Since Harumafuji’s untimely fall from honor, a gap has opened in the Yokozuna front. No longer able to consistently field grand-champions, both of the current Ozeki can’t help but set their sights on the Emperor’s cup, and a slim chance at promotion to sumo’s highest rank. But for both Goeido and Takayasu, this greatest of sumo’s prizes seem frustratingly out of reach.
First and foremost, the case of Goeido. Famously inconsistent, his Aki 2016 appears to have been an amazing and spectacular fluke, not to be repeated any time soon. Since his blazing 15-0 zensho yusho at that fabled Aki 2016, Goeido has reverted to form, and only achieved double digit wins at the 2017 Aki, when he took his 6th jun-yusho with a 11-4 record. Readers will have noticed that we frequently refer to Goeido in terms of a poorly constructed and malfunctioning piece of technology, rather than one of two men who hold the exalted rank of Ozeki. This comes down to our burning desire to see the Goeido of Aki be the Goeido who steps onto the dohyo every tournament. Until he can capture and summon that wild, unstoppable rikishi at will, he will continue to struggle.
Takayasu, on the other hand, has been confronting injuries since his promotion in May of 2017. At the Aki tournament he tore a major muscle in his thigh, and proceeded to struggle to regain his sumo. Since that injury, his technique on the dohyo has relied far too much on a massive shoulder blast at the tachiai, followed by wild and chaotic (almost frantic) moves across the dohyo. This is a far cry from the sumo that took him to Ozeki: calculated, confident, incredibly strong; with every move deliberate and with terrible purpose. That sumo has the potential to take him to a Yokozuna’s rope, but I fear he lost it, and cannot find it again.
So while it may seem that with a possible no-yokozuna basho on the horizon that the Ozeki are cleared to push for higher rank, both men are far from ready to mount the two consecutive wins needed to be eligible for promotion. But my intuitiuon tells me that we may see a new Yokozuna within the next 12 months, and it’s a 50/50 chance that it may not be either of the current Ozeki.
For the past year, the sumo world has grappled with the specter of a tournament with no Yokozuna able to complete the entire 15 day competition. All three surviving grand-champions each suffer from chronic injuries that they nurse, bandage, brace or ignore to compete. But up until recently, at least one of them could muster enough healthy to oversee an entire 15 day basho. With the retirement of Harumafuji at the end of 2017, the roster of Yokozuna dropped to three, each of which come to Haru with medical issues. If no Yokozuna can compete for all 15 days, will this be the first tournament in years that features Ozeki as the highest rank competing on the final day?
In 2016, Hakuho underwent surgery to repair his big toe. It took months for him to recover enough to credibly compete once more. News during January’s Hatsu basho was that Hakuho had not only re-injured that toe, but the other one as well. He has been training as best as he can manage, but may be questionable for the entire tournament.
Japan’s great hope – Yokozuna Kisenosato, has not sought surgical treatment for his torn left pectoral muscle, and may have very few options to regain strength in his dominant left side. He has been admonished to stay out of competition until he is completely healed, and able to perform at Yokozuna levels again.
Rounding out the list is the eternally injured Kakuryu. He looked almost unbeatable during the first 10 days of Hatsu, until he injured his ankle and struggled to win. While he took surgery to repair damage to that ankle, but an awkard fall on the final day match against Goeido left his hand injured, and now he struggles to generate any grip strength.
While fans may worry about a tournament with no Yokozuna competing, this is in fact all part of the natural evolution of Sumo. We are in a transitional period where may well loved rikishi at all ranks reach the end of their careers, and retire. While we will miss all of the ones who say goodbye this year, it’s evident that at least two strong, eager classes of young men are ready to step up and take the ranks they vacate.
With the new year’s basho about to begin, many sumo fans may feel the controversy around former Yokozuna Harumafuji is in the distant past. (In case there is one fan out there who does not know, Harumafuji was at the center of a controversy stemming from a night out with other rikishi in which he repeatedly struck Takanoiwa with his fists and a karaoke machine remote. The reaction to this regrettable incident included Harumafuji’s resignation from the sumo world.)
As the first five days of the basho unfold, we will see a new dynamic at play, as Harumafuji previously played a large role in shaping each tournament’s pace and outcome. True, he was usually good for a handful of kinboshi, but Harumafuji was a relentless competitor who delivered massive offense each time he mounted the dohyo. Without his participation in this tournament, we may see several differences even in the early days.
