Natsu Story 3 – Ozeki / Yokozuna Struggles


Yokozuna-Corps

Everyone Is Walking Wounded

Since the tragic bout in Nagoya where Hakuho broke his toe (which required surgery), the Yokozuna and Ozeki corps have suffered an endless cycle of injury. With the secretive nature of injury reporting, it is difficult to tell how damaged these top rikishi are, but we have seen (at a minimum)

  • Hakuho – Left leg damage, surgical repair to toes and knees
  • Harumafuji – Persistent problems with ankles and elbows
  • Kakuryu – Recurring lower back pain and unspecified injury
  • Kiseonsato – Ruptured pectoral muscle
  • Goeido – Shattered ankle requiring reconstructive surgery
  • Terunofuji – Persistent knee problems and pain

Each of these rikishi have been among the elite of a very difficult and competitive sport, but over time injuries only partially healed or completely ignored have degraded their performance to the point that each basho, fans are left to hope that at least two top ranked men survive to battle the final day.

As we have speculated in prior posts, it is clear that some of these stars of sumo will be leaving the dohyo in the near future, barring some significant medical intervention. Each of them (save perhaps Kisenosato) is a shadow of their former self on most days. For example, Terunofuji’s performance in Osaka was thrilling, and fans largely rejoyced to see him execute his amazing sumo once more. But it should be noted that it was an exception to the past few years, where Terunofuji has limped along, usually barely scraping by.

There are some indication coming from pre-basho practice that Hakuho may be in fairly good form, and we may see another basho of the Michael Jordan of sumo. Fans of one of the greatest man to ever step on the dohyo are all praying we can see him in top for at least one more time. But it’s very sad that for all of the top men of sumo, we now expect all of these stars to be in less than peak performance.

Though we saw a new Yokozuna crowned in January, the team at Tachiai still think we are on the cusp of a “changing of the guard” in Sumo.

Handicapping The Natsu Banzuke – Part 1


banzuke-1

No Surprises Here

After fairly reasonable success with the Haru banzuke, I dusted off the old spreadsheet and decided to turn the crank for May. The real banzuke is only a week away, and there are a few things that are deep in the unknown, given the chaos and decimation that took place in March to the upper Maegashira ranks. In this series, we take our best guess at where everyone will be ranked for the next tournament in Tokyo.

The San’yaku banzuke is fairly straightforward, with the question being who fills the empty slot at Komosubi vacated by Shodai, and what order the rest of the top men of sumo will take in their respective ranks.

East Rank West
Kisenosato Yokozuna Kakuryu
Harumafuji Yokozuna Hakuho
Terunofuji  Ozeki  Goeido
Takayasu Sekiwake Kotoshogiku
Tamawashi Sekiwake
Mitakeumi Komusubi Yoshikaze

Yokozuna

With just a slight shuffle from March, we now see two time yusho winner Kisenosato as 1 East, with Hakuho dropping to 2 West after sitting out most of Haru with lingering foot problems. During the spring jungyo, Kakuryu was the only Yokozuna making daily appearances for a few weeks, as everyone else was injured and recovering. This further underscores the problems with the current Yokozuna crowd. Now all of them are injured and degraded in some way.

As is frequently the case, there was scant coverage of the true extent of Kisenosato’s injuries, so it will be interesting to see if he is still weakened or if he has fully recovered. Hakuho and Harumafuji were both able to join the jungyo tour a few weeks ago, and were at least able to train with the other rikishi.

Ozeki

Terunofuji’s fantastic performance in March may have not been a sign of things to come, as it seems he re-injured his knees in his day 13 bout against Kakuryu. This explains a few things about his henka against Kotoshogiku, and also why an injured Kisenosato had any chance in his final day match. When Terunofuji is healthy and in fighting form, he is fast, effective and at times a bit scary. We hope he comes to Natsu in form and ready to fight, but fear his chronic injuries are going to hobble him yet again.

