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SUMO: 2018 Nagoya Basho (Day 1)

Greetings, sumo fans! We survived the long eight-week drought and made it to the big summer tournament in central Japan—the Nagoya Basho is here! Fifteen days of sumo begins here and now, and I for one can’t wait!

To refresh everyone on the results of May’s Natsu Basho, yokozuna Kakuryu won his second yusho [tournament championship] in a row, sekiwake Tochinoshin got 36 wins over the course of three consecutive tournaments and was promoted to ozeki, Hakuho struggled a little due to ongoing problems with his toes, and we saw a big shift in the rankings at the top of the Makuuchi division. This Nagoya Basho will see a bunch of young rikishi at their highest ranks ever, and a few old favorites down toward the bottom of the banzuke [ranking sheet] trying to hold onto their spots in the top division. Sumo really seems to be going through a generational shift that will keep things exciting and unpredictable for the rest of the year, and probably most of next year, too.

The big question here in Nagoya is can Kakuryu win THREE tournaments in a row? My answer is, yeah . . . he probably can. Those of you who have been reading my commentary for a while will know that over the past few years I’ve been pretty down on Kakuryu, saying that “he’s more of a strong ozeki than a real yokozuna,” but this year he’s really proven me wrong. So what’s been the big change? How has Kakuryu managed to improve so much this late in his career?

In my opinion it’s NOT that Kakuryu’s sumo has gotten significantly better—it’s that the competition he’s facing has gotten notably weaker. In 2015–2017, Kakuryu finished most tournaments with only 10 or 11 wins, and usually finished third or fourth behind yokozuna Hakuho, ozeki Kisenosato, or yokozuna Harumafuji. Kakuryu would generally lose 2 or 3 matches to rank-and-file rikishi, then lose most or all of the matches against the other top competitors, saddling him with a final record that just eked into double-digit wins. But in the past six months (more, really) Hakuho and Kisenosato have been injured often missing whole tournaments, and Harumafuji has retired. In the meanwhile, Kakuryu has continued to perform the same steady way he has over the past few years, but with those top competitors out of commission, he’s added 2 or 3 extra wins to his record each basho and finished among and atop the leaderboard.

It might seem unkind to say so, but I think it’s true that Kakuryu hasn’t gotten any better, he simply LOOKS better without those others rikishi in the mix—or, more kindly, he suffered by comparison to them, and is showing his real skills now. It also means that since his recent dominance hasn’t been a new “surge” or particular high-water-mark, he may be able to keep up this kind of performance and dominance for another year or two, until age starts to catch up to him or some of the young rikishi finish their maturation process. Until then, it will take Hakuho completely recovering from his toe problems and regaining his full strength, or for one of the ozeki making big strides to knock him out of the top spot.

But, lest you think that Kakuryu’s is the only drama going into this tournament, let’s look at some of those others.

Hakuho has been having a lot of practice bouts leading up to the Nagoya Basho, and it’s possible that he WILL be back full force for this tournament. Back in May, his biggest problem seemed to be his strength. Even as he was winning most of his matches, he wasn’t physically dominating his opponents that way he used to, and he looked tired in the final five days of the basho. That could have just been residual weakness from having been out of action for so long, or it could be that at the age of 33 he’s just starting to decline physically. It will be very instructive to see how he looks in Nagoya, the most physically demanding of the hon-basho because of the brutal heat.

And for the eighth tournament in a row, yokozuna Kisenosato will be kyujo [absent due to injury]. According to some sources (I say that only because I can’t confirm it independently), this is the longest streak of absences for a yokozuna who still remains technically “active.” But the YDC (Yozkozuna Deliberation Council) has given their nod of approval to Kisenosato staying out until he is well and truly healthy. Personally, I think that if he fails to appear in September we’ll begin to hear rumblings about forced retirement. Then if he fails to appear in November, he’ll be given an ultimatum of “you must fight in January, or you must retire.” In any case, he WON’T be fighting in July.

Our two existing ozeki, Takayasu and Goeido, are both kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] this tournament because of their losing records in May. They MUST get kachi-koshi [majority of wins] in Nagoya or they’ll lose their rank. Takayasu was injured and so sat out most of the Natsu Basho, and he’s still struggling with nagging arm pain. Meanwhile, Goeido just looked terrible in May and never gave an explanation as to why. Physical ailments are bad enough, but if Goeido’s problems are mental, he’s in real trouble.

Meanwhile, there’s Tochinoshin, the shin-ozeki [newly promoted ozeki]. It’s traditional for a new ozeki to do poorly in his first tournament at the rank. They have a lot of new responsibilities (including congratulatory parties from supporters of his heya, television interviews, and in Tochinoshin’s case, a trip back to his native Georgia to see his family, including his newborn daughter), and that often cuts into their training regimen. Add to that the fact that Tochinoshin pulled his shoulder in training last week, and one wonders if he can keep up the domineering performance that got him the promotion in the first place. 

Both sekiwake, Ichinojo and Mitakeumi, say that they want to follow in Tochinoshin’s footsteps and start their own campaigns for promotion to ozeki. In order to do that, they’ll have to solidly get double-digit wins (they must have 33 wins over the course of three tournaments to secure a promotion), and that’s something they’ve both struggled to do when fighting at a sanyaku rank. 

Wow … and that’s just SANYAKU!

But enough of my blather for Day 1. I’m sure I’ll have other insights to share about the rank-and-file rikishi over the next few days, but in the meanwhile, here are the best of today’s matches.

M14 Kotoeko vs. M13 Asanoyama—This is Kotoeko’s first match as a Maegashira-ranked rikishi, and it’s a doozy! Welcome to the big league, rookie! (1:50)
M6 Endo vs. M5  Yoshikaze—Two fan favorites who always seem to bring out the best in each other. You can usually count on their matches to be fun and hotly contested. (6:55)
M2 Ikioi vs. ozeki Tochinoshin—Tochinoshin’s first match as an ozeki. (9:35)
M2 Kotoshogiku vs. ozeki Takayasu—Ex-ozeki Kotoshogiku did so well last tournament that he’s back ranked among the top dogs again . . . where he was pretty soundly outclassed just a two tournaments ago. We’ll see if he’s got what it takes to hang tough at the top of the banzuke. Meanwhile, Takayasu is coming back from an injury in May and is kadoban, so he needs to get his kachi-koshi as quickly as possible. (10:45)
Ozeki Goeido vs. M1 Shodai—Goeido is also kadoban, so he needs a quick kachi-koshi, too. The thing is, no one knows what was wrong with him in May, so there’s no real telling what signs to look for here (other than pure win/loss performance). He starts off facing Shodai, who seemed like a strong ozeki candidate as he was rising through the ranks, but stalled out and seemed to just tread water over the last year or so. Rumor is that Tochinoshin’s promotion has lit a fire in Shodai’s belly. (12:05)
Komusubi Tamawashi vs. yokozuna Hakuho—Hakuho is said to be in good health, but based on his performance in May, the world is still wondering about his strength and stamina. (13:30)

One Comment

  1. Andy wrote:

    Normally I expect the first couple days to be a bit slow, with everyone getting back in their groove and Nagoya’s heat and humidity weighing them down, but DAMN there is some good sumo going on already.

    Monday, July 9, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

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