What to expect from Hatsu's second week ?

The Hatsu basho’s first week has been pretty eventful, seeing both yokozuna pulling out win just one win under their belts. The yusho race is open as ever, and a few interesting sidestories are quite promising, too. So, what should one expect from the seven last days of the tournament ?

1. Can the “ozeki old guard” salvage its status ?

This question, unfortunately, calls for a quick answer for Takayasu. Mathematically, he is still on track to regain is ozeki status, as the five losses he has allow him to hope for a 10-5 results. However, the chances to see that happen are very slim. Takayasu’s sumo is weak and sloppy ; his arm is in no good shape, and each bout looks like a pain for him.

Both in real trouble : sekiwake Takayasu (3-5, left) and ozeki Goeido (3-5, right)

It’s doutbul he’ll even manage to keep a san’yaku spot. Sadly, it looks like his late career will take place on the maegashira ranks.

What about Goeido ? For once, we have to say he’s fighting. The problem for hi mis that he’s kadoban, diminished, and with only three wins so far. He’ll need to end up 5-2, at least, to sake his ozeki rank ; otherwise, he’ll end up as an ozekiwake, like Takayasu this tournament.

Another problem for him ? He’ll have to face tougher opponents like Asanoyama, Takakeisho, etc. He might snatch a win against a weakened Takayasu, and perhaps find a way to pull down Enho tomorrow.

Still, the future for both rikishi looks grim.

2. What about the “ozeki new guard wanna-be” ?

The higher ranks are in increasingly urgent need for new blood. The situation that has arisen or that is about to rise may well lead, in my opinion, to one or two cheap ozeki promotions, as it already happened in the past. But who is likely to step up ?

Asanoyama has been the leading candidate for a few months, but an average 5-3 record is not really what one could expect from him. His losses were against Abi, Endo and Shodai – solid opponents, sure, but a solid ozeki should, at most, end such a first week with two losses – at most.

Disappointing so far : Asanoyama (5-3)

What does it mathematically mean for him ? Basically, ozeki promotion in Osaka is about to be over, unless he finished the basho with a storming 12-3 record. That would mean probably being jun-yusho at least, and, more significantly, having beaten both ozeki. He would have gotten 33 wins during the last three honbashos, and, given the aforementioned situation on the ozeki ranks, might be sufficient.

But it does not look likely to happen ; Asanoyama, on track for ozeki promotion, rather delivered a Mitakeumi-like performance. More reallistically, he’d better preserve his chances for the next tournament or two – that means, getting at least ten wins, and beating one of the two ozeki. If not, his tournament will have brought no quality, and he’ll be good to start all over again.

The situation is almost the opposite for Endo : having been 7-8 last tournament, he is in no run whatsoever, but delivered fantastic performances, beating both yokozuna in the process. That means, the current basho is an excellent start for an ozeki run. Being at 6-2, he’s perfectly capable to reach, say, 11-4, and kick on in Osaka.

Other possible future candidates have been quoted from time to time: Abi, Hokutofuji, Mitakeumi. But none of them does better than 5-3, so any ozeki talk is pretty much premature. A word about Mitakeumi, who aims to regain a san’yaku spot. It seems that this would be the best he can hope for – being 4-4, ozeki hopes are hibernating for the time being.

3. Who is in danger to drop to juryo ?

Kiribayama is the only newbie in makuuchi this tournament. He showed interesting things so far – today’s win against Kotoeko was good. But he’s been a bit irregular, and gave away some light losses – to Terutsuyoshi, for example. He’ll need a kachi koshi to save his makuuchi place.

No honeymoon in makuuchi : Kiribayama (4-4)

I like to watch his rise – having Kakuryu as mentor is of a great benefit for him. I’m afraid, however, the end of the tournament might prove a bit too tiring for him. He’ll perhaps finish at 6-9 and have to rise again from juryo. I’m not too worried about him having a bright future, though.

The situation is more critical for Ikioi, whose foot is a real worry for him during this basho. He’s at 2-6 and doesn’t seem to be able to produce consistent performances. He’ll probably drop again to juryo.

The “yo-yo old guard” – experienced rikishi who had to endure a recent juryo stint, like Kaisei, Tochiozan, Azumaryu, are doing pretty well, all at 5-3. Still, they’ll need to be careful to maintain their form, as they haven’t reach the safety zone yet. Azumaryu could be safe with just one more win, while Kaisei and Tochiozan need two, or three. While expressing a few doubts about Tochiozan, I believe they should scrap their way to safety.

