Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?

Paula Cole music video ©WMG. Hakuho photo courtesy of Tachiai photographer Nicola. Crude Photoshop edit by the author.

Where is my kinboshi?
Where are the zabuton?
Where even is the shikiri-sen?
Where have all the cowboys gone?

… I didn’t think the day was ever going to happen when I channeled Paula Cole in a post about sumo either.

The performance of Yokozuna Hakuho has been much discussed through the first week of the tournament. Before the basho, I posted here and went through each of his likely opponents, and looking at what type of fight they might be able to put up against The Boss.

I have to say, maybe I gave them all too much credit.

While the first couple days of the tournament were high on value – and also the excitement of seeing high stakes matches at the end of the day, from the first day of a tournament – by and large we haven’t really seen what I expected to see.

Namely, I thought more rikishi would have smelled the blood in the water.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that Hakuho is nowhere near 100%. One of the most used cliches in sumo during the later Hakuho era is that Hakuho at 70% is going to beat pretty much everyone. And, after seven days, he’s 7-0.

While Endo hobbled out of the tournament himself, noted kinboshi thieves like Ichinojo haven’t posed much of a problem at all for the Yokozuna. I actually applaud Tobizaru’s approach to try something different and confusing. The match itself (see above with updated soundtrack courtesy of Herouth) was an incredible spectacle, and highly entertaining. Like most of you, I literally did not know what was going to happen. But in the cold light of day, the likelihood is that the rank and filer only served to annoy the Yokozuna, who eventually, authoritatively, tossed him out with disgust.

Herouth reported a comment from Isegahama which I think is important to present here:

The problem is, you can only beat what’s in front of you. If the opponents aren’t really interested in doing overwhelming sumo themselves, you can’t, with a somewhat freshly surgically repaired knee, put your body at risk for no reason. Hakuho has, most of the time, simply defused the opponent and moved on. For sure, there has been the odd scare. He’s got away with a couple. Meisei, for one, really went into the match with the intention to win. Meisei is someone who is going to be in san’yaku a lot. Meisei has a winning mentality. We like Meisei.

But many of Hakuho’s other opponents seem to be failing to grasp the scale of the moment. Many Yokozuna throughout history have been put down by an up-and-comer. The future Takanohana putting down an aging Chiyonofuji is sumo folklore. Even if he himself didn’t ascend to the title of Yokozuna until sometime later, it was a pivotal moment. Hakuho’s opponents look more like they’re fighting him for the first time rather than potentially the last time.

To know what the Yokozuna is truly made of these days, we want to see rikishi going full bore. If you’re a Kotoeko, who faces Hakuho tonight (possibly by the time you have read this), this is a career highlight moment. Possibly the most used verb in sumo is ganbarimasu. More rikishi should do it.

At this stage, with Asanoyama and Takakeisho out of the basho, and Takayasu and Shodai looking to be very out of sorts, it’s hard to see anyone other than noted summertime streak-killer Mitakeumi putting dirt on the dai-Yokozuna going into the presumed showdown with Terunofuji on senshuraku. And while I make the match with Mitakeumi a coin flip, and the Sekiwake has put up a decent score, he also hasn’t been in the best form. While Hakuho can certainly be beaten, he’ll still be the nailed on favourite for every other match.

Which leaves, perhaps, the name the fans want to see most between now and then: Hoshoryu. While I don’t see a whole lot technically in his sumo even to this point that differentiates him from compatriot Kiribayama, what he has seemed to do is grow enormously in belief and intent. He is coming to his matches with a winning mentality that was absent in past tournaments. The hatred of losing is becoming visible. Until such time as Hakuho sees Mitakeumi and Terunofuji, should this matchup happen it could possibly be one of the most intriguing bouts of the final week, and also the opportunity to provide the type of storyline that has underpinned sumo for generations.

