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.
With the new year’s basho about to begin, many sumo fans may feel the controversy around former Yokozuna Harumafuji is in the distant past. (In case there is one fan out there who does not know, Harumafuji was at the center of a controversy stemming from a night out with other rikishi in which he repeatedly struck Takanoiwa with his fists and a karaoke machine remote. The reaction to this regrettable incident included Harumafuji’s resignation from the sumo world.)
As the first five days of the basho unfold, we will see a new dynamic at play, as Harumafuji previously played a large role in shaping each tournament’s pace and outcome. True, he was usually good for a handful of kinboshi, but Harumafuji was a relentless competitor who delivered massive offense each time he mounted the dohyo. Without his participation in this tournament, we may see several differences even in the early days.
Increased Tadpole Dominance: So far, the league of up-and-coming rikishi has been storming the gates of the old guard. While four healthy Yokozuna would make life very hard for the younger Rikishi, many fans think that we may only get Hakuho for the full 15 days of Hatsu, and possibly not even that. This means that we may once again see the youngsters turn in solid, double-digit records from high Maegashira or San’yaku ranks. In the past, Harumafuji would tough it out and cull the next generation as much as he was able.
Increased Pressure on Hakuho: As noted in the earlier commentary, Kakuryu and Kisenosato are “on the bubble”. While both of them have put forth a mighty effort to be ready for Hatsu, there is a real threat that either or both of them are simply too hurt to continue. This could possibly leave Hakuho as the only Yokozuna for this tournament, or the only Yokozuna period. This would have the effect of motivating “The Boss” to continue to compete in spite of injuries that in the past would have put him to kyujo, knowing that Harumafuji would carry on. If that should happen, it might hasten the end of Hakuho.
The Battle For The Next Ozeki: The fight for the next Ozeki slot is already underway, with Tamawashi and Mitakeumi clear front-runners. But with the Yokozuna ranks thinned and possibly thinning more, Takakeisho and Onosho are primed to step up their sumo. Both Goeido and Takayasu have stabilized their performance somewhat, but neither of them are clear favorites to begin a campaign for the tsuna.
Following Bruce’s post earlier today, it has been confirmed that the 70th Yokozuna Harumafuji has submitted his resignation, which has been announced by Isegahama-oyakata and the Yokozuna himself, in a press conference at 2pm Japan time today. While undoubtedly more coverage and analysis will follow here at Tachiai, the news has already received worldwide coverage, and so here is a quick round up of English-language media announcing the end of the 9-time yusho winner’s storied career:
NHK World has been running a one minute segment every hour as part of their NHK World Newsline coverage. This segment was online but has since disappeared from their general online statement, which can be viewed here. NHK World also covered the Press Conference with live translation for 15 minutes of the 2pm hour of Newsline and we can expect that coverage to repeat in edited pieces throughout the coming hours (Edited to add – the 15 minute segment is now viewable by clicking here).
The Japan Times have also updated their article announcing the retirement, within the last few hours, which is running on their front page.
The Guardian (UK) is running a piece, quoting from Isegahama-oyakata’s announcement that Harumafuji has “caused great trouble” to the NSK and the sport. Fox Sports, Reuters, Deutsche Welle and more are also running coverage, largely syndicated across Associated Press outlets.
It has been reported in the Japanese press that embattled Yokozuna Harumafuji will hold a press conference Wednesday, and it is assumed that he will be announcing his intention to retire from sumo. While his fans all hoped that he would find a way to weather the controversy around his drunken beating of Takanoiwa, it was clear following yesterdays meeting of the YDC that he was not going to be given any quarter.
Should he retire, as is now expected, it will resolve the Sumo Kyokai’s involvement in the matter. His intai represents a significant loss for the sumo world, as Yokozuna are rare, and Harumafuji has been willing to do whatever it takes to support sumo and uphold his rank on the dohyo.
Check back with Tachiai, as we will bring you further details as they develop.
What’s below is Bruce’s post-Kyushu commentary on the state of sumo. Readers, please feel free to chime in with your own views on how our beloved sport will overcome the challenges before it.
With Kyushu now behind us, sumo inches closer to a reckoning. The basho ended in a somewhat predictable style, with a few compelling story arcs that kept fans satisfied – for now. But in this blogger’s opinion, long overdue changes are continuing to unfold, and will possibly pick up speed into 2018.
The first signal of change will be the resolution (or not) of the Araujo incident. As we suspected when news broke on day 4 of the basho, there was a complexity to the story that did not fit the template initially forwarded by the media. In fact, we suspect there is a multi-party agenda at work, and Harumafuji’s drunken actions at the bar in Tottori were simply the spark that may burn through the Sumo Association.
