New Juryo for Aki

The banzuke meeting was held today, and the promotions to Juryo from Makushita have been announced. As expected, Ms1w Kinbozan (6-1) and Ms2w Kanno (5-2) will make their sekitori debuts in September, while Ms1e Takakento (4-3) will return after a one-basho absence; he’s been bouncing back and forth between the second and third divisions since making his first Juryo appearance in March 2021.

The corresponding demotions are not announced, but we can infer that they are the absent J10w Ishiura, J12w Yago (4-11), and J11e Kaisei (5-10). The fact that there are only 3 exchanges strongly suggests that J10e Shimazuumi (5-3*) and J13e Oshoma (5-3*), who both pulled out on Day 9 due to COVID, are at the very least not being treated as though their absences were losses, as is normally the case for absences due to injury. This gives us a small hint as to how the rest of the COVID-related withdrawals may be treated.

How Will the Aki Banzuke Shake Out? Part 3

In the first post in this series, I considered the question of what might be done with the 15 rikishi who missed at least one bout as a consequence of positive COVID tests in their heya. In the second part, I took a look at the named ranks. Now it’s time for the maegashira. Buckle up, it’s going to be a rough ride!

Why is this banzuke so hard? Surprisingly, it’s actually not primarily due to the COVID withdrawals. Rather, it’s the strong performances by the upper ranks, matched by correspondingly dismal performances lower down. The 12 rikishi ranked between M2 and Yokozuna had a win-loss differential of 28 (36 if you leave out Mitakeumi and Takanosho). Those extra wins had to come from somewhere, and indeed, the ranks from M3 to M7 had a win-loss differential of -25, with only a single kachi-koshi. As a result, there is a giant hole in the upper half of the banzuke.

The Joi

The term joi-jin informally refers to roughly the top 16 rikishi on the banzuke. Often, the named ranks are treated separately, and “the joi” means the top maegashira who face them. In Nagoya, for instance, M4e Wakamotoharu, the 15th man on the banzuke, faced a full san’yaku schedule. With #16 Takayasu absent, M5e Endo had 4 san’yaku opponents, and M5w Sadanoumi got two, including the Yokozuna. Who will be fighting it out with the upper rankers at Aki?

Our problems start right at M1e. With none of the lower san’yaku wrestlers dropping, and if I am correct that M1e Kiribayama and M2w Ichinojo will be promoted to Komusubi, the next available rikishi with a winning record is [checks notes] M6w Tobizaru, who withdrew with an 8-4 record on Day 13. If we ask for a winning record and tournament completion, we need to look all the way down to M10w Meisei! This is why I think that simply freezing the ranks of all rikishi who didn’t finish the tournament due to COVID is a complete nonstarter.

While large over-promotions and lenient under-demotions cannot be avoided, we do have a creative solution for M1e—promote M2e Kotonowaka, who left on day 11 when his record stood at 7-3. Sure, he could have lost his last 5, but this seems like an unfair assumption for someone who was in the thick of the yusho race at the time, had his hardest fights behind him, and already defeated two Ozeki, one Sekiwake, and the yusho winner Ichinojo. He could just as easily have gone 12-3 and been in the running for the title and a Komusubi slot. Let’s go with what actually happened on the dohyo and treat his win-loss differential of 4 as equivalent to somewhere between 9-6 and 10-5, more than enough for a one-rank promotion.

After that, I don’t think there’s really any alternative to slotting in the aforementioned Tobizaru at M1w, followed by M8w Nishikigi (8-4*) at M2e and [checks notes again, adjusts computer screen] M11w Midorifuji (10-5) at M2w. Yes, I’ve checked the database, and there’s precedent for boosting someone with his rank and record this high up, though under more normal circumstances he’d end up around M4.

We’re not out of the woods yet. M3w Ura (7-8) can do no better than hold his rank, so let’s slot him in there. You could make an argument for freezing M3e Tamawashi (5-7*), although it might be a bit odd to treat him equivalently to Ura. The other option is to pull up the aforementioned Meisei to M3e and have Tamawashi at M4e, although flip-flopping him with Ura isn’t out of the question either. Slot in completely absent Takayasu at his old rank of M4w and breathe a small sigh of relief. Are we done with the weirdness yet? Not by a long shot.

