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.
Following the Hatsu basho, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council head a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss the state of the sumo world. In prior meetings, the council has rendered opinions on a variety of subjects including Hakuho’s controversial tachiai habits. Some notable elements (thanks to Herouth):
Kakuryu has passed his “compete or else” challenge satisfactorily. Council members were concerned about his week 2 fade. They urged him to rest up, heal up and return ready for Osaka.
Kisenosato was once again admonished not to return to the dohyo until he is fit and capable of Yokozuna-grade sumo. Kisenosato can’t keep dropping mid-basho. Next time he does that, the YDC will “make a decision” (choose one of its available tools such as reprimand or recommendation to retire).
Hakuho is encouraged to heal up and return for Osaka. While public sentiment has turned negative on the dai-Yokozuna, the fact is he is still the strongest and most capable rikishi in any tournament he enters, and the NSK needs him to continue competing if he is at all able. They cautioned him to restrain from using his habitual harizashi+violent kachiage for future matches. As we have seen, this recommended change in his fighting style left Hakuho off tempo and unfocused.
In other news, Hakuho’s toes are improving, and he is practicing shiko (leg stomps) at the stable.
Please note that there is no jungyo promotional tour until after the March basho in Osaka, so rikishi are focusing on training, and participating in a handful of promotional events around Tokyo and Osaka.
When Yokozuna Hakuho withdrew from Hatsu, the medical reason given was “Injury to is foot thumb” ie, his big toe. Some fans mocked that it was embarrassing for a Yokozuna to withdraw due to a “boo boo on his big toe”.
For those wondering how bad it really was, we give you both the photo above, and the tweet below. Not for those who are squeamish. It is predicted that Hakuho will be out until the Osaka Haru basho, hopefully his puss and blood filled mess will be resolved by then.
Word from the Japanese sumo press that Yokozuna Hakuho will be kyujo from day 5, citing injuries to both feet and problems with his big toes. Fans will recall that in 2016 he underwent surgery to remove a bone chip from one big toe, and it appears he may have re-injured that toe, and picked up additional new damage to the left foot as well.
With his withdraw, Kotoshogiku picks up a much needed win, but loses a solid chance at an another kinboshi.
Day 4 was a fantastic day of sumo, the kind of day that makes a sumo fan wish they could see the entire 2 hour makuuchi broadcast. Perhaps one day? We can always dream.
Hakuho seems to have injured himself once more, and I would guess will push to go kyujo. Terunofuji’s medical slip for his kyujo recommends 1 week rest, implying that we could see him again in week 2 making a desperate bid to save himself from a demotion to juryo. With his health more or less out of control at this point, Terunofuji is a long way from his earlier Ozeki self.
Day 5 brings a close to the first act of Hatsu. Readers may recall that I divide the 15 day basho into three distinct 5 day arcs, as they always seem to form a pattern. The first act being where everyone shakes off the dust and settles into their “full power” sumo, and we get to see who is hot and who is not. Act two are where hopes get smashed and dreams get crushed. It’s also where we start to track the leaders, and look into the race for the Emperor’s cup. The second act contains the all important middle weekend, where the scheduling team usually tries to narrow the field through exciting matches between rikishi with strong winning records.
What We Are Watching Day 5
Kyokutaisei vs Asanoyama – Kyokutaisei comes up from Juryo to fill the empty slot left by Terunofuji. He faces an undefeated Asanoyama, who is looking very solid so far. Is it just me, or is Maegashira 12-17 really turning in some great sumo this basho? I know we talk about the tadpoles a lot (with good reason) but this class of rikishi really seem to be doing well, and dare I say it, having a lot of fun? Is sumo allowed to be fun?
Ishiura vs Ryuden – Ishiura hit the clay on day 4 in a surprising loss to Nishikigi, but day 5 he gets Ryuden, who in spite of his 1-3 record seems to be eager to battle each time on the dohyo. I am sure that Ryuden wants to stay in Makuuchi, so I expect him to dial up the intensity starting now.
Abi vs Kagayaki – Oh yes please! Abi seems capable of surprising any opponent thus far, where Kagayaki is sort of Kisenosato 2.0, steady, focused, straight ahead sumo with a lot of power behind it. Sure, Kagayaki is young and is not at Kisenosato skill or strength levels yet. Abi however, seems to be surprisingly adaptive, and fast on his feet. Could be a great match.
Kotoyuki vs Sokokurai – Kotoyuki has quietly put together a 3-1 record to start the basho. During his tour of Juryo in 2017, he was a mess. He seemed to constantly be injured and on a knife edge of further demotion. Now he is back in Makuuchi, and actually doing well enough. He faces the Kyushu Juryo Yusho winner, Sokokurai, who seems to be more than a little overwhelmed. Their career 7-1 record favors Kotoyuki.
Shohozan vs Chiyomaru – Big Guns Shohozan takes on the incredibly large Chiyomaru. I am sure that Shohozan can and possibly will squat press Chiyomaru, but with both of these men at 3-1, the workout is more likely to be blistering tsuppari with a side of uwatenage.
Okinoumi vs Endo – Okinoumi Seems to be in good enough physical condition, but thus far he has not quite been able to get his sumo to click. Fans may remember Nagoya 2016, where Okinoumi ripped up the San’yaku battle fleet before his injuries turned him into a cuddly petting zoo refugee. Endo on the other hand is cranked up and pushing higher for Osaka. They are evenly matched, with a career record of 5-4 slightly favoring Endo.