Increased Tadpole Dominance: So far, the league of up-and-coming rikishi has been storming the gates of the old guard. While four healthy Yokozuna would make life very hard for the younger Rikishi, many fans think that we may only get Hakuho for the full 15 days of Hatsu, and possibly not even that. This means that we may once again see the youngsters turn in solid, double-digit records from high Maegashira or San’yaku ranks. In the past, Harumafuji would tough it out and cull the next generation as much as he was able.
Increased Pressure on Hakuho: As noted in the earlier commentary, Kakuryu and Kisenosato are “on the bubble”. While both of them have put forth a mighty effort to be ready for Hatsu, there is a real threat that either or both of them are simply too hurt to continue. This could possibly leave Hakuho as the only Yokozuna for this tournament, or the only Yokozuna period. This would have the effect of motivating “The Boss” to continue to compete in spite of injuries that in the past would have put him to kyujo, knowing that Harumafuji would carry on. If that should happen, it might hasten the end of Hakuho.
The Battle For The Next Ozeki: The fight for the next Ozeki slot is already underway, with Tamawashi and Mitakeumi clear front-runners. But with the Yokozuna ranks thinned and possibly thinning more, Takakeisho and Onosho are primed to step up their sumo. Both Goeido and Takayasu have stabilized their performance somewhat, but neither of them are clear favorites to begin a campaign for the tsuna.
Following Bruce’s post earlier today, it has been confirmed that the 70th Yokozuna Harumafuji has submitted his resignation, which has been announced by Isegahama-oyakata and the Yokozuna himself, in a press conference at 2pm Japan time today. While undoubtedly more coverage and analysis will follow here at Tachiai, the news has already received worldwide coverage, and so here is a quick round up of English-language media announcing the end of the 9-time yusho winner’s storied career:
NHK World has been running a one minute segment every hour as part of their NHK World Newsline coverage. This segment was online but has since disappeared from their general online statement, which can be viewed here. NHK World also covered the Press Conference with live translation for 15 minutes of the 2pm hour of Newsline and we can expect that coverage to repeat in edited pieces throughout the coming hours (Edited to add – the 15 minute segment is now viewable by clicking here).
The Japan Times have also updated their article announcing the retirement, within the last few hours, which is running on their front page.
The Guardian (UK) is running a piece, quoting from Isegahama-oyakata’s announcement that Harumafuji has “caused great trouble” to the NSK and the sport. Fox Sports, Reuters, Deutsche Welle and more are also running coverage, largely syndicated across Associated Press outlets.
It has been reported in the Japanese press that embattled Yokozuna Harumafuji will hold a press conference Wednesday, and it is assumed that he will be announcing his intention to retire from sumo. While his fans all hoped that he would find a way to weather the controversy around his drunken beating of Takanoiwa, it was clear following yesterdays meeting of the YDC that he was not going to be given any quarter.
Should he retire, as is now expected, it will resolve the Sumo Kyokai’s involvement in the matter. His intai represents a significant loss for the sumo world, as Yokozuna are rare, and Harumafuji has been willing to do whatever it takes to support sumo and uphold his rank on the dohyo.
Check back with Tachiai, as we will bring you further details as they develop.
What’s below is Bruce’s post-Kyushu commentary on the state of sumo. Readers, please feel free to chime in with your own views on how our beloved sport will overcome the challenges before it.
With Kyushu now behind us, sumo inches closer to a reckoning. The basho ended in a somewhat predictable style, with a few compelling story arcs that kept fans satisfied – for now. But in this blogger’s opinion, long overdue changes are continuing to unfold, and will possibly pick up speed into 2018.
The first signal of change will be the resolution (or not) of the Araujo incident. As we suspected when news broke on day 4 of the basho, there was a complexity to the story that did not fit the template initially forwarded by the media. In fact, we suspect there is a multi-party agenda at work, and Harumafuji’s drunken actions at the bar in Tottori were simply the spark that may burn through the Sumo Association.
Let’s look at what kind of changes might be loaded and ready:
Takanohana – The oyakata of the eponymous heya seems to be using the Harumafuji incident as a vector to change or influence the Kyokai. He has said in the past that it is his goal to reform sumo, and make it a 21st century sport. Of course, this was not a welcome opinion from the sumo traditionalists, and since then there has been a back-channel low grade struggle on whose vision of the future will eventually prevail. There have been reports that his position as head of the Jungyo PR tour will be forfeit because of his role in airing a normally private matter of rikishi discipline in public, but many think his position in the Kyokai is unassailable.