A solid makuuchi return: Kaisei (5-3)

Ishiura raised expectations after a combattive Kyushu basho, but fails to deliver with a 2-6 record. He needs three more wins to be entirely safe. Having lost the first three bouts, and the three last ones, I’d advise him to start collecting wins sooner rather than later. Perhaps another juryo drop here.

Kotoeko is in real danger at maegashira 13, with a 2-6 record. He lost the five (!) last bouts, and will have to find solutions soon.

Shimanoumi is also one to watch. After a convincing start of the year 2019, and reaching a career high maegashira 6, he got make kochi is the two last tournaments, and his sumo seems to have evaporated. I’d tip him to join the juryo drops.

Tsurugisho had a big injury scare, which saw him use the wheelchair. Fortunately, the hospital report concluded that no bone had been broken, and that he was in sufficient condition to wrestle. If I expect him to end up the basho with a make kochi record, his relatively safe maegashira 12 spot may preserve him from the drop.

Still fit to fight ? Tsurugisho (3-5)

Things are different for Kotoshogiku. After a poor start, he seemed to find his energy back, and evened scored at 4-4. Fortunately, we’ll probably see him again in Osaka.

Let’s have a thought for Meisei, who had to pull out of the tournament. He’ll en dit up at 1-7-7, and may well drop from his maegashira 5 spot right to juryo. 

And, finally, the situation will be similar for Kotoyuki, the maegashira 3 who does not compete this basho.

4. Who will win this basho ?

My tip for the yusho : ozeki Takakeisho (7-1)

The most straightforward question for the end ! My answer will be as clear cut : Takakeisho. After a hesitant start, his sumo is looking good, solid, albeit still not perfect. Although he has serious rivals, I doubt Endo or Shodai could maintain their winning habits indefinitely – that’s exactly what happened to Endo today. Tokushoryu, Terutsuyoshi, Kagayaki and Yutakayama are having good tournaments, but don’t look likely to end up lifting the cup. Should they go on winning, they would be paired together, if not against stronger opposition.This is definitely Takakeisho to lose that one, and I wish him to finish strongly to initiate his yokozuna quest.

Sumo debates for 2020 – 3/3

10. Will a rikishi win a yusho for the first time in 2020 ?

Last years showed us we’re not immune to great upsets, during a troubled period where top ranks are ageing and youngsters are struggling to meet up expectations. Indeed, 2018 and 2019 saw a maegashira lifting the Emperor’s Cup (Tochinoshin in 2018 and Asanoyama in 2019).

Anyone up for another surprise in 2020 ? At the risk of being a party spoiler, I’m not !

11. Will Hoshoryu reach maku’uchi ?

Lower divisions have seen the emergence in 2019 of Hoshoryu. Often called “nephew of…”, I’m sure he’ll want to prove his own strengh, in order to me remembered, not just as Asashoryu’s nephew.

A future star ? Hoshoryu Tomokatsu

His rise from jonokuchi has been pretty fast, although it took several honbasho for Hoshoryu to break the glass and reach the salaried ranks : from March of last year at makushita 7, 4-3, 4-3, 3-4 and 4-3 records saw him finally reach juryo. His first stint there did not bring much joy either, as he barely managed to save his rank, thanks to a senshuraku victory – he ended the tournament with a 7-8 make kochi.

Can he raise up his lever in 2020 ?

My prediction: Asashoryu has had harsh words towards him last year. I’m sure he will be a major help towards maku’uchi promotion in 2020.

12. Will Kotoshogiku stay in maku’uchi ?

Lots of words have been written about the way Kotoshogiku failed to regain his ozeki status, as an ozekiwake in March 2017. Since then, much less has been said about Kotoshogiku’s rather anonymous, albeit decent later career in maku’uchi – he even defeated Hakuho in Nagoya.

Former ozeki Kotoshogiku Kazuhiro (left)

Lately, his form has plunged, however. The former ozeki is on an unfortunate four make kochi streak (6-9, 7-8, 6-9, 6-9). He’ll turn 36 this month.

Can he find the winning formula again ? I’m afraid not.

