A Surplus of Almost

“Close doesn’t count – except in horseshoes and hand grenades.” – Jim Kaat

There’s a rhythm in sumo, you know. Famously a so-called zero-sum game, a meritocracy, where the rankings get redrafted every 8 weeks or so on the balance of wins and losses. It has an element of both predictability and unpredictability: you know that this guy will get promoted and by about how much and this guy will get demoted and by about how much.

Except at the top end. At the top end, you need to demonstrate sustained dominance. You have to have to be a winner, you have to be a killer. You can become enormous, you can become skilled, but you need to demonstrate consistency and the mentality that’s required of winners. “Close” doesn’t count.

These are strange times, you don’t need me to tell you that. Most of us would be happy to watch a basho regardless of which 42 guys composed the top division. But there’s a serious issue hanging over sumo right now that is only going to get more and more murky with time: the current Yokozuna are only fit for action about half the time. Their dohyo health is declining as both men have entered their 36th year and have about 2500 (official) matches on in the ring between the two of them. That’s a lot of mileage.

The problem is, they might have to keep going for a while.

Yes, I know it’s possible to have sumo without a Yokozuna. No doubt, someone’s furiously beating their fingers into bloody stumps doing SumoDB queries to shove all of the great Nokozuna moments that yielded great new champions right back into my face. And yes, I also know Hakuho’s going to have to take the reins of what’s presently called Miyagino-beya before August 2022 when Miyagino oyakata is forced to retire, and Kakuryu’s probably playing out the string until his own citizenship developments allow him to pursue similar work.

But: transitional moments between eras usually came with a newcomer stepping up (or in the process thereof) who would dominate: it was clear. It was clear Takanohana would emerge the next star after the Chiyonofuji-Asahifuji-Onokuni-Hokutoumi era. Asashoryu only spent THREE basho as a rank and filer as he rocketed to the fore after the Waka/Taka-Akebono-Musashimaru era. It’s been Hakuho ever since, with sidekicks of various tenure alongside.

Those are just the recent examples. But in this moment, it’s unclear. Most sumo observers will fully expect Asanoyama to be the 73rd Yokozuna. I expect it, you probably expect it, we’ll probably get an NHK preview show in the next few days where we find out they expect it as well. He’s the best of the current bunch right now, but he’s has further steps to take.

There’s no question Asanoyama is a hugely talented rikishi. But he needs more arrows in the quiver. While he is not totally uncomfortable to the extent of a Tochinoshin in oshi-zumo, it’s clear he also relies heavily on a right hand inside/left hand outside grip. Yotsu-zumo techniques are an overwhelming majority of his wins and when you look at his losses, in the oshi-zumo category you’re seeing the names you’d expect (plus Hakuho): the Abi’s, the Daieisho’s, the Tamawashi’s, the Hokutofuji’s.

These are the names of the joi-jin you have to beat with consistency, and the names of the rikishi who stand between his current level of a reliable 10-12 wins and a champion level of 13+ wins a tournament. Oh, and by the way: you have to start not reaching that level, but in consecutive basho.

I said in the recent Tachiai podcast that Asanoyama’s debut basho as an Ozeki was a success. It was, especially in light of other recent Ozeki performances, and I don’t think any of the above commentary detracts from that. The problem is, the inability of those behind him in the banzuke to deliver has meant we now hope for more from the new top Ozeki.

Behind him, there are promising scenes, but also much of a muchness. Any one of Shodai, Mitakeumi, Daieisho, or even Endo, Hokutofuji and Terunofuji of the immediate challengers can put enough together to mount a run to become the new Ozeki. But none of them have displayed either the consistency, health, mental toughness, or technique (or in some cases all four) required to become serious Yokozuna candidates. We’re still waiting to see what the generation behind them is really made of at the top level: the Kotoshohos, the Kotonowakas, the Hoshoryus. It will be some time until we can develop real expectations there.

And the problem is, while we all love an underdog story, every Maegashira 17 yusho means we look even further down the line for the next great champion. These are great moments, heroic moments, great for the sport, the rikishi, the supporters and the stables. The flip side is that each of these moments trashes a rope run, an Ozeki run, a chance for someone of great expectation to make their next step.

The expectation is that in seven days’ time we are going to see a basho with no Yokozuna grand champion, no dohyo-iri, no great pageantry, no storied legend who electrifies the room the moment they walk down the hanamichi. Don’t think for a minute that Asanoyama, Shodai, and Mitakeumi don’t know that this is their moment, that no matter how many times we say “they may never get a better chance,” they really may never get a better chance.

But now it’s time to deliver it. Close doesn’t count.

Video Of Asanoyama’s Promotion Ceremony

Courtesy of the magic that is YouTube, some enterprising soul has encoded and uploaded a segment covering Asanoyama’s promotion ceremony. For your viewing pleasure!

From the always amazing Sumo Forum:

The acceptance phrase of the new ozeki:

相撲を愛し力士として正義を全う

Loving sumo and as a rikishi entirely righteous

sumo o ai shi, rikishi to shite, seigi o mattou

Hey, what can I say, did I call it or what? Asanoyama ❤️ Sumo…

[UPDATE] Also this clip below uploaded to Twitter… Note the rikishi pyramid, and the BIG-ASS FISH OF VICTORY!

