Nagoya Story 1 – The Return of Asanoyama

A few years ago, there was a bright, happy up and coming rikishi with the shikona “Asanoyama”. He caught my eye because he seemed really happy to be competing. Even when he lost, he had an expression of “I can’t believe I am here, and being paid for sumo!”. With such a love for the sport, it’s really no surprise that he trained hard, and from that training came success. He battled his way up the ranks to become Ozeki. He even had the unusual distinction of being handed “The President’s Cup” by the US President during a state visit to Japan.

But a year ago, he was removed from competition during the 2021 Natsu basho, ostensibly for violating “COVID protocols”. Like so many things in Japan, the initial report was a broad euphemism for a pattern of breaking isolation at the heya to keep the rikishi from getting sick. When confronted with his behavior, he made the grave mistake of lying to the kyokai, trying to pretend it did not happen, and maybe it would all go away. Bad move for anyone, double-bad for someone as prestigious as an Ozeki. The kyokai came down on him fairly hard, though not as harsh as I had expected – which would have been immediate intai.

Instead he was handed a one year suspension from competition. As a result, his rank has been dropping on every banzuke published since, with his ranking for Natsu 2022 being Makushita 42. With his year of punishment now complete, we will see Asanoyama back in competition in the sweat-box of Nagoya. I expect him to be ranked around Sandanme 30 or so. The bigger question will be his condition.

He’s still got the skill of an Ozeki, though his sumo was a bit tepid prior to being caught breaking COVID protocols. It should still be more than enough to completely shatter anyone in Sandanme. I am curious on how he has spent the past year. Was he just going through the motions? Or did he decide that he was going to emerge on the other side of this shameful incident an unstoppable sumo machine?

I am eager to find out, and ever since the departure of Wakaichiro, I have not really had too much of an interest in Sandanme sumo. That all changes in July.

How do you, dear readers, feel about Asanoyama’s return? Let us know in the comments.

The Makuuchi Premier League

Brighton loses another. Photo by Nicola, crude photoshop work by the author.

In the holiday lull and with no sumo, let’s have some fun.

It’s always fun to compare sumo to other sports. Giant of sumo punditry John Gunning regularly invokes references to the only NFL team worth a damn in his Japan Times columns (as well as numerous other sporting easter eggs), and sumo comparisons to other sports are doubly fun given that much of the world struggles to recognise rikishi as proper athletes until they are giving of their time to actually watch the sport.

By most measures, the goliath of the sports industry is the Premier League, watched in every corner of the planet, consistently breaking revenue records and whose clubs are the not just the cornerstone of their communities but also often the object of sugar daddy billionaires or countries looking to sportswash their reputation. But like many rikishi, while some of them have similar styles they often have their own unique tactics, approaches to the game, or places within the sport’s cultural framework.

If you are a football fan you will disagree with some of my choices (this is what the comments section is for). If you are a sumo fan who doesn’t care about other sports you will say “I don’t care about this content, tell me more about sumo.” That’s ok too. But I don’t have any more news for you, it’s December. So – and with apologies to the highest placed omission Meisei –  let’s have a go at determining who’s who:

Terunofuji – Manchester City

In terms of pure ability, Terunofuji is the class of makuuchi. Now that he has got to grips with his body, he has a fairly defined style of sumo which is very pleasing on the eye, and is often able to simply overpower his opponents. Like the Citizens, Terunofuji had to wait for the decline of other historic champions to begin his championship run, but is rapidly growing his trophy cabinet.

Mitakeumi  – Chelsea

Hailing from one of the most prestigious stables, the Dewanoumi man has every tool in his locker for success, and with multiple yusho and all manner of special prizes has certainly grown his trophy cabinet. But like the billionaire-owned sack-happy London club, he is prone to moments of self-destruction and turbulence often snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Chelsea have achieved great success in the last two decades but like Mitakeumi, who would be an Ozeki or better but for some consistency, you get the feeling the legacy could be greater.

