As you may have seen or heard elsewhere, Ikioi retired last week.
This isn’t the post to do a comprehensive post-mortem on his career, I don’t really have the ability to eloquently summarise that right now or the patience to get “whatabouted.” Instead, the retirement of Ikioi instead makes me think about the passing of time with sumo, life, etcetera and so on. So, I want to talk about that.
Ikioi was my favourite rikishi. I said that many times on this site, in podcasts, in interviews with other folks throughout the sumo world. There was something special and unique about him, even in the beginning, when I started following sumo, before I knew anything. At that point I think he was the only single kanji name in the top division, and he had a strange but powerful, relatable shikona.
Ikioi was all over the place. When I started watching the sport, he could just as soon rattle off 9 wins in a row as he could lose 13 or 14 in a tournament. He was a kinboshi threat, would go crashing into the dizzy heights of the san’yaku and be sent swiftly crashing back out of it.
His sumo was so intense. I always called it heavy metal sumo. For sure, that was partially influenced by my theft of that term from association football and that term’s association with the beloved manager of my beloved club. But it applied here. Ikioi only had one speed, which was all the way on.
A lot of rikishi say that their will is to do “forward moving sumo.” This is the only way that Ikioi ever really operated. From the tachiai he would rush in, grappling or thrusting or with a big right hand to the mawashi, normally with an attempt to just overwhelm the opponent, and dominate. Did he win? More often than not. Well, one time more often than not as his career 546-545 record would indicate. But it was the approach that was the exciting thing.
For sure, some of his mannerisms in the dohyo seemed to be influenced by my other great sumo love, Hakuho (even if his results certainly were not). There’s not really much denying that. As the iron man, he was ever present in the top division, famously never missing a day of work. Our friend Kintamayama described him at times variously as a “walking ambulance” or “walking hospital” owing to the state of the many bandages covering him and the challenges he often seemed to have in his latter years even entering and leaving the dohyo, always gingerly and sometimes with a grimace.
The first time I ever interviewed someone for this site, John Gunning explained the concept of shin-gi-tai: heart, technique, physique – the three qualities you need to be successful at sumo. It’s no good if you just have one or even two of them. To be great you need to have all of them. I’ve watched sumo at this point for many years (not as many as some, longer than others), and no one epitomises heart to me like Ikioi. Of course he had the physique to be successful in the top division and he sometimes displayed the technique to back it up, but it was his heart that kept him in matches he had no business winning, and it was his heart that kept him coming back onto the dohyo when his body clearly didn’t agree.
It has been said that of the three, perhaps that’s the most important quality.
I haven’t been in Japan for a while now. It’s hard to say I miss the basho experience because the experience that exists now isn’t the one that I and so many other readers of this site have had. So it’s not that I miss going to a basho, but I miss moments, like the one I had meeting the follower of Ikioi who showed up to Kokugikan in a Hanshin Tigers jersey and walked around the upper bowl of the arena for an entire afternoon holding up his Ikioi cheer sign.
I have a deep love for the city of Osaka and there is just no replicating the atmosphere that the fans of that city provide to one of their own during the Haru basho. I was lucky enough to witness this in person several times for Ikioi. The Kansai experience is not for everyone it must be said, but I’ve often said it’s my favourite place to watch sumo and for me, watching this guy in that place was often the best part of all of it.
The worst part for me here isn’t the retirement, it’s the manner of it. And I don’t mean an injured guy dropping into Sandanme while the Kyokai works out a myoseki shuffle before he can retire. It’s that an Ikioi was robbed of that last appearance in front of hometown fans, much like a Kotoshogiku never got to make a final appearance in front of supporters in Kyushu. Those places would have provided the best backgrounds for these long serving veterans to make their final bow, to say nothing of long-serving lower rankers whose most passionate support, perhaps even the support that helped to keep them going, might have come from one of the regional basho.
We recorded some podcast content for Tachiai the other day, and Bruce remarked that much of this incredible class of the 00s has now ridden off into the sunset in their blue jackets as the wave of retirements of that generation of rikishi gathers pace. Just as the sumo world doesn’t stop, that progression through the ranks from rookie to retiree doesn’t happen in isolation – it’s hard not to think how the world has moved and changed around us as well. Of course, there will be another great generation soon, maybe we’re seeing the start of it now. If you’ve got a favourite rikishi, enjoy it. If you haven’t, maybe you and I will find one from this new generation soon. And let’s hope this mad world gets back to normal soon so that we can have special moments in our temples of sumo again.
Anyway, here’s that video of the main man hawking an iron, if you haven’t seen it. Enjoy.