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SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho (Day 1)

Konichi-wa! [Greetings!] And welcome to the Aki Hon Basho [Autumn Sumo Grand Tournament]! Today we kick off fifteen days of sumo action in the grandest style and I, for one, can barely contain myself. This looks to be the most unpredictable tournament in a while, and given how that Natsu and Nagoya basho went, that’s saying something. But we come into Day 1 with a surprising number of top level rikishi already announced as kyujo [absent due to injury] and a fresh crop of newly promoted rikishi looking to take advantage of those absences.

There’s a lot going on up and down the banzuke [ranking sheet]. so let’s take a quick look before getting into today’s matches.

YOKOZUNA & OZEKI
There may be four yokozuna on the banzuke, but only one of them will be competing this tournament—Harumafuji. The other three—Hakuho, Kisenosato, and Kakuryu—all have withdrawn from the tournament because they haven’t fully recovered from the injuries they suffered in July. This makes Harumafuji the odds-on favorite to win the yusho [tournament championship] . . . but we all know that his bane is sloppy Week 1 losses, so he really gains no particular advantage in this situation.

All three of the ozeki are competing, but all three are also coming off less than stellar performances in July. Takayasu was only 9–6 in his debut at the rank, while both Terunofuji and Goeido were make-koshi [majority of losses] in July (which means they’re kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] and will lose their rank if they don’t get kachi-koshi [majority of wins] in the Aki Basho). The good news is that all three have looked healthy in pre-basho training, and chances are good that the yusho winner will come out of this group.

SEKIWAKE & KOMUSUBI
The sekiwake are Mitakeumi and Yoshikaze, and both are looking good. The weird thing about Yoshikaze is that he makes his living as a “giant killer,” notching wins against yokozuna ozeki and then putting in a significantly lesser performance against his peers. With most of the yokozuna out of commission, I’m afraid of how it may affect his overall record. Rather than excelling, I think there’s a better chance that he’ll go make-koshi. Mitakeumi, on the other hand, keeps improving his skills every tournament, and the absence of the big names might just give him the opportunity he needs to sneak in and grab his first ever yusho.

The komusubi are Tamawashi and Tochiozan, and I think they’ll both take advantage of the absent yokozuna to hit double-digit wins . . . but that neither of them will put in a strong enough performance to vie for the yusho.

MAEGASHIRA 1–5
There’s a strong field of upper Maegashira rikishi this basho, and several of them have the potential to contend for the yusho. M1 Tochinoshin is one of my favorite rikishi, and with the yokozuna absent he’ll have a good chance to show his dominant, physical brand of sumo. M3 Onosho put on an amazing performance in July and was set to have his first chance to face top-ranked opponents here in September. With all the absences, it just increases the likelihood that he’ll be able to dominate again. Word on the street was that M4 Ura might withdraw before Day 1 because of the injuries he suffered in Nagoya . . . but it seems like the wide open field has given him the impetus to take a shot. I just hope that if he IS still hurting and it shows, he’ll go kyujo quickly and get on with his healing.

Speaking of kyujo, M2 Aoiyama, who was runner up in July’s Nagoya Basho, is still too injured to attempt to repeat his dominant performance. He’s out of the tournament and will hope to come back strong in November. 

Perhaps the most interesting member of this tier is M1 Kotoshogiku, who is fighting from below the sanyaku ranks for the first time since the 2010 Kyushu Basho. The last few tournaments have shown that he no longer has what it takes to be one of the elite rikishi . . . but the question remains as to whether he still has what it takes to be dominant over regular rank-and-file opponents. Will he stake a claim to a spot at the top of the Maegashira ranks, or is his slide down the banzuke going to continue?

MAEGASHIRA 6–10
There are a lot of familiar names in the mid-tier, and pretty much all of them put in mediocre performances in July. Any of these guys could be dominant at this level of the banzuke. The question is, WILL they? These include such popular rikishi as Ichinojo (M6), Ikioi (M7), Ishiura (M10), Takekaze (M10), and Kagayaki (M6). The only thing I’m willing to predict is that we should see some high-quality bouts as these rikishi slug it out against each other.

MAEGASHIRA 11–16
As always, this tier is a mix of rikishi who are ready to launch themselves further up the banzuke, and those who are desperately trying not to fall any further down. After a couple of tournaments down in Juryo, Brazilian rikishi Kaisei returns to M13. I expect him to be pretty dominant. On the other hand both M14 rikishi—Endo and Okinoumi—have looked so hapless the last couple of tournaments, I actually expect them to continue their slides down into Juryo. (Word was that Endo was considering going kyujo, so it’s not even clear that he has what it takes to last all fifteen days.)

PREDICTION
Having said all that, who do I think will walk away with the 2017 Aki Basho yusho? That’s a tough question. I’d like it to be Mitakeumi, but when push comes to shove I think that we’re going to see a resurgent Terunofuji, who will walk away with his second Emperor’s Cup.

Now, how about let’s look at a few of the opening day matches?

M14 Endo vs. M14 Okinoumi—Two talented and popular rikishi who both had terrible tournaments in July and now find themselves at the bottom of the banzuke. If they fail to get kachi-koshi this basho, they’ll both likely end up down in Juryo. On top of that, scuttlebutt is that Endo is still pretty injured and strongly considered going kyujo. Okinoumi’s problems have been more mental . . . he just hasn’t been able to get himself focused for the past few tournaments. The opponents he’ll be facing this time may be weak enough that he can win even if he stays unfocused . . . but maybe not. Today’s match will be an interesting first test for BOTH of these rikishi. (1:15)
M13 Nishikigi vs. M13 Kaisei—Nishikigi is one of the young up-and-coming rikishi who has trouble when he’s ranked too high (like he was in July) . . . he’s got to learn how to beat top notch competition. Kaisei, on the other hand, started the year near the top of the banzuke, but plummeted down to Juryo for the past two tournaments. Now he’s back in the big league, and it remains to be seen if he’s rediscovered his “A game.” (1:40)
M5 Shodai vs. M4 Ura—Another pair of young, strong, up and coming rikishi who are trying to learn what it takes to succeed in the upper echelon of the top division. Of course, starting the tournament with a win is one of the big steps, but only one of them can achieve it. (5:55)
Komusubi Tamawashi vs. M4 Shohozan—After being a sekiwake for the whole year, Tamawashi finally slipped with a 7–8 performance in July and sank back down to komusubi. He definitely wants to get back to his winning ways, especially with so many absences and injuries among the yokozuna and ozeki. Meanwhile, Shohozan has been bouncing up and down the banzuke for the past year or more, and he really needs to prove that he can pull out a kachi-koshi when ranked near the top of the division. (6:55)
Sekiwake Mitakeumi vs. M3 Onosho—Amazing isn’t it that the two riskishi I pick as longshot possibilities for taking the yusho get matched head-to-head on Day 1. On the one hand, that minimizes that importance of this match, as there are still fourteen more to go (and 14–1 would definitely be good enough to win this basho). On the other hand, I hate seeing the pressure of a good rivalry released so undramatically before any kind of yusho race can begin to take shape. (9:00)
M1 Kotoshogiku vs. ozeki Goeido—As long as Kotoshogiku can manage to stay high enough on the banzuke to warrant matches against ozeki, his match against Goeido is going to be one of the feature “rivalry” bouts of the tournament. The two were both ozeki together for many years, and Kotoshogiku still believes he is the equal (or better) of Goeido, no matter what the rankings say. Meanwhile, Goeido simply wants to put Kotoshogiku aside without any fuss, proving that he’s clearly the better of the two. That makes a grudge match . . . and that means exciting sumo! (11:05)

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