To be clear, I am not rooting for anyone to put dirt on the Yokozuna. Far from it. But I do want to see the best of what he can do, in this moment, now. While Isegahama is correct to say that Hakuho’s sumo has not been dominant Yokozuna sumo, the idea of Hakuho tailoring his game plan to his opponent is nothing new: he’s been doing it for the past several years and arguably it’s why he can still compete today. Isegahama – of all people – should know from his coaching efforts over the past few years that if an incredible talent needs to manage their sumo to what their physical state can handle for the sake of their career and the sport, it’s better to do so. The past year has been incredibly entertaining. But it has also shown us somewhat conclusively that at this moment, Sumo will not be better for the absence of Hakuho from the dohyo.

Hakuho and Terunofuji should be held to different standards. One is the Yokozuna and whether or not you believe he is the greatest, he’s at the very least in the conversation for greatest of all time. Terunofuji is an Ozeki with an incredible story who is attempting to become a Yokozuna. But we should be honest that we have been celebrating Terunofuji over the past year not because he has been going all out, but because he has learned a new type of sumo to overcome his medical limitations and make best use of his incredible physical gifts. He has shown the mental agility of a Yokozuna. I don’t believe that Hakuho, one of the sport’s great improvisers and thinkers, should lose credit for relying on his mind to overcome the defects of his body now.

Questions have been posed on Twitter about whether we should have expected more of Hakuho’s week 1 opposition. I think the answer is yes, but I think the analysis will need to wait for another post, maybe after the tournament. And to be clear, I don’t think Terunofuji’s been made to work even as hard as in past tournaments either. The one thing we do know is that it has to get more difficult – for both men riding a zensho – from here. If nothing else, that makes the second week one to enjoy. Saddle up.

When A Man Wants Takarafuji to Win The Yusho

OK, so I’ve said it, and it’s out there. There’s no taking it back now! Look, it even makes me uncomfortable. I’m normally a fan of rikishi who do exciting sumo, going flying around the dohyo, nobody knowing where they may end up, even if it’s all the way to the cabaret club. Takarafuji, at face value, is sort of the antithesis of that.

It’s not that I dislike his sumo style, in the way that I do someone like Aoiyama’s: a one dimensional, aesthetically displeasing, attack. It’s more that on the surface, it’s just kind of the equivalent of Al Gore’s macarena. Normally, if asked if you’d like to see him do it again, you’ve already forgotten what it was and moved on to the next bout.

But that line of thinking ignores the deft art to the Aomori man’s defensive sumo. A lot of times, to the untrained eye, he’s just standing still, eventually suffocating or draining the life out of his opponents. He’s raised his level this tournament, and what has heretofore appeared to be the stalemating of any and all comers has transformed into an anti-terror bomb disposal unit. It’s the Isegahama veteran, in these crazy pandemic times, methodically clipping the wires, defusing, and safely disposing of any dangerous materials between him and the kensho. Perhaps no win summed this up as much as Day 9’s stunning reversal of Okinoumi’s seemingly unstoppable advantage at the tawara.

He’s a big man, not in the category of an Ichinojo, who you think of when you consider a rikishi who can rely on being “immovable object” as a strategy. In the absence of one defining all-around physical characteristic, he’s just strong all over.

Why do I want him to win? Without question it’s been a strong couple of years in terms of veteran journeyman yusho champs. While Takarafuji has never excelled in the san’yaku ranks, certainly there’s an argument to be made he brings more to the table than a Tokushoryu, and while other one-note rikishi have proven triumphant with their one-great skill – see Tochinoshin, Takakeisho – those Ozeki past and present have done so offensively. It’s arguable that we haven’t really seen a yusho champ who can lay claim to being a defensive specialist of any type since Kisenosato (there’s an argument for Kakuryu, but I see him less of a defensive specialist and more of someone with a good counterattacking Plan B). While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – attacking sumo – like in many sports, it’s more thrilling and attractive – there’s a place at the top table for technicians as well.

The other element is: who else? Sumo does not need another Maegashira 17 yusho champion, so someone please take care of Shimanoumi – or at least stop giving him Juryo 4 ranked opponents. Takakeisho has been impressive, but I still feel it’s too early and too unlikely that he can mount the run that would lead to him becoming a convincing Yokozuna, and I’m hopeful someone (anyone) can step up to be a worthy challenger in that race in the meantime. If he does become Yokozuna, I want it to be because he actually had to take down Ozeki and Yokozuna in consecutive basho… not because literally all of them were kyujo.

