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.

Ura Will Compete in Kyushu

Herouth tweeted this on my way home from work and I needed to share! The last time we saw Ura on the dohyo was at Hatsu, being wheeled away with yet another devastating knee injury. That injury occurred during a big matchup with Hoshoryu in Makushita.

In 2015 and 2016, the pint-sized acrobatic phenom took the sumo world by storm, cleaning up the lower divisions with his Matrix-inspired victories. He reached a peak rank of Maegashira 4 in 2017 where he claimed a kinboshi from Harumafuji. Sadly, in a loss to Takakeisho he suffered a terrible knee injury and fell back to Sandanme as he recovered. His comeback was put on hold in the fore-mentioned Hoshoryu bout. We eagerly anticipate the return of the Swole pixie.

Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 3: “They’re Certainly Not Going to Get Me in a Mawashi!”

Murray Johnson and Baruto
Murray Johnson with Baruto. Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

Welcome to the third part of Tachiai’s conversation with NHK’s Murray Johnson! I met the longtime sumo commentator on an afternoon in May, just before the start of this year’s Natsu honbasho in Tokyo, and we had a winding conversation which took in many aspects of broadcasting, current events in the sport, and our readers’ comments.

The interview has been edited only for clarity and length. Several of our readers’ questions are included in this piece, which touches on the potential and performance of several specific rikishi. As an editorial note: a couple tournaments have passed between the time the interview took place and now, but the points of view we considered didn’t focus as much on the specific moment in time that the interview took place.

If you missed the previous instalments, here are the links: Part 1 and Part 2. We hope you enjoy this piece, and return to the site for the final part of our conversation!

Tachiai: Someone we’ve talked about a lot, who’s now in the top division, is Enho. We’ve followed Enho and Tomokaze since their very first tournaments and charted their rise, which has been great: as you know, sumo predictions can make you look pretty foolish sometimes, so it’s always nice to get one right! Those developments have been super exciting, and we’ve seen some of the great lower division bouts from those guys as they made their way up. Andy has a related question for you: is there any desire or appetite to show exciting lower division matches, and to find that next Hakuho? As you mentioned, the next Hakuho’s in the sport somewhere.

Murray Johnson: Well as you probably are aware, the sumo highlights show doesn’t show all the bouts.

Of course, even in the top division.

Yeah. I’ve sat down with the boss and said, “look, we can do this!” He’s to’d and fro’d. I said, “well, you know, there are some lower division bouts that we should show!”

We can do the English voiceover of the bout, obviously in that situation, because (the highlight show) is done a couple of hours after the live show finishes anyway. So (the boss) is contemplating it. It’s also up to the director, who could be a fan of this guy or that guy.

It seems like focusing on more of those exciting matches is how you make new fans.

I’m just a part of the organization. I do have input, but by the time I get there it’s already been decided. (It’s) another thing in the works.

I hope it happens, but the trouble is, many Japanese don’t sit down and watch the Juryo division. It’s the die hards of sumo that watch it. TV could be on in a bar somewhere, or a cafe, and (people) watch it while they’re having a coffee. There are enough coffee shops or tea houses around Japan where plenty of people will be doing that, but that’s not our core audience. That’s a pickup audience that has a large number, but they’re not glued to the TV to watch an hour of lower division bouts.

Most people would be surprised: there are many dedicated fans overseas that know more about sumo than most people inside of Japan! Of course, they are dedicated to following guys in Jonidan and Jonokuchi.

We are, once again, governed by the Japanese show. When we do the recap of the Juryo winners, we’ll show a bout. It might not necessarily be an important bout, but they’ll show what they think is an important bout. We can’t say, “oh let’s show this one” – we’re on the same channel. Whatever the Japanese show’s director decides to show, we’ve gotta go with it (on the English show).

But the highlights show and the preview show, those are different. All of these heya visits done by Hiro Morita or Raja Pradhan, that’s our baby. John Gunning’s threatened to come back (on the dohyo). They’re certainly not going to get me in a mawashi!

Now that Hiro’s done it, it seems like they are working their way through the team.

I’m pretty sure that my senior card will not allow me to put on a mawashi! I’m the only one in the current group who has never been on the dohyo… well, not in a mawashi anyway.

A reader named Andrew asks: “Do you see any constraints on the widening of an international following of Japanese sumo?”

No constraints, other than the fact that people will be frustrated at the fact that they can’t see enough of it. NHK in particular is well aware of the growing audience, and they are bragging about it within the office to their fellow work mates: “look at what we’re doing!”

