The Makushita Intrigue

It now feels like it’s been many months since we’ve lamented the reduction of top division quality, as many beloved veterans have shorn the mage in favour of a more gentle future. Many of the names that have taken their place in makuuchi have failed to inspire, leading sumo fans to ask the question: where are the next generation of stars?

I don’t know that we can truthfully answer that, but going even beyond the makushita joi, there are some very intriguing names within the third division’s automatic promotion zone (the top 15 ranks can go up automatically with a 7-0 yusho). Now let’s be clear: I’m not saying most of these guys have it in them to zensho at this level, but what I am saying is that there are a whole host of very young rikishi and a few other intriguing names to watch out for when we look at Juryo promotions in the upcoming several basho. There just happens to be a very intriguing crop this time. I’m not going to go through all 30 of them (please see the comments section if you’d like to call me out on this), but here are the names I think are worth watching over the next few basho:

Up and Comers

Ms15E Tomokaze – The piano-playing erstwhile Yokozuna-slayer has continued his gradual comeback from injury and plays out his last basho under the Oguruma-beya name in this tournament, after which the Takekaze and Yoshikaze factions will split and it seems likely he’ll eventually end up in the latter’s Nakamura-beya. He has been fallible at times during his comeback and his ETA to Juryo is probably May or July, but it seems likely that at 27, he should still see out his remaining peak years in makuuchi, whatever his ultimate level. And don’t @ me – he still very much counts as an “up and comer,” even if he’s at the very upper limit of that category.

Ms12W Hokuseiho – Sumo fans were largely deprived of seeing Hakuho’s enormous prodigy in his sektori debut, as he was held out for Covid-19 reasons, then in his second basho was promptly dumped out in his first match before going kyujo. He’s one of a small list of names who, fitness permitting, could theoretically go 7-0 from this position against a slightly easier schedule (he’s done it from higher up the banzuke already once), although I’d posit his somewhat clumsy technique might make him a better shout for a return to Juryo in May, and a potential Makuuchi debut by November under the total supervision of what will be the new shisho at Miyagino-or-Magaki-beya.

Ms12E Oshoma – The Mongolian amateur champion served up a mixed bag in his makushita tsukedashi debut and the next couple tournaments from him will be intriguing to watch, as Naruto-oyakata hasn’t yet found the formulae to graduate any of the broad number of mid-20s prospects (Oshoma is 24 in his second basho) into the junior sekitori division. One suspects it will only be a matter of time, but while there’s a number of intriguing names, who ultimately rules the roost as heyagashira at this fledgling but interesting stable seems anyone’s guess.

Ms11W Oshoryu – Oshoma’s stablemate blazed through his first few tournaments but has very much hit the wall as he hasn’t been able to find the technique required to make the jump to sekitori level. He turns 26 after Haru and one suspects this may be a make or break year if he’s ultimately someone with a hope of ultimately impacting the top division.

Ms10E Tsukahara – It seems like the Kasugano man has been around absolutely ages, but he’s only recently turned 22 and is already a 2+ year veteran of the makushita joi. Having entered the sumo world at 18 and made short work of the bottom three divisions, he’s a case which makes you question what all of those coaches at Kasugano beya are able to do to mobilise their young talent. The critical issue for Tsukahara is that while he’s been able to put up wins, he hasn’t always been able to do it against the other top talent of his age group. But others have been able to build on their makushita experience at a young age to put together lengthy top division careers, so time is on his side.

Ms9W Kanno – Tsukahara’s physically imposing stablemate has passed him on the banzuke, and while his advancement stalled a bit after Kyushu’s 4-3, he seems certain to make his sekitori bow before long. This basho should tell us a bit more about how long his progression should take now that up against more serious opposition.

Ms9E Mineyaiba – A tall, lanky but physical presence from Terao’s place? Say it ain’t so. Mineyaiba, who’s fought most of his career under his family name Ito, made a quick rise to the top of makushita over 2020, and was one of the rare cases of a rikishi in the top half of the division still in zanbara. In any case, While Shikoroyama-beya has had trouble in recent years establishing anyone not named Abi in the top division, with Oki and Irodori having disastrous promotions to Juryo and veteran Seiro retiring, Mineyaiba (who’s now been joined in the heya by his younger brother) has always seemed the pick of the stable’s prospects after Saitama’s famous kyabakura-bothering jokester.