As for Terunofuji, it’s hard to argue that he wouldn’t be a more thrilling victor than Takarafuji. While there are the inevitable fitness-derived weaknesses in his sumo, there’s no question he has been overwhelming when he’s been on. And either would be a credit to their mutual stable master.

Isegahama himself (former Yokozuna Asahifuji) has proven more than adept at scouting and developing waves of successful rikishi. We’re about to see yet another makuuchi debutant from the stable next basho, as Midorifuji prepares to make his bow. And yet, despite the incredible work he’s done over the years, as he enters his final act as an oyakata it would be some achievement to see him also develop a champion of yet another style. One that in contrast to Harumafuji’s energy and chaos, and Terunofuji’s power, simply displayed unbeatable fundamentals.

Now that I’ve said it, he’ll probably lose today and lose out. But for once, I’m cheering for Takarafuji.

Heya Power Rankings: Hatsu-Haru 19

Tamawashi Yusho Parade
Riding on the back of glory

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the Tachiai Heya Power Rankings! The exciting news is that we’re rethinking the way that we do this ranking system. Andy has really pushed things forward in terms of data vizualisation on the site in recent weeks and we are thinking about how we can apply those features to give more detailed information not only about stables but about their performance.

Since we started the ranking system, we’ve been looking primarily at – and scoring – the stables based on performance by sekitori (those rikishi competing in the top two, salaried, ranks). But I think perhaps there are ways we can expand this, especially if we’re using bigger data sets. What do you think, Tachiai readers of this feature? Should we expand beyond the top two divisions? We’ve done this feature for two years now, so it’s right that we should continually try to make it better.

That’s a whole lot of talking without a whole lot of chart action. Here’s the chart following Hatsu 2019 and going into the Haru basho:

Heya Power Rankings - Post-Hatsu 2019

This is the first chart that doesn’t reference Takanohana-beya in any capacity since we started. Here’s the breakdown in the ever popular Billboard-style Top 20 format:

  1. (+17) Kataonami. 95 points (+80)
  2. (+-) Tagonoura. 70 points (-25)
  3. (-2) Chiganoura. 63 points (-45)
  4. (+-) Sakaigawa. 60 points (+7)
  5. (+1) Miyagino. 49 points (+10)
  6. (-1) Oitekaze. 46 points (+3)
  7. (-4) Kasugano. 45 points (-15)
  8. (+-) Izutsu. 35 points (+5)
  9. (+-) Kokonoe. 31 points (+4)
  10. (**) Kise. 28 points (+17)
  11. (-4) Oguruma. 25 points (-10)
  12. (+2) Dewanoumi. 25 points (+5)
  13. (+3) Hakkaku. 25 points (+5)
  14. (-4) Tokitsukaze. 20 points (-7)
  15. (-3) Isenoumi. 20 points (-3)
  16. (+3) Isegahama. 20 points (+5)
  17. (-6) Takadagawa. 18 points (-5)
  18. (+2) Tomozuna. 18 points (+5)
  19. (-6) Sadogatake. 15 points (-8)
  20. (-3) Onomatsu. 13 points (-7)

(legend: ** = new entry, +- = no movement, tiebreaker 1: higher position in the previous chart, tiebreaker 2: highest ranked rikishi on the banzuke)

Analysis

The one-sekitori stables are subject to more profound swings owing to the consistency of their single salaried rikishi. Before the promotion of the Onami brothers, Arashio-beya was a stable that would bounce all over the rankings owing to Sokokurai’s wildly variant top division performances. Kataonami, meanwhile, has always been a typically consistent stable as Tamawashi has put up consistently good-not-great records around the lower-san’yaku and topmost Maegashira ranks. That obviously all changed with his first yusho, which ultimately vaults the stable for the first time to the top of our charts. It’s an almost completely dormant stable but for the culinarily-talented Mongolian pusher-thruster, strangely having produced about as many oyakata as active rikishi.