Takakeisho – Liverpool

It’s a weird one for me as a Liverpool supporter myself to write this, as I don’t really have any kind of emotional attachment to Takakeisho or his sumo. But the full-throttle nature of his sumo is very much in tune with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Much like Liverpool has emerged from the shadow of past legacies, Takakeisho was trained initially by a dai-yokozuna from whose shadow he emerged following Takanohana-beya’s closure. Like the Liverpool of recent years, his relentless attacking style was prone to counter-attacks and his ability to rack up wins in his peak has been disrupted by injury. But as he has matured, controlling the chaos has made him a much more potent force, resulting in multiple championships and coasting to huge numbers of wins when he’s on it.

Takayasu – Manchester United

You might think this is a bit of a weird one given that Man Utd have won 20 league championships and Takayasu has won nothing, but hear me out. This is about the league of today, and Takayasu has possibly the best raw ability of any rikishi in the top division not named Terunofuji. But like the star studded Red Devils, it’s a lack of organisation, fitness, potentially mental issues, and an inability to escape the shadow of a (generational, if not all-time) great that has left Takayasu on the outside of an era where he should very much be in play for major honours when you look at what he brings to the table relative to his competition.

Ichinojo – Everton

“The People’s Club.” Ichinojo is a fascinating figure in sumo. But also, he’s just kind of, you know, there. Not unlike Everton, disliked by very few, ever present in the Premier League since its inception but never really in danger of challenging at the top or bottom end of the table. Like Everton, the competent Ichinojo will have his basho where he’ll elevate himself into the top 6 positions of the banzuke, or very bad tournaments where he performs clearly below his level. And like the Toffees, it’s hard to escape that with the tools at his disposal he could be capable of greater success.

Asanoyama – Tottenham Hotspur 

Again, perhaps this feels a bit odd considering Asanoyama has actually won a yusho and Spurs very famously never win anything, but here’s another club which presses the self-destruct button when it seems easier to win. Perhaps Asanoyama actually should be thankful he hadn’t become the 73rd Yokozuna when his scandal broke, otherwise he certainly wouldn’t be in the sport now. Spurs possess perhaps the sport’s best all-around striker, and you’ll do better to find a better yotsu-zumo technician in the top division (probably just Terunofuji). On his day, he can beat anyone. Like Spurs, he has made some seriously questionable off-dohyo decisions in recent years which have set back his progress on it.

Wakatakakage – Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wolves are a bit of an odd club. Located in the West Midlands but very much with a Portuguese backbone and Chinese ownership, they’ve exhibited slow and steady progress over the past few years to leave themselves just on the fringes outside the truly top teams. Wakatakakage similarly has moved gradually and deliberately up the banzuke, occasionally running into a tough tournament but impressively bouncing back and staying true to his style of sumo, working under the tutelage of sumo’s only Chinese oyakata.

Shodai – Arsenal

A proud old club and a proud 30-year old rikishi, a little bit set in their way of doing things despite furious critical analysis from the outside world, with a passionate fanbase and no few accolades. Arsenal’s ownership situation has been scrutinised endlessly, not unlike that of the legendary Tokitsukaze-beya. He’s a powerful rikishi, one that if he can recapture title winning form would be a force to be reckoned with. But, as with the recent basho where he wasn’t even paired up with the Yokozuna, like Arsenal he has a lot of work to do to show he belongs at the top table again. And like Arsenal, he has inbuilt advantages as an Ozeki that should keep him elevated among the division’s elite for a long time.

Takanosho – West Ham United

Takanosho has much in common with David Moyes’ impressively developing side. They’ll get pumped every now and again, but as with Takanosho, they have shown the ability to upset opponents of much higher pedigree, even if you wish the overall product were a little more attractive. One to watch over the next couple of years. Can he do more?

