Haru Basho – yokozuna’s last fortress ?

2020’s Haru basho gave us a great finale, which a yusho deciding bout on the very last bout of the very last day – senshuraku’s musobi no ichiban – between both grand champions, Hakuho and Kakuryu.

What’s more normal ? Plenty of things, actually. As we know, recent times have provided us a fair amount of surprise winners, unlikely scenarios and crazy bashos.

Some venues have provided more drama than others. Let’s put a diagnosis on each yearly basho. Which ones are still mainly held by the yokozuna ? Which ones are brillantly conqueered by the rest of the field ?

Hatsu basho : complete meltdown

The first basho of the year is probably the most vandalized basho in recent times. Is it worth mentionning Tokushoryu’s improbable win, while sitting in banzuke’s unenviable place of the “makuuchi’s ass” ? Remarkably, a makuuchi spot wasn’t guaranteed to him at all, as he benefited from Tomokaze’s demotion to juryo’s first spot.

In my opinion, of of the craziest basho we could witness in recent times came in Tokyo, in January of last year. My prediction of all yokozuna plus ozeki not getting more than thirty wins combined seemed bold to the great Jason Harris, only for that prophecy to be accumplished fifteen days later. Tochinoshin went kyujo shortly after Kisenosato’s sad but inevitable retirement. Kakuryu did not finish the tournament. The yusho seemed to be given to Hakuho (who at some point had a two win lead), but the dai yokozuna couldn’t stand an injury sustained on the basho’s early days, and did not fight on senshuraku.

The eventual winner ? Sekiwake Tamawashi.

Arguably, the transitional period we’re witnessing began in that very same place. It all started with Tochinoshin’s surprise win, just a couple years ago. It eventually proved to be the first sign of the old guard paving way – before the future ozeki ending up demoted himself.

By the way, when’s the last time a yokozuna won that basho ? Neither in 2017, which saw Kisenosato’s consecration, being promoted from his long time ozeki spotright after the basho. Nor in 2016, where a Japanese won a yusho for the first time in ten years, namely Kotoshogiku.

Always better with Jason’s reactions: ozeki Kotoshogiku (10-0) v yokozuna Hakuho (10-0), Day 11 of Hatsu basho 2016

Hakuho is the last yokozuna to have triumphed there, in 2015. That will make six years, come 2021 !

Natsu basho : contested

Let’s skip Haru basho for now and turn to the May tournament, in Tokyo. It could be named “the contender basho”.

Remember last year’s basho ? It started with Tochinoshin’s apparent revival as an ozekiwake. The Georgian piled up wins before seemingly reinjured himself in the process, and struggling to get his desired ten wins. The story ended with an infamous henka on Kakuryu, which sealed the yusho for Asanoyama, then ranked maegashira 8. Maegashira 8 !

Several awards were presented to Asanoyama – who received instructions on how to collect them, shortly before the ceremony – by no one else than Donald Trump. Has the US president handed several rewards to our next yokozuna ? We will see.

Newly promoted ozeki Asanoyama Hideki

Anyway, another rikishi became an ozeki shortly after winning a yusho in may – namely Terunofuji. Back in 2015, the then man in form benefitted from heya mate Harumafuji’s help to leapfrog Hakuho on quest of the Emperor’s Cup. He was promoted to sport’s second highest rank before July.

Finally, how not to mention Kyokutenho’s unlikely yusho, back in 2012 ? After a slow start – he was 2-3, the Mongolian benefitted from an incredible drop of form of the upper ranks, most notably Kisenosato, who blew up a two win lead after day 11. It all ended with a nervous playoff against Tochiozan.

Nagoya basho : holding its own

Yokozuna record in Nagoya is pretty good. From 2008 to 2017 included, only Hakuho and Harumafuji (twice as an ozeki) have won it.

I wouldn’t call Nagoya a fortress, though, as the 2018 basho was the first one in a while to be a “nokozuna” : Kisenosato did not compete, while Hakuho, Kakuryu (and ozeki Tochinoshin) had pulled out by day 6. Sadly, that feat would repeat several times since then – so eventual winner, Mitakeumi, definitely opened Pandora’s box.

Triumphant in Nagoya: Mitakeumi Hisashi

Last year’s winner was yokozuna Kakuryu, who got his sixth – and currently last – yusho.

Aki basho : melting down

Why is Aki basho melting down ? Since 2005, it has notably been won by Asashoryu (thrice), Harumafuji (twice), Kakuryu (once), and, of course, Hakuho (seven times).

However, last editions have had a fair share of drama.

Back in 2015, Kakuryu – the sole yokozuna competing – benefitted from Terunofuji’s first grave knee injury to pip him on the yusho race, although he got dragged into a playoff by the ozeki.