Jungyo – As discussed in the past on the pages of Tachiai, the Jungyo has grown to proportions where it is negatively impacting rikishi training, discipline and overall athlete longevity. This rests squarely on Takanohana’s shoulders, and John Gunning’s timely article for the Japan Times served to bring to light the toll it was taking on the rikishi. I continue to predict that Jungyo will undergo changes, probably slowly at first, to reduce schedule and intensity, and perhaps total rikishi roster. Rather than “Everyone all the time” there may be a rotating roster of who has “Jungyo Duty” for each period.
Kadoban Rikishi – The name brands of sumo are changing, but the ranks are yet to reflect that. Since the start of 2017, with Kisenosato’s elevation to Yokozuna, the winds of change have been blowing in the face of the great and the famous. With each basho, the participation of sumo’s top men has been in decline. We have lost 2 Ozeki due to promotion, and as of today, the majority of the Yokozuna are absent in most tournaments. By the numbers:
Much as everyone loves these guys, the Kyokai has a slate of grand champions that are perpetually too banged up to compete. Personally, I would love to see them all healthy and bashing the daylights out of the tadpoles, but that’s not going to happen, is it?
Kisenosato – Tore his pectoral muscle, and lord knows what else since. Had he gone for surgery right away, and stayed kyujo until now, we might be getting ready to see him back for Hatsu. Instead that damaged muscle is possibly little more than scar tissue now. Furthermore, by limping along he has de-conditioned the rest of his body to the extent that he struggles to win against mid-Maegashira opponents.
Kakuryu – Chronic back problems that cannot be corrected to the extent to ever make him competitive again. When the guy can manage his pain and injuries, he’s a fantastic sumotori. As frequently stated on these pages, his approach to sumo is somewhat unique and can dismantle any rikishi, including Hakuho.
Harumafuji – We have frequently mused that they would have to drag him out of sumo, in a body bag. But sadly, there is now a threat that he may not be able to overcome. I expect the Kyokai to move to resolve their involvement in the matter within a few weeks, as they want to put this in the past. Even if he can survive this incident, he is a walking bundle of pain and injury, and we believe he completed Aki by sheer force of will alone.
Hakuho – Sumo fans around the globe revel in “The Boss”, and the reality that he seems strong, fit and committed to a few more years of sumo. But he is one big injury away from pain and suffering. Everyone hopes we never see the day when the greatest Yokozuna of our age is wheeled away from the dohyo in agony, but we worry that with inter-basho time almost completely consumed by Jungyo, it’s just a matter of time before de-conditioning sets in, and the risk is realized.
I am sure the Sumo Kyokai realize all of this to be true, and they also know that over the next several months they will need to clean up their roster. Sadly, this will likely include Yokozuna intai sooner rather than later. Sumo needs a quorum of the top men each tournament, and if those men can’t fulfill that schedule, we will likely see new top men.
Sumo fans stay sharp, changes are coming soon. While it may be sad to say goodbye to long serving favorites, we have seen first hand that the next generation is strong, ready and already taking their place in the top ranks.
In an article in today’s Japan Times, it is reported that police have decided to refer Takanoiwa’s assault by Yokozuna Harumafuji to a prosecutor for adjudication. This does not mean that Haruamfuji will be charged with a crime, simply that police think there is sufficient evidence to allow a lawyer for the state to decide if he should be charged with assault.
During police questioning, Harumafuji did admit to hitting Takanoiwa with his open hands, his fists and the remote to a karaoke machine during an attempt to discipline Takanoiwa for poor manners. It should be noted that both rikishi were intoxicated at the time. The incident happened in front of a sizable contingent of sumotori during an overnight stop on sumo’s fall jungyo promotional tour.
It has been reported that both Harumafuji and Takanoiwa are cooperating with police. The same cannot be said for the Sumo Kyokai’s investigation, where Takanoiwa and Takanoiwa’s Oyakata, the former Yokozuna Takanohana, are impeding progress. Takanohana’s behavior in the matter, and in the events leading up to the scandal breaking during the Kyushu basho, have been difficult to understand. Reports in the past week have suggested that Takanohana, who leads the jungyo promotional tour segment of the Sumo Kyokai, will be suspended for not maintaining proper order and discipline.
For fans wondering what action the Sumo Kyokai will take, I suggest that we will have no word until the final day of the Kyushu basho on Sunday the 26th. Typically the Yokozuna Deliberation Council meets following each tournament, and there will likely be a good deal of commentary from that body.