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SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 4)

Here we are on Day 4 of the Natsu Basho, and something like a leaderboard is starting to come into focus. The number of undefeated rikishi is down to seven—yokozuna Harumafuji, yokozuna Hakuho, sekiwake Takayasu, komusubi Mitakeumi, M4 Tochiozan, M10 Ura, and M13 Daishomaru. Of course, there are thirteen rikishi with 2–1 records, so it’s still pretty much a big scrum . . . but an INTERESTING one. In fact, some of the most notable moments have been the “near thing” upsets-that-didn’t-happen. 

Yokozuna Kakuryu got his first win yesterday against M1 Endo, but the match very nearly went the other way. Endo had the yokozuna on the run, but got a little overzealous and so Kakuryu was able to turn the tables on him. There’s a lot of that, when you’re a yokozuna . . . everyone is out to beat you, and they’re all a little too anxious to grab at the first opening they see. And Kakuryu’s opponent today is komusubi Yoshikaze, who usually doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes. 

M1 Chiyokuni very nearly toppled yokozuna Kisenosato yesterday. The younger rikishi was showing the same quick moves fluid maneuvers that let him get a kinboshi [gold star award] for beating Kakuryu on Day 2, but despite his injuries, Kisenosato was able to keep up with him step for step and run the youngster out of the ring before toppling to the clay himself. It was arguably the most exciting match of the day yesterday, not least because the fans are all rooting so hard for the yokozuna.

In the match between two sekiwake, the once-ozeki Kotoshogiku and the future-ozeki Takayasu, Takayasu again showed why everyone is talking like his promotion is a shoe-in. At the tachi-ai [initial charge] he bounced Kotoshogiku like a rag doll and then just slapped him to the ground. It was a very important match that was completely dominated by the rising star.

All of this leads us to today’s matches. There are some exciting match-ups on the schedule—Kisenosato vs. Endo, Yoshikaze vs. Kakuryu, Chiyonokuni vs. Harumafuji, Mitakeumi vs. Takayasu, just to name a few. Lots of chances for excitement and minor upsets that could change the shape of the leaderboard and the emotion of the basho.

M10 Tochinoshin (2–1) vs. M10 Ura (2–1)—You can’t get two rikishi whose sizes and styles are more different than these two. Tochinoshin is a big bear of a Georgian who specializes in overwhelming his opponents with power sumo. Ura is one of the smallest rikishi who seems to prefer being literally underfoot of his opponents. Both are ranked at M10, Ura on his way up the banzuke, Tochinoshin still struggling with persistent knee problems. This should be as interesting a pairing as we’re likely to see all basho. (2:55)

M4 Tochiozan (3–0) vs. M6 Ikioi (2–1)—Two rikishi who spend about half each year in or around the sanyaku ranks, and the other half recovering from the losses they suffer against such elite opponents. They’re both at rankings where they ought to be able to excel this basho, so the question is which one is feeling more genki [energetic] today? (6:25)

Komusubi Mitakeumi (3–0) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (3–0)—Another match of two rikishi who are both at the top of their game. Takayasu, of course, wants to get double-digit wins so that he can secure a promotion to the rank of ozeki. Mitakeumi, on the other hand ALSO wants Takayasu to get that promotion so that there’s room at the sekiwake level for him to advance, too. Of course, he’d rather beat Takayasu along the way, just to establish a strong rivalry. It seems likely that this will be one of the marquis pairings for many tournaments to come. (8:25)

Sekiwake Tamawashi (2–1) vs. sekiwake Kotoshogiku (0–3)—Kotoshogiku’s goal this basho is pretty simple. He only needs eight wins to hold on to his sekiwake, just like the rest of the field. But starting the tournament winless over the first three days is not a good way to make that happen since the quality of his opponents hasn’t lessened at all with his new lower rank. He still has all four yokozuna, both ozeki, and the four other sanyaku rikishi. He’d better start socking away some wins before things get really tough in Week 2. (9:00)

Yokozuna Kisenosato (2–1) vs. M1 Endo (1–2)—I have to say, I’m impressed with Kisenosato’s performance yesterday. He showed that he’s not jut out there on the dohyo because it’s expected . . . he’s still trying to PROVE that he’s worthy of his yokozuna rank (not that there should be any doubt at this point). The problem is, he CLEARLY is hurting, and I’m afraid that he’s going to do himself some more serious injury. After all the time it took him to finally get promoted, I want his reign to be as long as possible and that means he has to stay healthy. (11:31)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 3)

Day 3 of the Natsu Basho, and already this clearly is going to be one of those tournaments where ANYTHING can happen. Yokozuna Kakuryu has lost both of his matches so far, as has ozeki Terunofuji, Yokozuna Harumafuji is the only one of the top rankers who looks like he’s on his game, and he’s already doing that little wrist twitch at the end of his matches that lets you know that his wrist is hurting him. The two strongest performances so far have been put in by a pair of sekiwake—Takayasu and Tamawashi—while the third sekiwake (Kotoshogiku) is looking completely unimpressive.

