He Had Much To Gain, And Much To Loose
Heading into the Aki basho, all of Japan was riveted to Ozeki Kisenosato, and his perpetual bid to be promoted to sumo’s highest rank, Yokozuna. As any sumo fan knows, his much hyped bid failed. Worse still, a rival Ozeki, Goeido, was able to achieve a perfect record, win the tournament, and set himself on a fast track to the very promotion Kisenosato has worked so hard chasing.
The Yokozuna Run
Kisenosato has been sumo’s second highest rank, Ozeki, since 2012. He was elevated without a single tournament victory, by maintaining a steady record of second place finishes (Jun-yusho) and special prizes. For the three tournaments before his promotion, he racked up 32 wins with a 10-12-10 record, with 2 special prizes.
From here he settled into a pattern that made him a fairly solid Ozeki, only being kadoban once, and racking up several back-to-back Jun-yushos, and frequent double digit winning records. This is what an Ozeki should be doing, and he did it well. Starting in 2016, there seemed to have been a public cry that for too long there were only Mongolian Yokozuna, and the Sumo Association came under pressure to find a Japanese sumotori to wear the rope.
At the conclusion of the May 2016 tournament in Tokyo, Kisenosato had two back to back Jun-yusho, and people were starting to suggest he would become Yokozuna soon. As the meme spread, everyone associated Kisenosato with the goal that he would become the champion of Japanese sumo, the first native Yokozuna in more than a decade. The pressure on him was immense.
With all of Japan watching, Kisenosato went to the summer tournament in Nagoya. He defeated most of his opponents, who were surprisingly light on the Ozeki count, facing only 2. In truth, his schedule in Nagoya was very light.
He defeated an injured Hakuho on day 14, but lost badly to Harumafuji on day 13. The video below shows how little defense he was able to mount against the Yokozuna’s attack.
He also lost to two rank and file Maegashira, Tochiozan and Shohozan. While his sumo was good (he finished with a 12-3 Jun-yusho), he proved once more that he did not really have the versatility and mobility needed to handle the tough matches.
With the hopes of Japanese sumo fans rising over the chance of a native Yokozuna, the Sumo Association held a massive summer tour. The Jungyo take sumo to the people to raise the profile and interest of sumo among the broader population. In general they are in a different city each day, holding a full day’s worth of events from practice bouts, to singing, to explanations of sumo’s traditions and techniques.
As it has in the past, the hot summer and the constant grind degraded the performance of the rikishi on tour. This was evident during the first 3 days of Aki, when many of the best from Nagoya seemed slow, rusty and off their game. Clearly it’s impact on Kisenosato – the great Japanese hope who was on the road almost every day from early August – was significant.
Soken -Yokozuna Deliberation Council
The first sign that the Yokozuna bid was in trouble came at a closed training session in front of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, called a Soken. During this session, the council invites up and coming rikishi, Ozeki under consideration for promotion, along with current Yokozuna to practice and hold bouts for review.
During this session, Kisenosato horribly underperformed expectations. Harumafuji and Kisenosato fought eight matches, Kisenosato lost every one of them. He cited being exhausted from participating in summer jungyo tour.
The chairman of the council was reported to have said: “His performance was unacceptable, we really don’t expect anything from him with that kind of performance.”
But they left the door open, stating that with a tournament win (Yusho), he would be promoted.
Days before the September tournament began, news rippled across the sumo world that Yokozuna Hakuho would sit out the basho. Hakuho is one of the greatest Sumotori in history, and his presence at each tournament had prevented Kisenosato from, in the minds of most fans, from winning. With him out of the picture, Kisenosato’s backers were certain, this would be their time. Their champion could finally win a tournament and claim his tsuna.
From the first bout, it was clear that Kisenosato was not up to form. He lost his first match to Okinoumi, a rank and file Maegashira. The crowd was clearly amped up to see him start his historic run, and the shock when he lost was palpable.
After the first day shocker, he dropped a second bout on day 3 to Tochinoshin, who deployed a henka against the Ozeki. At this point, he is nursing 2 losses, and is all but mathematically eliminated from winning the tournament. Unlike Nagoya, he faced a full and fierce card in Tokyo, turning in the following performanceL
Aki Results – Kisenosato
Day 1 Loss M1e Okinoumi
Day 2 Win K1w Tochiozan
Day 3 Loss M2e Tochinoshin
Day 4 Win M1w Yoshikaze
Day 5 Win M3e Takanoiwa
Day 6 Win M2w Shodai
Day 7 Win S1w Takarafuji
Day 8 Win M4e Myogiryu
Day 9 Win M4w Chiyootori
Day 10 Win O2w Kotoshogiku
Day 11 Loss O2e Goeido
Day 12 Win K1e Kaisei
Day 13 Loss Y2e Kakuryu
Day 14 Loss Y1e Harumafuji
Day 15 Win O1w Terunofuji
Expectations For The Future
In failing to win or achieve runner-up status at Aki (that honor went to Endo), Kisenosato’s Yokozuna chase resets to the beginning. That means at least 3 more tournaments of grind. Hakuho is likely to return in November, and how he must contend with Goeido’s Zensho Yusho. That perfect tournament win leaves Kisenosato with the only Ozeki who has never won a tournament.
On the good side, the pressure is now off. All of the hopes of the Japanese fans wanting a native Yokozuna have been neatly transferred to Goeido, and Kisenosato is free to train up and focus on his sumo. One thing that seems to come from his high-intensity training, his stablemate Takayasu has improved greatly over the past year, and looks prepared to attempt the climb to Ozeki rank himself.
Here at Tachiai, we hope the best for Kisenosato. As both Andy and I have remarked, he is a solid Ozeki who delivers a consistent winning record. Through some bad fortune he had one of his worst tournament at the exact time that it would do the most harm to his aspirations. We look forward to see what he comes back with, and November may be the resumption of his dominant ways.