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SUMO: 2018 Aki Basho (Day 1)

The long, hot, summer dry spell is over . . . it’s time for the Aki Basho [Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament]! For the next fifteen days, the big men will be competing in the big dohyo [ring] in the home of sumo—Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan! And even before a single match has been fought, it’s already a momentous tournament. 

As you know if you’ve been following my posts during recent tournaments, many of the top rikishi have been suffering through long and recurring injuries. It’s been a long time since we started a basho with all the top names in competition, but that’s what we’ve got here. For the first time since the Nagoya Basho in July 2017, ALL of the Makuuchi Division rikishi will be active today, and hopefully for the whole two weeks of the tournament. 

The man everyone is wondering about most is yokozuna Kisenosato, who has not fought a complete tournament since March 2017, and hasn’t competed at all since January of this year (when he dropped out after Day 4). He’s been healing up from the massive shoulder/chest muscle injury he suffered earning and securing his yokozuna promotion, and all of Japan has been holding its collective breath hoping that he can get healthy enough to be competitive again. Kisenosato is the first Japanese-born yokozuna since 2003, and although he was clearly the second-best rikishi over the previous five years, competing as an ozeki the whole time, the fans want to see him excel at sumo’s highest rank, too. 

I had predicted that Kisenosato would NOT join the Aki Basho, if only because he still seems only about 75% healthy, and the pressure on his performance is so high. He has publicly announced that if he does not perform satisfactorily in his return basho, he will retire. And, even if he didn’t do that of his own volition, the Kyokai [sumo association] will soon begin apply pressure on him to resign if he can’t properly perform the duties of a yokozuna. (They have been extremely forgiving of his absences because of his history and popularity, but their patience is beginning to wear thin.) So, the question remains—Does Kisenosato have what it takes to perform like a yokozuna for fifteen days in a row?

Second on the watch list is yokozuna Hakuho who is recovering from what are now chronic toe and ankle problems. In the past year, he has only stayed in for the full course of two, he sat out two in their entirety, and only lasted five days apiece in the remaining two. For the first time since 2005, he has failed to win at least one of the first three basho of the year. But perhaps most telling of all, it is clear that he’s slowing down . . . just a little, but it’s enough, particularly given that the Kyokai has reprimanded him for his tactics to make up for that loss of speed. Namely, Hakuho had begin to use more “trick moves” and “bullying sumo” rather than the pure, blazing fast, super clean sumo that made him the greatest of all time. 

Again, I thought that Hakuho was going to take another tournament off. His feet were clearly still bothering him during the summer jungyo [exhibition tour], and he has nothing to prove. But he wants to still be competing and still be on top when the Summer Olympics come to Tokyo in 2020, so he wants to grab at least one yusho [tournament championship] this year, and notch his 800th win as a yokozuna (currently 792), and 1,000th win in the Makuuchi Division (currently 986). He already holds the record for most career wins and most championships, so he’s left to pick off records with various caveats and restrictions. I HOPE that he’s strong enough to be in the thick of the yusho hunt this time. Hakuho as an also-ran is a very sad thing to me.

There’s still LOTS of other rikishi to talk about, but I’ll get to them over the next few days. Meanwhile, on to Day 1 action!

M15 Chiyoshoma vs. M15 Yoshikaze—An amazing finish with a really weird call. If this is a sample of what the lower-ranked matches are going to be like, this is going to be an incredible basho! (1:00)
M13 Ryudan vs. M13 Takanoiwa—Another closely fought match, but most notable because it is Takanoiwa’s return to the top division after having been the victim in the scandal that caused former yokozuna Harumafuji to retire in disgrace.(2:15)
Sekiwake Mitakeumi vs. M3 Shodai—It’s worth checking in with the last basho’s winner, Mitakeumi. If he can manage to get ten or more wins this basho, he’ll probably be promoted to ozeki. (10:05)
M2 Chiyotairyu vs. ozeki Tochinoshin—Tochinoshin is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] in this, only his second tournament at sumo’s highest rank. He hurt his foot in the Nagoya Basho and must get at least 8 wins to secure his position. (11:20)
Ozeki Goeido vs. M1 Kaisei—Goeido looked completely dominant during the pre-tournament training sessions. Two years ago, he came out on fire and won the Aki Basho with a perfect 15–0 record. Can he do it again, or has he left his best game on the practice dohyo? (12:25)
Yokozuna Kisenosato vs. M1 Ikioi—This is Kisenosato’s first match since January. No one is expecting him to contend for the yusho, but he needs to perform like a yokozuna. (13:05)
Komusubi Tamawashi vs yokozuna Hakuho—Hakuho is trying to make a strong return and get back to being a contender for the yusho. (13:55)
Yokozuna Kakuryu vs. komusubi Takakeisho—Kakuryu has been the most steady of the three yokozuna recently, if only because he’s stayed healthy. He’s shown that he’s better that the rest of the field, but now he’ll have to show that he’s better than his fellow yokozuna, too. (14:40)

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