The 2016 edition came as an enormous surprise as Goeido, then a kadoban ozeki, not only won the yusho, but with a zensho yusho ! The runner up, in the process, was crowd favorite Endo.

With a famous stare down : yokozuna Harumafuji (10-2) v ozeki Goeido (12-0), Day 13 of Aki basho 2016

In 2017, right before the infamous scandal that prompted his retirement, Harumafuji recovered from a three (!) loss deficit to Goeido, who himself melted down, before defeating him twice on senshuraku – once in regulation, and once in the ensuing playoff.

If 2018 occurred with a fine share of normality – Hakuho the winner -, how not mentionning the 2019 edition ? Another nokozuna, with endless contenders : Meisei, Tsurugisho, Okinoumi (who could have clinched the whole thing with a different scenario on senshuraku) all got in the process.

Eventually, the basho gave way to an original playoff between both sekiwake : Takakeisho and Mitakeumi, the winner.

Kyushu basho : not quite, but almost a fortress

Calendar year’s last basho could have been called “yokozuna’s second fortress”, had two of the last three editions not be so dramatic.

As already mentioned, the 2017 edition saw Harumafuji’s regrettable scanda land subsequent retirement. Hakuho emerged from chaos, not without providing his share of controversy, as he openly contested the shimpan’s decision of not calling a matta on Yoshikaze’s bout.

Should have stayed longer : yokozuna Harumafuji

Next year’s tournament provided a very rare occurrence of a komosubi win. I twas Takakeisho’s landmark ozeki run, thanks to a fine 13-2 record, with a bit of help of Mitakeumi, who defeated Takayasu on senshuraku. The ozeki could have sealed a place in a playoff, had he not succumbed to pressure.

Haru basho : yokozuna’s last fortress

Chiyotaikai won this basho in 2003, as an ozeki. Hakuho won it in 2007, but as an ozeki (that was the tricky part of this basho’s statistics !). From 2008 (with the 2011 edition having been cancelled), this basho has only been won by yokozuna.

One small exception to that: Kakuryu won it as an ozeki in 2014. To be more exact, following a 14-1 playoff loss in January, Kakuryu’s 14-1 win in Osaka cemented his yokozuna promotion.

One could say that the 2014 edition saw a half yokozuna winning it ! We can’t close our discussion without mentionning the 2017 edition, which saw Kisenosato’s yokozuna debut and only yusho at the top rank, despite sustaining a career ending injury.

It all started so well… Kisenosato began his yokozuna career with a yusho

In a sense, the Ibaraki born contributed to establish Osaka as the last yokozuna’s fortress.

Hakuho To Retire This Year

If you want to watch the GOAT, plan to do it soon. In a revealing interview, Hakuho announced his intention to retire this year.

He didn’t get more specific about when he would retire but there had been a lot of speculation that his ultimate goal was to be active for this year’s Olympics, where he will be a torch-bearer. Herouth found the tweet below, I stepped back to the original video before the workout video. Herouth’s thread below.

The first video from the original tweet gave some more inside into his motivations, namely to spend more time with his family and to raise a new crop of wrestlers. This past New Year, for example, he spent in Australia with his family…on his new passport as a Japanese national. So for those Tachiai readers in Oz (esp. Sydney) you may have seen him around town.

Sumo debates for 2020 – 1/3

Right after having enjoyed the countdown to the new decade, we’re already about to begin another countdown, till the first honbasho of the year.

Amongst New Year’s traditions, rikishi reveal on television their wishes and expectations for the coming year.

This article may be the occasion for us to discuss specific issues, which may become critical in 2020 or which are already razor sharp.

I’ll give my personal opinion on the matters but everyone should feel free to fuel some awesome debates !

1. Will Takayasu be an ozeki by the end of 2020 ?

Probably the hottest topic currently. Takayasu’s been around for a while – he entered maku’uchi in 2011, and hasn’t had a very long ozeki career – about two years and a half.

Takayasu’s rise was no fluke however, as he produced some great performances, earning kinboshi twice in 2013 and twice in 2014. The Ibaraki-born has a first ozeki run in 2016, but a disappointing 7-8 record in Kyushu wasted fine 11-4 and 10-5 performances.

He returned stronger next year, though, and reached the second highest rank after 11-4, 12-3 and 11-4 performances early in 2017.

Takayasu’s quest for glory undoubtly reached its peak in 2018. Aged 28, he ended up runner up thrice. He narrowly missed a spot in a playoff in the last honbasho of that year.

Last year was much more difficult for him. Before sustaining a serious injury in Nagoya, he produced indifferent 9-6, 10-5 and 9-6 performances. He failed to recover properly from his arm injury, and will start 2020 as an “ozekiwake”.

His repeated training sessions with retired yokozuna Kisenosato – now Araiso oyakata – and new tachi-ai strategy have been criticized among Twitter followers.