But as I said, it’s only Day 3. Anything could happen yet.

I’d say that so far I’m most impressed with Takayasu. He seems in terrific condition and focused on getting the double-digit wins he needs to secure an ozeki promotion. In yesterday’s match, ozeki Goeido bounced off him like Takayasu was a brick wall. I’m not a fan of Goeido, but he’s a strong, tough guy, and it takes a lot to bounce him around like that. 

The most unfortunate thing that happened yesterday was the conclusion to Terunofuji’s loss to Tamawashi. Not only did he get pushed around (another thing you don’t see every day) but when he was shoved off the dohyo he managed to land badly on both his own ankle and on yokozuna Kisenosato, who was sitting ringside. Terunofuji stepped on the yokozuna’s leg AND bashed into his ailing shoulder. Somehow Kisenosato managed to get a win anyway, but I think that had more to do with the difference in MENTAL toughness between him and his opponent, M2 Okinoumi. 

M1 Chionokuni managed to get his first ever kinboshi [gold star award for beating a yokozuna] by besting Kakuryu in the final match of the day. He was energetic and quickly switched tactics after the tachi-ai, leaving the yokozuna looking more than a little befuddled. I think that Kakuryu’s big problem these days is that he’s not good at switching tactics against an aggressive opponent. When he has to keep guessing what’s coming next, Kakuryu tends to back himself into a defensive posture that isn’t working for him at all lately.

J2 Chiyomaru (1–1) vs. J1 Osunaarashi (0–2)—Today’s video starts with a chance to see one of my favorite rikishi—Egyptian Osunaarashi who is still struggling to earn his way back into the upper division after suffering through extended problems with his knees. Currently, he’s ranked at the top of the Juryo Division, so all he really needs to do is get kachi-koshi [majority of wins] this tournament and he should get promoted. Unfortunately, he’s starting slow and is winless here at the start of Day 3. (0:16)

M11 Ishiura (1–1) vs. M10 Ura (2–0)—Two relatively new, but very popular rikishi, both famous for being notably undersized compared to most of their opponents. Their head-to-head matches are going to be things that the fans look forward to for years to come—two tiny warriors going after each other. Overall, I think I like Ishiura a little better . . . but Ura has the better record this basho AND in their past meetings. (4:36)

Sekiwak Tamawashi (2–0) vs. komusubi Mitakeumi (2–0)—Two up and coming rikishi who we should get used to seeing in the sanyaku ranks. I expect Mitakeumi to rise to the rank of ozeki before too long (maybe next year sometime if he stays healthy and keeps improving). Tamawashi still has to prove to me that he can keep up this kind of performance for several tournaments in a row . . . but right now he’s looking like someone who could take a run at an ozeki promotion in the fall. So far, Mitakeumi has won ALL of their head-to-head matches. Can he keep that streak alive? (9:30)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (0–2) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (2–0)—Two sekiwake going in opposite directions. Kotoshogiku fell from his ozeki ranking and is struggling so far this tournament, while Takayasu is pressing toward an ozeki promotion and has looked nearly invulnerable over the first two days. (Something odd happened to the audio track in the previous bout, so it’s way off sync at the start of this one.) Kotoshogiku NEEDS to start winning of the chances of kachi-koshi will begin to grow slim for him. (10:30)

Komusubi Yoshikaze (1–1) vs. ozeki Goeido (1–1)—After starting the basho with a win over yokozuna Kisenosato, Yoshikaze would like to add another highly ranked name to his list. As it turns out, he leads in the career matches against Goeido, so that’s not at all a crazy notion. Goeido really needs to get himself turned around. As an ozeki, he shouldn’t have to worry about kachi-koshi . . . but since he’s kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] he does, and his schedule is going to be very tough in Week 2. He’s got to secure as many wins as he can in Week 1. (11:00)

Yokozuna Kisenosato (1–1) vs. M1 Chiyonokuni (1–1)—Fresh off his win over yokozuna Kakuryu yesterday (his first ever kinboshi), Chiyonokuni would like to quickly grab another against injured Kisenosato. If he can do the same kind of quick-moving, hard-hitting sumo he did yesterday, Chiyonokuni might just pull it off. For his part, Kisenosato will want to get his hands on the younger rikishi’s mawashi and stop him from moving all around. (13:40)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 2)

Well, the Natsu Basho is off to an interesting start. Here we are on Day 2 and already half of the yokozuna and ozeki have lost . . . and the other half aren’t looking all that strong. In fact, the only one among the top rankers who actually looked GOOD on Day 1 was yokozuna Harumafuji, who disposed of sekiwake Kotoshogiku in a strong and decisive manner. Yokozuna Hakuho won his match, but not before getting himself into a spot of trouble, and ozeki Goeido had to pirouette on the tawara [straw bales at the edge of the dohyo] to avoid being pushed out.

