A theme that Andy and I have been chasing for more than a year is the problem sumo has with headline athletes and their injuries. For a variety of reasons, most sumotori are never given enough time or resources to heal from the injuries they sustain, and their cumulative effect quickly degrades their performance, and in short order, their prospects for continued competition.
In general the health of the rikishi, especially the headliners, is not discussed and not publicized. These men are to be icons of the strength and power of the sport, and to show injury or weakness is not part of the facade. In reality, the health of many of these headline athletes has been in tenuous and degrading conditions for the last few years. With the advent of web-based media and near constant attention, the ability to dismiss a rikishi’s difficulties are almost impossible to mask.
Which brings us to the Aki basho. Three Yokozuna of four are laid up due to injuries they can’t seem to heal. The fourth (Harumafuji) is also in tough shape, but he is going to compete anyhow. I think at this point, the NSK knows they have a problem. A list of rikishi who are kyujo before the first day of competition
That means that both he yusho and jun-yusho winners from Nagoya are out. The majority of the faces on the promotional posters will not appear. The sport is having an injury crisis, and they can no longer hide it.
The following quotes are courtesy of Kintamayama, who (as always) is the man with the inside knowledge.
Sumo Association Chairman, Hakkaku – “It’s really regrettable that we’ve come to this at this point.. We finally have 4 Yokozunae and the fans have sold out the venue in anticipation of seeing this wonderful sight.. I think this is extremely inexcusable towards all the fans. The banzuke is well balanced with the newcomers and the veterans, so I have a lot of expectations from the young guys..”
PR Director Shibatayama – “It’s really inexcusable that three Yokozuna are missing during these days when the fans are filling the seats. Still, a Yokozuna is a human being. Showing up in bad shape will not do any good for anyone..”
To be clear, both men are laying blame not on their athletes, but on the Sumo Kyokai for putting on a Honbasho that will be missing a large number of the headline competitors. It’s bad enough for fans in Japan, but consider the growing number of sumo enthusiasts that fly to Japan during the basho to take in a few days at the matches. While we at Tachiai joke that we are an adjunct to the sumo world, I am quite sure that both the NSK media have noticed that sumo is flowering into a global sport.
What happens next? No one can tell, but I will take my best guess
Look for retirements, both within the NSK and within the upper ranks of sumo THIS YEAR. Much as it will pain them to clear the decks, they will need a team of headliners that they can count on to appear at every tournament. That’s what puts butts in seats, sells banners and drives ratings.
Look for Fall and Winter Jungyo to be curtailed or even eliminated. The current pace set by the Jungyo team has been punishing, and leaves the rikishi little to no time to maintain condition or seek medical attention for their injuries. This could be billed as a “Health and safety training period”, and given the Aki carnage, it would be accepted.
Modifications to the area around the dohyo – This is quite unlikely, but many of these rikishi are injured falling from the dohyo during a match. There may be some unobtrusive ways that maintain the aesthetics of the dohyo and decrease the injury potential of a ungraceful dismount.
As Aki progresses, the team that makes up Osumo will band together to make Aki possibly one of the great, anything can happen bashos of our time.
Once again, we are on the cusp of a basho that is marred by injuries and likely outages for Sumo’s star attractions. Tachiai readers will note that this is part of the longer overall trend, where the men who have dominated sumo for years are reaching the end of their completive period, and the cumulative damage done to their bodies now comes due.
The aggressive rise of a new crop of riskishi, that I sometimes jokingly call the “Angry Tadpoles” can be thought of as the result of two forces. The push factor of their individual training, work, dedication and flat-out skill that propels them to higher ranks. There is also a pull factor of the men who have occupied these positions increasingly being less healthy and able to defend their ranks.
To be clear, I am expecting Yokozunae Hakuho, Kisenosato and Kakuryu to not participate in the Aki basho. I also think it is strongly possible that both Endo and Ura may announce they will not be competing either.
Just from injuries alone, I expect Aki to be a basho that may be dominated by a rikishi who has never before won a basho, and it may be a glorious run.