The same can be said about Goeido, who had a horrific injury towards the end of Hatsu, and had reconstructive surgery on his ankle. He competed during the March tournament in Osaka, and was a complete mess – clearly not recovered or ready for action. He enters this tournament kadoban once again.

Sekiwake

A second tournament with three Sekiwake, as none of them had a record worthy of demotion. Kotoshogiku has decided to remain active and fighting, though his chances of re-promotion to Ozeki are nonexistent. It is unknown if he is still plagued by the injuries that had degraded his performance to the point he was demoted. Tamawashi managed to hold on to his Sekiwake rank with a 1 win kachi-koshi. He is not yet strong enough to contend for an Ozeki slot, but the fact that he has been able to survive as Sekiwake this long is a testament both to his talent (and training) and the problems in the Yokozuna and Ozeki corps.

Of course, there is Takayasu. He is 10 wins away from securing a promotion to Ozeki, and he has been looking in form for the last several basho. But with Kisenosato out and injured, the logical question must be what effect that will have on Takayasu. Both men are constant training partners, and their mutual strength, determination and dedication is what has driven their increasing performance. Take that away, and it’s natural to wonder what effect Kiseonsato’s absence will have on Takayasu’s Ozeki efforts.

Komusubi

Mitakeumi, sumo’s next-next Ozeki, remains at Komusubi in spite of performance and records that would normally have him sharing Sekiwake with Takayasu. Mitakeumi has been bringing fantastic sumo to the dohyo every match, and I am eager to see him battle his way up to the next rank. Joining him at Komusubi is none other than my favorite, Yoshikaze. This was a tough call, as there was such a blood bath in the top 4 Maegashira ranks that Shodai actually had better computed rank, even with his horrific 4-11 record. So there was really only one choice, and that is veteran sumo berserker Yoshikaze.

Kisenosato Gambarized. He “walks the walk” of a Yokozuna


I chose today’s headline to highlight a word Bruce has written about before: 頑張る. Along with signs with wrestlers’ shikona, many supporters hold up signs with this word or its imperitive version, 頑張って. So, today’s headline comes from the Yomiuri newspaper which is another major Japanese newspaper. They also have their own English language publication. So, today’s headline:

痛みに耐えて頑張った!稀勢の里が歩む名横綱の道


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Takayasu Obliterated by Harumafuji Day 12


Takayasu-12

Employed Rare Komatasukui Kimarite

On day 11, Takayasu was dealt his first defeat at the hands of Yokozuna Kakuryu, on day 12, he faced Yokozuna Harumafuji. This was a “Need to Win” bout if Takayasu was to remain in yusho contention, but the odds were long. Harumafuji has been competing through an increasing number of painful injuries and problems, but applies himself with gusto each and every day.

Harumafuji took Takayasu’s massive tachiai straight on, and immediately took control of the bout. Takayasu rallied and attempted a throw, but Harumafuji saw this coming and grabbed Takayasu’s leg. At this point it was all over, with the only question remaining being how embarrassing and painful the end would be. Takayasu was unceremoniously dumped at the edge of the dohyo, a second loss added to his tally. The Kimarite was recorded as Komatasukui (小股掬い), or over thigh scooping body drop, a real rare one.

Simply put, Takayasu, of whom I am a huge fan, was schooled by one of the great sumotori of our time.

This concludes the “hell” portion of Takayasu’s basho. His score stands at an impressive 10-2 at the end of day 12. His next move is to recover his mental posture and move forward with all his skill and strength. To continue his bid to be promoted to Ozeki, he needs 33 wins over 3 basho, and he must run his tally higher. The rest of the week he will face lower ranked Maegashira, although on day 13 he faces the ever dangerous Yoshikaze.

Make no mistake, Takayasu has the size, speed and skill to win his remaining 3 matches and end with an impressive 13-2 record. This is a mental test now, as in prior basho he has become discouraged after a high-profile loss midway in the second week and has lost the remainder of his bouts. To become a worthy Ozeki, he needs mental toughness to shrug aside a setback and persist.

