Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 4: “The objective is to fight the best”

Murray Johnson
Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

Welcome to the final part of our interview with NHK’s esteemed sumo presenter Murray Johnson. Thank you for everyone who has followed along with the preceding parts of the series thus far. If you missed them, here are the links: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

As Bruce notes, we are going live with this final part on the day that Murray’s latest work on the NHK Sumo Preview airs, and just before the upcoming Kyushu basho. This final piece focuses mostly on our reader questions, so thank you to those who submitted them on the site! I had this conversation with Murray during the Natsu basho, so while a few questions may feel slightly out of date, I will caveat that I included many here where the commentary felt relevant and important. As ever, the interview has been edited only for length and clarity.

Tachiai: A reader named Tom asks: “What will sumo look like in the absence of Hakuho when he retires: (with regards to) up and comers like Hoshoryu and Roga, or top division rikishi who are waiting to find that consistency like Ichinojo, or just a general change in the atmosphere of the sport with such a dominant figure (who wasn’t always afraid to speak his mind) departing from sumo?”

Murray Johnson: I say quite often we don’t know where or who this person [the next dominant rikishi] is at the moment. I suggested those that might be factors and regular contributors to the top division who have spunk in their delivery. But the old nail sticks up in Japan, you get knocked down. When Hakuho leaves, it’ll be a relief for a lot of them. But it will be a disappointment, because the objective is you’re supposed to fight the best. The best is gone, a new best comes in.

Just before Hakuho came along, Asashoryu was the only guy. It was looking pretty sad, and some people thought “oh, this is boring, this guy keeps winning everything.” I didn’t think that, but a lot of people did. When Hakuho came along, he still had to work hard because he had reasonably tough opponents.

There will be another. Who he is I don’t know. I mentioned guys who I think have chances to go on. They could get injured, all of a sudden no one’s there. They’ll be relieved though, it will give all of them a chance to win a tournament.

Do you think the diversity of winners that we’re seeing right now will prepare us for the vacuum that will come?

Yeah. Some people will say, “oh this is dull with no Hakuho,” but someone will emerge from the pack.

A reader named Nerima asks: “With NHK World’s coverage in English being available all over the world, does Murray think we are going to see any more top level rikishi from English speaking countries any time soon? And what about about the prospects of any emerging from Australia, given that there seems to be an upsurge of interest in sumo among Australians?” Of course Ishiura studied abroad in Australia.

He went there for six months and worked with the local association people for a while.

I don’t know of any. There’s only one guy in Australia who’s any good, and he’s a former rikishi. I don’t know of anyone coming on from Australia in that sense.

I think Europe is the breeding ground for potential champions of the future. You’ve got Kotooshu (Naruto oyakata) with his own heya now, who’s taken someone on who seems to have disappeared [nb: Torakio, who has officially since retired]. The biggest problem they have is to adapt to the Japanese way of life: the hazing and all of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. No matter how big you are, if there’s five or six (rikishi) doing it to you…

There was a well known Canadian (Homarenishiki) [who was in sumo and left], and it’s never going to come out what happened to that poor kid. And probably it shouldn’t.

Tachiai: It seems like Musashigawa – who’s got two Americans – Wakaichiro being technically Japanese, and Musashikuni – at least they have a buddy in there so maybe that helps as opposed to someone like Torakio. [nb: Musashikuni has recently himself retired due to injury and is now starring in sumo exhibitions in America.]

Musashigawa is quite smart, he’s not trying to race (rikishi) through. It takes time. If you’re good at a certain age and you just build on it, maybe you’ll get there. It’s hard work!

A lot of people don’t want to train for 15, 20 years, and go “is that all there is?” There have been plenty of foreigners that have been through sumo from all sorts of countries. That will continue to happen, but it will come in waves. There’s a bit of an interest now with Filipinos, because of these young Japanese-Filipinos who have taken it on, who have inspired them. Brazil, maybe? It’s a long way away, but there’s a pretty big fanbase in Brazil. That doesn’t necessarily mean you want to get up on the dohyo. Someone will emerge, but whether they become the ultimate, there’s nobody I can see.