Rikishi: Hakuho Genki: ✭ Notes: Last year, the dai-Yokozuna skipped Aki in order to undergo surgery to repair his left knee, and remove a painful bone chip from his right big toe. He drove himself relentlessly to recover to excellent fighting form, and took the May and July tournament championships. But now that left knee is causing him constant pain, and he is likely unable to execute effective sumo. Forecast: Kyujo from day 1
Rikishi: Harumafuji Genki: ✭✭✭ Notes: Do I think Harumafuji is healthy? No indeed. But he is tough and he is going to will himself to compete at Aki, no matter what the pain or discomfort. He has injuries to both knees, both elbows and lord knows what else. But it’s clear he is only going to leave the dohyo when he is too injured to walk. Forecast: Yusho contender
Rikishi: Kisenosato Genki: ✭ Notes: Kisenosato has not been training. His body is still weak, and we still have to wonder if his torn pectoral muscle will ever be useful again. Granted he did some training with shin-juryo Yago, but this level of combat is a ridiculously light compared to what he would face in Makuuchi. The YDC has urge Kisenosato not to return to the dohyo until he is fit and ready to compete. We will know he is ready when he resumes training with his stablemate Takayasu. Forecast: Kyujo from day 1
Rikishi: Kakuryu Genki: ✭ Notes: Kakuryu is in a weak and perilous position. He has been so wracked with injuries since withdrawing from Nagoya that he has not been training (see a theme here?), and he is in no condition to compete. Furthermore, it has been made clear his next basho really needs to be a strong performance, or he will be asked to retire. Forecast: Kyujo from day 1
Rikishi: Terunofuji Genki: ✭✭✭ Notes: He had to withdraw from Nagoya, as his June knee repair surgery was not healed enough for effective sumo. He took the entire summer off to rest and recover, and seems to be somewhat improved. He has been active in pre-basho training matches, and he even looks to be fairly strong. If he is mended, he is a yusho candidate. But he is one bad fall away from retirement now. Keep in mind, he is kadoban and must have 8 wins to hold on to his Ozeki rank. Forecast: Double digit wins
Rikishi: Goeido Genki: ✭✭✭✭ Notes: Last year Goeido surprised the sumo world by coming into Aki kadoban, and leaving with his first yusho. Furthermore, he was undefeated at Aki, making his victory all the more impressive. Goeido is very hit-or-miss, but his pre-basho training seems to indicate that he is mostly in “Goeido 2.0 Mode”, and could in fact be a contender. Forecast: Kachi-koshi
Rikishi: Takayasu Genki: ✭✭✭ Notes: His conditioning has deteriorated because for several months he has not been able to hone his sumo in daily scrimmage against Kisenosato. As a result, I suspect he is not nearly as ready as he was a year ago, and in fact we may see him kadoban for the first time. His practice matches during jungyo and his inter-basho warm ups have been good but not great. Furthermore, Takayasu has had a bad habit in the past of letting himself worry and over-think his sumo. Forecast: Kachi-koshi
Rikishi: Mitakeumi Genki: ✭✭✭✭✭ Notes: Mitakeumi is the chieftain of the Angry Tadpoles, a rank he should wear with pride. He has shown remarkable strength, talent and adaptability in his climb to Sekiwake 1E, and he is now in a spot where he can try to assemble 33 wins. Furthermore, it’s quite clear that like the great Hakuho, he is having the time of his life, and every day on the dohyo is joy to him. Forecast: Double digit wins, Possible Yusho contender.
