Here we are on Day 4 of the Haru Basho and things continue to look interesting. Yokozuna Harumafuji lost a second bout, and has looked out of sort every time he’s been on the dohyo. Likewise, ozeki Goeido has started the tournament 1–2 and seems to have gone back to his old ways of plowing straight ahead without really having a plan. Meanwhile, sekiwake Kotoshogiku, who needs to win ten time this basho in order to regain his ozeki rank, lost for the first time yesterday. It was a good loss, to fellow sekiwake Takayasu (who is bucking for an ozeki promotion of his own), but Kotoshogiku can now only allow four more losses for the remainder of the tournament . . . and he’s still got to fight three yokozuna and an ozeki, which basically means he CAN’T have any slip-ups against other sanyaku or upper maegashira opponents.
Since all those permutations are probably a little confusing for the sumo neophyte, this seems like a good day for me to pontificate a little bit about how the upper echelons of the sport are organized.
The top division of professional sumo is called the Makuuchi Division, and it’s made up forty-two rikishi split into three tiers. The main tier are 30 or so maegashira rikishi ranked 1 through 15 or 16 (or even as high as 17 in an era with no yokozuna), paired East and West (with the East being slightly more prestigious). They all function normally for sumo, that is if a rikishi is kachi-kochi [majority of wins] during a given tournament, he will be promoted up in rank, and if he is make-koshi [majority of losses] he will be demoted. Those toward the bottom of the maegashira ranks can get demoted all the way out of the Makuuchi Division into the next lower Juryo Division.
Generally during a basho, a rikishi’s fifteen bouts will come from the twenty competitors ranked within five spots above or below his position (this, of course shifts a bit as a rikishi gets closer to the bottom of the division, when there are diminishingly fewer opponents ranked lower than him).
The middle tier is called the sanyaku, which literally means three upper ranks, and is made of three named ranks—komusubi, sekiwake, and ozeki. Apart from being named, the only real difference between komusubi and sekiwake as compared to the maegashira ranks is that the sanyaku rikishi are not eligible for kinboshi [gold star awards] if they beat a yokozuna in a match. That and the fact that they have a ceiling for promotion. There are only two slots each for komusubi and sekiwake, so even if a rikishi gets kachi-koshi he sometimes will be unable to be promoted unless and until a rikishi currently in that rank gets make-koshi and is demoted and makes room.
It’s even tougher to get promoted to ozeki (which loosely translates as “champion”), though there are no limits to the number of rikishi who may hold the title simultaneously. In order to garner an ozeki promotion, a rikishi must win 33 matches over the course of three tournaments. That’s an average of eleven wins per basho—a difficult challenge. Once a rikishi is promoted to ozeki, he only has to maintain kachi-koshi records to stay there (though an ozeki is expected to win ten bouts per tournament to put in a “good showing”). What’s more, an ozeki who has make-koshi is not automatically demoted. In fact, they get one automatic reprieve, and a second chance even if they squander that. The reprieve is designed so that an ozeki who is make-koshi keeps his rank but is said to be kadoban—which means if he gets make-koshi on the following tournament he WILL be demoted. This happened to Kotoshogiku recently. He was make-koshi in November 2016, became kadoban in January 2017 and still went make-koshi, so he has been demoted to sekiwake this tournament. However, as a former ozeki, he gets one more second chance. In this tournament, if he can get 10 or more wins, he will have his ozeki rank reinstated. However, if he fails in this opportunity, he will remain a sekiwake (if he is kachi-koshi) or drop further down the banzuke [ranking sheet] if he is make-koshi and would have to start from scratch to re-earn an ozeki ranking with another 33-win streak.
Very often, yokozuna counted as being part of the sanyaku ranks, but the truth is that they are a tier of their own. Yokozuna are “grand champions” and in order to become one a rikishi must win back-to-back yusho [grand tournament championships] or do something else of equivalent stature. Once a rikishi is promoted to yokozuna, there is no more promotion or demotion—he is there for the rest of his career. But a yokozuna is expected to exemplify the best of what sumo is . . . and they are expected to win eleven or more matches per tournament. Anything less, and they risk being pressured into retirement by the Sumo Association. (In point of fact, the Sumo Association can FORCE a yokozuna to retire, but in a culture where so much emphasis is put on honor and saving face, it rarely comes to that.)
Okay, I’ve stood on my soapbox long enough. Digest that information at your leisure, and apply it to what you’re watching as the tournament goes on. In the meanwhile, let’s look at today’s top matches.
M13 Takakeisho (2–1) vs. Kyokushuho (2–1)—Sometimes two lower ranked rikishi just decide to “bring it,” and you get a glorious match. Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about either of these rikishi. I’m familiar with their names, but they haven’t done anything consistently good (or bad) enough to stick in my memory. But today’s bout will. (1:23)
Komusubi Mitakeumi (2–1) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (3–0)—After his win yesterday over fellow sekiwake Kostoshogiku, Takayasu has another tough opponent in up-and-comer Mitakeumi. But if Takayasu wants to be an ozeki, he’s going to have to get used to having a schedule that’s filled with the best opponents . . . and he’s going to have regularly beat pretty much EVERYONE. If he can’t do that, then he’s not ready to be an ozeki anyway. (8:20)
Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (2–1) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (3–0)—Kotoshogiku is fighting to get back his ozeki rank, and yesterday’s loss to Takayasu was a stumble along the way. He could do himself a real favor by beating Kakuryu . . . and he has a fair shot at it. The two have fought forty-four times in the past, and the results are nearly even. Meanwhile, Kakuryu may be undefeated this tournament, but he’s looked lackluster the whole way. If he really wants to compete for this yusho, he’s going to have to shake off the doldrums and lay the smack down on a serious opponent like Kotoshogiku. (11:20)
Yokozuna Hakuho (2–1) vs. M1 Ikioi (0–3)—On paper this seems unlikely to be one of the top matches of the day. Ikioi is winless so far this tournament, and he’s only ever beaten Hakuho once. And even though Hakuho has shown his feet of clay lately, he’s still been fighting strong and requiring that his opponents take the initiative if they want to pry a win out of his grip . . . and Ikioi really isn’t the initiative taking type. Still, they don’t award the yusho based on how things look on paper . . . they make you fight the bout. (11:55)
M2 Sokokurai (1–2) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (3–0)—Sokokurai beat a yokozuna yesterday (Harumafuji) and he’d like to do it again AND be the first rikishi to hand Kisenosato a loss at his new yokozuna rank. On the other hand, Kisenosato still is looking calm, collected, and ready to prove what a good idea it was to promote him. (13:30)