Well there’s a decent segue, because Tomscoffee asks: “Hi Murray! What do you think needs to happen for Takayasu to finally achieve his first yusho. He has gotten achingly close too many times for it to be simple luck. Many of us are desperate to see it happen, but what is the rate limiting factor?”

He needs some fire in the belly. He’s developed this calmness in his sumo that works most of the time, but when the pressure comes and someone bustles him, he doesn’t have that comeback. When he started his sumo he was a pusher-thruster, and then went to the mawashi, and now has both skills. He doesn’t know when to use which one. I think he makes mistakes. He’s trying not to lose instead of trying to win. If he doesn’t win one this year, he’ll never win one. He could join that short list of ozeki who have never won a tournament.

Do you think he’s adopted that bridesmaid mantle that Kisenosato had for so many years?

Well, I’d stop practising with him! I’d go somewhere else. It’s not doing him any good. He’s still getting beaten by a guy who’s retired? And he’s proud of that! His practise was going really well and then it fell off the rails. The biggest problem is we do the preview show 16 days before the tournament. That was all dictated by the holiday.

Well, at the recent soken…

The soken’s a waste of time. An absolute waste! The soken in front of the public is ok, it’s a PR exercise. But the soken in front of the small amount of media and the YDC? I’ve been going to those for 20 years. And I see no reason to have them.

Do you think it gives an opportunity for people within the community who have opinions to have another platform to air them?

Someone like Kitanofuji? No. Kitanofuji’s probably got more bitter as he’s got older, but that’s his job. He’s kind of taken it on board to become the negatory of all the rikishi.

I think at least his opinions are perhaps a little more reasoned than people in the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee (YDC). 

The YDC is an honorary job and they get paid. They’re there to uphold the traditions of sumo.  They’re the conservative face of sumo, so when Hakuho does the three claps, it’s a bit of a brain fade. Now, I thought it was charming! But it was wrong. Most people don’t get to see something like that, because they’ve all left the building. You bring out the newcomers to sumo, and they all stand around, and that’s the last thing that’s done. He usurped that tradition by trying to figure that “we’re losing an era and we’re going into a new one.”

It was embraced by many people, but not the traditionalists. If any YDC member gets one nasty letter from a traditionalist, then it becomes: “we’ve got to discuss this.” But for three hours? It was three hours because they all stood up and had their say. They weren’t straight into him for three hours. I felt sorry for him, but he was wrong.

Stonecreek says: “What is the single biggest reform or change you think needs to be made to ensure a solid future for the sport of sumo?”

I think it’s injury. They’ve got this cash cow which is the jungyo, the provincial tours, to promote sumo to the masses, where people can get up close and personal. And we talk about interest from overseas, but (the jungyo is also) to encourage Japanese boys to take on sumo. And it does work.

Unfortunately, they flog these guys, the idea being that they put these guys out there because they’re employees of the Sumo Association. The whole process, the procedure of going out 28 days in a row, on a bus… you ever sat next to a rikishi on a plane? I’d rather be on the wing!

They have to go out and do (the jungyo). I would like to see that reduced. And then bring in some sports officials with an overseeing view of sports injuries within sumo. There have been excercises that have been carried out by professors that have come from the United States (regarding) body mass and weight and went back and wrote a thesis. But the Sumo Association doesn’t care about that.

Also there’s a diversity in body mass just in the top division and it doesn’t mean that one build creates success or not.

People have talked about “why don’t they have cushions around the dohyo,” or a softer floor, things like that. That’s not going to change. And the elevated dohyo, why it’s elevated when they don’t practise on an elevated dohyo. Well, they learn to roll, and most of the injuries don’t happen from falling off the dohyo, they’re injuries on the dohyo that are sustained during a bout. If there was a flat dohyo, it just wouldn’t be sumo.

I’d say reduce the jungyo, and introduce a realistic sports medicine assessment of injuries where they have people that say, “OK, we’re checking him out of the clinic, and we advise he doesn’t fight for six months. Here’s the submission.” Then the Sumo Kyokai (can) say: “OK, oyakata, this is what we’ve been told, we don’t want to see him on a dohyo for six months.”

Now, if that happens, people will say, “oh, well they’ll lose their rank.” Tough! That’s the system. Maybe you introduce the old system (Kosho Seido) which was abused before, and allow maybe one or two tournaments without losing rank. That’s what I would like to see. 