Meanwhile, yokozuna Kisenosato, yokozuna Kakuryu, and ozeki Terunofuji all lost to their Day 1 opponents. The latter two made the kind of tactical errors that they’re occasionally prone to, but Kisenosato is the one in real trouble, I think. His shoulder is not fully healed from the dislocation he suffered on Day 13 of the March tournament, and it looks like he’s still not capable of making strong maneuvers from that side. If that’s the case, then ALL of the sanyaku ranked rikishi are going to use that against him, and he’s much more apt to re-injure the shoulder in the struggle. I’m going to go on record right now saying that he really should go kyujo [absent for injury] and withdraw from the tournament right away. After everything he did in winning the Osaka tournament, there’s no shame in taking a little extra time to heal up. Otherwise he’s going to have a ridiculously short reign as yokozuna.

Sekiwake Takayasu looked good in his Day 1 win, and now needs only 9 more wins to secure a promotion to ozeki. That’s still a pretty tall order, but word is that before the tournament Takayasu was predicting that he’d go zensho [perfect record], and if he’s going to be THAT cocky about it, I’m going to set the bar high for him, too. He really has has an amazing last twelve months of sumo. Except for a 7–8 make-koshi [majority of losses] in November’s Kyushu Basho, he’s averaged 11 wins per tournament for nearly a year.

And all of that was just on Day 1. Let’s see how things panned out here on Day 2.

M12 Kotoyuki (0–1) vs. M11 Ishiura (1–0)—After being up in sanyaku for a while, Kotoyuki has settled down to the mid-Maegashira ranks and is probably destined to spend most of his time there unless he figures out a second strategy other than slap and move forward. Ishiura, on the other hand, is still getting his feet wet in the upper division and trying to figure out how to beat opponents who are twice or more his size. It’s a good match between two rikishi who are probably going to be on the scene for years to come. (2:20)

M4 Tochiozan (1–0) vs. M4 Takarafuji (1–0)—Two rikishi who have spent a lot of time up in the sanyaku ranks, but have struggled in recent basho. They’ve got the goods . . . the question each day is whether or not they’ll bring it. (7:42)

Ozeki Terunofuji (0–1) vs. sekiwake Tamawashi (1–0)—Terunofuji looked slow and sloppy yesterday. Rumor is that he may have reinjured one of his ankles, so he may be incapable of putting on the dominant performance he did in March. Meanwhile, Tamawashi continues to be very impressive as a sekiwake,. In point of fact, though, the most notable thing about this match is what happens AFTER it’s decided. Ouch! (10:21)

Sekiwake Takayasu (1–0) vs. ozeki Goeido (1–0)—A match that could be seen as prophetic, since Takayasu is trying to get promoted to the rank of ozeki (he needs ten wins over the course of the basho) and Goeido is trying to hold onto that rank (he must avoid make-koshi [majority of losses] or he’ll be demoted). (11:07)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 1)

Hey, hey, sumo fans! The long spring wait is over . . . the rikishi are back in Tokyo for the Natsu Basho [Summer Grand Tournament] and we’re about to be treated to fifteen days of world-class sumo! 

The March tournament ended with about as much drama as one can imagine . . . and the May tournament is kicking off with some of that tension still in the air. Newly promoted yokozuna Kisenosato managed to overcome a dislocated shoulder and beat ozeki Terunofuji TWICE on senshuraku [the final day], once in the second-to-last match of the regular schedule, and again in a championship playoff. Six weeks later, Kisenosato’s arm is still heavily bandaged, and his pre-tournament training was highly curtailed. Terunofuji seems to be suffering from shaken confidence, as if he’s still trying to figure out HOW he managed to lose twice in a row to a wounded opponent. 

And they’re not the only rikishi who seem to be carrying the events of the Osaka tournament on their shoulders. Yokozuna Hakuho left that competition with an injured foot, and there remains a question whether he’ll be able to regain his dominance and win his 38th yusho [tournament championship]. This Natsu Basho marks his 59th tournament as a yokozuna, tying him for second on the all-time list with the great Chiyonofuji (who passed away last summer). It’s been a year since Hakuho has won a tournament, and it’s clear that the end of his career is at least on the horizon. But he clearly still has what it takes to stay competitive and in the hunt for the yusho . . . IF he can stay healthy.

The other two yokozuna—Harumafuji and Kakuryu—are similarly nearing the end of their runs, and both of them looked similarly shaky in March. And ozeki Goeido is once again kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] because of his make-koshi [majority of losses] in Osaka. 

Meanwhile, it seems like there’s a fresh crop of rikishi—the next generation, anxious to push forward and show what they can do. Terunofuji was on the cusp of that two years ago, but has been struggling with injuries since winning his first yusho in the 2015 Natsu Basho. He nearly won in Osaka, and for sure would be happy to grab another summer win here and get his dreams of yokozuna promotion back on track. Meanwhile, sekiwake Takayasu will achieve a promotion to ozeki IF he can get 10 or more wins in this tournament. 

Yes, there’s a lot going on the May tournament . . . and it all starts NOW!