Daieisho – Leicester City

A high tempo rikishi with one surprise championship, Daieisho seems like a good fit for the Foxes. And like them, everyone expected him to push on and really challenge for further honours after the surprise yusho, but results have been a little more hit and miss with the Oitekaze beya man bobbing in and out of san’yaku at a time when Leicester are struggling to impose themselves among the historical big clubs.

Kotonowaka – Newcastle United

A big shout, this. Newcastle are now the richest club in the premier league, as Sadogatake are one of sumo’s deepest and most storied stables. Both arguably had some of their best years of recent decades in the late 90s to early 00s, but the past decade has been a bit barren in terms of talent. Both have had serious questions raised over off-field issues (although granted, there’s no obviously comparing the Kotokantetsu situation or past scandals to Khashoggi!). And putting aside the stable’s reputation in latter years as tsukebito farm, it’s hard to get away from the fact that the perennially relegation-endangered club has much in common with Kotonowaka, a rikishi of enormous talent, bloodline and promise who upon establishing himself in the top division has found himself far too often at the wrong end of the table. All of the tools and infrastructure for his success are there, and like Newcastle, we could see a rapid rise in the coming years.

Endo – Brighton & Hove Albion

Pretty straightforward comparison this – both practise lovely versions of their sport that draw wide praise from the purists, and both are hugely profligate when it comes to putting matches away. As a result, both regularly turn in worse winning records than they can otherwise be expected to do, in spite of admiration from most neutrals.

Ura – Brentford

It feels like Ura’s been around for ages but the recent basho was only his 8th in the top division, which makes him a good fit for these unique newcomers. Like Ura, they are run pretty differently to many top flight clubs off the pitch and tend to conjure up some pretty wacky action on it. And also like Ura, when the new banzuke comes out this week, Brentford have tended to find themselves further up the table this season than fans might be accustomed to seeing a club of their stature.

Kiribayama – Aston Villa

I went back and forth for this one with Hoshoryu, but I find Kiribayama a better fit for the famous old club. Like Villa, who have recently installed a Premier League legend as their manager, Kiribayama has been operating under the personal tutelage of the Yokozuna Kakuryu (a less storied but more direct influence as a coach than his aforementioned compatriot), and appears to have the promise and infrastructure for a measured rise up the banzuke once that coaching is properly instilled and more bite is added to his already considerable technique.

Hoshoryu – Leeds United

This was not easy. I waffled on Hoshoryu for Villa (for the above reasons), for Newcastle (a newly combative attitude towards the rest of the league), and even Watford (general overall contradictions), but Leeds seemed to be the best fit. It’s a club with enormous potential that just hasn’t quite seemed to put it all together since their return to the top division, and I think it’s a good analogy for Hoshoryu’s sumo. Many fans were expecting him to storm the sanyaku ranks given the drop-off in top division quality in recent years. Like Leeds in recent years, Hoshoryu’s ascendance has come under the guidance of a mercurial guru (albeit unofficially in his case), with scrutiny far outpacing his position in the division. And like Leeds, whether you like Hoshoryu or not, sumo would be better for his success.

Abi – Burnley

Pretty straightforward here, although there’s an argument to be made for Takarafuji when discussing a team commonly known for “parking the bus.” It’s not totally accurate, but the overwhelming reputation of Burnley is of a team with solidly one way to play, a “route one” forward and backward style, very physical, and a club that seems like it might have a higher ceiling if only it had the nous to just add one or two more abilities. Does this sound like any rikishi we know?

Chiyomaru – Norwich City

Often seen with accented by the colour green, regularly yo-yos up and down between the first and second division, and is famously well fed (Norwich by way of celebrity chef owner, Chiyomaru by way of… most things).

Hokutofuji – Crystal Palace

You might think you know what Hokutofuji is, but as Bruce has detailed, he has been subtly and impressively evolving his style and tactics over the last couple of years to become a much more well rounded rikishi, under the tutelage of one of the sport’s icons. Not unlike a team from south London, who have followed a similar path in 2021, even if the early results are a bit up and down.