Shodai vs Ichinojo – Two giant, somewhat puffy and bloated men in blue mawashi. One is a bit slow and clumsy, and the other is frequently struggling to execute a decent tachiai. I have no clue what will happen here, but whatever it is, it will happen slowly.
Takakeisho vs Onosho – Yeah, let’s put the two angriest tadpoles in a bucket and let them battle! An idea so magical, it could result in a fantastic match. These two are actually real life friends, and have been working through sumo together for quite some time. But both are fierce competitors. I would give a slight advantage to Takakeisho, as he seems to be more “dialed in” right now.
Mitakeumi vs Tamawashi – Sekiwake fight! Tamawashi, who used to hold the East slot, takes his Oshi offense to the face and bulbous thorax of Mitakeumi, who has no intention of letting Tamawashi smudge his flawless 4-0 record. Mitakeumi holds an 8-2 career advantage.
Hokutofuji vs Takayasu – Forgive me, Takayasu fans, but I might make you mad. I think Takayasu has lost touch with the core of his sumo. His Tochinoshin match of day 4 was full of mistakes, and I think he really needs to focus on his fundamentals, which when he works in them, are outstanding. Hokutofuji comes in with a 1-3 record, but he’s been on a steady diet of Yokozuna sumo, and surviving fairly well. In fact, Takayasu has NEVER beaten Hokutofuji. Good grief.
Goeido vs Tochinoshin – Gut check time for Goeido! He knows he can’t go chest to chest with this beast of a man, so he’s got to stay mobile. When he does that, he tends to try and pull, and when he does that, he tends to lose. I will be interested to see if Tochinoshin has Goeido so psyched out that Goeido reverts to his buggy 1.0 software.
Hakuho vs Kotoshogiku – Hakuho has foot problems, and can’t transmit power to ground. I wonder if Kotoshogiku is feeling genki enough for his back bend, now that he dropped his arch-foe Kisenosato. For a healthy Hakuho, this is a straighforward win. But as-is, Kotoshogiku has a fair chance of another Kinboshi.
Kakuryu vs Chiyotairyu – Only really interesting because I am curious to see what Kakuryu does to put the big Sumo Elvis down. Kakuryu is fighting really well this basho, and if he can remain uninjured he will have a fantastic and convincing return to active status.
Yoshikaze vs Kisenosato – Even though Yoshikaze defeated Hakuho on Day 4, he still looks about a fraction of his normal self. Kisenosato has been high and unable to generate any arm strength on his go-to weapon, his left hand. Fair chance of another Yoshikaze kinboshi today.
Abbreviated preview for day 4 fans, but hey, let’s make it count!
What We Are Watching Day 4
Ishiura vs Nishikigi – Ishiura is really on a roll, and I am going to guess that struggling Nishikigi won’t be able to offer much resistance. Ishiura is back with renewed vigor, a lot of speed, and no shortage of strength. I am interested to see how high up the banzuke his challengers will be if he continues to win.
Asanoyama vs Yutakayama – Battle of the yamas! My guess is that Asanoyama is going to prevail on this one, even though he only holds a 2-1 advantage in the career series.
Sokokurai vs Kagayaki – Both are 2-1 at the start of day 4, and Kagayaki seems to best Sokokurai to the tune of 3-1. Kagayaki will need to pick up a win here to ensure that he finishes the first 5 days with a majority of wins.
Chiyoshoma vs Tochiozan – Chiyoshoma starts day 4 undefeated, and he’s going to be facing Tochiozan, who has been fighting well this tournament (again). Thus far Chiyoshoma has never beaten Tochiozan (0-4), so a win tomorrow would be a very important development. Word from Herouth is that some are remarking that Chiyoshoma is working to replicate dear departed Harumafuji’s tactics. This is a great test.
Endo vs Arawashi – Endo needs to recover from his day 3 loss to Chiyoshoma, who dismantled him in a fraction of a second. He holds a 5-1 career advantage over Arawashi, whose only win against Endo came from a pull-down in 2014.
Mitakeumi vs Takakeisho – Battle of the tadpoles comes day 4! This battle slightly favors Takakeisho, but with Mitakeumi pushing hard for double digit wins, he needs to put the doom on Takakeisho. Takakeisho’s day 3 match was an odd, bouncy affair, and I am quite sure Mitakeumi will keep him bottled up.
Goeido vs Hokutofuji – Hokutofuji’s only win of the basho is against the somewhat off-tempo Hakuho, and there is little chance that he will get much advantage over this version of Goeido. I expect Goeido will dispatch him quickly.
Tochinoshin vs Takayasu – Strong man battle deluxe! When these two battle, its usually a test of endurance, as each of them is strong enough to toss the other one about. Takayasu holds a 8-6 advantage in the series, but this is likely to be a big match for day 4.
Kakuryu vs Ichinojo – Ichinojo has shown some great sumo during the first 3 days, but his match against Kakuryu is probably going to be fairly short and end with him flat on the clay. Keep pushing Ichinojo, you are doing great!
Kotoshogiku vs Kisenosato – Bellwether bout. Kotoshogiku is fading hard and fast, and comes in winless. Should Kisenosato fail to dispatch the broken Kyushu-bulldozer, we know for a fact that he’s in serious trouble. They have had 66(!) prior matches, and Kotoshogiku leads 35-31
Hakuho vs Yoshikaze – I am going to guess Yoshikaze has some kind of horrific sumo-flu, and will be in poor shape for several days to come at least. Even though Hakuho seems unsettled by his mandated tachiai changes, he is incredibly adaptable, and should settle down soon.