Aki Reflections – Ringers & Over-Achievers

Yoshikaze Fansa

Prior to Aki 2018, it was clear there was a handful of high-potential rikishi ranked in the bottom half of the banzuke, and we wrote that there was a strong chance that these “ringers” might over-perform the rest of the lower Maegashira. As sumo tournaments are a zero-sum competition (everyone who wins delivers a loss to their opponent), a handful of strong performers at the bottom of the banzuke will result in a large number of make-koshi rikishi, and an absolute headache for ranking in November. Let’s take a look at who was wrecking the torikumi for September.

Yoshikaze – Full disclaimer, I am a huge Yoshikaze fan. He was worryingly weak during the Nagoya basho, so much so that I wrote that he might be on the cusp of retiring. At 36 years, he is one of the older sekitori. Yoshikaze also has secure “elder stock” in the sumo association, assuring he will continue to be part of the sumo world well after he chooses to retire. The Aki banzuke ranked him at Maegashira 15w, and a make-koshi in September would have seen him drop from the top division. But the “Berserker” had put whatever ailed him aside, and roared to an 11-4 record. Fans noted that his body seemed to be covered with some sort of rash for at least part of the basho, but it did not seem to affect his performance.

Nishikigi – He has never been very genki, and mostly scooted along the bottom edge of the Makuuchi banzuke, bouncing between lower Maegashira and Juryo. But lately his sumo has improved enough that he has been not only able to hold Maegashira rank, but has brought in two double-digit win tournaments this year. It has been fascinating to watch Nishikigi – who seems to never give up no matter how badly he is doing in a tournament – keep slowly improving no matter what. Toward the end of Aki he was paired against two mid-ranked opponents, M7 Shohozan and M9 Hokutofuji, and beat them both for the first time. He even managed to win against fading former Ozeki Kotoshogiku. Whatever transformation has taken place, it’s great to watch and we hope he can continue to strive for higher performance.

Ryuden – After bad health problems in 2013 and 2014, Ryuden dropped all the way down from a (then-career-high) Juryo 12 West to Jonokuchi, and fought his way back up through the ranks. Since returning to Sekitori status, he has floated between good and terrible, with his 3-12 disaster at May’s Natsu basho a standout. He had a series of good matches at Aki, but that included puzzling losses to hapless Ishiura and Kotoyuki. Despite this, his 10-5 result will likely catapult him back to mid-Maegashira ranks. Fans rightly wonder if he will be able to hold on this time.

Takanoiwa – In October of 2017, Takanoiwa was involved in an after-hours party that led to him being in the hospital with a head wound, and Harumafuji out of sumo. Recent court activity shows that those two are not done fighting, though now they let their lawyers grapple. After sitting out two tournaments and dropping to lower Juryo, Takanoiwa has been kachi-koshi for the past 4 tournaments, including the Juryo yusho in the sweltering heat of Nagoya. Returning to the top division for September, he managed a respectable 10-5 record. Prior to his injury, he was a dependable mid-Maegashira rikishi, and given the blood bath at the top of the banzuke in September, he seems likely to return to that posting for Kyushu in November. Sadly the distractions for Takanoiwa are likely not over. In a puzzling complex of events, his stable master, the former Yokozuna Takanohana, left sumo and closed his stable. As a result, Takanoiwa and the rest of the Takanohana rikishi have been re-homed to Chiganoura heya, which will surely disrupt Takanoiwa’s training and mindset.

All four of these rikishi are likely to see steep promotions for Kyushu, and Tachiai will be eagerly awaiting the publication of the November banzuke in just a couple of weeks.

Aki 2018 Jungyo – Day 1 (Oct 3)

🌐 Location: Ota Ward, Tokyo
🚫 Scandal Level: 0

abi-being-abi
It’s the Jungyo! Let the Goofiness commence!

The sekitori and their tsukebito eased into the Jungyo, starting the rounds in Tokyo. This time, at the Ota ward, close to Kawasaki.

That is, the sekitori eased into it. The tsukebito are a different story:

kyokusoten-carries-tamawashi-akeni
Kyokusoten shouldering Tamawashi’s Akeni

They have to do all the fetching and carrying – here showing the akeni, packed into protective tarp.

Wait, whose Akeni is this?

yutakayama-akeni

The name on this package is “Oyanagi”. Actually, it’s Yutakayama’s Akeni. They simply didn’t replace the name on the canvas bag when they gave him his shikona – which happened when he was already a sekitori. Generally, it’s best to avoid changing shikona when the rikishi is already sekitori – it means that his kesho mawashi and akeni become obsolete.

Here is someone who has been sekitori for a long time. Very long time.

aminishiki-birthday
Happy 40th birthday, Uncle

Poor Aminishiki always gets to celebrate his birthday in Jungyo. He did get an early surprise party from his loved ones, but the day itself is always spent away from home. Aminishiki noted that with post-basho events, Jungyo, and Kyushu basho, it won’t be until after Fuyu Jungyo is over – ending December 22 – that he will get his much yearned-for “Family time”.