Aoiyama – Watford

Are they a well run club or is it just their constant sense of chaos that makes Watford a top division club? In any case, just like the Bulgarian, they don’t seem to do things quite like anyone else, they don’t look quite like anyone else, and their team is often populated by signings that seem to come from far flung places. And like Aoiyama, Watford are not always great to watch, win, lose, or draw.

Kagayaki – Southampton

A rikishi of solid fundamentals and immense promise, who’s been in the top division for a long time, and who seems to somehow rescue himself most times when careering towards the top division trap door… Kagayaki has quite a bit in common with the Saints. He’s still young and well regarded, but without all of the requisite pieces to really put it all together. Will it take a reset in the second division to come good? I have a feeling both Kagayaki and Southampton would rather not find out, but the former’s fate will be aired soon enough…

Things We Learned That Don’t Really Mean Much

Veterans at the ready. Photo credit @nicolaah

In some ways, Wacky Aki lived up to its name. Not because it was a see-saw title race until the end or because there was some kind of crazy left-field title challenger. Indeed, all of the “dark horses” were more or less known entities, or people that could have been expected to run up a double digit score from their respective ranks.

Maybe you’ll say Myogiryu or Onosho aren’t expected to contend, but they’re not Kotoeko or Tsurugisho, or, dare I say it, Tokushoryu. None of the contenders were strangers to the musubi-no-ichiban. There were a few other talking points from the basho though that might fly under the radar, so I’ve assembled some of them here:

Shodai’s kachikoshi

This may not seem like much, but while the Ozeki was maddeningly inconsistent and underwhelming, this kachikoshi means that Shodai will officially have a longer tenure as Ozeki than either recent Ozeki Tochinoshin or Asanoyama.

Tochinoshin is of course in the decline phase of his career and won’t be returning to the rank, and Asanoyama can make it back to Ozeki in 2024 at the earliest following his suspension and fall down the banzuke. While Terunofuji has taught us not to rule anything out, that ain’t likely (even if it does happen, it will likely take more time).

So, Shodai will soldier on. Among other “recent” (last 25 years or so) Ozeki, he can topple Miyabiyama with another kachikoshi in the next tournament, and if he can hang around for another year at the level he can attempt to surpass the likes of Takayasu and Baruto. This is where it’s worth reminding you: we’re talking about Shodai here. He’s always had the talent, but his top division career – including his Ozeki stint – (apart from that magical 12 month run from November 2019 to November 2020, before which he was a .500 rank and filer) could be best described as mediocre.

Takasago beya

Feast or famine for the beleaguered heya. With the former stable master now gone and Asanoyama in the midst of a suspension that eventually will punt the former Ozeki down to Sandanme, there was yet more bad news in the form of shin-Juryo Asashiyu (moto-Murata)’s debut which went all wrong in the form of a 1-14 record. At least it wasn’t as bad as Shikoroyama’s Oki, in his recent Juryo bow. But it continues a worrying trend for in this particular stable, after Asagyokusei similarly not being able to manage a kachi-koshi in the penultimate division in three attempts, and veteran Asabenkei’s last four attempts at the division all ending in double digit losses. At least if you’re a tsukebito, your servitude may not last particularly long.

We shouldn’t feel too bad though. Asashiyu-Murata’s debut itself was something of a feat. Having reached the edge of heaven at Makushita 1, injuries knocked him all the way back down to Jonokuchi where he was forced to restart his career. Now 27, he’ll need to regroup if he’s going to shift through the gears once more, but you suspect having a top heyagashira with something to actually fight for (as opposed to a suspended heyagashira still miles away from his return) might be helpful for the whole stable.

The stable might have a new heyagashira before long though, and it could be one of Asanoyama’s old tsukebito. The rikishi formerly known as Terasawa will make his sekitori debut in the next basho, and as Takasago beya normally gives its rikishi their morning shikona following Juryo promotion, I’m disappointed he hasn’t got Asanousagi. Having instead curiously taken the name Asanowaka, Terasawa was one of two success stories for Takasago in makushita last tournament. You might remember him as the guy who had his practise mawashi stolen with the remains of his dead rabbit inside.