Rikishi: Yoshikaze Genki: ✭✭✭✭ Notes: Scarred by years of battle, and once again at Sekiwake (though as the oldest one in the modern era), Yoshikaze is never one to ignore. He can and will beat any rikishi on any given day. In recent tournaments he has shown a fantastic breadth of sumo skills, and never surrenders. There has been some speculation in the Japanese sumo press that he might become the oldest Ozeki ever, but frankly I think “The Berserker” just wants to get the job done. Forecast: Kachi-koshi
Rikishi: Tamawashi Genki: ✭✭✭✭ Notes: He has been dethroned from his long term posting to Sekiwake, and it’s now time for him to either fade lower in the banzuke, or battle back to the top. His fans know he has more than enough sumo to re-take his rank from Mitakeumi, but it remains to be seen if he can muster the energy to win. Forecast: Kachi-koshi
Rikishi: Tochinoshin Genki: ✭✭✭✭ Notes: The big Georgian suffers from injuries that have held him back, but in Nagoya he turned in a strong kachi-koshi to follow up from his Jun-Yusho in May. Many fans expected him to be posted to a San’yaku rank, but he should feel no shame for being the top Maegashira. His enormous strength and nearly boundless endurance means that anyone who dares him to a yotsu-zumō battle will be in trouble. Forecast: Kachi-koshi
Rikishi: Kotoshogiku Genki: ✭✭ Notes: Sorry Ojisan, but your time has passed. Listen to your body and retire soon. We all still love you, and your back bends and pelvic thrust sumo will never be forgotten. Forecast: Maki-koshi
Rikishi: Hokutofuji Genki: ✭✭✭✭✭ Notes: I am very excited that Hokutofuji is solidly in the upper Maegashira ranks for his second basho. Few rikishi can survive at this level, and this is why you see some favorites yo-yo up and down the banzuke. Hokutofuji, if he can remain healthy, is likely to be a big deal once the current crop of leading sumotori take their bows and retire. Forecast: Kachi-koshi
Rikishi: Aoiyama Genki: ✭✭✭ Notes: For whatever ridiculous reason, this guy got played up as a spoiler to Hakuho’s yusho in Nagoya. Frankly, his sumo was never up to the task of combating even the lower half of Hakuho, let alone the entire Yokozuna. Now he finds himself squarely in the joi, and he has a difficult schedule ahead. He has a very limited range of kimarite, but with few Yokozuna competing, he may not face the pounding he would with a healthy roster. Forecast: Make-koshi
Rikishi: Onosho Genki: ✭✭✭✭✭ Notes: Onosho faces his first time in the upper part of Makuuchi. As with Aoiyama, the expected Yokozuna recuperation basho will likely give him an easier time than he might have had otherwise. He is strong, he is skilled and like Hokutofuji, he is going to be a big deal if he can stay healthy. Still, I expect he is going to find him self out-matched for now, but he will improve. Forecast: Make-koshi
Rikishi: Ura Genki: ✭✭ Notes: Ura left Nagoya injured. He was injured to the extent that he did not even participate in any sumo activities over the summer break. Like far too many rikishi, he now faces the prospects of nursing a damaged knee back to usefulness. Prior to the banzuke, many fans (myself included) hoped for a stiff demotion, to allow him time to work in the lower ranks to maintain his sumo while his body healed. Sadly he is once again in danger of being an opponent for the Ozeki and San’yaku battle fleet. At this point his goal must include survival. Forecast: Make-koshi
Video from this Nagoya basho always features one thing in every shot – the crowd desperately fanning themselves. I had heard that this event was a hot, sweaty and sticky affair. On top of that, Japan has turned it’s heat and formidable humidity to 11. The greatest and most troubling manifestation of Japan’s tropical tendencies are the catastrophic rain in western Japan, including parts of Kyushu and extreme western Honshu.
While the discomfort for the fans in the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium is quite real, the heat endured by the athletes is even more extreme. Within the dohyo awning suspended from the ceiling, There is a battery of high intensity flood lamps, cameras and microphones. These lamps are meant to light the action, and easily raise the temperature on the dohyo by 10°. So if you wonder why the rikishi are drenched in sweat when you see them either exit the arena, or in the interview room after a bout, this plays a significant part.
As anticipated, the placement of so many strong, healthy and new rikishi this high in the banzuke is creating some unpredictable results in the first third of Nagoya. Readers of this site know that it is my theory that any basho follows a fairly predictable evolution, that can be thought of as 5 day “thirds”. The first third is the warm up, the second is the heart of the competition, where you see who is hot and who is not, and the final third determines the yusho. The roster of who is in Makuuchi has been surprisingly stable for at least a year, and so the pace and contests within each day’s torikumi can feel almost familiar.