13. Will Ishiura stay in maku’uchi ?

What about Ishiura ? Interestingly, he already spent six basho in a row in maku’uchi (from Kyushu 2016 to Aki 2017), but never during a full calendar year (he got demoted in Kyushu 2017 and Kyushu 2018). He spent four tournaments in the top division in 2019.

From hatakikomi to mitokorozeme : Ishiura Masakatsu

He is known for using the henka technique quite often during his bouts. Lately, however, his form seemed to improve, with combative 8-7 and 9-6 records at the end of the year. Last basho saw him use more raffined techniques, including one of the rarest techniques of the sport, mitokorozeme. It had not been used since Mainoumi, back in 1993 !

Can Ishiura’s sudden feisty sumo grant him a spot in maku’uchi during the whole year 2020 ? Unfortunately, I tend to say no.

14. Will Ura produce the greatest comeback ever ?

We spoke about Terunofuji’s remarkable return to juryo, and, possibly, to maku’uchi. What if Ura does the same ?

The greatest comeback ever ? Ura Kazuki

To put that question into context, Ura had a breakthrough in 2017, starting his first two honbasho in maku’uchi with two winning records. He even defeated former yokozuna Harumafuji in Nagoya, before seeing knee injuries totally stopping his rise. After almost a year without participating in a competitive bout, Ura started his comeback with 6-1 and 7-0 records in sandanme, before reinjuring his knees at the beginning of 2019. At the bottom of jonidan, Ura started his career again, producing a 6-1 record.

Is it on once and for all ? Can Ura produce six kachi koshi in 2020 ? Once again, I tend to say no, but wish him, as well as all other wrestlers and our readers, a successful year 2020 !

Sumo debates for 2020 – 2/3

6. Will Terunofuji compete in maku’uchi in 2020 ? Where will he end up this year ?

The nostalgic question. If Tochinoshin produced the mother of all comebacks back in 2014, rising again from makushita to maku’uchi, Terunofuji’s remarkable comeback is a very impressive one. Still an ozeki in September 2017, he started 2018 as a maegashira 10, lasted two bashos in juryo, and, after finally taking care of his health, went as low as jonidan 48 in March 2019. He just lost three bouts during his return to the salaried ranks, which he achieved at the end of the past year.

Terunofuji’s return has been even more impressive that he stayed weakened. Pictures were circulating on social medias, with Terunofuji’s knees horribly taped. He only managed to do suri-ashi by the end of 2019 – which should significantly improve his chances.

Is he back ? Former ozeki Terunofuji

Many followers – myself included – have fantasied about the former ozeki’s return. Will he return to maku’uchi ? Will he, incredibly, regain his ozeki rank, as prophetized by Murray Johnson ? Or will his progress be halted ?

Herouth answers this question cautiously. Will that change, with the Mongolian’s condition having improved ? Terunofuji set his aim: reaching maku’uchi before the Olympics.

My prediction: it’s hard going against my inner wishes. I’d be foolish, though, not hearing Herouth’s wisdom. I’d say Terunofuji to finish the year in juryo after a stint in maku’uchi.

7. Where will Ichinojo finish the year ?

Makushita or below / juryo / maku’uchi (maegashira) / maku’uchi (san’yaku)

Another question related to injury issues. Ichinojo’s talent is obvious. After a good 2018 year (five tournaments spent in san’yaku), the Mongolian started 2019 equally well – two kinboshi despite a 6-9 record in January, and a career best 14-1 in March led people believe he’d start an ozeki run.

However, Ichinojo’s strength caused him serious back problems – his weight rose up to 230 kg. He had to sit out of the Kyushu basho after having finished the Aki basho with a 1-4-10 record. As a consequence, he will start the new year sitting deep at juryo 7.

I can’t help but have depressing thoughts of a crossed interview of then newbies Ichinojo and Terunofuji in 2014, as they set up a “race” between them towards ozeki promotion. If Terunofuji achieved that feat, they now find themselves together, sadly, in juryo, more than five years later.

Back to fitness ? Ichinojo Takashi

Hopefully, Ichinojo will be rolling back the years. Having lost 24 kg, his weight will appear close to the one he had in 2014, when he got promoted to maku’uchi.

My prediction: I see him back to the maegashira ranks.