In trouble : former ozeki Takayasu

Takayasu has to think his tale isn’t over at the top, as he never lifted the Emperor’s Cup. Turning 30 in February, with an irreversible injury to his arm, will he produce the necessary ten wins to regain his ozeki rank ? If he does, can he maintain his performances during 2020 ?

My prediction : no

2. Will Goeido be an ozeki by the end of 2020 ?

A tricky question. It seems Goeido has been hanging around forever – he produced a noticed 11-4 performance for his maku’uchi debut, back in 2007. He had short stints in san’yaku but spent several years in the maegashira ranks.

The Osaka-native famously began an impressive run at sekiwake in May of 2012, which lasted fourteen tournaments until ozeki promotion after a fine 12-3 performance in Nagoya 2014. His inability to consistently produce strong performances raised doubts about his promotion quest. He got promoted a bit below the common 33 wins standards, with an indifferent 8-7 performance between two 12-3 results.

Goeido has been kadoban nine times (this year’s first tournament included), finished seven tournaments with just eight wins, and followers expected Goeido to produce an anonymous ozeki career.

Being kadoban, Goeido upset the odds during the Aki basho of 2016, winning his only yusho so far with a perfect 15-0 record. Suddenly a yokozuna candidate, he notched just nine wins the following tournament.

Exactly one year after, Goeido wasted a golden opportunity to lift the Emperor’s Cup during the Aki basho again, letting Harumafuji fill a three win deficit before defeating him in the ensuing playoff.

Holding his rank since 2014 : ozeki Goeido

Years 2018 and 2019 were solid albeit unspectacular from Goeido. However, he had to pull out of two of the last three tournaments through injury. Entering 2020 kadoban, aged 33, will Goeido suffer from the weight of the years ? Or will he regain full fitness and enjoy a Kaio-like ozeki career, until the age of 39 ?

My prediction : no

3. Will Asanoyama become an ozeki in 2020 ?

All eyes are watching Asanoyama since he unexpectedly won the May 2019 tournament. After a honourable 7-8 record as then highest ranked maegashira 1, he ended up the year strongly, with 10-5 and 11-4 records. He’ll make his sekiwake debut in 2020.

Officially, Asanoyama is not on an ozeki run – his two last ranks were maegashira 2 and komosubi ; he might also regret not having collected one or two more feasable wins in Kyusho.

Sumo’s next big hope ? Asanoyama Hideki

Nevertheless, Asanoyama’s quest is likely to be eased by the need for new blood at the ozeki ranks – Tochinoshin has been demoted, Takayasu is an uncertain ozekiwake for January, while Takakeisho and Goeido’s recent injury records are no cause for optimism.

Can Asanoyama be promoted as early as March after a tremendous yusho in January ? Or will he simply consolidate his performances, and reach the second highest rank this year ? Or will he fail to meet expactations, as Mitakeumi did so far ?

My prediction : yes

4. Will someone else reach the ozeki rank in 2020 ?

Note : that question does not include Takayasu or Asanoyama.

Abi seems more of a candidate than Mitakeumi, who disappointed again, after clinching his second yusho. Well he get another shot ?

Abi is on the rise, with 8-7, 9-6 and 9-6 records in san’yaku. Can he move up even higher ? His utter aversion for yotsu zumo might prove a stumblingblock, however.

Other candidates would be more original, but also wake up fans from all over the world ! Endo, Daieisho, Ichinojo, Hokutofuji fans and others are welcomed !

 My prediction : no

5. How many yokozuna will remain after 2020 ?

This is a delicate question. Hakuho’s immediate target has long been identified: lasting at least until the Olympics. With his wish about to be granted, the obvious question is: what next ? Hakuho is on the top of almost every record – but is not the oldest rikishi having won a yusho: Kyokutenho achieved that feat, aged 37 years and 8 months.

He also said during the post-basho interview in November that he targeted 50 yushos – he currently has 43.

Many questions remain open: was he serious ? Is that goal actually realistic, given the general state of the field ? Will the ageing yokozuna (he’ll turn 35 in March) manage to hold his form ? Will he stay motivated ?

On a positive note, 2019 has been better for Hakuho than 2018, where he fully competed in just two tournaments. The past year, he competed in “three and a half” tournaments (he pulled out right at the end of the January basho), and won two of them.

Both yokozuna : Hakuho (left) and Kakuryu (right)

About the opposite can be said about Kakuryu’s recent form. After a bright start in 2018, with 11-4, 13-2 and 14-1 records, he had to pull out of part or all of five tournaments. His win in Nagoya of 2019 gave him some respite. Turning 35 in August of this year, will he be able to compete during the whole year ?

