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SUMO: 2018 Natsu Basho (Day 13)

Here we are, Day 13 of the Natsu Basho, and sekiwake Tochinoshin is still unbeaten and alone at the top of the leaderboard. But because his path there went straight through yokozuna Hakuho, there is only ONE rikishi immediately trailing him—yokozuna Kakuryu!

The Tochinoshin/Hakuho fight was everything a sumo fan could hope for—cleanly fought, skillful, powerful, and strongly contested. It was the twenty-sixth time the two had gone head-to-head in a honbasho [grand tournament], and it was the first time that Tochinoshin pulled out a win. With 36 wins, a victory over the greatest living rikishi, plus one and possibly two yusho [tournament championships] all in the past three basho, Tochinoshin has pretty much locked in a promotion to ozeki when this tournament is done. He fights M4 Shodai today, and yokozuna Kakuryu tomorrow . . . and if he wins both of those, he’ll secure the yusho.

At the start of the tournament, a bunch of the pundits were saying that Hakuho didn’t look fully fit, and several said they expected him to go kyujo before the full fifteen days passed. I didn’t see it. He looked fully ready to me. In fact, he looked as good as ever. Here on Day 13, though, I can say that I have noticed that as healthy as he is, Hakuho seems to have lost some of his strength. He’s still the fastest and the most skillful rikishi on the dohyo, but he used to be able to physically dominate just about anyone he faced. And throughout this tournament, I’ve seen him get in trouble when the more powerful rikishi have managed to square up and meet him head on. Of course, “trouble” has meant applying techniques that most sumotori can only dream about, and gathering very definitive wins, but even just a year ago he was winning more matches by yorikiri [frontal force out] and now he seems to be relying more on uwatnage [overarm throw].

One way to think about it is that in the past Hakuho would win most of his bouts by guiding his opponents out of the ring (or rolling them onto the clay) and he very rarely wound up getting dirt on himself in the process. In this basho he has wound up having to extend himself such that after or as part of his winning maneuver, Hakuho himself has wound up on the ground too. It’s a small distinction, but I think an important one—he may still be winning 12+ bouts every basho, but he’s not dominating his opponents the way he once did. More importantly, more and more of his opponents seem to come to the match with a glimmer of hope in their eyes (as opposed to the doubt and resignation they’ve had for so many years). Hakuho is still the greatest, and the prohibitive favorite in any basho he enters . . . but I now see the end of his career looming on the horizon, and getting closer all the time.

M15 Tochiozan (7–5) vs. M7 Chiyomaru (5–7)—Tochiozan is trying to secure his kachi-koshi, but Chiyomaru is fighting to stave off make-koshi! High drama indeed! (4:55)
M6 Takarafuji (6–6) vs. M2 Abi (5–7)—Abi had a rough start to his basho with matches (and losses) against all the top-rankers. Now he’s fighting hard to pull a kachi-koshi out anyway, but he must win all of his remaining matches. Takarafuji is only a step better off, needing to win two of his remaining three matches. More high drama! (7:20)
Komusubi Mitakeumi (7–5) vs. M5 Kotoshogiku (7–5)—There is more than a little physical resemblance between these two, and they both are one win away from their kachi-koshi. Kotoshogiku is fighting to remain relevant after his fall from ozeki and sanyaku, while Mitakeumi is struggling to put together good enough performances to make a run at an ozeki promotion. (10:25)
Sekiwake Tochinoshin (12–0) vs. M4 Shodai (7–5)—Tochinoshin, fresh off his victory over Hakuho, must remain focused. He now has a very good chance to win the yusho, particularly if he can beat Shodai today. Meanwhile, Shodai is still trying to get back to sanyaku (where he was for much of 2017) and that begins with securing his kachi-koshi. (11:15)
M5 Ikioi (8–4) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (10–2)—Hakuho must bounce back after his loss to Tochinoshin. Not a problem for him mentally, but he really is beginning to show his age, and he gave it his all yesterday. Meanwhile, Ikioi has been looking good all tournament long and would love to cap that off with a kinboshi [gold star award for a Maegashira-ranked rikishi beating a yokozuna]. (12:55)
Yokozuna Kakuryu (11–1) vs. sekiwake Ichinojo (7–5)—Kakuryu is alone in second place, and if he wants to stay on the heels of Tochinoshin (whom he fights tomorrow), he’s got to beat Ichinojo. On the other hand, Ichinojo still needs one more win to secure his kachi-koshi and retain his sekiwake rank in July . . . but he’s having trouble getting that eighth win.  (15:00)

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