They want to go another step forward, but (for example) they have to argue with the guy who runs the science department (at NHK), who may say, “I’ve done a show on IPS Research and this is far more important to the world than some guy in a loincloth.” They’ve got to juggle their expense. I think the Sports division will be pressing to make sure that at least what some people are saying, they’ll try and cater for. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, or when that’s going to happen, but I know they’re well aware of it.

One thing I’ve asked NHK to do, instead of doing a preview show, is to have a Q&A roundtable with 4 or 5 of us: Raja Pradhan, Hiro Morita, John Gunning and myself. We would take questions from people overseas, or we would have our own questions to throw at each other. Like “why do you think I’m terrible,” and all that stuff!

I thought it would be a good opportunity. You get online sometimes, and people say “what’s happened to such and such,” and the question has been asked 3 posts previous. And the answer’s underneath it! 3 posts later someone asks the same question. That is a bit frustrating. Just look around, the answers are there.

Sumopedia has been a pretty good thing, I’ve done a lot of those (videos). One thing I say to people a lot is, “sumo’s not the sort of thing you’re going to learn in five minutes. It takes years, and enjoy the ride.” You will learn something new every day: “I didn’t know that,” or “I’ve been doing this for that long and I didn’t know that.” There’s always (new) stuff. 

Here’s a question from someone called Thomas: “Is there anything in particular in an up and coming wrestler that you see as a sign that they will end up being a mainstay at the top of the rankings in the future?”

They’re kind of the obvious ones. I think Roga is (a few) basho old, and he’s another Mongolian. He looks like someone who has a mind for sumo, if he can adjust his position. Hakuho wasn’t seen as someone who’s going to be a Yokozuna, he was a skinny little kid!

He was rejected by stables!

Yeah! But he could move well. And Roga is already using that wiggling of the hips move that is a winning move. Takanohana incorporated that in his sumo, look where that got him. And Asashoryu and Hakuho, and Harumafuji to a lesser extent.

I’m a little unsure about Hoshoryu. He doesn’t look like he’s going to put on a lot of weight.

He hasn’t so far. 

That could be his biggest problem.

Do you see him as more of a serious prospect than Naya? They frequently come up in conversation together.

I think Naya can be a serious candidate for Sekiwake or Ozeki. If Hoshoryu (doesn’t) put on weight, especially in the lower body, his calves, he’ll start looking like Abi.

If you look across the board, there’s probably some guy in there we haven’t even seen yet. I do watch the lower divisions, and occasionally there’s someone who bursts out of the block. I think everyone’s been saying that… but I think Roga is the guy I’d watch.

Going back to how Roga adjusts to situations: is that one of the key features in an up and coming rikishi? Not just the reactiveness or physicality, but to be someone who can read a situation and react to it, that makes you see them as being projectable? 

Most of them would say: “I’m going to do my sumo.” But sometimes their sumo doesn’t work, or doesn’t work against everybody. So, they need to adjust.

Mitakeumi is probably a good example of that in recent times. He was a pusher-thruster, and then developed some mawashi technique. His lack of intensity of his training shows him up when he gets into difficult situations. But he’s got that ability, because he’s developed his sumo, and I like that.

Takakeisho is a one -and-a-half trick pony, but it might be good enough. He’s strong and he’s smart. Whether he goes beyond Ozeki? I don’t think so. (There have been) not too many Ozeki pusher-thrusters of that height.

But if Hakuho drops out of sumo in the next year or two, sumo becomes a very different sport. Like now, we’re going to have a different winner every tournament, because Hakuho won’t be (a factor) at all. Kakuryu isn’t much longer for the mawashi I would think than the next 18 months.

Things will change. That could be for good. (Some) will say, “Oh, the authority’s gone, it’s like watching the B team when Hakuho disappears.” So for these folks who are just getting into sumo: Enjoy Hakuho. Once he’s gone, the “GOAT,” depending on what era you started watching sumo, will be gone. 

Staying in that stable, we have received quite a few questions about Enho. Corey Yanofsky says: “Does Murray think any of makuuchi’s current small men (Ishiura, Enho, and Terutsuyoshi) have the staying power of Mainoumi, or are they likely to be elevator rikishi, always bouncing up from and down to Juryo? With Ishiura we already have a bit of a track record…”

Yeah, Ishiura’s going to ride back and forth, he’s not going to stay, because he doesn’t quite have the technique. He has a lot of sideways movement, trying to get that inside grip, but is not (as strong at) his pushing and thrusting particularly, and he’s vulnerable for a decent slap.