Yokozuna Kakuryu Defeats Takayasu


Takayasu-Down

Kisenosato Undefeated, Sole Leader

There was a generous amount of fantastic sumo action from Day 11, but chief in terms of the yusho race was Kakuryu’s victory over Takayasu, in a hard fought and highly mobile battle. After a strong tachiai, the combatants alternated between thrusting attacks and grappling. Each tried to position the other for throws multiple times, and as is the usual Kakuryu tactic, he played for time rather than overpowering win, waiting for Takayasu to make a mistake. He got his mistake when Takayasu pressed hard to circle right and created momentum for Kakuryu to boost and send him off the edge of the dohyo.

It was fantastic sumo, and it’s the kind of sumo you would expect to see from an Ozeki, which I can only assume will be Takayasu’s title later this year. Now we see if Takayasu is ready to be a champion. In past basho when he was handed a disappointing loss, Takayasu has gone into a losing streak. He faces Harumafuji on day 12, which may be an even greater challenge than Kakuryu.

This leaves Kisenosato the sole leader in the yusho race, and make no mistake that getting him at least one loss is a priority for the schedulers. It will come down to his fellow Yokozuna to achieve that goal, at which point the yusho race could be expanded in the final days.

Haru Day 10 Preview


Takayasu-10

Act Two Closing Day

Today we saw Ozeki Terunofuji dismiss his kadoban status in a thunderous fashion. He has been totally dominating his matches and has, beyond a shadow of a doubt, earned his way back to good standing. Sadly today also marks the day that Ozeki Goeido goes kadoban. Due to his withdrawal from the Haru Basho, today was marked as his 8th loss. With his make-koshi now secure, Goeido is facing a challenging time in the May tournament in Tokyo.

Day 10 could also be kinboshi day, as there are 2 Maegashira facing off against the Yokozuna corps today. Hopes are always high that Yoshikaze can blast his way though any opponent, and it would be magical to see him score yet another gold star win against Kakuryu a day after his birthday. Not to be discounted is Endo facing off against Harumafuji, who gives up kinboshi more than any other active Yokozuna today. They come to their day 10 bout with matching 6-3 records.

The Haru leader board is little changed, except that several rikishi feel out of the Chase group, and the pack of men who have the records to put them within Yusho connection has shrunk to 6. Both Takayasu and Kisenosato would need to lose at least once for Terunofuji or Tochiozan to have a shot.

Haru Leader board

LeadersKisenosato, Takayasu
Hunt Group – Terunofuji, Tochiozan
Chasers – Kakuryu, Chiyoshoma

6 Matches Remain

Matches We Like

Chiyoo vs Ura – Ura has been a lot of fun to watch, but make no mistake he is focused on one thing – getting to 8 wins. Going into day 10, he is at 4-5, and needs 4 more wins out of the next 6 days to guarante his remaining in Makuuchi. He has been Chiyoo in 2 of their prior 3 meetings, and Chiyoo is likewise struggling to clinch a winning record.

Takakeisho vs Ishiura – Takakeisho has been having a solid basho, and comes into day 10 with 6-3, more or less assured that he will find a way to pick up the last two wins. His opponent is the compact battle-mouse Ishiura, who can likely survive a losing record this one time. I expect there to be some furious action, as Ishiura never fights at half speed.

Daishomaru vs Tochiozan – With only one loss, Tochiozan already has his kachi-koshi, and he is set for May. But I suspect he is looking for a solid move up the banzuke. Daishomaru brings his 6-3 record into day 10, looking to give himself some buffer for the last 5 days. Daishomaru won their only prior meeting.

Tokushoryu vs Chiyoshoma – Chiyoshoma needs one more win for his kachi-koshi, and may get it on day 10. While Tokushoryu comes to the dohyo with a strong winning record, Chiyoshoma is ranked higher, and is much more capable this basho. He has also won all 4 of their prior matches.