Let’s look at what kind of changes might be loaded and ready:
Takanohana – The oyakata of the eponymous heya seems to be using the Harumafuji incident as a vector to change or influence the Kyokai. He has said in the past that it is his goal to reform sumo, and make it a 21st century sport. Of course, this was not a welcome opinion from the sumo traditionalists, and since then there has been a back-channel low grade struggle on whose vision of the future will eventually prevail. There have been reports that his position as head of the Jungyo PR tour will be forfeit because of his role in airing a normally private matter of rikishi discipline in public, but many think his position in the Kyokai is unassailable.
Jungyo – As discussed in the past on the pages of Tachiai, the Jungyo has grown to proportions where it is negatively impacting rikishi training, discipline and overall athlete longevity. This rests squarely on Takanohana’s shoulders, and John Gunning’s timely article for the Japan Times served to bring to light the toll it was taking on the rikishi. I continue to predict that Jungyo will undergo changes, probably slowly at first, to reduce schedule and intensity, and perhaps total rikishi roster. Rather than “Everyone all the time” there may be a rotating roster of who has “Jungyo Duty” for each period.
Kadoban Rikishi – The name brands of sumo are changing, but the ranks are yet to reflect that. Since the start of 2017, with Kisenosato’s elevation to Yokozuna, the winds of change have been blowing in the face of the great and the famous. With each basho, the participation of sumo’s top men has been in decline. We have lost 2 Ozeki due to promotion, and as of today, the majority of the Yokozuna are absent in most tournaments. By the numbers:
Much as everyone loves these guys, the Kyokai has a slate of grand champions that are perpetually too banged up to compete. Personally, I would love to see them all healthy and bashing the daylights out of the tadpoles, but that’s not going to happen, is it?
Kisenosato – Tore his pectoral muscle, and lord knows what else since. Had he gone for surgery right away, and stayed kyujo until now, we might be getting ready to see him back for Hatsu. Instead that damaged muscle is possibly little more than scar tissue now. Furthermore, by limping along he has de-conditioned the rest of his body to the extent that he struggles to win against mid-Maegashira opponents.
Kakuryu – Chronic back problems that cannot be corrected to the extent to ever make him competitive again. When the guy can manage his pain and injuries, he’s a fantastic sumotori. As frequently stated on these pages, his approach to sumo is somewhat unique and can dismantle any rikishi, including Hakuho.
Harumafuji – We have frequently mused that they would have to drag him out of sumo, in a body bag. But sadly, there is now a threat that he may not be able to overcome. I expect the Kyokai to move to resolve their involvement in the matter within a few weeks, as they want to put this in the past. Even if he can survive this incident, he is a walking bundle of pain and injury, and we believe he completed Aki by sheer force of will alone.
Hakuho – Sumo fans around the globe revel in “The Boss”, and the reality that he seems strong, fit and committed to a few more years of sumo. But he is one big injury away from pain and suffering. Everyone hopes we never see the day when the greatest Yokozuna of our age is wheeled away from the dohyo in agony, but we worry that with inter-basho time almost completely consumed by Jungyo, it’s just a matter of time before de-conditioning sets in, and the risk is realized.
I am sure the Sumo Kyokai realize all of this to be true, and they also know that over the next several months they will need to clean up their roster. Sadly, this will likely include Yokozuna intai sooner rather than later. Sumo needs a quorum of the top men each tournament, and if those men can’t fulfill that schedule, we will likely see new top men.
Sumo fans stay sharp, changes are coming soon. While it may be sad to say goodbye to long serving favorites, we have seen first hand that the next generation is strong, ready and already taking their place in the top ranks.
As frequent readers will have noticed, several of our newer contributors are continuing to post amazing content to the site, and I am enjoying it so much, I have stepped back a bit and let them run. Though the Harumafuji scandal personally makes me rather sad, it turned into absolute blockbuster readership for Tachiai, and I would like to extend my thanks and welcome to all new readers.
We are now at the half way point of Kyushu, and a handful of rikishi are worthy of discussion. Let’s start at the top.
Hakuho – Clearly he is primed for yusho #40, and it’s now his to lose. True, he has his toughest opponents ahead, but right now he is dominating each and every match with his typical polished ease.
Kisenosato – As we guessed, he is back at least one basho too early. He has not really had a lot of sparring practice, and he is seriously at risk of going make-koshi at this time. The NSK did admonish him to wait and return only when he was ready to deliver Yokozuna grade sumo. Right now he is closer to upper Maegashira. I would rate him at only 70% of pre-injury Kisenosato, but I think he can get closer to 90% by Hatsu. It all comes down to returning to a maniacal training regimen with Takayasu, who is also in need.
