Thanks to Andy and Josh who managed the live blog while I succumbed to some nasty chest cold. Thought I am still far from genki, it’s worth the time to comment on the state of sumo in the middle of this highly transformative tournament in Kyushu. I say transformative because if we blur our eyes just a bit, we can see the future from here. The Yokozuna we love are not in the picture, and there is a crop of fiery young talent spanking the veteran headliners. The field is very flat, and there is a large scrum that can still possibly lay claim to the yusho by the middle of the tournament.
As fans, we have gotten conditioned by a handful of hyper-dominant rikishi winning the cup every single time. If it was not Hakuho, it was Harumafuji. Maybe once in a great while it would be Kakuryu, but everyone else scrapped for enough wins to piece together a kachi-koshi, and maybe a special prize here and there, and everyone got by. But, like all dynasties throughout history, as the central powers start to fade, things change rapidly as the strong and the prepared grab for leadership.
Prior to day 9, one lone rikishi holds a one-loss record. There are six (6!) rikishi who follow at two losses, and seven (7!) who follow them at three losses. As of today, any of them could lift the cup on day 15. I frequently joke about a no-holds barred barnyard brawl to finish a basho, but there is a chance we could get there this time. While it seems to lower the level of broad interest in sumo (our site metrics bear this out), the No-kozuna tournaments are hell on wheels for flat out competition. For hard core fans, you come in to each day wondering which mighty hero is going to eat clay today.
Though Takakeisho holds the lead, it is very tough for young rikishi to stay dominant into week 2. Endurance and mental toughness are the key here. Takakeisho is untested in mental toughness, and the worries about “not blowing it” eat a bit more of your fighting spirit each day. This is where the Ozeki just one win behind him come into their own. They have had to endure the tough three-tournament process to get to their rank, and that required both endurance and mental focus that is not necessarily part of the make-up of the lower ranks. As predicted, the scheduling team saw that Takakeisho was on a hot streak, and held some of his Ozeki matches for week 2. The job of the schedulers is to have someone, anyone, put dirt on Takakeisho by day 12, setting up a battle royale on the final weekend for the hardware.
The picture is becoming more cloudy for the surviving Yokozuna. We know Hakuho intends to nurse himself along until late 2020, and we think he will get there unless the YDC and the NSK say otherwise. Kakuryu has been plagued with a miserable set of injuries since shortly after his elevation to Yokozuna. He has manfully been able to steel himself against the pain and limitations to continue to rack yushos, and his sumo is quite interesting and unique. We have documented the daylights out of Kisenosato, but with 9 kyujo out of the last 10 tournaments, I think his time to bow out is soon. Yes, in spite of the scandal that saw him leave sumo, I think from a competition standpoint we all miss Harumafuji. Like some epic World War 1 battleship, he would take damage again and again, and still be ready to fight and win.
But keep in mind, once these epic rikishi were young men, fighting their way up the ranks, looking to make a name for themselves. Looking through who is on the leaderboard going into day 9, there are a host of young faces, any of which could emerge on day 15 as the victor. Thought some top names are benched this tournament, the action is intense, the young stars are shining bright, and the future of sumo looks really fun.