Kotoshogiku vs Takekaze – 4 more wins in 6 days. It means 2 wins for every loss over the rest of the basho. Kotoshogiku can do this, but it’s going to be tough, even starting day 10 with a 6-3 record. Kashi-koshi is not good enough, it’s 10 wins or bust. Day 10 he faces off against the henka master, Takekaze. Their prior matches are split evenly 14-13

Takanoiwa vs Takayasu – Takanoiwa is having a tough basho at 2-7, but as always he is capable of surprising even the mightiest Yokozuna with his explosive, attack-oriented sumo. But he’s facing Takayasu, who is on a mission from the Great Sumo Cat of the Kokugikan itself. A win today would put Takayasu in double digits, and would be a big boost for any special prizes and his ongoing Ozeki campaign. Their prior bouts split 3-2 with advantage to Takayasu.

Shodai vs Terunofuji – Shodai is plagued by being too high in his tachiai – it seems he has a driving need to protect his face. Terunofuji does not care about his face. I am not sure Terunofuji cares about Shodai except as a meat popsicle that he can defeat on the dohyo. Terunofuji is a man possessed, and I am curious to see how far he will go with his current streak of powerful, winning sumo.

Yoshikaze vs Kakuryu – If there is one rikishi that can upset anyone on any day, even on the street right after lunch it’s the amazing Yoshikaze. It’s safe to assume that the Berserker will retire some time in the next few years to become a coach or stable runner himself, but on the way towards that next career, a few more kinboshi mean more money for him and his family. Kakuryu is a slippery, reactive warrior of the first order, and he will not be easy to beat. But Yoshikaze has beat him 5 times during their 15 career matches.

Harumafuji vs Endo – I am predicting nodowa attack festival, mini-henka, death spin or a combination here. Endo can surprise Harumafuji, who seems to be a bit more hurt every day of this basho. But it should be noted that thus far Endo has never beat “The Horse”, so a victory day 10 is a tall order.

A Closer Look at San’yaku after Week 1


Moment of Silence
One of these men is more consistent than the others – and basically everyone else.

Hi there – this is my first guest post on the site, so thanks for having me! Following Bruce’s analysis last week, contrasting the early upper san’yaku vs lower san’yaku results from the current Basho to that of last year’s Nagoya tournament, I posited that it might be interesting to have a look at a larger sample size and determine if what we’re seeing is the product of a shift in the performance of the upper san’yaku over time, and what it might mean.

I pulled the first week win/loss data (up through day 8) of each tournament going back to January 2015, the logic being that a 2 year period of first week bouts would give us an idea of what it means to perform at the level of a Yokozuna or an Ozeki in this day and age. I selected 8 days because this has typically been the tipping point in the tournament after which the upper san’yaku (of which there have usually been 7) stop being polite and start being real, and are then starting to fight each other.

Finally, I removed forfeit matches due to rikishi going kyujo from the equation entirely. While these wins and losses show up in the history books, they don’t give us a true read on whether or not the rikishi involved are performing at the expected talent level.

This is all basic stuff and is meant to be a jumping off point from which assumptions can be based so that we can have some more detailed conversations in future. So let’s see what the data (which you can see in rawer form here) tells us:

* A Yokozuna can usually be counted on to lose one match in the first week. Over 2015 & 2016, the win rate (or wins per day in Bruce’s format) of a Yokozuna is 85.7%. Taking into account that healthy rikishi will fight 24 times, we’d expect to see 3 losses from the group and this is exactly what happened in 8 of those 12 tournaments.

* Ozeki typically perform 15% worse than the Yokozuna. So, they lose a little more than 1 more match apiece on average than their more prestigious counterparts. Interestingly, this is exactly what has transpired in 2017 as well as 2015 and 2016 – the downturn in Yokozuna performance (~10%) has been almost exactly matched by their Ozeki counterparts in spite of Kisenosato moving up a level: his brilliant Hatsu masked disasters from Terunofuji and Kotoshogiku, while his promotion has covered for the kyujo Hakuho and underperforming Harumafuji and Kakuryu.