With this much new talent in the top Maegashira, it’s a surprise each day. First time match up coupled with raw talent, uninjured rikishi scrapping to make their mark on the sport they will likely dominate for the next decade or so. Let the chaos cauldron continue to boil! Nagoya is just getting started!
Matches We Like
Nishikigi vs Chiyomaru – Both have started the basho with two wins, and both are Maegashira 15. Looks like it’s time to sort these two on the clay.
Arawashi vs Takarafuji – Takarafuji as never lost to Arawashi, but Arawashi has won his first two bouts of the basho. I would expect that Arawashi will need to do something to escape Takarafuji superior reach and complete lack of neck.
Aoiyama vs Ishiura – Classic sumo big man / little man match. We have yet to see any real sumo from Ishiura this tournament, and it would warm the hearts of many fans to see these two provide a good battle. This is, in fact, their first match.
Ichinojo vs Onosho – Another big man / little man match, Onosho has really been high energy and dangerous since May. As always Ichinojo is hit or miss. Another of the great first ever meetings between these two.
Ura vs Kagayaki – Kagayaki has been struggling to get his sumo running in Nagoya. Now he is up against Ura, who has dialed back the acrobatics and is winning with solid sumo fundamentals. Perhaps today Ura will unleash some of his non newtonian physics for the fans.
Tamawashi vs Yoshikaze – Both rikishi are coming into the match with two win starts, and this one could be one of the better matches of the day. Yoshikaze has been surprisingly deliberate in his two prior wins. Tamawashi has been unleashing explosive sumo from the start, and making it work. Their career match ups are essentially even, so this could be a real battle.
Mitakeumi vs Goeido – Mitakeumi has only beaten Goeido once before, but Mitakeumi could care less. Mitakeumi is starting to remind me of a Honey Badger now. Goeido is getting into a really troublesome mode right now, I had jokingly nominated him for kadoban, but he seems to be on a fast track this time.
Terunofuji vs Ikioi – One could imagine a healthy Terunofuji would stop by the Ryogoku McDonalds for some dipping sauce to enjoy with what was left of Ikioi. But it’s clear that the big Ozeki is injured. Ikioi could really use the win, so it will be somewhat unpleasant to see what happens here. Surprisingly, Ikioi leads their career bout record 7-2.
Takayasu vs Kotoshogiku – Another cringe inducing match. As we stated before we hate watching Kotoshogiku suffer, but he insists on turning up to compete. But for Takayasu, he needs to settle down and produce Ozeki class result. Hopefully Ojisan Kotoshogiku will provide him with a good match.
Takakeisho vs Harumafuji – We can assume after the first two days that Harumafuji has some medical / mechanical issues in Nagoya. The question is does he soldier on? Takakeisho is a big mystery here, this is their first ever match, and he is both nervous and fired up.
Hakuho vs Shodai – The boss is looking for win #1039 on his march to the record. Shodai will likely provide some contest for a few seconds, but I expect Hakuho to dispatch him. Short of injury, Hakuho is making the case that he will be the man to beat.
Hokutofuji vs Kakuryu – Another potential for a great match. These two are meeting for the first time, and we will have two rikishi who have mass, strength and a great defensive approach to sumo. Sure Hokutofuji can implement a masterful attack, but I am expecting to recognize that a match with Big K is going to be a game of cat and mouse.
Kisenosato vs Tochinoshin – Someone is going to really hurt Kisenosato, I fear. And with the overwhelming strength of Tochinoshin, I fear this could be the match that unleashes agony for the Yokozuna and the Japanese sumo loving public. If The Great Pumpkin can make it through this match and even win, it would do a lot to shut people like me up, who think his current left arm is some cutting edge robotic attachment from the labs at Tohoku University.
The injured Kisenosato gave up his second kinboshi today, this time to a resurgent Tochiozan. It’s been amazing to watch Kisenosato stay competitive in spite of his almost useless left upper body, but perhaps there is now a working formula to defeat him in his weakened state.
