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SUMO: 2018 Natsu Basho Wrap-Up—A Tale of Two Yokozuna

Well, the Natsu Basho is now in the books. Yokozuna Kakuryu surprised a lot of people (me included) by staying focused and pulling out a series of big wins in the final few days of the tournament, and earning his first ever back-to-back yusho [tournament championships]! Congratulations to him! Banzai!

Part of what makes this even more surprising is what a terrible year Kakuryu had in 2017. There were lots of pundits (me included) who thought that retirement was in his immediate future. Not only was he suffering from lingering injuries, even when he was healthy he rarely seemed to manage more than ten wins per tournament. I think you’ll find many commentaries where my description of Kakuryu was, “he really performs more like an ozeki.” It was clear that he had the skills to win a basho, and that he might put everything together once a year or so, but in MOST tournaments he was out of the yusho race before the middle weekend arrived. But he’s turned that all around this year. In 2018 Kakuryu has become the most reliable yokozuna we have, what with Hakuho and Kisenosato being knocked out due to injury, and Harumafuji having been forced to retire.

Now, to my mind there’s still an open question about how long Kakuryu can keep this up. His problem over the last few years has been more mental than physical—he just couldn’t maintain his focus for all fifteen days of a tournament, and he lost too many matches early in the tournament. The fact of the matter is, he kinda did that in this basho, too, losing to Shohozan on Day 4. The thing he did better was winning the matches against the upper ranked guys in the final days of the tournament, but even then there’s the fact that their numbers were severely thinned—with no ozeki left for him to face, and only Hakuho (!) as a fellow yokozuna. In years past, he’d have had to fight two other yokozuna and three ozeki.

So what I’m saying is that I’m not convinced that Kakuryu really has upped his game as much as the level of the competition around him has dropped to a level where he is a stand-out rather than an also-ran.

Which brings me to yokozuna Hakuho. I’m kinda worried about him. Late in the second week, I wrote a little commentary about how he clearly had lost some strength as compared to even six months ago. He still had his speed and his skills, but whereas in past tournaments he’d win the majority of his bouts by yorikiri [frontal force out], ending in the familiar pose of a half-squat near the ring’s edge, holding on to his opponent’s mawashi so that the guy didn’t fall into crowd, this time he won most of his matches by throws of one type or another. And even when he did get a yorikiri or oshidashi [frontal push out], it was with a mighty shove that often sent both the opponent and Hakuho off the dohyo.

Now, Hakuho has all kinds of legitimate reasons for being a little off his game this basho. He’s just finished being kyujo [absent due to injury] for two full tournaments, and it takes a while to regain all of one’s physical strength after a long layoff like that. What’s more, it was only in April that his father passed away, and that must have taken him away from his full routine of training and working out. Plus, of course, there’s always the simple fact that he is getting older, and he’s going to start losing SOME strength just naturally.

The question for Hakuho is, can he get back in the heya [sumo stable], refocus his training, and get back to the same level of strength that he had last year? Or is this just the new normal for him, and he’s going to have to learn to perform with a reduced level of raw power? If it’s the latter, we may soon be talking about Hakuho’s retirement. More and more of the strong, up and coming rikishi will come to their matches knowing that he has a weakness, and believing that they can exploit it—his aura of invulnerability will be gone.

All of this, plus the return of a banzuke that features three ozeki (and hopefully, with Kisenosato’s return, three Yokozuna) means that the Nagoya Basho is going to be a whole new kettle of sakana [fish]. It may well be that there ISN’T a single, most dominant rikishi in the crowd anymore, no prohibitive favorite, and that ANY of the top eight or ten rikishi has a realistic shot at taking the yusho—it all just depends on who puts together the right combination of effort, skill, and luck during the middle two weeks of July.

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