Ms8W Fukai – It’s hard to gather the headlines at Takasago-beya. Whether it’s the indiscipline of the former oyakata or presumed-Yokozuna-in-waiting heyagashira, the promotion exploits of Asanowaka and his missing rabbit ashes, the abortive attempts at sekitori success from the awkwardly renamed Asagyokusei, or the still beavering away veteran Asabenkei, there’s always someone making news among the top two divisions. Successful collegiate rikishi Fukai entered as a sandanme tsukedashi less than 2 years ago and has collected a couple zensho already in the sport’s middle tiers, and while he has stormed twice to the division’s upper reaches, he actually has a losing record (15-20, 4 makekoshi from 5 basho) while ranked in the top half of makushita. This has seen his star dim somewhat, in spite of Aki’s storming surprise zensho which saw him top new sekitori Kitanowaka in the winner takes all finale. The ability to make the next step is there and at 24 he is entering his prime years, but to claim his “morning” shikona from the nascent stablemaster, he’s going to need to play more than just the spoiler.

Ms7E Roga – The 22 year old Mongolian seemed destined for instant success and was tipped by many – even NHK’s Murray Johnson in an interview on these pages – for makuuchi stardom. Yet, he’s registered a shocking four makekoshi in six trips to the division’s top 10 ranks, and while his reading of matches seems to be sekitori-ready, he simply lacks the ability to dispatch opponents in short order. He was unbeaten through week 1 last time out, and a similar hot start here might finally start the promotion train. He’s too talented not to be in Juryo by the second half of this year and makuuchi by the second half of next year, but it’s clear he might not be the fast mover we originally expected.

Ms6E Dewanoryu – Dewanoumi beya’s 20 year old unit has appeared at times inconsistent, but I don’t think it’s anything to be concerned about as he feels his way through the sport from a very young age, finding himself on the verge of reaching a promotable position. He’s another one we’ll learn much from in this basho, because while we already know a bit about his technique and ability, we just haven’t seen him in a whole lot of matches against meaningful names yet.

Ms1W Atamifuji – Age is most certainly an indicator of future success, particularly the age at which one makes it to the top division, as analyses have indicated elsewhere (dive into the recesses of places like Sumo Forum for more on this). Master recruiter and developer Isegahama’s next student to impact the salaried ranks will be Atamifuji, and this absolute beast should have a much higher ceiling than recent graduates Nishikifuji, Midorifuji or Terutsuyoshi based on his career performance to date.

He won’t even turn 20 until this year’s Aki basho, by which point he could well be cemented in the top division. With a 36-6 career record to date, the stat that stands out the most is that his third most common kimarite is yoritaoshi, a move which signals only dominant performance. Very rarely does one accidentally secure such a manoeuvre and it is representative of how he has steamrolled through the lower tiers. I’ve actually found watching his losses to be more instructive and he does seem to look an awful lot like Mitakeumi at times to these eyes, the way that he’s able to often box out his opponents, but can be exposed by up-and-under grapplers in the style of a Takanosho or Meisei. Still, small sample size caveats apply here, as we simply don’t have much to analyse.

Still, anything less than promotion in this basho would register as a real surprise and we should be looking for him to be #2 in the stable behind the Yokozuna by the start of 2023 as Takarafuji declines.

The Veteran Spoilers of Intrigue

Ms15W Kitaharima – The lightweight yoyo man has been immediately relegated on his last three appearances in the second division over 5 years, and automatically you should be thinking his appearance here discredits everything I’ve said above about stodgy no-hoper vets getting in the way of talented youngsters who may or may not exist. But the limber Yamahibiki dude is 4 sekitori basho short of the requirement for retiring as an elder into the sumo association and if it’s going to happen, one must think it will happen this year: he turns 36 in July. Obviously he won’t be bothering the top division, but sumo has form for late career renaissances from rikishi trying to eke out a future in the sport, and with promotion places at a premium, that could turn up the pressure on his younger opponents in the coming months.

Ms5W Kyokutaisei, Ms3W Jokoryu & Ms1E Kyokushuho – These veterans maybe more than any ranked around them have the ability to disrupt the progress of the young guns, but have been disrupted recently by chronic injury (Kyokutaisei), consistently poor form (Kyokushuho) and age (Jokoryu). All of them qualify for elder status in the Sumo Association by virtue of their career achievements, but it’s unclear whether they have the intention (Kyokutaisei, Jokoryu) or citizenship requirements (Kyokushuho) to do so, and they may need to battle it out a bit longer until their futures become clear… two of them in a stable where Asahisho has already taken a myoseki on loan and another will likely be needed soon for Kaisei.

Ms5E Ryuden – No longer sumo’s most recent bad boy, the former heyagashira of Takadagawa beya has followed in the footsteps of Abi by running roughshod over the third division in his comeback to the dohyo. This basho might be a tougher ask but he should be in position to deny a talented youngster a spot in the salaried ranks.

Others

For sure there are other intriguing names in the makushita-joi and environs, names who should be expected to make their Juryo debuts over the next year (Tochimaru, Kotodaigo, etc), but I don’t rate any of them as having a makuuchi ceiling – at least not one more meaningful than the names mentioned here.