So let’s turn to the Jungyo event itself. Here we see the sekitori coming to greet Kisenosato, one by one. This Jungyo started with all Yokozuna present and in working order, so they had a lot of greeting to do.

But unusually, the focus of attention wasn’t Kisenosato. The focus of attention in this event was Takakeisho, although he is not a local boy. The reason for this is the Takanohana beya dissolution. Of the three sekitori coming from that heya, Takakeisho is the only one participating in the Jungyo. Many people cheered him on. But not just spectators, it seems! Here is a piece of the TV coverage of the event.

First, the commentators focus on the fact that Takakeisho is still wearing a Takanohana yukata. That’s actually something I didn’t think was too surprising. Naya wears a Taiho yukata frequently. Hoshoryu goes around in an Asashoryu yukata. And they are still in the strict part of the banzuke. Why shouldn’t Takakeisho, a san-yaku sekitori, wear whatever yukata he pleases?

Further forward, moving through showing his participation in keiko and the fans showing him a lot of attention and asking for autographs, and talking about keiko and stuff, they show him greeting Hakuho in the morning. Hakuho usually all but ignores the sekitori who come to greet him – except his particular friends like Tamawashi etc. – but this time he stopped, turned around, and held on to Takakeisho’s arm in an encouraging fashion.

The news piece ends showing the first item that sold out in the memorabilia stands: “Gambare, Takakeisho” towels.

The event schedule went on as usual regardless of the Taka-no-drama, though. Here we have the Shokkiri routine for this Jungyo.

The Shokkiri team from the previous Jungyo contines into this basho – Ebisumaru and Shobushi. In the previous basho they alternated with another pair, so I’ll check tomorrow if they alternate this time as well.

Due to the many absences from Juryo, no less than three Makushita wrestlers were thrown into the Juryo torikumi to thicken it up. Jokoryu faced Ms8E Nakazono. Azumaryu faced the newly promoted Gokushindo, and Gagamaru, who is going to say goodbye to his sekitori status in the next basho, faced the man replacing him – Tomokaze.

I ran into only one photo from the Juryo bouts – Terutsuyoshi vs. Tsurugisho – and boy, I’m dying to know who won and by what kimarite, exactly.

terutsuyoshi-tsurugisho

Here is Hakuho’s dohyo-iri. Due to Ishiura’s absence, his dew-gatherer is Daieisho. This state of affairs is likely to remain so until at least Hatsu basho, as Ishiura will not be in Makuuchi in Kyushu.

Here are Chiyotairyu and Daieisho awaiting their Torikumi. This is a boring time for rikishi, so they are playing a game – one rikishi has to guess how many thumbs the other rikishi will put up. This game is actually more interesting when played with more than two rikishi, because then the answer is not just zero, one, or two.

daieisho-playing-with-chiyotairyu
Chiyotairyu guesses 1, but it was actually 0.

Of the bouts themselves, I have Takakeisho vs. Ikioi. Notice the announcement for Takakeisho: “Hyogo-ken, Ashiya-shi shusshin, Chiganoura beya”.

Poor Ikioi, getting no love.

And we have Kisenosato vs. Goeido.

What a struggle. I wish I had this from another angle to see what the Yokozuna was trying to do with his left.

Finally, by popular request, here is your daily Tobizaru!

tobizaru
“Of course I’m smiling! I’m the new Tachiai pin-up boy!”

 

Aki Reflections – Tochinoshin Continues to Worry Fans

Tochinoshin

A major theme of early 2018 has been Tochinoshin’s surge into a successful Ozeki promotion bid. Always a large, powerful rikishi, the stars aligned for Tochinoshin’s body, his fighting spirit and his competition to present him with a narrow but workable path to sumo’s second highest rank. On his way to that achievement, he racked up a yusho in January followed by two strong double-digit tournaments. At the time of his much heralded promotion, Tachiai warned fans that Tochinoshin has a history of mechanical injuries that – more so than some other rikishi – significantly degrade his sumo.

Tochinoshin’s sumo approach is largely based on immense, overpowering brute strength. This is evidenced by his displayed tendency to lift any opponent he can land his preferred grip against (even Ichinojo). While there is little defense against being lifted from the clay, raising and carrying up to 200kg of fighting sumotori is loaded with risks.

In the heat of Nagoya, during his first basho as Ozeki, Tochinoshin sustained a toe injury. Some fans may wonder why injuries to a rikishi’s toes seem to have such an impact, but fighting in their bare feet, the contestants transmit the power of their bodies into the clay through their toes. It gives them the leverage to push, the agility to maneuver, and in the case of Tochinoshin, the stable platform to sky-crane his opponents out of the match. After starting Nagoya with 5 straight wins, this injury knocked him out of the competition and left him kadoban in his first Ozeki tournament.