I totally agree about the raised dohyo, and I would go as far as to say…

It should be higher?

It should be higher! No. Actually, we post sometimes about an amateur tournament that Hiro Morita went out to last year in Long Beach in the States, the USA Sumo Championships. It is not something that traditionalists, people who like the sport as it is here in Japan, are really attracted to. I think they try and appeal to more WWE audience. It’s on a flat dohyo, and I think it does take away from the presentation and the fan experience. There is something about where your eyes are drawn to when you’re at the Kokugikan. 

That same guy who does the US Open is trying to set up two tournaments in Australia: Sushi and sumo. He’s advertising sumo’s years and culture coming to Australia. I think that’s rather interesting! You can get a premium package. It’ll be held in Sydney and Melbourne. No venue, no dates, just prices! Hmm.

Watch this space. Philip Noyed says: “Ichinojo has been up and down in performance over the course of the past couple of years, but (earlier this year) discovered how to swat other rikishi down to the defeat with a slap down to win 14 matches. Will other rikishi figure out a way to defend and counter attack this one-dimensional attack or is he too big and powerful?” [nb: this is now an out of date question given Ichinojo’s injury troubles, but Murray’s analysis related to his long-term career challenges was interesting and I wanted to include it.]

I think firstly the reason he was better is he went to degeiko. He didn’t stay at home fighting one guy. There’s nobody there. He got a bit of a rocket from Hakuho, saying: “You gotta do something, you’re a big guy, you’re huge, use it to your advantage.”

Forget the actual number – 12 of the 14 bouts he won by slap down. He’s been working on moving forward and that’s not been working out well for him. So now automatically he’ll retreat. For people who say, finally now Ichinojo’s turned the corner – I want to wait, let’s see if he can put two together. You can beat him at speed. All (rikishi) have to do is hit and shift. If he starts well, he’s a massive man to move, but the lower back problem he had comes and goes. 

Do you think defending his rank would be a success?

He doesn’t care about rank. He actually doesn’t care if he becomes a Yokozuna or an Ozeki.

It’s been suggested before that he is motivated by kensho, and he turns up for the big matches.

Oh he likes to win the big ones, but he doesn’t always win them with great sumo. He’s a bit of a loner, he does hang out with the other Mongolians. I think he will “ride the elevator” for quite some time. He could go on for quite a long time, he’s not an old guy. He could probably still fight for another five years with a sore back. Whether he stays with numbers like 14, that’s pretty unlikely in my opinion.

George has a big question: Can you predict who might become the next Yokozuna, from people that we already know?

I always said Asanoyama. He had two tournaments were he was looking very light on his feet, which was very surprising to me. The two tournaments prior to that he was moving so well, and adjusting. [nb: a reminder to readers that we spoke right before Asanoyama won his yusho.]

If he gets his act together, Mitakeumi could make Yokozuna – but I don’t think he will. That means full practise! Not just for the cameras.

Speaking of that, one person who practises a lot but doesn’t turn it on in tournaments is Goeido – he’s kind of the opposite of Mitakeumi. What does his career look like from here?

He’s at the end of his career, he’s probably got another year or two year in him. As the opposition gets not as troubling, he might win one more yusho. He’s a flake when the pressure is on. Like Kisenosato was, then he got his act together. Goeido doesn’t handle pressure well, though he did once, his unbelievable zensho yusho. I’m still having nightmares about that!

Why is that?

Oh, I never thought he should have been an Ozeki. I never thought Kisenosato should have been a Yokozuna. I was supposed to eat a straw hat – I had an on-air bet with John Gunning!

Those are the worst ones to lose!

I haven’t seen that hat. Normally, I would say I don’t support any particular rikishi: I’m supposed to be impartial. I like the guys who, when push comes to shove, they pull out the big wins. Goeido elevated in my opinion by getting a zensho yusho but every now and then…

A broken clock’s right twice a day?

Yes, there you go. 

I think those are all the questions we have time for – so, thank you!

Very welcome.

Thanks again to Murray for taking the time to speak with us! You can enjoy his commentary on NHK’s Grand Sumo Preview and also during selected days of the upcoming basho.