Lower Division Yusho Roundup

Jonokuchi

In the end, the Jonokuchi title came down to one bout: undefeated Inoue against Tsukubayama, a Jonidan-ranked wrestler with one-loss. I was a bit puzzled by the pairing, frankly. Inoue had faced both Chiyoshishi and Goseiryu on his path to the yusho, so I had assumed he would face Raiho. Instead, Inoue faced Tsukubayama, a young man from…you guessed it…Tsukuba city in Ibaraki prefecture. He’s another young’un who started his sumo career last summer and has remained in Jonidan but at Jonidan 91, even a 6th win would likely not be enough to secure a promotion to Sandanme.

Inoue pressed forward and defeated Tsukubayama, without breaking a sweat. Tsukabayama half-heartedly tried a henka, shifting to his right at the tachiai. Inoue’s coming off an injury, so he’s not going to be charging headlong into the crowd. Inoue just pivoted left and bulled forward, shoving Tsukubayama out. Congratulations, Inoue, on the yusho!

Chiyoshishi tossed Takabaho for a dominant ouchie-ta-ouchie win. And lastly, Raiho defeated Goseiryu. Raiho latched on quickly to Goseiryu’s belt with his left-hand, and then came down hard with his right, throwing Goseiryu to the ground.

Jonidan

The Jonidan yusho race came down to three wrestlers with 6 wins; Chiyoyamato, Yurikisho, and Kaiho. Higher-ranked Kaiho was paired against Sandanme yusho contender, Taiyo. Chiyoyamato faced Yurikisho in the bout from the tweet below.

With Yurikisho’s victory assured, he still had to wait for the Kaiho bout to know whether he won outright or would need to fight in a playoff. Kaiho won, meaning there would be a Jonidan playoff.

Sandanme

In Sandanme, the Kaiho victory meant Taiyo was out of the race and the winner would be one of two men. You’ll remember Arauma as the Jonokuchi yusho contender from January, who beat Atamifuji on their first meeting but then lost in their playoff rematch. This tournament, he faced the Kinbozan, who debuts in sandanme because of his success at the university level. Kinbozan was 10cm taller, and 30kg heavier and used all of that mass to overpower Arauma. Atamifuji awaits both, as they will be promoted to Makushita but Atamifuji is already nearing the precipice to Juryo.

Makushita

Ryuden won the Makushita yusho with straight-forward oshi-zumo against former Juryo wrestler, Chiyonoumi. This victory marks his return to action after serving a suspension. Along the way he did face several former sekitori, including Chiyonoumi, so his path to yusho was not easy.

He will need to do it again in January for promotion to Juryo, but that will be even more difficult with many wrestlers, including Atamifuji, fighting for the few slots which open up.

Juryo

Lastly, Ichiyamamoto claimed the Juryo yusho with an impressive 13-2 record. He’s virtually assured a slot in Makuuchi with Hakuho’s retirement, Asanoyama’s suspension, Shohozan’s demotion, and possible demotions for Kaisei and Kagayaki.

I couldn’t get all of the bouts into the video, so I supplemented with some of these clips from YouTube. I did manage to get the yusho ceremony so that’s tacked onto the end of the video at the top.

Makushita Yusho Race Heats Up

Tonight there are three yusho race elimination matches in Makushita between 3-0 record-holders with kachi-koshi on the line as well as a slot in another to follow. The headliner in tonight’s action is Abi. The former Komusubi will face Shinohara. Shinohara is certainly a young one-to-watch, having won first yusho last year in his debut tournament…the “silent basho” back in Osaka.

That’s right, the same tournament that saw the debut of Nabatame, Hayatefuji, and Taiyo (all of whom he defeated in that first tournament). Others to debut in that same tournament were Kirameki and Takeoka. A solid recruiting class. Thanks to the SumoDB, YouTube, and Twitter, there are several videos of him in action out there but Abi will clearly be his biggest challenge yet. One bout of interest would be this one against former sekitori Takaryu, from Hatsu.

He’s got a complimentary oshi-style so this bout against Abi should be a bit of a slap-fest, if the two get into it. He’s also got a great hatakikomi weapon at his disposal. In a similar move, he got wrapped up here against Hokutoshu but at the tawara tries ottsuke to dislodge Hokutoshu’s arm before deciding to bring him down with Midorifuji’s patented katasukashi.

With his fast, powerful tachiai, Shinohara will be an interesting challenge but should certainly be out of his league against someone who has faced Hakuho four times, including this kinboshi. There were a few videos online but I chose this one because it’s over so quickly so the slow-mo replay is helpful. Some of the other videos made me really miss zabuton-throwing.