The Mid-Maegashira

We’re only at M5e, and we’ve already placed all but 6 rikishi with winning records; the remaining one were all ranked M12 or lower. So in addition to over-promoting M12w Takarafuji (9-6), M15e Onosho (10-5), M14e Myogiryu (9-6), and M17e Nishikifuji (10-5), we have to place J1e Ryuden (12-3) higher than those moving up from Juryo usually go, plus treat rikishi with losing or incomplete records very leniently. This likely means rank freezes for anyone with a 7-8 make-koshi (M5w Sadanoumi, M8e Tochinoshin) as well as for those who did not hit more than 8 losses before withdrawing (Hokutofuji, Kotoeko, Kotoshoho), and only minimal demotions for those with a 6-9 record (M4e Wakamotoharu, M6e Aoiyama). Promote M13e Ichiyamamoto based on his 6-2 record on the dohyo, throw in a lenient demotion for M5e Endo (3-9*), and we’ve filled the ranks from M5 to M11, after which some sanity returns.

The Lower Maegashira, with Juryo Exchanges

With the M17 rank likely to disappear as noted in my previous post, we only need to find another 10 rikishi to fill the M12-M16 ranks, and we are done. Phew. Here we’ll find the rest of the make-koshi crew—M7e Okinoumi (4-10*), M10e Chiyotairyu (6-9), M1w Takanosho, who managed just one win and 5 losses before withdrawing due to injury, M13w Chiyoshoma (7-8), and M12e Terutsuyoshi (6-9). Add to them M14w Tsurugisho (5-7*), who may see a mild demotion, and the two marginal 8-7 kachi-koshi from low ranks—M15w Oho and M16e Yutakayama. That leaves the last two spots on the banzuke, and brings as to the question of division exchanges.

So far, we’ve brought up one rikishi with as strong a promotion claim as they get: Ryuden. In fact, he was the only man in the second division with a record that would normally warrant promotion. However, three top-division incumbents finished with rank-record combinations so abysmal that they simply can’t be kept in Makuuchi. This sorry trio is led by M16w Daiamami, who recorded two wins and 10 losses and absences the old-fashioned way, before missing the final 3 days due to COVID, and is unlikely to be shown any leniency. The hapless newlywed M9e Shimanoumi cannot stay after his 1-14 performance. Finally, the last man on the banzuke, M17w Chiyomaru, only managed a 6-9 record when anything less than 8 wins would normally send him down; if that wasn’t enough, the likely disappearance of his rank means that he can’t stay in the top division without getting a promotion, which isn’t going to happen.

This means that two other Juryo rikishi will be getting a very fortunate promotion. One is clear: J4w Mitoryu (9-6) will make his Makuuchi debut after a rather remarkable 27-basho run in the second division, which he reached less than a year after his Ms15TD start in 2017. His case isn’t all that strong, but it’s entirely unremarkable for a 9-win J4 to be promoted. It’s more of a reach to fill the last slot on the banzuke. With most of the upper ranks in Juryo going make-koshi, and those just below them managing no better than 8 wins, it comes down to the highest-ranked of those, J5e Chiyonokuni, vs. J8e Hiradoumi (10-5). The former has higher rank and previous top-division experience in his favor, while the latter has a better numerical promotion case and is supported by what limited precedents we have, so I am leaning toward the Sakaigawa man making his Makuuchi debut. Hiradoumi has had a slow start to his career, taking 3 years from his Mae-zumo basho to reach Makushita, and another two and a half to reach Juryo, but he seems to be coming into his own and is still only 22.

And with that, I think we are done. I will keep my eye on the news to see if the NSK says anything in the coming days about their approach to this rather unusual banzuke. If I learn anything, you’ll hear about it here. In the meantime, let me know what you think in the comments.

The Silver Lining of Nagoya’s Sweaty Mawashi

 

We don’t need to beat around the bush: we have just witnessed what was in many ways a deeply unsatisfying tournament which culminated in a day-by-day missing persons storyline that wouldn’t have been out of place from some low budget horror film or an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

But in some ways, obsessing over what we didn’t have in the Nagoya basho is to miss the point (and, by the way, this is in no way a counter-point to Bruce’s excellent opinions from yesterday). Culturally, the purpose of a basho is not to ensure that every rank and file dude is present for 15 days, “otherwise the whole thing might as well have not happened.” That doesn’t mean I think it’s cool that a third of the top division was absent or that I especially enjoyed this tournament. As a spectacle, I didn’t. I always love to watch sumo, and still, “endured” might be a more accurate descriptor of how I experienced this tournament. But I’m firmly in the camp that thinks the Kyokai was correct to finish the basho, even if I’m also in a camp that thinks they are correct to err on the side of caution (firmly agreeing with Andy’s comments from earlier in the week) and I’m also on the team that hopes they can evolve their covid-kyujo policies. There is room for nuance.