M3 Daieisho vs. sekiwake Takayasu—Takayasu is looking to get double-digit wins this tournament. If he can manage that, he’ll have achieved 33 wins over the past three basho, which is the threshold needed to secure a promotion to the rank of ozeki. Of course, sekiwake is a very challenging rank because he will likely face all four yokozuna and both ozeki during Week 1, so he must be sure to get his “easy” wins over lower-ranked rikishi whenever they appear. To make matters harder, Takayasu has publicly announced that his aim is to go zensho [no loss] this tournament, which means EVERYONE he faces has an extra reason to try to put him down. (7:50)

M2 Okinoumi vs ozeki Goeido—Once again Goeido is kadoban (the fifth time in less than three years as an ozeki). He must go kachi-koshi [majority of wins] or he’ll be demoted from his ozeki rank. Last tournament he withdrew after only six days because of an injury, and word is that his training was curtailed in the lead up to this basho. His opponent today, Okinoumi, has a habit of doing well in the mid-maegashira ranks, but not having the mental toughness to find ways to win whenever he is promoted up near the top of the banzuke [ranking sheet]. (8:58)

M1 Chiyonokuni vs. yokozuna Hakuho—Let’s see what Hakuho is bringing to the basho this time. Is he going to be dominant? Tentative? Tricky? Will he be able to stay in the competition for the whole 15 days? (11:00)

Yokozuna Harumafuji vs. sekiwake Kotoshogiku—Last tournament, Kotoshogiku came one win shy of getting the ten necessary to regain his ozeki rank. Now he’s firmly back in the sanyaku and must survive basho-to-basho like all the other non-champion-level rikishi. There’s no more “kadoban” for him . . . if he goes make-koshi [majority of losses], he’ll get demoted. But he’s still got the spirit and the skills that kept him at the rank of ozeki for so long. He starts the tournament against yokozuna Harumafuji (whom he’s fought 62 times before). We’ll see if this shift in his schedule, where he faces the toughest opponents in Week 1 and gets weaker competition in Week 2 plays to his strength. (12:10)

Yokozuna Kisenosato vs. komusubi Yoshikaze—There’s a real question as to whether Kisenosato is healthy enough to be competing in this tournament. Two months isn’t a lot of time to recover from the type of shoulder dislocation he suffered on Day 13 of the Haru Basho, let alone recover AND get back into fighting shape. I wish him nothing but the best, but if it turns out that he ISN’T in full form, I hope he bows out during Week 1 and goes back to get the rest his body needs. (14:00)

SUMO: Sumo Stan!

It’s nearly time for the Natsu Basho [Summer Grand Sumo Tournament] to begin, but before I get to tales of the best sumotori in the world . . . let me tell you a little bit about one of the worst. 

ME!

Y’see, a few weeks ago I attended an event called “Sumo + Sushi” here in Seattle. This is a traveling show put on in conjunction with Sumo USA (the national amateur sumo association). I was sure what it would be like. After all, I’m used to seeing the “real thing” . . . that is, the only other times I’ve been to see sumo live, it has been to witness the best professionals. And although the combatants in the Sumo + Sushi were listed as world champion amateurs, I didn’t know what the difference in skill level would be. 

I shouldn’t have worried. While the three rikishi at the show—Yama, Ramy, and Byamba—might not have what it takes to make it in the Makuuchi division now, they all had professional experience, Byamba won a Jonokuchi yusho early in his career, and Yama is the record-holding heaviest Japanese person ever . . . and their sumo skills were commensurate, meaning that they gave each other very competitive bouts. 

The show was great (they had a double round robin competition that was a joy to watch), the sushi was adequate, but the BEST part was afterward. You see, I paid for the premium ticket that let me sit in the front row and have a photo-op with the sumotori. But even better, my high-end ticket let me get into the dohyo and FACE one! That’s right, I got my sumo on!

Let me tell you, there was some serious time dilation going on. This first match FELT much longer than it actually is. All I really wanted was to find out what it actually feels like grab and tug on a mawashi [belt] . . . THAT was my goal. As you’ll see, Byamba had other plans.

Posted by Shana T Bryant on Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I only paid for one try, but Byamba was super gracious and allowed me a second go. Actually, I don’t think he MEANT to knock me down in that first match . . . I was just too klutzy to keep my feet when being shoved around by 350-pounds of muscle. Seriously, Byama has only 11% body fat . . . the rest of that is solid muscle. Doing the tachi-ai [initial charge] felt like running into a brick wall that shoved back.

Posted by Shana T Bryant on Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Oh yes … he DID let me win. I was totally ready (and expecting) to get rolled again, but Byamba let me put on a show for the crowd. Super nice guy. Reminds me a lot of a Mongolian Ben Grimm.

Let me tell you, I had the time of my life at Sumo + Sushi, and I’d 100% recommend getting tickets to the show if they ever come to your town. The apparently come to Seattle every spring, and I’m already planning on going back. And if finances are good, I’ll even pay to get thrown around in the ring again!

Meanwhile, if you’re going to be in the L.A area on June 17th, the Sumo U.S. Open will be taking place in Long Beach . . . and I’m pretty sure that Byamba, Ramy, and Yama will all be there competing. 