Goeido went down to Terunofuji, even though it looks like Goeido 2.0 showed up. With Terunofuji in Kaiju mode, there is not much that can slow him down. On day 8 when he picked up a bulky and squirming Mitakeumi by the shoulders and lifted him past the tawara, it was clear that everyone was in danger.
The other big news is that Kotoshogiku avoided make-koshi today by winning against Endo. Somehow Endo allowed himself to be wrapped up for a hug-n-chug, which Kotoshogiku was all to happy to apply. While it is a reprieve, the chances that Kotoshogiku won’t end up with a strong losing record are incredibly small. Will he endure a demotion back to Maegashira? Or will he take his kabu and retire to a new role helping to run and build the world of sumo?
Kyokushuho defeats Chiyotairyu – Juryo visitor Kyokushuho did in fact beat Chiyotairyu, but rather than expected slapping match, it was a straight mawashi test of strength bout.
Tokushoryu defeats Yutakayama – Yutakayama picks up his make-koshi, and will probably be headed back to Juryo, that is if there is anyone in Juryo worth of promotion. This was another really fine mawashi battle that saw both rikishi put forth a strong effort.
Ishiura defeats Daishomaru – Ishiura pulls a henka after a possibly deliberate false start. Normally I would not support henka, but Ishiura is really up against the wall in terms of a winning vs losing record.
Onosho defeats Kagayaki – Another battle of the mawashi (it seems to have been the day for it) that saw Kagayaki’s winning streak stopped. Fantastic effort by Onosho to first stop and then reverse Kagayaki relentless forward motion. Once he got Kagayaki moving backwards, it was all over.
Ura defeats Shohozan – Plasticman again stays ridiculously low, and baffles his opponent. The formula seems to be for him to get his opponent wrapped up on his shoulders then push them rapidly backwards and out. Hey, it’s working! Maybe it’s the chonmage-toshi?
Shodai defeats Hokutofuji – It was 100% Shodai from the start, as Hokutofuji never got his feet steady. In spite of Shodai’s sloppy tachiai, he was able to get Hokutofuji high and off balance due to Hokutofuji’s even sloppier tachiai today.
Ikioi defeats Takanoiwa – Very quick kotenage from Ikioi. The two grappled briefly at the tachiai, but Ikioi deftly rolled Takanoiwa into the rolling throw and the match was done.
Daieisho defeats Takarafuji – YES, that’s right, winless Daieisho finally scores his first win this basho, and did it in pretty good style. Watch this one if they show it on the highlights.
Yoshikaze defeats Mitakeumi – A strong start saw Yoshikaze and Mitakeumi locked up at the center of the dohyo, each trying to push the other backwards. Well, it seems to have been a strategy for Yoshikaze, because after a few moments of egging Mitakeumi on, he backed off and slapped him down. A veteran exploiting the rookies bravado and enthusiasm. We still love you Mitakeumi, you are going to be a big deal soon.
Takayasu defeats Chiyonokuni – Takayasu has his kachi-koshi, but his real goal of 10 wins is still 2 away. Chiyonokuni initiated a vigorous thrusting match at first, but as we have seen this basho, Takayasu stood up to it like a man made of stone. He waited for his opportunity, and grabbed Chiyonokuni’s mawashi and took control. Moments later the uwatenage was applied and Chiyonokuni was on the clay.
Tochiozan defeats Kisenosato – This was all Tochiozan from the tachiai, Kisenosato was high and off balance at once. Tochiozan walks away with his very own kensho Mt. Fuji diorama.
Hakuho defeats Aoiyama – Big Aoiyama had nothing, it was another example of The Boss having his way with any rikishi he faces. May be somewhat unstoppable until he faces Harumafuji.
Harumafuji defeats Tamawashi – Tamawashi actually presented a reasonable challenge for a few seconds, and that just seemed to really fire up Harumafuji, who just poured on the forward pressure. Both rikishi ended up launching into the first row of zabuton. It did look as if maybe Harumafuji had some pain in his knee after their crash landing, we hope he is ok.