Chiganoura-beya is relieved of top spot, but holds 3rd position on the back of Takakeisho‘s jun-yusho, as well as the number of rikishi still with the stable following the zero-scoring retirement of Takanoiwa. Takanofuji‘s promotion to Juryo next time out will make up the numbers, and should Takakeisho complete his Ozeki push, the stable will remain a dominant force among our rankings (as currently composed).

One Ozeki-led stable which may be set for a tumble from its usual place around the summit will be Tagonoura-beya. Our model gives credit for banzuke placement and only gives partial docked points for going kyujo mid-tourney, so Kisenosato‘s retirement will be reflected in the next version of the rankings when the stable is no longer fielding a Yokozuna. That said, Takayasu has done his level-best to consistently grab Kisenosato’s old jun-yusho “bridesmaid” mantle. With little hope of sekitori reinforcements at the stable in the near term, Tagonoura likely becomes a Top 5 or 7 rather than Top 3 heya by our figures from here on out.

Let’s have a shout for Kise-beya, which, owing to Shimanoumi‘s Juryo yusho finds itself back up in mid-table. It’s long been a perplexing stable, as they’ve fielded by the largest number of sekitori in the history of this rankings rundown (ten), yet never seem to have any rikishi capable of mounting a prolonged run in the points-grabbing realms of makuuchi, especially since the downfall of Ura. Still, the stable – as ever – has a number of rikishi not only in Juryo (including the bizarrely resurgent Gagamaru) but also in the makushita joi. While Shimanoumi will be the best placed of the six Kise-sekitori to make the move to Makuuchi owing to his position at J1, the stable has no fewer than sixteen makushita rikishi this time out (including the Sandanme-bound Ura), including six ranked Ms10 or higher. All rikishi obviously come with different ability levels and pedigrees, but if the stable can’t see their Juryo rikishi up into Makuuchi and their Makushita class further up the promotion chain this year, it would be awfully perplexing.

Will brighter days be ahead for Isegahama-beya, which now starts to move back up the listings in a meaningful way? It’s tough to say. Old man Aminishiki has taken a nasty fall down the banzuke and it’s yet to be seen whether he can – against all odds again – get up. At Juryo 11 it would be easy to predict that like many before him, a significant make-koshi would send him into the barber’s chair. However, Terutsuyoshi will look to consolidate a place in Makuuchi this basho, and with Takarafuji having grabbed his first kachi-koshi in yonks, and reinforcements on the way from Makushita soon, the stable may yet return to its powerhouse days as a top 10 (or better) heya by our reckoning soon.

One thing that made this rundown a bit more unique is that usually we see quite a bit of turnover, especially between places 7-20, but this time out, the chart stayed – with the notable exception of Tamawashi’s Kataonami-beya – remarkably stable. This echoed my initial gut feeling that there weren’t too many shocks in the new banzuke. As for the next rundown, should Juryo newcomer Kiribayama stay on the dohyo for 15 days, then Michinoku-beya will score their first ever points in our tally. But, as stated above, we’ll be having a look at how to revamp and improve the rankings after the Haru basho.

Heya Power Rankings: Kyushu 18-Hatsu 19

Takakeisho & Takanosho - Takakeisho Victory Parade

It’s time for everyone’s favorite chart that just about makes it to print in time to become fully obsolete: the heya power rankings!

Before the Kyushu basho, we know that there would be one massive effect on the Power Rankings: Takanohana announced that he was dissolving his stable and all of the stable’s rikishi would be moving over to Chiganoura-beya.

Chiganoura had only recently even made an impact on the top two divisions since Takanosho’s promotion to Juryo, and subsequently Makuuchi, and so hadn’t really been a figure in this series before. However, with Takagenji, Takanoiwa (or so we thought), and budding tadpole superstar Takakeisho moving over to Chiganoura-beya, it was clear that the stable would start to put itself at least among Kokonoe, Sadogatake and other mid-level mainstays of our rankings list.