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho Senshuraku [The Final Day] (Day 15)

It’s Day 15 of the 2017 Haru Basho, and I want to punch ozeki Terunofuji in the nose! We’re at senshuraku [the final day] so there’s no sense in holding back . . . but if you haven’t watched all the way through the end of Day 14, then you may want to go back and do that before you read any further, because I’m not going to worry one bit about spoilers.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

I suppose stage one of this discussion has to center on the concept of a “henka” and if or when it is an appropriate tactic. 

A henka is a maneuver made at the tachi-ai [initial charge] where a rikishi, rather than charging straight ahead, jumps to the side partially or fully. If done well, the result is that the opponent charges full force into nothing and is left off balance (or in extreme cases either charges out of the dohyo or ends up sprawled on his belly). This allows the rikishi performing the henka to get a very advantageous position (or lets him win outright without making another maneuver).

Sumo is a sport that grew out of a contest of strength and skill among samurai in ancient Japan. As such, there remain a great many rituals and traditions that harken back to feudal codes of honor. It is considered less-than-honorable to face an opponent on the field of battle (in this case, the sumo dohyo) and win through trickery. Sumo is supposed to be a matching of strength, skill, and speed, and so literally sidestepping those considerations is frowned upon. 

However, sumo (and samurai warfare) is also about tactics. And it is ruthlessly straightforward. The only thing that matters in the end is who is victorious—in sumo, who has the most wins over the course of the basho . . . in warfare, who is left alive when the battle is done. Fine points of honor can be argued, but the fact is that telling winners from losers is a simple matter. Still, it is widely agreed that the more you rely on trickery to achieve victory, the less honor you bring to yourself.

In this case, the fight between Terunofuji and sekiwake Kotoshogiku was VERY important to BOTH competitors. For Terunofuji, it meant keeping at least a portion of the lead in the race for the yusho [tournament championship] heading into the final day of the tournament. For Kotoshogiku it meant keeping alive his hope at regaining his lost rank of ozeki—a loss here, and his quest was over. In a case like this, the audience comes hoping to see both rikishi display their strongest sumo . . . a titanic clash where the strongest man would come out on top.

Let’s be clear, I think MOST people fully EXPECTED Terunofuji to win. He’s younger, stronger, and had been having an incredible tournament, crushing every foe who opposed him. Kotoshogiku was having a very good tournament, too  . . . but he didn’t look anywhere near as fast or strong as Terunofuji. People expected Terunofuji to win . . . but they wanted to see the fight. When Terunofuji pulled that big henka and Kotoshogiku launched himself into empty air, only to end up face down on the clay, Terunofuji DENIED the crowd what they wanted, and denied Kotoshogiku a chance to lose in an honorable-but-doomed conflict. Basically, Terunofuji won . . . but he won like a punk, rather than like an honorable warrior.

The thing that makes it worse is that with yokozuna Kisenosato’s shoulder injury, Terunofuji will be able to walk away with the yusho. The two men go head-to-head today, and if Terunofuji wins the match, he wins the tournament. If Kisenosato wins, then the two will have a playoff match immediately following the final bout of the day. But if you saw Kisenosato’s match yesterday against yokozuna Kakyryu, you know that his shoulder is still causing him extreme pain, and his whole left arm is nearly useless. 

The fight between Kisenosato a Terunofuji was expected to be too close to call, now the advantage is all in the ozeki’s corner. It’s certainly not impossible that the yokozuna could find some way to beat his younger opponent (he’s been pretty dominant in their meetings over the past couple of years) . . . but to do so twice in the space of just twenty minutes or so, with the injury he’s suffering . . . well, that would be beyond extraordinary. 

You could be forgiven if, after reading this tirade, you thought that the Kisenosato vs. Terunofuji match was the only one happening today, but we also have a full slate of other matches. And among the forty-plus other rikish, there are six who come into today with 7–7 records, holding their fates in their own hands—M13 Daishomaru, M12 Ura, M11 Ishiura, M10 Tochinoshin, M6 Aoiyama, and M5 Endo. Each of these rikishi will reach kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and get promoted if they win today, or will suffer make-koshi [majority of losses] and a demotion if they lose. 

Oh, and before I go, let me encourage you to drop a gratuity into the tip jar of Kintamayama, whose videos have accompanied all of these postings. Without his efforts, we wouldn’t have been able to watch this tournament. He puts a lot of hours into editing these videos and making sure the contain the best pictures and sound available for all of the matches. Thank you, Moti! I’ve left a tip . . . and I hope a bunch of my readers will, too.

Now on to the final day’s matches!