Yokozuna Win Percentage 2015-16: 85.7%
Yokozuna Win Percentage 2017: 75.6%

Ozeki Win Percentage 2015-16: 70%
Ozeki Win Percentage 2017: 60.5%

* Hakuho isn’t in trouble – at least as far as week 1 is concerned. He was 7-1 in January and having gone kyujo twice in the 2 years prior (including once mid-basho), he came back with 8-0 and 7-1 starts. He clearly was struggling early in this tournament along with Harumafuji and Kakuryu (who have since seen their records improve), but if his body works then the early results bear out when fighting against his lower ranking san’yaku competitors.

* Sekiwake up their game. Over 2015-16, the expected win rate for a Sekiwake in week 1 was a paltry 46.3% – you wouldn’t even expect them to end up 4-4 never mind challenge for Ozeki promotion, which obviously only happened once (Terunofuji) in that time frame. However this has increased over the first two basho of 2017 to 64.6% – almost as good as an Ozeki would usually be expected to perform (70%).

* This hasn’t been reflected at Komusubi level. Usually Komusubi win 33.2% of their first week matches, but that’s only up to 35.4% this year. Tochinoshin’s tanking at Hatsu is somewhat to blame for this but of the four Komusubi performances this year, only Takayasu has turned in a winning performance at the level in matches fought, and even that was only a 4-3 standing after 8 days. This is still as hard of a level as ever to compete at.

* The recent lower san’yaku level of performance isn’t totally unprecedented, however. While we began to see the tide swing toward the lower san’yaku in January, there were actually 5 better performances over the past couple years – a 5 basho streak starting with a 50% success rate in March 2015 through to a 43.8% hit rate in December 2015 – from the up and comers than in January (42.9% success rate).

* Takayasu may be more special than we think. Most Sekiwake have never returned to the rank over the past 2+ years: only 3 prior rikishi have re-obtained the title after losing it since the start of 2015. However, unlike Ichinojo, Myogiryu and Okinoumi, Takayasu looks to be the first to fight back and look capable of not only hold the rank but have the stuff to move up. Of the prior three, only Myogiryu was even tenuously able to cling on for one more basho at the ranking.

* Kisenosato starts as well as anyone not named Hakuho. While his historical troubles with finishing off the yusho have been well detailed, his week 1 performances have outshined Kakuryu over the last 2+ years and he’s in a dead heat with Harumafuji’s level of performance. While it’s not clear yet that he’s better at this level than a healthy Hakuho, Hakuho’s toe problem means the Shin-Yokozuna was already for all intents and purposes the top dog coming out of the traps even before the the first grain of salt was thrown at Haru.

* No one’s success rate has taken a bigger hit than Goeido. The Ozeki from Osaka’s first week win rate has dropped over 20% in 2017. Historically he’d been expected to win almost exactly two thirds of his opening week matches, but he now sits at a lacklustre 46% – the exact tally we’d typically expect from a Sekiwake that’s might be demoted lower. He really shouldn’t have turned up unfit at Haru.

So what does all of this mean? There’s a certain shift as we’re seeing results that haven’t been there over the past several years, but it’s much too soon to call it a day on the current crop of Yokozuna. At Haru, they’ve lost 2 more matches as a group than we’d expect to have seen, but as recently as November they were turning in a vintage week 1 performance that stands up to anything else they’ve done recently, battering the lower san’yaku with better than expected results.

Health aside, in the short term the data shows that we can probably expect to see some more turbulence in the rankings of a small group of rikishi in between the Sekiwake and Ozeki tiers, and what it means to fight at those levels may become somewhat blurry if Kotoshogiku ends up as the first in what could be a string of yo-yo rikishi. The next two or three basho will be telling to be sure, and I’ll continue to update the data to see how the san’yaku bear out against each other in the early going to try and pick up more signals.