My prediction: it’s difficult to answer. Hakuho might decide to retire and Kakuryu to thrive during 2020. But the opposite might also be true, with Hakuho clinching a few more yushos and Kakuryu being unable to challenge properly for the Cup. There’s a chance of seeing one yokozuna retiring and one yokozuna remaining.

A look at the last winners of the most matches in a calendar year

Sumo’s last honbasho of the year 2019 came to an end, and dai-yokozuna Hakuho sealed a record extending 43th Emperor’s Cup, thanks to a rock-solid 14-1 performance. However, Hakuho’s absences thorough the year means another rikishi won the most matches during the current year – namely Asanoyama.

Seeing Asanoyama top the 2019 calendar year might look surprising at first sight; however, a string of great performances meant Asanoyama’s recent success was no fluke. In any case, it gives us the opportunity of a quick review of the past winners of that symbolic award.

Hakuho Sho – 2007 to 2015 ; 2017

The road to the top

It’s hard to say something that has not already been said about the GOAT. A few figures may well show how meteoric his rise to the top has been :

– Hakuho entered maezumo in March 2001, and entered Makuuchi in May 2004.

– It took him just four tournaments to enter san’yaku by the year 2005, after impressive 12-3, 11-4, 8-7 and 12-3 records.

– He became an ozeki in May 2006, and his ozeki results were: 14-1, 13-2, 8-7, kyujo, 10-5, 13-2, 15-0. Woah.

Hakuho getting his first yusho after defeating Miyabiyama in a playoff, in May 2006

Hakuho won most bouts during a calendar year from year 2007, as Asashoryu was still the other active yokozuna, exchanging fabulous bouts in the process.

Hakuho’s last bout of the May 2007 basho – before yokozuna promotion

However, the new yokozuna benefited from Asashoryu’s issues (he was suspended during the two last honbashos of 2007) and injuries (missing all or part of the three last bashos in 2008), during his late career. Still, Hakuho had to surrender three bashos during that period to his great rival.

Asashoryu wrestled free of absences during the whole year 2009, but his presence did not stop Hakuho from collecting stratospheric numbers, with 14-1, 15-0, 14-1, 14-1, 14-1 and 15-0 records.

After Asashoryu’s retirement in 2010, Hakuho entered a period of utter dominance, notching 86 wins out of 90 in 2009 and 2010. He collected « only » 66 wins in 2011, but let’s not forget that the March tournament had been cancelled.

 Hakuho’s final bout against Asashoryu in January 2010

Hakuho continued his dominance during the next years; however, numbers tend to be a bit deceptive as the dai-yokozuna saw the emergence of other rivals.

Hakuho piled up 76 wins out of the 90 possible in 2012, which is quite impressive. However, Hakuho’s dominance wasn’t absolute. Below his best, he secured just ten wins in May, and had to surrender the Cup twice to Harumafuji, who became that year a yokozuna alongside the great man.

Hakuho’s loss to Harumafuji in Aki 2012 sealing Harumafuji’s promotion

2013 was another great year for him with a mouth-watering 82 wins. But it’s worth mentionning another great rival’s performances: then ozeki Kisenosato finished the four last bashos of the year as runner-up. He came mightily close from beating the dai-yokozuna on day 14 of the May tournament, which would probably have cemented a first yusho for one of Hakuho’s sternest challengers.

Hakuho’s numbers remained excellent in 2014, even if that year saw fellow Mongolian Kakuryu’s rise to yokozuna. The dai-yokozuna piled up 81 wins. That year was the last to see him get more than 70 victories during a single year.

Hakuho’s loss to Kakuryu in Osaka 2014 which saw Kakuryu’s own promotion

Hakuho won again the most bouts in 2015 (66), but had to pull out of the Aki basho, which saw Kakuryu clinch his first yusho as a yokozuna. His dominance has been strongly contested by the Isegahama pair, composed by Harumafuji (who won the Kyushu basho, and helped Terunofuji clinch the May basho) and Terunofuji (with Harumafuji’s mirror achievements).

Injury issues meant we saw a rikishi other than Hakuho winning the most bout during 2016, namely Kisenosato.

Hakuho returned to the top of that chart in 2017, albeit by a mere 56 victories, the lowest he ever got while achieving that feat. Still not at his best, he paved way for Kisenosato, who won the first two bashos of the year. The rest of the year was more successful, winning in March, May and November (after seeing Harumafuji retiring from his duties).

What happened next ?

Recurring injuries limited Hakuho’s further appearances. He set up the Olympics in 2020 as his main target, and there’s speculation whether he’ll retire after. However, his weakened body nevertheless put its fingers on the Emperor’s Cup in Aki 2018, March and Kyushu 2019, and proved everyone that the greatest rikishi of all time is still very much present.

We’ll focus next time on the winner of the most bout during the year 2016 : Kisenosato.