Harumafuji – The story is becoming more convoluted as time marches on. Our earlier predictions that it might in fact be less sinister than original reports now look like they could pan out, and there is going to be a large amount of splatter that hits many parties involved in this. While things are not active (aside from the investigation moving forward), be aware that unless it’s a dire emergency, the NSK will leave further action until after the Kyushu basho is complete.
Kakuryu – One has to wonder if his involvement in the Takanoiwa incident may have played a role in his decision to sit out Kyushu.
Goeido – He continues to struggle with his identity. When he attacks with vigor, he wins; when he lets the other rikishi set the tone and tempo of the bout, he most likely loses. This is the gap that Goeido must cross if he would ever wish to stake a claim to his own tsuna. Until then, his fans have to hope that he stays true to his 2.0 self and remembers to attack and drive forward.
Takayasu – He’s going to clear kadoban, it’s fairly certain, but he’s only about 85% of his pre-injury self. So my prescription for him is to get cozy with his water bag, battle Kisenosato daily post-basho, and to sleep against his favorite, most comfortable teppo pole until new-years. I am sure your deshi will bring you KFC at Christmas (If not, let me know and I will fly over and get it for you), so revert to your gym-rat ways and go crazy again.
Mitakeumi – That toe is clearly giving him fits, and he may go kyujo once he gets his 8. Not really too much awesome from him this time, we just need him to heal up and come back at Hatsu like the future Ozeki he is.
Yoshikaze – Hot or cold with the Berserker. Thus far more cold than hot, and we have to hope he can cobble together his 8 before next Sunday.
Kotoshogiku – Komusubi is a tough rank, you get to give a lot of wins to the upper San’yaku, and Kotoshogiku is living that now. He stays in good cheer, and gives it his all each day, but his all is now painful and stiff, and possibly covered with ben-gay.
Onosho – Hey, don’t sweat this basho, kid. Komusubi is ancient Yayoi for “punching bag with legs”, it’s part of the welcome to being a serious sumotori, so have some fun with it. Consider using the Ishiura defense as chicks dig the loose mawashi, and play up the fact you look like a hippy-hop ball, possibly by commissioning your own line of plush figures. Also, try to get your weight centered over your feet, everyone knows you lean in hard, and they are now dialed into the fact you are not a weeble (as in, you do fall down).
Tamawashi – he wants back in san’yaku in a big way. He’s going to take your chanko and make you watch him eat it. Only possible defense might be to chase him away with a beer bottle. (Too soon?) [Yes. –PinkMawashi]
Takakeisho – This tadpole is having a great basho, if he can stay healthy he is going to be part of what pressures some of the old guys to hit intai. He’s shown surprising strength and fighting form against rikishi that intimidate his peers. He seems to not pay much mind to any of it, and just focuses on winning.
Hokutofuji – After a weak showing at Aki (most likely due to injuries), Kaio’s doppleganger is hell on wheels so far in Kyushu. He is showing fantastic sumo, and a fearless will to always drive forward. Should he manage to become more consistent and more efficient in his sumo, he could become a San’yaku mainstay.
Ichinojo – He is large, and I always say that being enormous is not an actual sumo strategy. But when you are his size, if you get genki and can bring some actual sumo chops to a match, there is little that can stop you. Too early to say that he’s turned a corner, but it’s great to not cringe when you see him mount the dohyo.
Arawashi – While it’s not widely discussed, Arawashi was secretly upgraded by Elon Musk, and is now completely Tesla powered. This makes him not only a foreign born rikishi, but the first cyborg rikishi as well. Please be aware the NSK wants only one controversy at a time, so for the duration no one is talking about it (except your plucky crew at Tachiai).
Okinoumi – This guy has a persistent abdominal injury that can’t be healed, it can only be surgically repaired. When they do, his sumo career is probably over. So he muddles on and does the best he can, usually in varying degrees of pain ranging from “dear god, why?” to “kill me now”. So when you see him 6-1 after the first week, you have to feel happy for the man.
Aminishiki – Why not close out the list with Uncle Sumo? What a triumphant return to Makuuchi for a man who does not give up until he wants to. This guy is showing us sumo that is borderline magical in its efficiency and simplicity. Thank you for holding on to your dream sir, we should all consider following your example.
The Makuuchi corps put a very sloppy day one behind them, and delivered some excellent sumo action on day two. There were several fine battles of strength and will, and fans will marvels at Aminishiki’s skill and minimalistic approach to victory. Also of note, Endo fans are going to love today’s match – it seems like he may be past whatever trouble he had with his earlier injuries.
