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SUMO: 2018 Hatsu Basho (Day 9)

Here we are, Day 9 of the Hatsu Basho and one rikishi stands alone atop the leaderboard—yokozuna Kakuryu—and he’s looking as strong as we’re used to seeing yokozuna Hakuho look up there. Of course, the excitement of the basho is based on the fact that he ISN’T Hakuho, and he has a long history of letting his feet of clay show. Kakuryu missed most of the 2017 tournaments because of chronic injury, and in 2016 he only averaged ten wins per tournament, so we’re USED TO thinking of him as an also-ran. Right now, though, he IS the man to beat, and let none deny it.

Trailing the leader are a trio of rikishi with only one loss—sekiwake Mitakeumi, M3 Tochinoshin, and M13 Daieisho—and then, surprisingly, only a trio of rikishi with 6–2 records—M8 Tochiozan, M9 Shohozan, M16 Asanoyama. The remaining sanyaku and upper Maegashira rikishi have all lost at least three matches, putting them pretty well outside the realm of competition for the yusho [tournament championship] . . . that is, for now. In a basho like this anything can happen, and we’re only halfway to senshuraku [the final day].

I was very disappointed yesterday by Mitakeumi’s performance against Ichinojo. It should come as no surprise that I don’t like Ichinojo, and I think he’s a one-note rikishi. Likewise, I’ve made it plain that I do like Mitakeumi and think that he’s got a good shot at being one of the dominant forces in sumo’s next generation. But if he’s going to get there, he has to learn not only how to beat opponents like Ichinojo, whose whole skill set is being tall and heavy, but to do so with relative ease. Ichinojo did nothing yesterday but lean on Mitakeumi, and the sekiwake just leaned back, trying to beak the M1 at his own game. Unsurprisingly, the monstrous Mongolian won the battle, and Mitakeumi lost his share of the lead.

On the other hand, I very much LIKED what I saw from Tochinoshin—another rikishi I’ve been very clear that I like and root for. Over the past year or more, Tochinoshin has struggled with knee problems, and it struck me yesterday what critical part those stole from his sumo performance. It wasn’t power or stability, though those had been somewhat affected by his injuries, he still was always quite strong and able to lift and move opponents when put in the right situation. No, the main thing that Tochinoshin has been lacking was quick footwork. Watching his match yesterday against Yoshikaze I realized that in the past he’d have been forced to reach out and chase his quicker opponent with his arms, thus putting himself off balance, unable to use his power, and vulnerable to twists and throws. Yesterday, he was able to shuffle his feet quickly enough to follow and stay close to Yoshikaze, maintaining his balance and allowing him to make use of his greater upper-body strength. And that’s been true throughout the whole of Week 1. For as long as I’ve been watching sumo, I’m still often surprised at how important the basic fundamentals are even for the most skilled and most physically gifted rikishi.

M15 Ishiura (4–4) vs. M13 Daieisho (7–1)—Ishiura matches two days in a row! This time I picked it for two reasons. First, because it’s a really entertaining bout, but second because you see something interesting just after the tachi-ai [initial charge]. The gyoji [referee] puts his hands on both rikishi’s backs and tells them to pause, and they freeze in place. This will be done on occasion if a match has gone on a very long time, or if a foreign object enters the dohyo, or (as in this case) one of the competitor’s mawashi starts to come loose. The gyoji then secures the mawashi, puts his hands on both rikishi’s backs again, and tells them to “Go!” . . . and the match resumes. (1:05)
M1 Ichinojo (4–4) vs. komusubi Onosho (4–4)—I’m a big detractor of Ichinojo, and even when he wins will spend more time talking about what his opponent did wrong than what he did right. But sometimes one must give credit is due. This match shows, if nothing else, that Ichinojo knows more than just one strategy. I think that surprises Onosho as much or more than it surprised me. (11:25)
Komusubi Takakeisho (2–6) vs. M1 Hokutofuji (3–5)—Another terrific match between two young, up-and-coming rikishi. Niether one is having a great tournament here, but they both have lots of skill, energy, and potential for future greatness. (12:55)
Sekiwake Mitakeumi (7–1) vs. M3 Tochinoshin (7–1)—Two of my favorite rikishi, not to mention two of the competitors just one win behind the leader, go head to head. This is the match I’m looking forward to most today, but it’s ALSO the match of the day! (13:45)
Yokozuna Kakuryu (8–0) vs. M4 Arawashi (4–4)—Kakuryu marches on undefeated and undeterred. I keep expecting him, like ozeki Goeido, to suddenly fall apart for no particular reason. So far, Kakyryu remains rock solid. There’s no reason to think that Arawashi will be the opponent to shake him. (17:25)

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