8. Will Enho stay in maku’uchi in 2020 ?

A provocative question. Enho is a crowd favorite, and did wonders in 2019. He started the past year at juryo 8, and will start the current one at a career best maegashira 5. He displayed a great variety of techniques, and finished the year with three straight kachi koshi. In his whole career, Enho just had two make kochi – one in juryo in March 2018, and one during his maku’uchi debut in May 2019.

The question is, of course, related to his weight. So far, it is tempting to say that weighing less than 100 kg has been more of an asset than a weakness for him.

Nevertheless, Enho will have some issues to face: will he be able to maintain his impressive form? The crowd favorite started using more deliberate henka’s during the last tournament of 2019. Will he be able to renew his range of techniques, and will he be able to surprise again his opponents ? Or will the surprise effect vanish, and will he slide back to juryo ?

Currently at career best maegashira 5 : Enho Akira

Comparison has been made with former wrestler Mainoumi, who was about the same size as Enho, and had a successful maku’uchi career from 1991 to 1998, being as high as komosubi. True, the average size of rikishi has increased since…

Another example, former Czech wrestler Takanoyama, was less successful back in 2012. He was able to stay in the top division during four tournaments, that year (and in September of 2011, too).

My prediction: Enho’s techniques will continue to work, in the middle of an injury prone field. After a san’yaku stint, he’ll end up safely in maegashira ranks.

9. Will Takakeisho win a second yusho in 2020 ?

I believe Takakeisho’s picture of 2018’s rising star needs an update. Last year, the ozeki was seen as the future of sumo and a possible future yokozuna, assuming he could adapt his variety of techniques. He finished that year on a bang, clinching his first yusho in Kyushu.

Ozeki Takakeisho Mitsunobu

Twelve months later, the picture has changed. His ozeki promotion had to wait until the last day of the March tournament, with decreasing results – 13-2, 11-4 and 10-5. He sustained a first serious injury on his knee, which hampered further steps, and even cost him the newly acquired rank. He went back strongly during the Aki basho, where he was defeated during a playoff, injuring himself on his chest in the process.

Will he bounce back in 2020 ? Can his knees sustain so much weight ?

I express doubts concerning the latter question, and would answer no.

Sumo debates for 2020 – 1/3

Right after having enjoyed the countdown to the new decade, we’re already about to begin another countdown, till the first honbasho of the year.

Amongst New Year’s traditions, rikishi reveal on television their wishes and expectations for the coming year.

This article may be the occasion for us to discuss specific issues, which may become critical in 2020 or which are already razor sharp.

I’ll give my personal opinion on the matters but everyone should feel free to fuel some awesome debates !

1. Will Takayasu be an ozeki by the end of 2020 ?

Probably the hottest topic currently. Takayasu’s been around for a while – he entered maku’uchi in 2011, and hasn’t had a very long ozeki career – about two years and a half.

Takayasu’s rise was no fluke however, as he produced some great performances, earning kinboshi twice in 2013 and twice in 2014. The Ibaraki-born has a first ozeki run in 2016, but a disappointing 7-8 record in Kyushu wasted fine 11-4 and 10-5 performances.

He returned stronger next year, though, and reached the second highest rank after 11-4, 12-3 and 11-4 performances early in 2017.

Takayasu’s quest for glory undoubtly reached its peak in 2018. Aged 28, he ended up runner up thrice. He narrowly missed a spot in a playoff in the last honbasho of that year.

Last year was much more difficult for him. Before sustaining a serious injury in Nagoya, he produced indifferent 9-6, 10-5 and 9-6 performances. He failed to recover properly from his arm injury, and will start 2020 as an “ozekiwake”.

His repeated training sessions with retired yokozuna Kisenosato – now Araiso oyakata – and new tachi-ai strategy have been criticized among Twitter followers.

In trouble : former ozeki Takayasu

Takayasu has to think his tale isn’t over at the top, as he never lifted the Emperor’s Cup. Turning 30 in February, with an irreversible injury to his arm, will he produce the necessary ten wins to regain his ozeki rank ? If he does, can he maintain his performances during 2020 ?

My prediction : no

2. Will Goeido be an ozeki by the end of 2020 ?

A tricky question. It seems Goeido has been hanging around forever – he produced a noticed 11-4 performance for his maku’uchi debut, back in 2007. He had short stints in san’yaku but spent several years in the maegashira ranks.