Asanoyama Promoted to Ozeki

As reported today in the Japan Times, the Sumo Association has agreed that sumo rising star Asanoyama is to be promoted to Ozeki, sumo’s second highest rank. In comments following the completion of the Haru basho in Osaka, the shimpan committee had broadly signaled that they would vote in favor to promote Asanoyama. There will be a formal meeting held on Wednesday to compile the May banzuke, which will mark the official promotion. Following this meeting, representatives from the association will travel to the Takasago stable to announce the promotion. For fans who have seen this in the past, such as Tochinoshin and Takakeisho, the Asanoyama, Takasago oyakata and Takasago okamisan will all be in formal clothes, and will assume a saikeirei bow, and accept the promotion.

Although Asanoyama feel short of the customary 33 wins over 3 tournaments from San’yaku (he ended the run with 32), the NSK has decided that sumo needs to replenish the upper ranks, and have wisely bestowed Ozeki on this talented young man. With the only remaining Ozeki hurt, and now kadoban, and both Yokozuna nearing the point of retirement, a strong, healthy and talented younger rikishi is a perfect promotion candidate. We think that we will see at least one more top rank promotion this year, and likely at least one more next year as the old guard continues to fade, and the next generation of kanban rikishi take their places.

Asanoyama won his first yusho in may of 2019 from Maegashira 8, finishing 12-3, and picking up 2 special prizes. He also is the only rikishi to ever be awarded the Trump Cup. Since then he has picked up 2 more special prizes and a jun-yusho. He has scored double digits in 5 of the last 6 basho. Tachiai predicts that if he can stay healthy and keep his body working well, Asanoyama will make a fine Ozeki.

Ozeki Train Wreck Part 7 – This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things….

For some readers, you may not be happy with this post. Feel free to skip it – it’s Bruce’s opinion only.

Tachiai has been writing for at least 2 years about the trouble sumo has with kanban rikishi and injuries. When we first started, it looked bad, but we had no idea how ugly it would get at the end of 2019. We have 6 top division rikishi who are out of the the tournament, including 2 members of the OZeki corps, a Yokozuna and a handful of fan favorites. Some of these men are going to be out for medical treatment for months.

Worse still, the two remaining Ozeki are both hurt to the point where they are not doing sumo worthy of the rank right now, and are clearly degrading day after day of competition. I also suspect that Hakuho is banged up, but his ego will keep him in the tournament no matter what now. He knows the fans deserve to see the top men of sumo compete, and with Kakuryu out, it’s up to his leadership to show the lower ranks: no matter how much they hurt, that the top guy is willing to suck it up and compete.

The result? The sumo in Kyushu is thus far average at best. Even Hakuho hit the clay on day 2 against a delighted Daieisho. Where does this go now?

Kakuryu – I am sure the calls for him to consider resignation will start up again now. Last time he faced lower back problems, it lead to an extended series of kyujo absences that went on for 4 tournaments. That was when Kakuryu was 31, he is now 34. In broader context, I am expecting Kakuryu to try to stay engaged until such time as he can try to take up the Izutsu kabu, and succeed his Oyakata, which I suspect was Izutsu Oyakata’s wish when he passed away this year. This is a long shot for Kakuryu, but I would be delighted to see it.

Goeido – Once he went kyujo, he entered the traditional wall of silence that surrounds rikishi not competing during honbasho. But its known that he re-injured the ankle that underwent reconstruction in 2017. Now 33 years old, he is in a tough spot in orthopedic terms if the pins and screws that held that ankle together have come undone. Going into Kyushu, he was seen by everyone as the “stable one”, the foundation of the Ozeki corps for this tournament.

Takayasu – Its clear he’s still in bad shape with regards to his left arm / elbow. Everyone knows it, his opponents are exploiting it, and I would guess its getting a bit more injured every day he fights. Readers may note, that he was considered the next “hope” for a Japanese born Yokozuna, but the time for him to make that move was really this year. Now that his sumo is constrained by that elbow, those possibilities are now most likely lost. I find it a pity that Kisenosato’s promising understudy is now facing a similar outcome: an attenuated career due to an injury to his left upper body.

Takakeisho – Takakeisho was not ready to compete, we can now declare. While he has tried to bring his body back into fighting form, he’s not even fighting at Komusubi level now for most of his matches. Points for giving it a try, but now the question must be: what will it take for him to return to form? I worry that he’s not going to get that range of motion or power back from that damaged pectoral muscle, and this is more or less it for one of the most promising young rikishi in a while.

Tochinoshin – As we sadly noted on his ascendancy to Ozeki, Tochinoshin has been a glass cannon for years. When he is healthy he is unstoppable, but when he is not he’s a paper tiger, and it was really only a matter of time before that injured knee failed again, which sadly it has. He’s out now with a rib injury, which is quite debilitating, but the reason he was pushed down to Ozekiwake was that knee. With his withdrawal from Kyushu, he is now assured to plummet down the banzuke in 2020.

Yep, it’s a grim picture at the top. But what’s really going on here? We see injuries hitting the top division quite hard right now, and frankly for most of this year. Is it the jungyo schedule? Is it the training? Something is wrong in sumo, and some great competitors are paying the price. As a fan it’s heartbreaking, but we know that as our favorites succumb to injury, a new generation of heroes will rise. But will they face the same fate?