Congratulations Hakuho Retirement Contest Winner!

Harumafuji’s Danpatsushiki (photo: Nicola)

The Tachiai Team would like to thank all of the entrants for the Hakuho Retirement Contest. You all had great memories of the GOAT. It was a very difficult decision but Congratulations to Shusekiyama as the winner! And we’d especially like to thank the folks at BuySumoTickets for sponsoring the contest and providing the tickets. Unfortunately, Andy did not win the Billion Dollar Powerball (as he didn’t even hit a single number on either ticket) so he couldn’t make everyone a winner and throw the giant “party to end all parties” at the Kokugikan, like he wanted. It would have been great. He’d have his shamisen, a bottle of whiskey, and a bottomless pot of chanko…but maybe some other time.

That was a lot of fun, and with Japan and the Sumo Kyokai more open from their Covid-induced slumber, we hope to be able to bring more events and contests to you all in the near future. So watch this space.

Yutakayama Retires from Sumo

In somewhat of a surprise announcement, the Sumo Association announced today that Juryo rikishi Yutakayama of Tokitsukaze beya has decided to retire.

A veteran of six and a half years in the sport at professional level, Yutakayama will be well known to readers of Tachiai for his significant presence in the top division over the past several years.

Yutakayama burst onto the scene as a college recruit in 2016, arriving as a Sandanme tsukedashi on account of his collegiate achievements alongside future Ozeki Asanoyama. Then named Oyanagi (his last name), it looked at the outset of his career that the powerful pusher-thruster could provide a foil to Asanoyama’s (also then fighting under his real name Ishibashi) yotsu-zumo techniques.

Indeed, Yutakayama made swift work of the lower divisions and arrived in Makuuchi in just his 8th tournament. Upon arrival, he took a very notable shikona, reflective of the hopes pinned on him with respect to the huge achievements of other Yutakayamas of Tokitsukaze beya of generations past. As a prospect, his abilities were easy to dream on: a slew of oshi-zumo enthusiasts including Onosho and Takakeisho also arrived in the top division in 2017, but Yutakayama’s greater physicality marked him out as a special talent and someone who may rise quickly to challenge those in the joi and san’yaku ranks.

After a stop-start beginning to his top division tenure in which he yo-yo’d between the divisions, Yutakayama gained his footing in the upper tier of sumo. At 2018’s Nagoya basho he achieved his finest performance, coming runner-up to yusho winner Mitakeumi by a single loss at 12-3, and also notching the only special prize of his career. A tour de force performance in total, the basho was punctuated by Yutakayama’s Day 14 win against Ozeki Takayasu in their first ever meeting, and bettered the following day on senshuraku by a stunning rally against the champion Mitakeumi. Yutakayama came back twice from the bales, defeating the star of the tournament with a hooking inner thigh throw which he deployed at the third attempt in a battle and manner of victory that was not typical of his sumo style.

However, injuries were to prove too much for Yutakayama to manage, and twice sapped his runs to the joi. He never made it to san’yaku, topping out at Maegashira 1, and suffering heavy losing records on his trips to the uppermost heights of the rank and file. While it seemed his infusion into the top division would provide a challenge to Shodai’s position as top dog at Tokitsukaze beya, we never got to see Yutakayama in a position to display his abilities consistently at the upper end of the division due to the undoubted toll that his injuries took on his ability to commit power to his oshi-zumo skill set. His intai at the age of 29 is perhaps a reflection of knowing that the game was up, as he looked overmatched even in the lower reaches of Makuuchi in recent years, and most recently suffered a heavy double digit makekoshi in Juryo in Fukuoka.

While his departure feels premature, for many sumo fans it will feel difficult to take simply because it felt like it wasn’t that long ago that he could have been projected as a force in the sport. I remember tracking him as a prospect and while it’s one feeling to see a long-time top division star or personal favourite leave the sport for blue-jacketed security detail, it’s another thing to see a top talent who we can remember in a chon-mage – or even zanbara – departing before his time might otherwise have come. Indeed, the Sumo Association normally will reference as part of the intai announcement whether a retiring sekitori has taken up an elder name, and while Yutakayama qualified for a kabu on account of the duration of his service, we can infer that he will not be staying in the organisation and will be leaving sumo entirely.

In the immediate future, with interest to banzuke prognosticators, Yutakayama’s intai and the swift announcement following the basho and ahead of the banzuke meeting will open an additional place in Juryo for the 2023 Hatsu basho. My prediction is that Ms5 Hakuyozan will take his place, although I will defer to our own lksumo for how this impacts his already comprehensive analysis of the January banzuke.

An announcement as to Yutakayama’s future was not immediately given but we can expect more details in the coming days. Whatever it may entail, we wish the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Tokitsukaze-beya alum the best of luck in his “second life!”

Shohozan: A Brawler We Will Miss

We’ve often talked about our uncertainty of the legacy and achievements we will see from the current crop of sekitori. A large part of the reason for that uncertainty is that we were blessed by a group of rikishi for much of the previous decade which provided us with plenty of undercard excitement and intrigue. When someone like Bruce or Andy knocks out 21 previews of matches every day over the 15 days of a basho, generally the hope is that there are 21 matches that are going to be worth writing about.