There are those who will say: “well whatabout if Isegahama or Minato beya had been visited by the coronavirus, forcing the removal of Terunofuji or Ichinojo?” Well, that didn’t happen. And yet, conspiracy theories aside, we have to concede that the departure of an exciting potential title contender like Kotonowaka from the race is not what we want to see. It weakened the basho.

But there were other things about this tournament that were good, so amongst all of the noise about things that were bad – because we really can and will talk about that quite a bit more – let’s take just a minute to focus on some of those good things:

Ichinojo Yusho

Ichinojo is not a popular rikishi in most senses of the word, but it is very unlikely to hear a bad word against him. No one will begrudge him this championship and it is likely that his ability would have merited a championship at some point in his career. And now he has one.

Since his debut, the jokes about “is being big a strategy” have largely served to offset the frustration that a rikishi of his obvious physical and technical gifts had been unable to put together the kind of run of success that – especially in recent years – seemed ripe for the taking.

The overwhelming feeling about Ichinojo over the past few years is that he’s someone who perhaps lacked focus, who could always find a way to get up for the big matches (as evidenced by his lengthy and impressive list of kinboshi victims), but who could never find the consistency to regularly succeed in sumo. Some of that has been down to his challenges to use and maintain his physique, and his back struggles have been well-documented. A staple of his sumo from across the past several years was that if you got him moving backward, it was very difficult for him to reverse that momentum.

But his weaknesses are offset by remarkable strengths. He is an above average yotsu-zumo practitioner, and when locked with an opponent, there are very few rikishi with the ability to outlast or go toe-to-toe with the giant. He is in an elite category when it comes to lengthy bouts, and has often displayed strong composure in the ring to complement that stamina. He is not someone given to losing the plot.

Longer term side effects aside, it should also not be lost on us that the covid-kyujo which enforced Ichinojo’s absence from the Natsu basho potentially led to him arriving in Nagoya fully rested and in better fighting shape than we have seen him in years. We can of course only speculate about this – much in the way that we can speculate without actually knowing whether Shimanoumi’s dreadful basho was the result of too much wedding cake.

Ichinojo has flirted with titles in the past, most notably taking an undefeated Hakuho all the way to senshuraku in an incredible 14-1 tournament a few years ago (fans will also remember his 13 wins, title challenge and kinboshi in his top flight debut). However, that 14-win runners-up basho from 2019 featured the unsustainable tendency to retreat and pull, a pattern which saw his results normalise when opponents were not lured into cheap slap-downs.

This basho’s success was of an altogether higher quality. Ichinojo took control of several bouts from the beginning, executing a game plan and landing a strong belt grip to square off and drive his opponents out. His yusho-clinching victory against Ura similarly displayed a strong sense of strategy to raise the centre of gravity of a much smaller and notoriously difficult opponent.

The championships we are likely to see over this next year will come from the Yokozuna, or rikishi who can take advantage of the odd occasions where the Yokozuna isn’t able to execute at 100%. Terunofuji is unquestionably the best rikishi in sumo. The only difference in this basho between Ichinojo and the Yokozuna is that Ichinojo beat the Yokozuna. You can’t say he isn’t deserving of the crown.

Hoshoryu’s Development

Like Andy, I think that Hoshoryu’s demeanour on the dohyo (a general observation, although it is punctuated with moments of greater petulance) makes him due for an attitude correction (be that in the form of mentorship or results). I do, however, believe praise is due for the way he turned around a frankly awful start in Nagoya to display some of the outstanding sumo of this tournament.

I don’t find a lot of difference technically between Hoshoryu’s sumo and Kiribayama’s (and I find the latter to be quite a bit more likeable and entertaining to watch), but the slight difference in results is owed to Hoshoryu’s will to win and the way that has manifested itself in many of his victories.