Finally, that second success story would have been the makushita yusho of Fukai, the former Sandanme Tsukedashi debutant who’s made solid if unsteady progress over the past year and a half. Fukai’s yusho sensationally denied the much vaunted Kitanowaka of an automatic promotion (and it was a nice looking win at that, with one of those very satisfying endings that see everyone crash down the side of the dohyo), and the two will hopefully duke it out again next basho from the makushita joi, where they will both be ranked, presumably with promotion on the line.

Oldies Keep Swinging

While recent generations had their one-offs who performed well into their late 30’s (Terao, Kaio, Kyokutenho), one could be forgiven for thinking that the time would come when the current crop of vets would start to get pumped.

Eight participants in the top division are aged 34 or over (including last week’s birthday man Tochinoshin – happy birthday!). Those eight rikishi combined for a record of 59-61.

For sure, this number is propped up by Myogiryu’s championship challenge, but the only really poor result was Tokushoryu’s 4-11 which isn’t all that unexpected from anyone who’s spent part of the year in Juryo.

That almost-.500 record for the vets is reflective of the current mediocre top division quality and it means their decline – which is certainly evident relative to their younger selves in terms of the eye test – has more of a flatline.

As Andy teases a new “birthday” feature for the site, it will be curious to watch the average age of the top division continue to get ever older. You’d think that subtracting a 36 year old retiring yokozuna might help this, but while Hakuho will remain on the November banzuke if not the dohyo, the top division will likely be joined by a trio of 30+ veterans in Akua (30), Sadanoumi (34), Shohozan (37!!), and the 27 year old Abi.

The youth movement that had threatened to wash away the detritus has so far failed to really materialise. Credit must go to Hoshoryu and Kotonowaka for consolidating their positions in the top division for now, but Kotoshoho and Oho haven’t been able to break through or stay through doing to injury or ability respectively, and Onoe-beya’s once heavily hyped 23-year old Ryuko has just sadly announced his intai after a couple of injury plagued Juryo appearances.

The Kyushu basho will, at least, provide some looks in Juryo for Kotoshoho, Hokuseiho and Hiradoumi to hopefully show that there are youngsters who have got what it takes to keep moving up into the top division and establish themselves.

And this may actually be the more telling thing. We know that the age at which a rikishi can break into and stick in the top division is often an indicator of their ultimate final destination in the sport. That inability recently of many to skip through Juryo also owes much to an aged veteran presence in that division. The Mongolian duo of 33 year old Kyokushuho and 34 year old Azumaryu continue to rack up enough wins to hang around the place, and will be joined by Tokushoryu next tournament as he replaces the tricenarian trio who look likely to head up.

Or, it may not be that telling. These are, after all, things that don’t really mean much.

COVID-19 cluster at Takasago beya

 

The NSK informed us today that 7 rikishi in Takasago beya have been found positive for COVID-19. They include Takasago oyakata (the former Asasekiryu), Asanoyama, and 5 low-ranked rikishi.

Yesterday (July 26), one of the low-ranking rikishi in the heya started to show symptoms, including a high fever and fatigue. Tested in a medical facility, his result was positive.

Therefore, the next day everybody in the heya has been tested, and then the other six were discovered. They are being isolated, and will go through the usual routine of contact tracing and further instructions from the local health authority.

Asashoryu informs us in his Twitter that he called Takasago oyakata (his friend and companion since arriving in Japan), and that he assured him he was doing well.

Shibatayama oyakata says the NSK doesn’t really know how the infection came about, but that it was likely contracted during the post-basho period, in which rikishi have more freedom to go out. However, they are still supposed to be tested when they come back to the heya. “I would like to remind the rikishi they should take caution”.

We wish the infected rikishi a speedy recovery with no long term effects. And most of all we wish them to get the second vaccination shot