I’m not saying there hasn’t always been the odd M12 vs M15 dud. Of course, throughout the years, there are matches every day that just flat-out aren’t exciting or interesting. But for many fans who got into sumo during the 2010s, they could be thankful for the guys up and down the makuuchi rankings who put on a hell of a show every time they crossed the tawara. One of those, without question, was Shohozan, who announced his retirement this past week.

The storylines that permeate most tournaments are: who’s going to win the yusho? Who’s going to be the next Ozeki/Yokozuna? Who’s this new top division debutant and how is he going to fare?

But it’s a real credit to the Shohozans of the world, the Yoshikazes of the world, the Chiyonokunis of the world (yes I know, he’s still going… kinda) that there’s a lot of sumo that doesn’t necessarily generate the headlines that inspire NHK to invest in luxurious half-an-hour-long special programming, but that still captures the excitement and the essence of what sumo is. Sumo that makes the whole of the product, and not just the top six bouts of the day, worth our time.

I’m not going to sit here drunk on nostalgia and pretend that the retirement of Shohozan gives me #allthefeels that I had for the retirement of Ikioi. Shohozan wasn’t my favourite rikishi. But he might have been yours. And his permanent scowl on screen, and his unmistakeable all-out brawler style cast him as a vital character in the recent, if now-bygone, era of this centuries-old saga that we all can’t stop watching.

Here, in a raucous – if half full – Kokugikan (calling back to the times in which you could go to Japan to watch sumo and the atmosphere was amazing), a fan captured Shohozan’s first kinboshi from 2013. It was the first of five in total and three which he took from from Yokozuna Harumafuji:

His stern on-dohyo demeanour always seemed all the more stark in contrast – to my poorly educated ears anyway – to the apparently eloquent and articulate way in which he spoke off the dohyo. In a world of mumbling Endos, here’s a guy who looked like he may go on to really do things in a future career in the kyokai.

This made it all the more shocking to sumo fans when, after a string of popular sekitori of the last decade had seemingly little trouble succeeding to their oyakata careers, the kyokai announced simply that Shohozan had retired with no mention of the elder name he would be taking. Because he wouldn’t be taking one.

SumoForum’s Akinomaki quotes a news article from PostSeven postulating that he was unable to remain in sumo due to a poor relationship with his oyakata, and that he will move on to a career in the food & beverage industry in his second life (and that the former Matsugane/Nishonoseki oyakata, former Ozeki Wakashimazu, preferred Ichiyamamoto as the eventual successor to his stock). This is a real shame if it is true, with Shohozan having been the oyakata’s finest product as a shisho. [updated to add: Akinomaki now reports (via ZakZak and recommended for the full quote) that Shohozan stated at his intai press conference that he did not have an intention to remain as a coach anyway.]

But we can’t possibly know or cast a value judgement on what goes on behind the scenes. You may already think I’ve spilled too many words in an opinion piece eulogising the career of someone who posted a 46% win rate in the top division and never found success in five tries at his career high rank of Komusubi.

Shohozan’s best wasn’t really about winning or losing though, at least not to me. It was about his contribution to enthralling battles, such as his epic late career encounters with Enho, or this bloody tsuppari special from Aki 2017 that ends in a loss to Yoshikaze (courtesy of Jason’s channel):

The man himself would surely prefer this example of a signature victory, his tsuppari giving way to the oh-so-satisfying bodyslam into the gyoji of Chiyonokuni at Haru 2012 (video courtesy of Maarike11):

The other day when reading quotes of interviews that Kintamayama had transcribed, I noted that rikishi are often reported with a desire “to go all out.” I asked our friend what the Japanese term for this actually was, and he said it’s “Ishoukenmei” (いしょうけんめい), and used in almost every interview to the press by rikishi. Lots of them may say it, but perhaps few actually deliver on the concept in the way that Shohozan did. Cheers to him for that, and best of luck to the man from Fukuoka in his second life.

End of an Era: Hakuho to Retire

This is commentary by Andy. The opinions expressed here are mine, and mine alone. Early this afternoon, while I was toying around with the kensho data Herouth shared, this tweet came across my timeline:

I had thought I would have a few more months to prepare for this. Even with the knee injury, he had just won a zensho-yusho. How can we have a transition era if the heir apparent, or any of the up-and-coming generation of wrestlers, cannot defeat him?

Surely he’d show up in Kyushu and, with the benefit of an extra month’s rest, come back and tear things up again, right? But maybe this had been put in motion before the tournament. It gives a little different context to Mainoumi’s suggestion of much the same thing. He may not have known, but others knew. There would be no coming back.

So, as the decade of the 2020s is prone to do, plans get scuppered. I mean, he was supposed to retire months ago, after a glorious Olympic Games. Then COVID threw those plans out the window. He even got COVID and his senpai died of it days before he returned to the ring in July. Then, this past month, his deshi got it, and after another positive test in the stable, the whole group was forced to go kyujo. Add to that the fact that his knees are working on their own timeline, and well, the Boss has decided to hang up his mawashi.