Enho is a clever young man. His biggest issue will be injury. He’s already injured his right shoulder. He weighs under 100 kilos! The thing with Mainoumi is that he used to prepare for every bout. He and his brother would have a practise session the day before, for who he was going to fight and what he was going to do. It wasn’t every day, but he prepared himself for certain opponents. A lot of times, he was pushed out in the blink of an eye!

Mainoumi only ever fought at Komusubi and not successfully, but he was exciting to watch and I think all these guys are exciting because they’re small. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be greats. Enho will bring some joy to a lot (of people). He is fun to watch, the way Ura was. Poor guy (Ura), two ACL injuries.

It seemed like his weight became an issue, he added a lot.

He did put on a lot of weight. The style of sumo that he does, the bending of the knees at the edge, that sort of stuff is going to put more on the knees. Enho doesn’t do that kind of sumo, he’s more of a throwing (rikishi). It’s all upper body movement, it has to be. Great advice from Hakuho (for him) though: “if you want to be in sumo, what’s the point of coming here just to compete? You’ve gotta win.”

Who do you consider to be the most exciting prospect in sumo in the top 2 divisions [this is a question from Abi Fan which we modified as the answer was covered elsewhere]? We already touched on Roga outside the top divisions.

Within the top 2 divisions? I don’t think there’s anybody exciting. Enho’s exciting because of his stature and his movement. Abi is exciting at times, but equally disappointing. He can look like a Jonidan guy sometimes!

Do you think he will ever add a yotsu element?

I think he is what he is. His oyakata went to yotsu-zumo, and he was a failure (at that). Abi’s very light in the lower limbs, and he likes doing sumo the way he does it. It’s fun! He’ll just ride up and down the banzuke, but within the top division. I don’t think he’ll drop out of the division unless he gets injured, but he tries to stay away from that.

Yeah, I’d have to say Enho.

This is a question from Daniel Iliev: “Which of the two styles (oshi-zumo and yotsu-zumo) do you prefer watching, and do you think that one of the styles suits someone who’s trying to become a Yokozuna better?”

Yotsu-zumo does certainly (help make) a Yokozuna candidate. Whilst there are more oshi-zumo rikishi now than there were 30 years ago, the initial training in sumo is oshi-zumo. (Young rikishi) learn to push and thrust and keep people away, and then they go to the mawashi, and learn mawashi grips and mawashi holds, all the required elements.

You have to be able to do both. Usually, you can’t just be a pusher-thruster and become a Yokozuna. Even Akebono, who started out his career as a pusher-thruster, went to the mawashi. He was big, he could do that. Yotsu-zumo is required to become a Yokozuna in my opinion. Oshi-zumo will get you to Ozeki. It’s very difficult to be beyond that.

Is there a style that you find more enjoyable?

Not really. Some people don’t like oshi-zumo, people that have been watching it since the Chiyonofuji days. They say, “aww, that’s not real sumo.” But it is, it’s what they learn when they first start. The thrusting comes to that pushing sumo that they learn initially.

A lot of people don’t like the thrusting of (for example) Chiyotaikai, because it’s all over in a blink. They like to see chest to chest. But back in the ’70s, they didn’t touch the shikiri-sen either, (those rikishi) just stood up at the tachiai and grabbed each other!

To see a great uwatenage, or a great throw that has worked is exciting. But so is a dynamic thrusting attack that has someone on the move! I enjoy that.

Come back to Tachiai for the final part of our conversation with Murray over the coming days! [edit: click here to continue reading Part 4]

NSK Rikishi Health Checks

Tochinoshin Undergoes Routine Health Screening, Courtesy NSK Twitter Feed

With the Aki basho just over 2 weeks away (and this being banzuke weekend!), it’s time for the semi-yearly rikishi health checks. The twice a year parade of sumo favorites undergoing the routine provides some excellent opportunities for sighting of missed former stars of the top ranks, and today was no exception

Yes, that’s our dear grumpy badger and stalwart brawler Chiyonokuni reporting for his check up. After dropping out of the Hatsu basho in January, he has been kyujo for knee repair. He was ranked in the Makushita joi-jin for Nagoya, and will likely fall further down the banzuke before he returns. He’s a fearless competitor, so we look forward to his campaign to re-take his place in sumo’s top division.

But the Great Sumo Cat of the Kokugikan was not done, none other than fan favorite, and fellow knee patient Ura was present today as well. We don’t expect him to re-enter competition until next year, and may battle back from the very lowest ranks.