His positioning in order to execute throws has improved dramatically. He has always had good legwork – to the point that he is at times over-reliant on leg sweeps and trips that everyone can see a mile away. However, an under-discussed element of the ability to pull a routine or spectacular throw is the way that a rikishi can find the correct foot placement or manoeuvre their leg into the position that gives them the fulcrum upon which to rotate their opponent. We have been able to see Hoshoryu continually improve this feature of his sumo over the past several tournaments.

The continuing unreliability of the Ozeki to keep out of kadoban and mount consistent challenges has opened up an opportunity for Hoshoryu in particular to go on and become the next star. Wakatakakage is ahead of him in the current pecking order and also in terms of what’s in the trophy cabinet, but Wakatakakage is also more advanced in terms of age and Hoshoryu’s true rival over the next few years may be Kotonowaka. We may have been robbed from experiencing Kotonowaka’s breakout basho by the virus, so we can make do with the continued technical gains of Hoshoryu (even if the overall results will leave room for improvement). Hopefully, Aki will give us a proper look at the development of both rising stars.

The King of Comeback

You can’t bury Shodai. Not yet anyway. He seems set to prove John Gunning’s often repeated point that Ozeki is the easiest rank to hold, being that you only have to win 8 out of every 30 matches (albeit in the same tournament).

True though that may be, the willingness of some Ozeki to stoop down to that low bar has also provided some depressing sumo. However, there is something a bit thrilling in Shodai’s ability to conjure yusho-pedigree sumo when he looks dead and buried. And make no mistake, some of the wins he put together after digging himself into a 1-4 hole, winning 9 of his last 10, were absolutely yusho quality sumo. In some cases he defused his opponent from his tachiai, and on multiple other occasions we saw him battle back from the brink of the tawara in stunning fashion to take a match. If he could only show us his top quality sumo for all 15 days every time, we’d still be talking about how he wouldn’t be long for the Ozeki rank, but for very different reasons.

That being said, I don’t ever expect him to put together the kind of consistency that it will take for him to move to the next level. But against the current field, he has more than enough in his locker to put together 9 and 10 win tournaments with good content. While I and many others expected to leave this basho lamenting his inability to put it together, it was instead a happy surprise to exit the Nagoya tournament wishing for more of the same from Shodai.

Bruce Grumbles About The Nagoya Basho

What the hell was that? Never before in my decades as a sumo fan have I had the urge to label and entire basho with such a term. Not even the famous 2017 “Wacky Aki”. I take a few days away from sumo, and this is what happens?

Look, it was bad before I went kyujo for family matters, but good lord did it take a hard left hand turn and head straight for the storm drain. I thank Andy and everyone else who filled in while I attended to dreadful things. But enough of that.

I caught up today, and everyone and their cousin went covid kyujo. They were dropping like flies, with two more right on the final day. It shredded the torikumi, and the schedule, and the ranking, and Aki’s banzuke, and crap, just about everything. The kyokai really painted themselves into a corner with their COVID policy. They never updated it after the initial strain, not once taking into account the kind of things an Omicron variant can do. Let me share something with you. BA5, currently the world wide flavor, more virulent than measles. You get within a few feet of someone with that stuff, guess what, you now have it too. Not that it’s going to do much other than give you the sniffles in most cases, but hey – its still COVID and can hurt you.

So the NSK got hoisted by their own policy. One positive test, whole stable sits it out. Thats all good when it’s one or two, but when you lose a third of your talent, you are reduced to this kind of circus disguised as sumo.

They had to bring a fair portion of Juryo up to fight on senshuraku in the top division, just to fill in the air time. They had to backfill Juryo with Makushita guys just so the folks left in Juryo had an opponent. The wheels feel off this basho in the last 3 days. I think the ultimate example of the train-wreck that was Nagoya 2022 was the Hoshoryu – Midorifuji match. A Komusubi fighting an M11 for the third to last match of the basho. And then they completely blow the call and give the match to Midorifuji when the top of his foot is on the clay while Hoshoryu is still in bounds. Granted, I think Hoshoryu’s attitude needs attenuation, but this is not the way to do it.

I worry for the mental health of the banzuke committee. It can’t be anything more than this: 1) Drink a LOT 2) Try your best 3) Pretend it’s the result of hours of cloistered study and some of the best minds in sumo. 4) Conclude by drinking and yakitori till sunrise.

Exit question – what are NSK going to do about their jungyo reboot in a couple of weeks?