 M7 Ichinojo (6–8) vs. M12 Ura (7–7)—Ura has fought incredibly hard, particularly for being an undersized rikishi in his first basho ranked in the upper division. All he needs is one more win to secure his kachi-koshi . . . but win or lose, he’s truly shown what a great talent he is. (5:05)

M14 Myogiryu (6–8) vs. M6 Aoiyama (7–7)—Aoinyama hasn’t had a great basho, but he’s stayed focused and Kept plugging away. That’s put him in this situation where he controls his own destiny. Meanwhile, Myogiryu should have had a dominant basho ranked so far down the banzuke [ranking sheet]. If he can’t pull a seventh win out here, he really deserves to be demoted to Juryo for a while. (6:00)

M13 Daishomaru (7–7) vs. M5 Hokutofuji (6–8)—Daishomaru is another young rikishi who put in a strong, gutsy performance this tournament, and now holds his fate in his own hands. Hokotofuji is reportedly a little bit injured, and will be falling down the banzuke for May’s tournament. (7:05)

M5 Endo (7–7) vs. M10 Tochinoshin (7–7)—The Kyokai [Sumo Association] likes to pit 7–7 rikishi against each other . . . especially when they’re both popular fighters. Honestly the way his tournament began, with a nearly useless right leg, I never expected Tochinoshin to get to this stage. Hopefully, he can get one more win and bump himself up the banzuke next time. But Endo is no slouch, either, despite having a rocky tournament. A win will put him near the top of the Maegashira ranks for the Natsu Basho in May. (8:00)

M11 Ishiura (7–7) vs. M3 Takarafuji (6–8)—Both the rikishi lost a few matches that they ought to have won over the past fortnight. Ishiura still has a chance to pull out his kachi-koshi, while Takarafuji is fighting merely for pride. We’ll see which one wants it more. (8:30)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (8–6) vs. M4 Yoshikaze (8–6)—Kotoshogiku must be absolutely crushed after having his chances at ozeki reinstatement snatched away so ignominiously yesterday . . . but he’s got to come back today and give it his all. This might be his final fight, as retirement has to be something he’s giving full consideration. Either way, he wants to end the basho on a win, if only so he can look back and say, “I’d have made it, if Terunofuji wasn’t such a punk!” (12:50)

Ozeki Terunofuji (13–1) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (12–2)—This is the match we’ve all been waiting for . . . though with a dark cloud hanging over it. Can Kisenosato find a way to overcome his shoulder injury and beat Terunofuji? If he does, they’ll have identical records and will have to go to a playoff bout to decide the yusho. (Should that happen, it would be the final match at the end of the video.) The big question, though, is given his injury, will fans give him a break if he doesn’t beat Terunofuji? Will they credit him for true yokozuna guts and honor just for showing up when he’s in so much pain? I never thought there was any doubt that he deserved his promotion to yokozuna, despite his lack of back-to-back yusho . . . but his performance here in Osaka hopefully has proven that to even his most bitter detractors. (14:25)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 14)

It’s Day 14 of the Haru Basho and can things get any more dramatic than they did yesterday?!? Okay here’s your spoiler warning . . . if you haven’t seen the Day 13 matches yet, go do so before you read beyond this paragraph. No . . . really.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Of all the things that could happen yesterday, could anyone have predicted that?! Injuries happen in sumo, but you never expect something so debilitating to happen . . . particularly to someone who has been doing so well. Kisenosato not only losing his first match, but hurting his shoulder so badly in the fall from the dohyo that he had to be taken to the hospital. So painful to watch!

Here’s the thing, though . . . word is that he’s going to fight today!

The Japanese are always super uncommunicative about medical issues, so it’s hard to tell for certain. But watching the video yesterday I was pretty sure he’d dislocated his left shoulder. It looks like Kisenosato was “lucky” in and suffered a “clean” dislocation—where the ball pops out of the socket but then can pop right back in without larger structural damage. After only a brief to the hospital for examination, he was released. This morning his oyakata said he had good range of motion back in the arm (though no word on pain or strength). So he’s going to do his dohyo-iri [ring entering ceremony], and then he plans to fight yokozuna Kakuryu in the final match of the day as scheduled. And if all goes well, he’ll square off against ozeki Terunofuji on senshuraku [the final day].

I’m stunned at the news that Kisenosato is going to fight at all. Even with a “clean” dislocation, his whole side is going to be massively painful and weakened for days . . . AND the arm is going to be more susceptible to a repeat or similar injury until it fully heals. But I really shouldn’t be surprised. In the macho world of sumo, and at the lofty rank of yokozuna, this kind of “fight through the pain” mentality is to be expected. 

So, putting aside the melodramatic way it happened, the fact of the matter is that Kisenosato has suffered his first loss of the tournament (indeed, his first loss as a yokozuna) and is now tied for the yusho [tournament championship] lead with ozeki Terunofuji with 12–1 records. The ozeki beat yokozuna Kakuryu in a classic power-sumo match yesterday, and faces sekiwake Kotoshogiku today. (Because Terunofuji and yokozuna Harumafuji are from the same stable, they don’t have to fight each other unless the tournament comes down to a playoff.)