And who can blame him? He comes back and takes an historic 45th yusho, surely with the memory of Kobo on his mind, and when he shouted in celebration he was widely criticized. At this point, I figure he’s just grown weary of the controversies. I mean the “Banzai” controversy was inexplicable. But my favorite was the Harumafuji henka controversy.

Key Questions

Anyway, what’s next? We will surely find out in the coming days and report as the details come out. We know he will become an oyakata and run his own stable. Will it be Miyagino after his stable master retires? As @NaturalEG pointed out to me on Twitter, he owns a separate Magaki kabu. He’s also got the right to use the Hakuho name for five years. Regardless of the name above the door we know he already has a solid crop of recruits ready to tear things up in November, including the new recruit, Raiho.

And what of the Kyushu banzuke? The timing of his retirement — before the banzuke committee meeting to create it — likely means there’s an extra slot in Makuuchi, and therefore an extra slot in Juryo. As Leonid predicts, Kotoyusho might have reason to celebrate.

Squint and you can almost tell there are four former Yokozuna (counting Hakuho) and one current Yokozuna (not Hakuho) on that dohyo.

When will he have his danpatsushiki (haircut ceremony)? There’s quite the logjam of long-haired retirees and the greatest Yokozuna will want to retire in front of a full Kokugikan. Maybe the extra time will give him a chance to do a bit of PR and shift his reputation from the bad-boy of his active days to great coach and recruiter.

Time to Reminisce

Most importantly, however, now is the time to remember his remarkable career. Many fans only know of the Hakuho Era. Whether you define the start as 2007, when he became Yokozuna, or 2010 and the end of Asashoryu’s reign, his 14 years at the top rank of this sport is unchallenged. His 45 Top Division Titles? No one else comes close.

This era has seen its highs and lows, for Hakuho and for the sport itself. Early on, the sport was troubled by yaocho/match-fixing scandals, notably the cancelled March 2011 tournament. Bullying and power-harassment scandals cropped up throughout but Hakuho has been a constant figure throughout, and he helped during the recovery from the catastrophic earthquake, which occurred on his 26th birthday.

As it will be for many fans, I am thrilled to have enjoyed this time. While I first enjoyed watching sumo during the 1990’s with the rise of Akebono, my wife and I attended our first tournament during the turbulent yaocho scandal. The Kyokai put on an exhibition tournament and we decided to check it out. It was a great experience live and I encourage all readers to go watch when they get a chance. Hopefully we’ll see zabuton thrown again, one day.

The picture above was taken using my terrible phone camera when we saw the Nagoya basho. Harumafuji won that one with a thrilling victory over Hakuho on senshuraku. Terunofuji accompanied him on the back of the car for the yusho parade. Remember those? Well, Hakuho is up there, sandwiched between Hakkaku and Kisenosato. The electricity in the atmosphere was palpable, even more than the notorious Nagoya heat. It’s that thrill that I feel every time he got up on the dohyo. Even though I’ve half grown accustomed to his absence over the past year, I will miss that energy.

I will close with my favorite Hakuho memory and my least favorite memory. I enjoyed watching Hakuho for the strength and the immense skill he demonstrated as he dominated nearly every opponent he faced. His skill was only really challenged by Asashoryu and, like many others, I wish that rivalry could have continued for quite a bit longer.

Despite Jason’s stated disappointment with the result, I enjoyed Hakuho’s cheek with his decision to henka Harumafuji on senshuraku in March 2016. Kisenosato was waiting in the wings, hoping for a playoff and a chance to claim his first title. But Hakuho put his hands in Harumafuji’s face to force his eyes closed for a split second as he ducked out of the way. It was brilliant. Even Harumafuji saw the humor in it as he’s laughing while flying off the dohyo.

Henka are always controversial and no henka is quite the same. Nor is it always obvious when a henka actually happens. Harumafuji’s sidestep-and-spin tachiai is an example. But this henka from Hakuho, for me, anyway, demonstrated that for all of his skill, and all of his strength, he’s sure got a lot of head games to play, too. I abhor expectation, stereotypes, and entitlement and that move – the henka – breaks boundaries…until it becomes predictable, like it does sometimes with Aminishiki, Chiyoshoma, or Ishiura. When it’s reserved for those times that no one expects it, it is wonderful.

It’s for that reason one of the biggest self-inflicted wounds he suffered was after losing to Yoshikaze in 2017, thinking he deserved a mono-ii. Everyone in the sumo world was saying, “take your bow, and come back tomorrow.” One of the best things about sumo is the sportsmanship. Maybe this is where I feel entitled. The defeated rikishi rises to the dohyo accepts his loss, shows respect to the victor, and comes back to fight again. Of all the little controversies through the years, this was the one where I still cringe.

Looking to the Future

The next chapter of Hakuho’s career will not be all roses, I’m sure. But it will be great and I’m eager to see what happens. We’re in the midst of that transition period Bruce has long talked about, and this will be the line of demarcation for many. What will the era of Terunofuji look like?