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SUMO: 2017 Kyushu Basho (Day 1)

Greetings, sumo fans! It’s time for the final honbasho [grand tournament] of the year! As always, the November tournament is held in city of Fukuoka on the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, Kyushu—a long way from Tokyo, but certainly with more hospitable weather as the autumn turns into winter. 

September’s Aki Basho was a wild affair that ultimately ended up with a predictable result. Things in Kyushu are set to kick off in a more standard way, with three of the four yokozuna competing and looking healthy . . . but we’ll have to wait and see how things play out. There’s certainly lots of room for surprises and even high drama.

Yokozuna Harumafuji took the yusho [tournament championship] in September, and he’s looking just as healthy here at the start of the follow-up tournament. What that ultimately means is different because yokozuna Hakuho is back, having sat out in September, and in his practice sessions he has looked even healthier and more dominant than he was in the tournaments of May and June (both of which he won). He’s even talking about aiming for a zensho-yusho [undefeated tournament championship], which means he must be feeling strong.Also joining the action after being kyujo [absent due to injury] in September is yokozuna Kisenosato. There remains some question about whether he’s 100% healthy, but clearly he’s well enough to step up onto the dohyo and face all comers. 

The only yokozuna who is NOT competing is Kakuryu. For the past two years I’ve been predicting that Kakuryu is on the verge of retirement, and should probably be encouraged in that directions. It seems like the rest of the sumo world now feels the same way, and rumors about that if he doesn’t perform well (that is a bare minimum of 10 wins, preferably 11+) in his next outing, the Kyokai [Sumo Association] may pressure him to schedule a danpatsu-shiki [a ceremony where his top-knot is cut off and he officially retires]. Of course, if he fails to even ENTER for a few more tournaments, they may make that same “recommendation.”

We’ll have two ozeki again this basho, and again one of them begins kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion]. In this case, it’s not Goeido, who finished in second place in September—though the WAY he did it was thoroughly unimpressive as he lost four of his final five matches, including the yusho playoff. Despite dominating through the middle section of the tournament, in the end he wound up with only an 11–4 record, a pretty average performance for an ozeki, and downright disappointing considering three yokozuna and two ozeki were kyujo. Goeido has looked good in practice recently, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he’s going to underperform again during the tournament, and the he’ll be kadoban for the NINTH time in his career in January. 

Meanwhile, kadoban THIS time is Takayasu, who only participated two days in September before being sidelined with a twisted ankle. Now he MUST get a minimum of 8 wins in order to hold onto the ozeki ranking he’s only held for a few tournaments, after putting in more than year of solid performances to get the promotion. He’s looked pretty good in warm-up matches, so as long as he’s built up enough strength to handle the fifteen-day endurance test that each basho provides, getting kachi-koshi shouldn’t be too much to expect. In fact, if he’s healthy enough to make a go of it, I predict he’ll go all the way with a solid ozeki performance that includes double-digit wins.

We only have two ozeki because Terunofuji’s chronic knee problems finally caught up with him last basho, causing him to pull out on Day 6. Of course, he was already kachikoshi following a weak performance in July’s Nagoya Basho, so he has been demoted to sekiwake. This tournament is his one chance to automatically reclaim his prior ranking IF he can get double-digit wins (something he hasn’t done a lot of since the knee injuries began). It’s certainly not beyond possibility, as when he’s healthy Terunofuji is still a threat to challenge for the yusho. But when he’s not, he can be a complete pushover. His pre-basho matches have been a mixed bag, with him dominating some days and sitting out entirely on others. This doesn’t bode well. But one thing we know for sure, he will push himself as far and as hard as he can. Let’s hope he’s well enough to get the 10 wins, because tournaments are always more exciting when he is in the mix.

The other sekiwake this tournament are Mitakeumi and giant-killer Yoshikaze, both of whom are holding the rank for the second tournament in row. Yoshikaze is in something of an “autumn bloom” late in his career (he’s 35 years old) and has publicly talked about wanting to get promoted to ozeki before he retires. However, with 8–7 and 9–6 records in his last two outings, he still needs to put in three successive double-digit-win tournaments in order to get there, and that seems pretty unlikely. Mitakeumi, who had identical records in the previous two basho, is only 24 years old—there’s still plenty of time for him to take his game up a notch and register the thirty-three wins over three tournaments that are required in order to get promoted to sumo’s second-highest rank.

At komusubi this tournament are former-ozeki Kotoshogiku and young phenom Onosho. In September Kotoshogiku showed that he’s still got MOST of what he had in his ozeki days, taking advantage of all the yokozuna and ozeki absences to put up a 10–5 record. Onosho, on the other hand, is just 21 years old, and this is only his fourth tournament in sumo’s highest division. What’s more, he’s had 10–5 records in ALL of his previous Makuuchi Division basho. If he can somehow manage to go 13–2 this tournament, he will technically have earned a promotion to Ozeki. Of course, this will also be the first tournament where he will have to face a healthy batch of yokozuna and ozeki, so the jury is still out on whether or not he can handle that level of competition.

This is as strong a collection of sanyaku-level rikishi as we’ve seen all year . . . and possibly in two or more years. That should provide the makings of a very competitive tournament. But, as we saw in September, you never know for sure what you’re going to get until the big men square off on the dohyo. Hopefully we have an exciting fortnight ahead of us!

I’ll give my thoughts about the rest of the field in tomorrow’s post. For now, though, let’s look at today’s best matches.

M14 Kotoyuki vs. M13 Aminishiki—Two rikishi who have just been promoted back up the the Makuuchi Division after a few tournaments down in Juryo. Notably, at 39 years old, Aminishiki is the oldest rikishi ever to get promoted up from Juryo. Kotoyuki did very well for about a year in Makuuchi, and then seemed to completely lose steam. We’ll see if either of these rikishi have what it takes to STAY in the upper division again for any length of time. (1:25)

Sekiwake Terunofuji vs. M3 Hokutofuji—As I said above, this basho is Terunofuji’s one chance to win an instant reinstatement to his old ozeki rank . . . but he has to get at least ten wins. To do that, he’ll need to have a VERY strong Week 1, but rumor is that his left knee is still quite weak. (8:05)

M3 Shohozan vs. sekiwake Yoshikaze—Two tough rikishi who both favor the slap-and-thrust style of sumo. It’s always a bit of a street brawl when they face off, and the question is who can get the first opening to try something tricky. (9:15)

Sekiwake Mitakeumi vs. M2 Tochiozan—Word is that Mitakeumi injured his toe in pre-match warm-ups. Will this be enough to throw him off his game? (10:10)

Yokozuna Kisenosato vs. M1 Tamawashi—Kisenosato started 2017 in a strong fashion, winning both the January and March tournaments. But he’s been hampered by injuries the rest of the year (sitting out almost all of the September basho). There remains some question as to how healthy he is, and the proof will be in his performance on the dohyo. (12:20)

Yokozuna Harumafuji vs. komusubi Onosho—Harumafuji lost to Onosho on Day 5 of the September tournament, giving the youngster his first kinboshi [gold star award for a Makuuchi rikishi beating a yokozuna]. Of course, Harumafuji turned his performance around and went on to win the basho. Onosho also did well, earning a promotion to komusubi after just his third tournament in the top division. We’ll see who has the upper hand here on Day 1. (14:40)



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