Kotoshogiku won his match yesterday, keeping his hopes of regaining his ozeki ranking alive. However, he must win all his remaining matches to get the ten wins he needs to achieve that, and that starts with today’s match against Terunofuji. He’d be doing himself and Kisenosato a big favor if somehow he was able to summon his inner strength and beat his younger, taller, stronger opponent just one more time. 

At the start of Day 13, only two rikishi were two off the pace with 10–2 records—sekiwake Takayasu and M10 Tochiozan. However, both men lost yesterday, meaning that the closest competition to the leaders now are a small group of rikishi with 10–3 records. Since the leaders are at 12–1, and they are scheduled to go head-to-head on Sunday, at least one of them will finish with only two losses . . . meaning that all other rikishi are now mathematically eliminated from the yusho race. Either Terunofuji or Kisenosato is going to hoist the Emperor’s Cup on Sunday.

I don’t know what else to say. After yesterday’s gut-wrenching action, I have absolutely no idea what to expect from today . . . I just hope it’s good, clean, injury-free sumo.

M3 Takarafuji (6–7) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (10–3)—Takayasu has fallen out of the race for the yusho, which rules him out of an ozeki promotion after this tournament. But he’s now on his way to two consecutive basho with double-digit wins, which means that he could earn a promotion to sumo’s second-highest rank if he can do the same thing again in May at the Natsu Basho [Summer Tournament]. He’d make his goal—thirty-three wins over the course of three tournaments—easier  with each win he gets, but he’s now lost three bouts in a row and looks as though he may have a nagging problem in his right leg. Meanwhile, Takarafuji is one loss away from make-koshi [majority of losses] and so cannot afford anything but wins from here on out. (11:25)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (8–5) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (12–1)—This may be the match with the most riding on it. First of all and most obviously, Terunofuji must win if he wants to maintain at least a share of the lead (and perhaps sole lead, depending on how Kisenosato does). On the other hand, Kotoshogiku must win both this and his other remaining match in order to reach ten wins and regain his lost ozeki rank. This is the kind match we dream about—two of the best going head-to-head, each with something substantial on the line. I have to give the edge to Terunofuji, considering how well he’s been fighting, Kotoshogiku has no incentive to do anything other than throw every trick he’s got at Terunofuji and hope to come out on top. (13:45)

Yokozuna Kisenosato (12–1) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (8–5)—Here it is, the match we didn’t think we’d get to see, after yesterday’s unjury to Kisenosato’s left shoulder. The question is, how badly does that shoulder still hurt . . . and how much is Kakuryu going to try to take advantage of it. (15:35)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 13)

It’s Friday, Day 13 of the Haru Basho, and the tension keeps racheting up. Yokozuna Kisenosato remains undefeated atop the leaderboard, but yesterday both M10 Tochiozan and sekiwake Takayasu suffered their second losses, putting them out of the immediate race for the yusho [tournament championship], and leaving just ozeki Terunofuji one win behind the leader. And with both Kisenosato and Terunofuji looking so solid, the idea that both of them would slip up here in the final weekend and give the two-loss rikishi a chance to get back in the mix seems like an extreme longshot. But then, we’ve already seen a bunch of highly unlikely occurences so far this tournament . . . so there’s no telling what will happen next.

An interesting thing happened for the first time this basho yesterday, Kisenosato fell. He didn’t lose, but he did physically fall to the clay at the tail end of his win over M4 Arawashi. It hadn’t struck me until I was watching it that ALL of his previous twelve wins were so dominant that NONE of his opponents have forced him to leave his feet, even for a moment. I hope that Kisenosato will be able to keep his energy high over the next three days, because he’s facing yokozuna Harumafuji today, and the yokozuna Kakuryu and ozeki Terunofuji (probably in that order) . . . all great opponents who will require all of the shin-yokozuna’s skill and power to overcome.

Terunofuji is looking, if anything, like he’s getting stronger here in the final days of the basho. Both of his last two wins, over M5 Endo and M4 Arawashi, were high-powered slugfests, and the ozeki finished them looking energized and ready for more. His remaining matches will be against yokozuna Kakuryu, sekiwake Kotoshogiku, and yokozuna and yusho-leadeer Kisenosato. Given the way Terunofuji is fighting, I think there’s a better than even chance that he’ll win the first two. That would leave the Day 15 pairing against Kisenosato as the one the would decide the yusho . . . and isn’t that how we WANT our tournaments to end?

Things are not going so well in the other story I’ve been covering all basho. Yesterday sekiwake Kotoshogiku lost his match against M3 Takrafuji, dropping his record to 7–5. Now, if all Kotoshogiku was trying for was a kachi-koshi[majority of wins], that wouldn’t be so bad . . . he still has three matches and would only need one more win. But in order to succeed in his quest to reverse his January demotion and regain the rank of ozeki, he must get TEN wins . . . which means he must now win EVERY match remaining on his schedule,which is likely to be komusubi Shodai today, ozeki Terunofuji tomorrow, and probably one of the M4 rikishi on Sunday—Yoshikaze or Arawashi. No matter how you slice it, though, winning all three of these matches is NOT a very likely scenario.