Ichinojo Tops Kyujo Waitlist

Before Hattorizakura kicks off shonichi this Sunday, our eyes will be glued to the papers and social media for early indication of who’s on the Kyokai Not-Genki list, and thus kyujo for Kyushu. Though not officially on the list yet, we fully anticipate Ichinojo will be on it by the weekend, as Herouth notes below.

Given the state of Takakeisho, and more troublingly, Takayasu, one would expect the kyujo ranks to swell…though it may not be until after salt meets clay. We’re also keeping our eyes peeled for whether Ura will be listed or not. If he competes, he will be restarting his career at Jonidan 106 West. Having seen recent pics of Swole Ura, if I were Daishojo, I think I’d sleep in that day.

97th National University Sumo Championship

While sumo fans wait on pins and needles for Grand Sumo action to begin next weekend in Fukuoka, Japan’s National University Sumo Championship took place in Osaka. Successful wrestlers at this stage often become successful wrestlers on the professional level with the Champions granted privileged entry into Makushita, makushita tsukedashi, upon turning pro. Current wrestlers taking this path from Uni-Yokozuna to Jr. Sekitori include Endo, Ichinojo, and Aki-basho yusho winner, Mitakeumi. (I’m making up the Junior Sekitori term because they’re not immediately Sekitori but just outside.)

The big story coming out of Osaka is that the yusho winner was a first year (freshman) student-athlete, Yasuteru Nakamura from Nippon Sports Science University. He defeated Koshiro Tanioka, with a dominating yorikiri. Last year’s champion, Yota Kanno was knocked out in the first round. Any relation to Yoko Kanno is unconfirmed, but the need to knock a little harder is undeniable. Regardless, keep an eye out for these talented young men to be highly sought-after recruits and to appear on a banzuke in the near future.

According to the Mainichi Shimbun, this was the first time in 29 years that a freshman won a Championship. The last time there was a freshman University Yokozuna was Luis Ikemori for Takeshoku University in 1990. Ryuko, also known as Ryudo when he reached his peak rank in Juryo, was also notable for being the first foreign-born wrestler, from Brazil, to be granted the makushita tsukedashi privilege.

In team competition, Nihon University won the title for the first time in four years from Mitakeumi’s alma mater, Toyo University. Jokoryu and Mitoryu are products of the Nihon University program. Nakamura’s Nippon Sports Science University finished tied for third, and they count Hokutofuji among their graduates. These three universities have had historically strong sumo programs, with one of these three teams winning the title in each of the last nine years.

After the Kyushu basho, eyes will turn back to Kokugikan in Tokyo for the 68th National Amateur Sumo Championship, a title won by Yago and the fore mentioned Mitakeumi, Mitoryu and Endo, as well as Daishomaru, Yoshikaze, and Takamisakari. The year Endo won, Shodai picked up the jun-yusho and Mitakeumi and Hokutofuji were semi-finalists.

Aki Jungyo: Absent Sektori

The Nihon Sumo Kyokai announced eight wrestlers will not participate in the upcoming Fall tour (Jungyo). The tour is scheduled to begin on 10/5 in Ishikawa prefecture and end in Hiroshima prefecture on 10/27. Several popular top wrestlers will not participate due to injury while Takanofuji is listed as well, due to the ongoing bullying drama, in spite of his refusal to submit his resignation.

Aki Jungyo Injury Update

From the top division, Takakeisho, Ichinojo, and Tomokaze will be absent, and sorely missed. It’s a bit of a surprise that Tochinoshin will participate in the tour and not focus on recuperation. When the tour hits Kyushu, he will need to repeat his feat from this summer where he won 10 bouts as Sekiwake to reclaim his Ozeki status. Kadoban Takayasu will need to win 8 with his seriously damaged arm to avoid a similar fate in January.

From Juryo, there will be several missing wrestlers, including the fore-mentioned Takanofuji. Two Kokonoe wrestlers, Chiyoshoma and Chiyonoumi will miss the tour, along with Kyokushuho and Seiro. As Leonid mentioned in his Aki Wrap-Up article, Seiro and Chiyonoumi are headed back to Makushita.

Tachiai wishes all of the injured rikishi a full recovery and an awesome Kyushu.