This put enormous pressure on him for Aki, as a make-koshi would have seen the shin-Ozeki demoted back to Sekiwake after only a single full tournament. He started 3-2 for the first act, and it was clear he was still struggling with his feet. Act 2 saw him improve to 6-4, and on day 11, he managed to hand Yokozuna Kakuryu the first of what would become 5 consecutive losses to end Aki.

With consecutive losses against Hakuho and Shodai going into the final weekend, fans were rightly worried that he might not find his 8th win. But persistence paid off, and his day 14 match against Abi featured Tochinoshin quickly landing his preferred grip, completely shutting down Abi’s double-arm tsuppari sumo.

Tochinoshin finished Aki with a respectable 9-6 record, clearing his kadoban flag and buying him 4 months to get his sumo back in order. We suspect his toes were only 70% back in working order prior to Aki, and the strains of the impressively fierce competition during September may have complicated the injury.

Aki Reflections – The Return of Kisenosato

Kisenosato Aki 2018

Aki 2018 was the most top-heavy basho of the past several years. All of the high rankers participated for all 15 days, and all were kachi-koshi or higher. This created massive pressure on the upper Maegashira, and many of these top rank-and-file rikishi went on to rack up terrible records.

Among the Yokozuna harvesting white stars from the upper Maegashira was a surprisingly genki Yokozuna Kisenosato. Tachiai has written extensively on Kisenosato’s injury, and the unlikely prospects of him ever competing as a Yokozuna again. But he did return, and he competed with strength and fighting spirit, picking up a respectable 10 wins and matching the record of Yokozuna Kakuryu. Kisenosato opened Aki with 5 straight wins, before dropping a surprise kinboshi match against M2w Chiyotairyu, who only managed 5 wins for Aki. From there Kisenosato struggled, finishing acts 2&3 with a 5-5 record.

When it was announced that Kisenosato would compete at Aki, many fans feared the worst – that he would struggle from the start and he would announce his retirement before the end of September. His day 1 match against Ikioi featured him overpowering his opponent, tossing him from the dohyo. There were literally tears in the eyes of many fans all over Japan when the goyji pointed his gumbai East.

His day 10 yorikiri over Endo clinched his 8th win, and sumo fans all over Japan breathed a sigh of relief. kisenosato had safely made it through Aki, and could continue to rebuild and work towards higher performance.

In reality, Kisenosato’s sumo ran out of gas early; even against Shodai on day 4, it was clear that the Yokozuna was struggling. Many of his matches were long running brawls that, in the past, would have been quick toss-out matches featuring his famous “crab walk” mie pose. What was behind this? We can speculate this is the outcome of not competing for 18 months. His stamina was low, is ring-sense was degraded, and his outstanding instincts were dulled.

But his survival at Aki means that we will likely see a significantly improved Kisenosato in November, and we may see something closer to 90% by January. Along with the rest of the sumo world, we are looking forward to an increasingly genki Kisenosato in tournaments to come.

Kyushu Juryo Debuts

Two wrestlers will be in the sekitori (Makuuchi + Juryo) ranks for the first time in Fukuoka: Gokushindo and Tomokaze. They enter the paid ranks following strong performances in the Makushita joi—Gokushindo won the 3rd-division yusho with a perfect 7-0 record from Ms5, while Tomokaze went 5-2 from Ms4. Tomokaze’s promotion was a surprise, as Daiseido (Ms2, 4-3) should have been ahead of him in the promotion queue according to historical precedents.

While the two debutants are of similar age (22 and 23), they took very different paths to Juryo. Tomokaze has had something of a meteoric rise. After a university sumo career, he entered professional sumo in May of 2017, debuting in maezumo, where he went 3-0. I’m not sure why he did not start higher up the banzuke, as some collegiate wrestlers do—either he wasn’t sufficiently successful in college, or he chose to enter at the bottom of the sumo ladder. After that, he flew through the three lower divisions in one tournament apiece (Jonokuchi 7-0 Yusho; Jonidan 6-1; Sandanmne 7-0 Yusho) before posting 5 consecutive kachi-koshi records in Makushita to earn a spot in Juryo. That’s right—he has yet to post a losing record.

Gokushindo, on the other hand, entered sumo all the way back in 2012 as a 15-year-old. It took him a few tournaments to get established in Sandanme, where he spent almost three years before making his Makushita debut in 2015. He also lost all or part of three tournaments to injuries. After bouncing back and forth between Sandanme and Makushita, he finally established himself in the third-highest division in May of 2017—the same tournament that saw Tomokaze make his maezumo debut. He worked his way to the top of the division, flopping in his first chance at promotion by going 3-4 at Ms4 in March, missing out on promotion despite a 6-1 record at Ms7 in May, and failing again from Ms2 in July (3-4) before finally succeeding in emphatic fashion with a zensho yusho.

It will be interesting to watch how the two men fare in the sekitori ranks. Will they make it to the top division? Who will get there first?