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SUMO: 2018 Hatsu Basho (Day 13)

Day 13 of the Hatsu Basho is here, and I get to report something I never dreamed I ever would be able to say—there is a single rikishi atop the leaderboard and it is M3 Tochinoshin with an 11–1 record! Yokozuna Kakuryu lost for the second day in a row, dropping him to sole possession of second place at 10–2, while ozeki Takayasu is alone in third place with a 9–3 record.

Tochinoshin continued his improbably strong basho by beating sekiwake Tamawashi (who the day before was the one to hand Kakuryu his first loss). Even more encouraging was the fact that Tochinoshin did more than simple, straightforward power sumo. Indeed, he showed speed and cleverness by getting himself out of a disadvantageous position along the tawara [straw bales at the ring’s edge] and turning the tables on his opponent.

Meanwhile, for the second straight day Kakuryu did the one thing that he KNOWS he shouldn’t do—he stopped aggressively moving his opponent forward and tried to back up and slap him down. His opponent in this case was M5 Endo who was clever enough to stay close to the yokozuna and then relatively easily force him to continue backing up until he was out of the ring. This is the way Kakuryu has most often suffered his “weak losses” in past tournaments. It’s also how he lost to Tamawashi on Day 11, after which he told reporters, “Well, I’ll never do that again!”

As much as I have been rooting for Tochinoshin, I would never have predicted this turn of events. And even having the sole lead for the first time ever could be a negative, as it adds a different kind of pressure knowing that he controls his own fate—that if he wins his three remaining matches, he will win the yusho [tournament championship] and hoist the Emperor’s Cup. That kind of pressure can be crippling. Plus, he has very strong opponents left to fight, beginning today with M1 Ichinojo.

Yes, I’ve been a huge Ichinojo detractor for a very long time. But like Tochinoshin, this tournament he’s doing things he’s never done before. In his past three matches he’s won using strategies and maneuvers I’ve NEVER seen him use in the three years I’ve been watching him. He’s been light on his feet and quick to react to tactics of his opponents. And most of all, he already has a winning head-to-head record against Tochinoshin.

If he gets past Ichinojo, he will have to face komusubi Takakeisho and probably M1 Hokutofuji over the weekend, so Tochinoshin’s path is hardly an easy one. On the other hand, Kakuryu will be facing sekiwake Mitakeumi today, followed by the two ozeki—Goeido and Takayasu—over the weekend. Of those three, only Takayasu is fighting with any real spirit here in Week 2.

So what I’m saying is that I expect the remaining three days worth of sumo to be full of drama and surprises. Just the way I LIKE the final weekend to be!

M5 Endo (7–5) vs. M2 Kotoshogiku (5–7)—A strong match between two rikishi who both have something to fight for. Endo is just one win away from his kachi-koshi (and after beating Kakuryu, that means a good shot at a special prize come the end of the basho). Kotoshogiku, on the other hand, is fighting to stave off his make-koshi. It’s a shame because at times during this tournament he’s looked like the old Kotoshogiku, but at other times he’s just looked old. (7:30)
M3 Tochinoshin (11–1) vs. M1 Ichinojo (8–4)—Two of the biggest rikishi going head-to-head with the lead in the yusho race on the line. Over the past few days Ichinojo has looked the best that I’ve EVER seen him. Today, though, it’s likely going to be straight ahead power sumo as Tochinoshin is one of the few rikishi who can match him in that department. I definitely give the edge to Tochinoshin (and I’m rooting that way), but Ichinojo has been surprising me a lot lately. Maybe he really does have an answer other than size and power. (8:30)
M4 Arawashi (6–6) vs. ozeki Takayasu (9–3)—Takayasu is trying to get his first double-digit win record at the rank of ozeki. He actually achieved that in MOST of the tournaments in 2016 in order to earn the promotion, but has struggled a bit since achieving it. He seems to have recovered from his mid-basho stumble. (11:45)
Ozeki Goeido (6–6) vs. M5 Okinoumi (4–8)—Goeido is still in the midst of his mid-basho stumble, and must win two of his remaining three matches in order to secure kachi-koshi and avoid going kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] for the seventh time. Luckily for him, Okinoumi has been stumbling through this whole tournament and should be a pretty easy mark. (12:20)
Yokozuna Kakuryu (10–2) vs. sekiwake Mitakeumi (7–5)—Two really good rikishi, who looked terrific in Week 1 and over the past few days have looked just terrible. Kakuryu went from being the sole leader to being one off the pace because he suddenly started trying to pull opponents down instead of forcing them backwards. This could be a sign of  back pain, or just overconfidence. Meanwhile, Mitakeumi seemed to lose all the thrusting power from his sumo. After winning seven straight, he suddenly had four matches in a row where he couldn’t even move his opponent. Again, back pain could explain this, but he hasn’t been moving like that was an issue. One of them will have to win this match. Let’s just hope that it’s done with strength and confidence, not by being the slightly less wounded warrior. (12:50)

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