What we did not anticipate was that the stable would rocket up to the levels of powerhouse stables like Miyagino (3 sekitori including one dai-yokozuna), Kasugano (epic year with big ozeki promotion and yusho champ), and Tagonoura (perpetually injured yokozuna plus serial jun-yusho bridesmaid). How far did the stable rise? Let’s check out the big chart:

Heya Power Rankings - Kyushu 18 Hatsu 19

And now this list in the usual Top 20 format:

  1. (**) Chiganoura. 108 points (+98)
  2. (+1) Tagonoura. 95 points (+15)
  3. (+1) Kasugano. 60 points (+4)
  4. (-2) Sakaigawa. 53 points (-32)
  5. (+1) Oitekaze. 43 points (even)
  6. (-5) Miyagino. 39 points (-65)
  7. (+9) Oguruma. 35 points (+18)
  8. (-3) Izutsu. 30 points (-15)
  9. (-2) Kokonoe. 27 points (-14)
  10. (+7) Tokitsukaze. 27 points (+12)
  11. (+2) Takadagawa. 23 points (+1)
  12. (+2) Isenoumi. 23 points (+3)
  13. (+6) Sadogatake. 23 points (+8)
  14. (-4) Dewanoumi. 20 points (-5)
  15. (-4) Minato. 20 points (-5)
  16. (-4) Hakkaku. 20 points (-2)
  17. (**) Onomatsu. 20 points (+12)
  18. (+-) Kataonami. 15 points (even)
  19. (+1) Isegahama. 15 points (+1)
  20. (-5) Tomozuna. 13 points (-4)

(legend: ** = new entry, +- = no movement, tiebreaker 1: higher position in the previous chart, tiebreaker 2: highest ranked rikishi on the banzuke)

Analysis

We thought Chiganoura would become a big player in these rankings, but Takakeisho‘s (somewhat) unprecedented yusho and accompanying special prizes meant that the stable vaulted straight to the top in its inaugural posting. We’d expect this to cool down next time, as it looks like a repeat from the young starlet is a big ask. However, should be continue to push for Ozeki promotion, some special prizes would certainly be on offer. Takanoiwa‘s retirement will also take a small bite out of the stable’s points tally in our listing.

Tagonoura somewhat appropriately reclaims the #2 spot as its two sekitori have done on so many occasions, with Takayasu‘s jun-yusho more than offsetting the yokozuna’s partially kyujo and kachi-koshi-less tournament. It should be said that like the banzuke committee, this chart does also give Kisenosato more credit than his fellow yokozuna just for turning up.

Sakaigawa shifts down owing to the jun-yusho switch from Goeido to Takayasu, and the former’s partially kyujo tournament (in spite of his kachi-koshi) didn’t help matters, otherwise it would have been a closer run race for #3. Oguruma meanwhile vaults up the listings owing to Juryo-debutant Tomokaze‘s yusho – but unlike in previous occasions where a juryo yusho practically guaranteed a drop in the next rankings, there’s a good reason to believe Oguruma could hold serve with Tomokaze now the favorite for the Juryo-yusho race again, and Yago making his makuuchi debut at Hatsu to complement Yoshikaze‘s somewhat fortuitous placing just outside the likely joi-line.

Otherwise, further down the listings, it’s much of a muchness. Miyagino‘s big drop of 65 points is exactly what happens when a yusho-winning (+50) yokozuna doesn’t show up (-10), never mind get a winning record (+5). Dewanoumi and Minato lose points as both sekiwake came up short of a kachi-koshi.

Kokonoe was the most disappointing stable to end 2018, with its six sekitori posting a miserable 31-59 record in the final basho. Fans of the heya’s remaining sekitori will be hoping for better results from the former powerhouse. And speaking of former big time stables, on a final curious note, this marks the first positive points movement in well over a year for Isegahama-beya (owing to Terutsuyoshi‘s kachi-koshi). Hopefully in 2019 we’ll see Nishikifuji and Midorifuji complete their push from Makushita to replenish the heya’s depleted sekitori ranks.