The Osaka-native famously began an impressive run at sekiwake in May of 2012, which lasted fourteen tournaments until ozeki promotion after a fine 12-3 performance in Nagoya 2014. His inability to consistently produce strong performances raised doubts about his promotion quest. He got promoted a bit below the common 33 wins standards, with an indifferent 8-7 performance between two 12-3 results.

Goeido has been kadoban nine times (this year’s first tournament included), finished seven tournaments with just eight wins, and followers expected Goeido to produce an anonymous ozeki career.

Being kadoban, Goeido upset the odds during the Aki basho of 2016, winning his only yusho so far with a perfect 15-0 record. Suddenly a yokozuna candidate, he notched just nine wins the following tournament.

Exactly one year after, Goeido wasted a golden opportunity to lift the Emperor’s Cup during the Aki basho again, letting Harumafuji fill a three win deficit before defeating him in the ensuing playoff.

Holding his rank since 2014 : ozeki Goeido

Years 2018 and 2019 were solid albeit unspectacular from Goeido. However, he had to pull out of two of the last three tournaments through injury. Entering 2020 kadoban, aged 33, will Goeido suffer from the weight of the years ? Or will he regain full fitness and enjoy a Kaio-like ozeki career, until the age of 39 ?

My prediction : no

3. Will Asanoyama become an ozeki in 2020 ?

All eyes are watching Asanoyama since he unexpectedly won the May 2019 tournament. After a honourable 7-8 record as then highest ranked maegashira 1, he ended up the year strongly, with 10-5 and 11-4 records. He’ll make his sekiwake debut in 2020.

Officially, Asanoyama is not on an ozeki run – his two last ranks were maegashira 2 and komosubi ; he might also regret not having collected one or two more feasable wins in Kyusho.

Sumo’s next big hope ? Asanoyama Hideki

Nevertheless, Asanoyama’s quest is likely to be eased by the need for new blood at the ozeki ranks – Tochinoshin has been demoted, Takayasu is an uncertain ozekiwake for January, while Takakeisho and Goeido’s recent injury records are no cause for optimism.

Can Asanoyama be promoted as early as March after a tremendous yusho in January ? Or will he simply consolidate his performances, and reach the second highest rank this year ? Or will he fail to meet expactations, as Mitakeumi did so far ?

My prediction : yes

4. Will someone else reach the ozeki rank in 2020 ?

Note : that question does not include Takayasu or Asanoyama.

Abi seems more of a candidate than Mitakeumi, who disappointed again, after clinching his second yusho. Well he get another shot ?

Abi is on the rise, with 8-7, 9-6 and 9-6 records in san’yaku. Can he move up even higher ? His utter aversion for yotsu zumo might prove a stumblingblock, however.

Other candidates would be more original, but also wake up fans from all over the world ! Endo, Daieisho, Ichinojo, Hokutofuji fans and others are welcomed !

 My prediction : no

5. How many yokozuna will remain after 2020 ?

This is a delicate question. Hakuho’s immediate target has long been identified: lasting at least until the Olympics. With his wish about to be granted, the obvious question is: what next ? Hakuho is on the top of almost every record – but is not the oldest rikishi having won a yusho: Kyokutenho achieved that feat, aged 37 years and 8 months.

He also said during the post-basho interview in November that he targeted 50 yushos – he currently has 43.

Many questions remain open: was he serious ? Is that goal actually realistic, given the general state of the field ? Will the ageing yokozuna (he’ll turn 35 in March) manage to hold his form ? Will he stay motivated ?

On a positive note, 2019 has been better for Hakuho than 2018, where he fully competed in just two tournaments. The past year, he competed in “three and a half” tournaments (he pulled out right at the end of the January basho), and won two of them.

Both yokozuna : Hakuho (left) and Kakuryu (right)

About the opposite can be said about Kakuryu’s recent form. After a bright start in 2018, with 11-4, 13-2 and 14-1 records, he had to pull out of part or all of five tournaments. His win in Nagoya of 2019 gave him some respite. Turning 35 in August of this year, will he be able to compete during the whole year ?

My prediction: it’s difficult to answer. Hakuho might decide to retire and Kakuryu to thrive during 2020. But the opposite might also be true, with Hakuho clinching a few more yushos and Kakuryu being unable to challenge properly for the Cup. There’s a chance of seeing one yokozuna retiring and one yokozuna remaining.