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SUMO: 2017 Kyushu Basho (Day 6)

It’s Day 6 and the leaderboard looks like this: Three rikishi are undefeated (yokozuna Hakuho, ozeki Goeido, and M13 Aminishiki) with seven rikishi one win off the pace (ozeki Takayasu, sekiwake Mitakeumi, M3 Hokutofuji, M4 Ichinojo, M5 Arawashi, M12 Okinoumi, and M15 Nishikigi). The first number is surprisingly small leading into middle weekend, and the second number is about right . . . perhaps a little large. 

Mostly, the numbers don’t matter as long as Hakuho continues to fight like his recent injuries never happened. In yesterday’s match he clearly was toying with his opponent—M2 Tochiozan. Of course, over the past two years, he’s regularly toyed with Tochiozan, employing several nekodamashi [cat tricks] maneuvers against him, regularly giving him a dame-oshi [extra shove] after the match is won, and looking surprisingly pleased with himself after it’s all said and done. (At one point I thought that Hakuho actually LIKED Tochiozan and was using these moments to pressure him into performing better and “living up to his potential,” but I’ve changed my mind . . . now I think that Hakuho basically dislikes Tochiozan for some reason, and he’s just trying to make him look bad.)

It’s not that Hakuho is completely unassailable. Chances are good that he’ll lose a match or two in the next ten days. But the chances are very SLIM that any of his opponents will ALSO perform that well. Hakuho’s great power isn’t that he’s undefeatable, it’s that he can be counted on to regain focus after a loss and keep his overall record on a path that approaches perfection. And he has one advantage that NO ONE else in the basho can match—he never has to fight against Hakuho. Everyone else must, and therefore must also do BETTER than he does in their OTHER matches in order to absorb that extra loss.

That having been said, Goeido has certainly shown us that he, too, can approach perfection (as his one tournament win was a zensho-yusho [perfect record championship]). But he’s also shown us that he is more often likely to let one loss shake his confidence and suddenly slip into a multi-day losing streak (as he did in September, after a 10–1 start to the tournament). If he can master his weaker tendencies, Goeido can present a serious challenge to Hakuho.

The other remaining undefeated rikishi, Aminishiki, is the kind of dark horse it’s difficult to handicap. He’s way down the banzuke [ranking sheet] at M13, but he’s had a long and storied career, having been ranked as high as sekiwake on six different occasions. He knows how to win, and for at least the first ten days he’ll only be facing the lowest ranked of opponents, giving him an easier path to challenging final weekend. Of course, he’s ranked that low because it’s been a long time since he performed at a sekiwake level, and he relies more on trickery than domination these days. And, oddly, because of his low rank he ALSO gains the advantage of not having to fight Hakuho (unless they end up tied and go into a final day playoff).

And through all this, the pressure remains high on the half-dozen-or-so rikishi who are one win off the pace. They, too, must approach perfection over the next five days in order to remain within striking distance when the leaders stumble. If the leaders all stumble. 

M13 Aminishiki (5–0) vs. M11 Asanoyama (1–4)—Aminishiki is just back from a year in Juryo and he’s showing that he hasn’t lost any of his cleverness. He’s winning his bouts not by overpowering his opponents, but by taking their initial charges and then turning their preferred attacks against them. They’ve all been more or less wins by “reversal.” I think we’re due for him to pull a big ol’ henka [jump to the side at the tachi-ai] in one of these matches soon. He’s always been renowned for using those cleverly and effectively. (2:00)
M9 Endo (3–2) vs. M12 Okinoumi (4–1)—Two popular rikishi who have had shaky performances for most of 2017, but both seem to have turned things around here in the last tournament of the year. If they’re both as on their game as they’ve seemed thus far, this should be a very exciting match. (3:15)
Sekiwake Mitakeumi (4–1) vs. komusubi Onosho (1–4)—Two rikishi who seem destined to be stars in the coming years. I think this is going to develop into one of the big rivalries of the coming decade. Mitakeumi is hampered at the moment with a badly stubbed toe (I’m guessing that it’s actually broken), while Onosho has been doing over-anxious sumo and leaving himself vulnerable to thust downs. We’ll see who performs better today. (10:40)
Ozeki Goeido (5–0) vs. M2 Chiyotairyu (1–4)—I was having an online discussion last night with a friend who roots hard for Goeido. Where I find him difficult to like because he so often fails to live up to his potential, my friend likes Goeido because when he pulls it all together he is among the best in the sport. Right now, Goeido seems to have everything under control . . . so my friend is enjoying his strong performance while I keep holding my breath waiting for him to slip up. (11:45)
Yokozuna Kisenosato (3–2) vs. M2 Tochiozan (0–5)—Kisenosato may have turned a corner in his confidence yesterday. He stayed calm, moved with certainty and conviction, and pulled a win out of a match where he was clearly in trouble. I think he’s probably still injured and can’t be as aggressive as he usually likes . . . but as long as he continues to find ways to win, it can only help his overall confidence as a yokozuna. (14:10)
M3 Shohozan (2–3) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (5–0)—Shohozan is a scrappy, street-fighter of a rikishi, and Hakuho seems not to like facing opponents like that. I don’t mean that he has trouble with them, but rather he goes out of his way to wrap those opponents up as quickly as possible to avoid the unpredictable thumping one gets in such matches. The longer Shohozan can stay out of of Hakuho’s grip, the better his chances of scoring an upset victory. (15:10)

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