Much as Team Tachiai had worried, the 2020 Aki Basho will start day one with no Yokozuna present. With the publication of the torikumi (fight card) for days 1 and 2 in the top division, it was clear that both Yokozuna Kakuryu and Yokozuna Hakuho would not participate. In the case of Hakuho, he is a month into recovery from having arthroscopic surgery to both knees, and may in fact be questionable for November as well.
For Kakuryu, it seems to have been a case of injuries (unspecified thus far), along with a worry that he had not been able to train up to Yokozuna fighting level prior to the basho. Some of this he has recently attributed to the ban on degeiko, which the Yokozuna use to spar against the top talent and tune up prior to a basho.
This is the first time in 37 years that all active Yokozuna have been absent from the start of a tournament [EDIT: Akebono, the sole active Yokozuna, was absent from Aki 1994. The 37-year gap applies to more than one active Yokozuna: neither Chiyonofuji nor Kitanoumi started Natsu 1983. -lksumo], and it clearly signals we are deep in the transition period, and in my opinion, both Yokozuna are 12 months or less from hanging up their ropes. We know Hakuho wants to hold on and participate in the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed from this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kakuryu is looking to stay in Japan and become an elder in the sumo association, which the NSK seems to support. But he must gain Japanese citizenship first, and with that same COVID-19 outbreak continuing to disrupt civilian and government functions, there is no word on him advancing to that goal.
Thanks to Andy and Josh who managed the live blog while I succumbed to some nasty chest cold. Thought I am still far from genki, it’s worth the time to comment on the state of sumo in the middle of this highly transformative tournament in Kyushu. I say transformative because if we blur our eyes just a bit, we can see the future from here. The Yokozuna we love are not in the picture, and there is a crop of fiery young talent spanking the veteran headliners. The field is very flat, and there is a large scrum that can still possibly lay claim to the yusho by the middle of the tournament.
As fans, we have gotten conditioned by a handful of hyper-dominant rikishi winning the cup every single time. If it was not Hakuho, it was Harumafuji. Maybe once in a great while it would be Kakuryu, but everyone else scrapped for enough wins to piece together a kachi-koshi, and maybe a special prize here and there, and everyone got by. But, like all dynasties throughout history, as the central powers start to fade, things change rapidly as the strong and the prepared grab for leadership.
Prior to day 9, one lone rikishi holds a one-loss record. There are six (6!) rikishi who follow at two losses, and seven (7!) who follow them at three losses. As of today, any of them could lift the cup on day 15. I frequently joke about a no-holds barred barnyard brawl to finish a basho, but there is a chance we could get there this time. While it seems to lower the level of broad interest in sumo (our site metrics bear this out), the No-kozuna tournaments are hell on wheels for flat out competition. For hard core fans, you come in to each day wondering which mighty hero is going to eat clay today.
Though Takakeisho holds the lead, it is very tough for young rikishi to stay dominant into week 2. Endurance and mental toughness are the key here. Takakeisho is untested in mental toughness, and the worries about “not blowing it” eat a bit more of your fighting spirit each day. This is where the Ozeki just one win behind him come into their own. They have had to endure the tough three-tournament process to get to their rank, and that required both endurance and mental focus that is not necessarily part of the make-up of the lower ranks. As predicted, the scheduling team saw that Takakeisho was on a hot streak, and held some of his Ozeki matches for week 2. The job of the schedulers is to have someone, anyone, put dirt on Takakeisho by day 12, setting up a battle royale on the final weekend for the hardware.
The picture is becoming more cloudy for the surviving Yokozuna. We know Hakuho intends to nurse himself along until late 2020, and we think he will get there unless the YDC and the NSK say otherwise. Kakuryu has been plagued with a miserable set of injuries since shortly after his elevation to Yokozuna. He has manfully been able to steel himself against the pain and limitations to continue to rack yushos, and his sumo is quite interesting and unique. We have documented the daylights out of Kisenosato, but with 9 kyujo out of the last 10 tournaments, I think his time to bow out is soon. Yes, in spite of the scandal that saw him leave sumo, I think from a competition standpoint we all miss Harumafuji. Like some epic World War 1 battleship, he would take damage again and again, and still be ready to fight and win.
But keep in mind, once these epic rikishi were young men, fighting their way up the ranks, looking to make a name for themselves. Looking through who is on the leaderboard going into day 9, there are a host of young faces, any of which could emerge on day 15 as the victor. Thought some top names are benched this tournament, the action is intense, the young stars are shining bright, and the future of sumo looks really fun.
It’s nearly dawn on Thursday in Osaka, and later this morning the day 1 torikumi (fight card) will be drawn up. The deadline for the Yokozuna to decide if they are going to start the Haru basho is today, which allows the scheduling team to draw up a proper roster for the opening days of the tournament. Tachiai is expecting at least one Yokozuna to not start Haru, and for none of the Yokozuna to be competing by day 10.
Some reasons why:
Hakuho – Damage to both big toes caused him to withdraw from Hatsu. He has struggled to train, but has recently started test matches against rikishi in his own stable. At Hakuho’s age, significant re-injury to his right big toe could possibly end his career.
Kakuryu – Probably in the best condition of the three Yokozuna, his ankle is probably well enough to begin competition, but injury to his right hand on the final day of Hatsu is still causing him problems with establishing and maintaining a mawashi grip.
Kisenosato – His un-repaired left pectoral muscle injury may have no way to heal to full capacity. During the past year, Kisenosato has put himself on light duty in hopes of “Healing Naturally”. As a result, he has become de-conditioned, and no longer has the strength, balance or ring sense required to compete at Yokozuna levels.
For the past year, the sumo world has grappled with the specter of a tournament with no Yokozuna able to complete the entire 15 day competition. All three surviving grand-champions each suffer from chronic injuries that they nurse, bandage, brace or ignore to compete. But up until recently, at least one of them could muster enough healthy to oversee an entire 15 day basho. With the retirement of Harumafuji at the end of 2017, the roster of Yokozuna dropped to three, each of which come to Haru with medical issues. If no Yokozuna can compete for all 15 days, will this be the first tournament in years that features Ozeki as the highest rank competing on the final day?
In 2016, Hakuho underwent surgery to repair his big toe. It took months for him to recover enough to credibly compete once more. News during January’s Hatsu basho was that Hakuho had not only re-injured that toe, but the other one as well. He has been training as best as he can manage, but may be questionable for the entire tournament.
Japan’s great hope – Yokozuna Kisenosato, has not sought surgical treatment for his torn left pectoral muscle, and may have very few options to regain strength in his dominant left side. He has been admonished to stay out of competition until he is completely healed, and able to perform at Yokozuna levels again.
Rounding out the list is the eternally injured Kakuryu. He looked almost unbeatable during the first 10 days of Hatsu, until he injured his ankle and struggled to win. While he took surgery to repair damage to that ankle, but an awkard fall on the final day match against Goeido left his hand injured, and now he struggles to generate any grip strength.
While fans may worry about a tournament with no Yokozuna competing, this is in fact all part of the natural evolution of Sumo. We are in a transitional period where may well loved rikishi at all ranks reach the end of their careers, and retire. While we will miss all of the ones who say goodbye this year, it’s evident that at least two strong, eager classes of young men are ready to step up and take the ranks they vacate.