ishiura stay in maku’uchi ?

What about Ishiura ? Interestingly, he already spent six basho in a row in maku’uchi (from Kyushu 2016 to Aki 2017), but never during a full calendar year (he got demoted in Kyushu 2017 and Kyushu 2018). He spent four tournaments in the top division in 2019.

From hatakikomi to mitokorozeme : Ishiura Masakatsu

He is known for using the henka technique quite often during his bouts. Lately, however, his form seemed to improve, with combative 8-7 and 9-6 records at the end of the year. Last basho saw him use more raffined techniques, including one of the rarest techniques of the sport, mitokorozeme. It had not been used since Mainoumi, back in 1993 !

Can Ishiura’s sudden feisty sumo grant him a spot in maku’uchi during the whole year 2020 ? Unfortunately, I tend to say no.

14. Will Ura produce the greatest comeback ever ?

We spoke about Terunofuji’s remarkable return to juryo, and, possibly, to maku’uchi. What if Ura does the same ?

The greatest comeback ever ? Ura Kazuki

To put that question into context, Ura had a breakthrough in 2017, starting his first two honbasho in maku’uchi with two winning records. He even defeated former yokozuna Harumafuji in Nagoya, before seeing knee injuries totally stopping his rise. After almost a year without participating in a competitive bout, Ura started his comeback with 6-1 and 7-0 records in sandanme, before reinjuring his knees at the beginning of 2019. At the bottom of jonidan, Ura started his career again, producing a 6-1 record.

Is it on once and for all ? Can Ura produce six kachi koshi in 2020 ? Once again, I tend to say no, but wish him, as well as all other wrestlers and our readers, a successful year 2020 !