Tomorrow, a bit further down the banzuke, Tomokaze is up for his kachi-koshi in another yusho race elimination bout.

Bouts from the lower divisions: Match Day 1

With a few asterisks, we’ve concluded Match Day 1 for rikishi from the lower four divisions. The men from these divisions only fight seven times during the tournament, so the first half fought on opening night and most of the rest (who aren’t kyujo) fought last night. So on the first night we got to see the return of Wakaichiro and Ura’s first bout was last night.

Jonokuchi:

I figure I’ll start here with the rookies, Mudoho, Nihonyanagi, and Dewanoryu.

Mudoho, grandson of the legendary Yokozuna Taiho, kicked off the tournament under his own shikona, drawn from the characters used by his Grampa. The Kyokai started the whole tournament early Sunday morning with this decisive win over Iwata from Naruto beya, who is returning from kyujo and his second round of maezumo. You can find more of his backstory and Herouth’s coverage of his maezumo debut here and introductions for our Jonokuchi debutants.

Two willow trees, Nihonyanagi was next, (“Over the oka and through the mori, to Roppongi we go”). Conveniently, he fought against our other debutant, Dewanoryu. Both were introduced by Herouth in the article link above.

Nihonyanagi secured a morozashi quickly after a rather defensive (oshi-minded) tachiai. Once he secured that left hand inside, right hand outside, he began to yank Dewanoryu around at will. to the side of the dohyo. Dewanoryu’s next match is scheduled tomorrow against Hattorizakura, one of our asterisks, in that he has not fought yet. Taiga is also kyujo to start this tournament and he will likely compete once to stay on the banzuke. Ryuden did this several times before storming back and becoming the Maegashira mainstay we know and love today. May Taiga be so blessed.

Jonidan:

In Jonidan, we’ve got Senho who jumped from Jonokuchi into the midst of the division at Jd74 (of 108 ranks). Unfortunately for him, he lost against the more experienced, dedicated pusher-thruster in Harada. And unfortunately for us, I’ve not been able to find video anywhere because Harada won by yoritaoshi and I’m very curious about how that worked out. But the headliner in Jonidan is former maegashira Ura in his second tournament back. He dominated Sorakaze from the outset, with an oshidashi win. After a good tachiai, he worked his left hand inside Sorakaze’s right arm, grabbed him by the armpit, and ejected him from the dohyo. All of his wins last tournament were of the oshi-tsuki variety.

Sandanme:

Unfortunately, in Sandanme we have the late-timed intai of Kaishu for personal reasons. He was still on the banzuke and his retirement came as quite the surprise. He’s been active on Instagram, where he’s been updating his story from what looks like the Philippines? Yesterday Kobayashi-san was riding along a road as an apparent passenger on one of those hire-bikes. The day before he was at a water park. We wish him well in his post-sumo endeavors and we’ll keep people filled in on his future successes.

Wakaichiro fought against Baraki on Day 1 and unfortunately came away with a loss. He was a bit off balance for a lot of the bout and it looked like he’d recovered well for a moment but Baraki was able to finish him off. Sadly, I can’t find video. This is surely a lamentable predicament for the former American Footballer since studying one’s past games and those of one’s opponents is such a crucial part of practice in that sport, and he’ll need it for his next fight against Fujinowaka. Both men are Oshizumo specialists, so it will likely be a strength vs strength bout.

Hokutenkai on the West, or left side, of this video faced off against the appropriately named Azumasho. The Mongolian has had an exceptional start to his career with a 6-1 debut followed by the Jonidan yusho in Kyushu. He’s proven himself comfortable with oshizumo but he is able to win on the belt as well. The strong blast at the tachiai pressed the bigger Azumasho back on the defensive. Azumasho hunkers down and forces a shift to a belt battle. Hokutenkai is not shy about it and starts to get to work. Just as Azumasho’s foot gets to the bales (and I’m sure he could have withstood a yorikiri attempt) Hokutenkai executes a great uwatenage overarm throw.

Makushita:

Up in Makushita, we got another great uwatenage from Kitanowaka against Narutaki.

Roga battled Onami Jr, sorry, Wakatakamoto but I can’t find video. Sorry.

A bit further up we get a humdinger of a bout between a former Makuuchi regular, Chiyonokuni, and Mudoho’s big brother Naya. Chiyonokuni wound up and tried to deliver a whopper of a slap to Naya but landed two – rather ineffectively – at his shoulder/armpit instead. The younger man forced the issue and kept bringing the oshi-battle to the grizzled veteran. As Chiyonokuni ducked away, Naya pursued, and thrust his prey out with a forceful final blast. I may be over-stating this point but that’s the kind of power I’d like to see Abi develop behind his attack to get to the Ozeki level.

Well, action has already started for Match Day 2, so I bid y’all adieu.