Two top men from Isegahama have us worried. Terunofuji clearly has no strength in his legs, and is more or less done for until his knees can heal up. As much as we all adore a giant McDonald’s-fries-eating kaiju in our sumo, it’s clear there is little chance he can defend his Ozeki bid. Just as troubling is the sumo of Yokozuna Harumafuji, who is clearly not up to speed yet. Our concern is that the Aki basho, which he slogged through in spite of whatever injury plagued him, was too much. Now we worry he is paying the price for his endurance.
Nishikigi defeats Ishiura – It’s natural to ask, “What happened to Ishiura?” A year ago he burst onto the dohyo and took everyone by surprise. Today he lost to Nishikigi. Not to slam Nishikigi, but Ishiura is a shadow of himself a year ago. Nishikigi got him moving and chased him off the dohyo.
Myogiryu defeats Daiamami – These two went at it for a good while, locked on each other’s mawashi, with Myogiryu eventually getting Daiamami upright and pushing him out.
Aminishiki defeats Kagayaki – Uncle Sumo made quick work of Kagayaki, meeting him at the tachiai, then moving back and pulling him down. Aminishiki once again made it look smooth and easy. It’s really neat to watch this much experience on the dohyo, as Aminishiki has been doing this for so long, one marvels at just how efficient the guy is.
Okinoumi defeats Aoiyama – I cheered this one, as Okinoumi has been struggling for a few tournaments. He actually had control of this match early, and danced Aoiyama around before pushing him backwards across the bales. It seems that Aoiyama injured his ankle in the match, sadly.
Ikioi defeats Asanoyama – The real Ikioi showed up today and decided to do some sumo, and it was great to watch. He took control from the start. He attempted a throw, but could not get it done. It didn’t matter, though, as he kept moving forward and Asanoyama could not mount a defense.
Endo defeats Kaisei – May have been the highlight match of the day, these two engaged in a vigorous mawashi battle that raged back and forth. Endo took the match with a shitatehineri, for those of you collecting kimarite. I really like the more genki version of Kaisei.
Shodai defeats Chiyoshoma – Still high at the tachiai, but today Shodai looked strong, confident and swiftly drove Chiyoshoma back and out. Can this version of Shodai please stick around? He’s the one we all like.
Tochinoshin defeats Daishomaru – Relieved to see a solid, strong win from the big Georgian. He continues to struggle with his bad knee, but today he showed his remarkable strength. He wrapped up Daishomaru and marched him out quickly.
Ichinojo defeats Takarafuji – Another protracted mawashi battle, which Ichinojo was all too happy to take to closure. Ichinojo seems to have picked up where he left off at Aki, and is showing some pretty solid sumo. I am looking forward to some of his matches against the San’yaku.
Hokutofuji defeats Mitakeumi – Second day in a row Hokutofuji gets a half step ahead of his opponent and just drives him back and out. Whatever Mitakeumi did to his foot seems to really be bothering him, as he can’t seem to apply much power to his attacks.
Shohozan defeats Terunofuji – Its clear that Terunofuji has absolutely no traction now, his knee is not strong enough for him to really do much sumo, and this tournament is going to be a daily visit from Mr. Pain for him. Shohozan seems to have almost took pity on him. Unless something changes, I am worried he won’t be able to win any matches this basho.
Chiyotairyu defeats Yoshikaze – Yoshikaze continues to be very streaky, and like Aki, he is starting off cold. Chiyotairyu took control of the match early and kept up the pressure. Yoshikaze more or less collapsed under his punishing attacks.
Goeido defeats Kotoshogiku – Some readers were upset with the Tachiai team during Aki because early coverage of Goeido was negative. As we explained at the time, it’s because he is capable of what we have seen the past two days. Strong, fast, low, aggressive and basically unstoppable.
Takayasu defeats Tochiozan – My pre-basho worries about Takayasu have more or less been quieted now. He looked solid against Tochiozan, and seems to be healthy enough to secure his 8.
Takakeisho defeats Harumafuji – Dear Harumafuji does not look good right now. I know he had a cold start at Aki as well, but it’s a tough basho for him, losing to two tadpoles in the first two days. Takakeisho did seem to overpower the Yokozuna, putting Harumafuji on defense (and a shaky one at that) right away.
Kisenosato defeats Onosho – Kisenosato picks one up as Onosho loses traction at the tachiai and drops. I am sure the recovering Yokozuna will take the win.
Hakuho defeats Tamawashi – Hakuho lands his left hand belt grip on Tamawashi that spins him around, and then pushes him out from behind. While I was hoping for some sort of “Flying Lesson”, this outcome is less hazardous for Tamawashi. The Boss is looking strong once more, and everyone else will need to get past him for the yusho.