Add on top of that all the rank-and-file rikishi who are battling to reach kachi-koshi (or, in the more dire situations, to stave off make-koshi [majority of losses]) and you’ve got what should be the start of a full weekend of high-energy, high-drama sumo! So let’s get to today’s matches!

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (7–5) vs. komusubi Shodai (4–8)—This is it for Kotoshogiku. If he wants to get his ozeki ranking back, he has to win ALL of his remaining matches. Today it’s Shodai, who has a lackluster record, already reaching make-koshi, but has fought strong the whole way through. Somehow, Kotoshogiku has to shake off the last two days’ losses and get himself back on a winning track, otherwise all we’ll be talking about is whether or not he’ll announce his retirement before or after the end of the basho. (5:55)

M4 Yoshikaze (7–5) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (10–2)—Like Kotoshogiku, Takayasu has to find a way to shake off the mental effects of losing two days in a row. He’s almost certainly out of the running for the yusho, but he IS still building toward a hopeful ozeki promotion if he can perform well in May’s Natsu Basho. He needs at least one more win to stay on pace . . . and it would do a world of good mentally to finish strong. (6:25)

Ozeki Terunofuji (11–1) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (8–4)—All basho long, Terunofuji has been strutting around, crushing foes, and acting like a yokozuna. Well, beginning today he gets to actually fight against yokozuna. Kakuryu is the easiest of the targets, but still a formidable opponent. Terunofuji showed himself susceptible to a strong tachi-ai [initial charge] and a skillful follow-up belt attack when he lost to Takayasu on Day 6. but he should be prepared for that sort of thing from Kakuryu. (7:45)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (9–3) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (12–0)—I just don’t know what to think about Harumafuji. Earlier this week he looked like his ankles were killing him and that he didn’t have enough strength left to mount his usual powerful tachi-ai charges, but the last few days that’s just what he’s done. But does he have enough energy to handle an opponent as big, strong, and skilled as Kisenosato? Particularly the unflappable, undefeated version of Kisenosato that he’s going to face today? And for his part, can Kisenosato maintain his focus?  (8:50)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 12)

It’s Day 12 of the Haru Basho and things just got REAL! . . . I don’t know why I said that. It just seemed like a sports blog kind of thing to say. Things have been REAL the whole tournament, it’s just that we hadn’t had any significant changes to the leaderboard in days. Not so. Now there is only ONE undefeated rikishi leading the pack at 11–0, and it is shin-yokozuna Kisenosato, with three rikishi one win behind at 10–1, ozeki Terunofuji, sekiwake Takayasu, and M10 Tochiozan. The thing is, they ALL had very exciting matches yesterday.

Let’s begin with the leader. Kisenosato continued to prove that he was completely deserving of his promotion as he was thoroughly challenged by M4 Yoshikaze. Despite the smaller, faster rikishi grabbing the advantage from the tachi-ai [initial charge], Kisenosato patiently countered every move Yoshikaze made until he got the opening he needed, and then he spun the smaller man around and guided him out of the dohyo . . . simple as can be. It’s the simplicity, the matter-of-factness of Kisenosato’s recent performances that are most impressive.

Also incredibly impressive has been Terunofuji, who seems to truly have rediscovered his mojo. Yesterday M4 Arawashi pushed him as hard and as far as anyone all basho. At several points, Terunofuji seemed to be in an unrecoverable position . . . and yet he not only recovered, he took control of the bout and ended up throwing Arawashi to the groud with stunning conviction. This might be remembered as the best single match of the tournament.

Takayasu also put up an incredible fight against his opponent, yokozuna Kakuryu. He truly looked like an ozeki, taking weak positions and turning them around to strong ones. Unfortunately, the yokozuna simply did the same thing only better.

On the other hand, Tochiozan only stayed on the leaderboard with a heaping helping of good luck. He tried an ill-advised henka against M6 Chiyokuni and barely managed to pull his opponent down with him, resulting in a monoii [judge’s conference] that required a torinaoshi [redo]. And in the second match, Chiyonokuni tried an even MORE ill-advised henka, which Tochiozan spotted and easily won the fight.

Today, Takayasu has to face another yokozuna, Harumafuji, and he needs a better outcome or he’ll find himself out of the yusho [tournament championship] race entirely. Meanwhile, Kisenosato fights Arawashi, who could pull off an upset if he fights the way he did yesterday. Terunofuji gets a relatively light assignment against M5 Endo, who is having a mediocre tournament overall. Finally, Tochiozan will square off against M14 Myogiryu who, on the one hand, is having a pretty bad tournament and is only two losses away from make-koshi [majority of losses], but on the other hand is a former sanyaku rikishi who sometimes still shows a flash of brilliance.

The other change of note is that sekiwake Kotoshogiku lost his match to M1 Ikioi yesterday. As you may recall, Kotoshogiku is trying to achieve at least 10 wins in order to regain the rank of ozeki (which he lost after having two make-koshi performances in a row). This is a pretty big disappointment for a number of reasons. First, Ikio has been having a terrible tournament, and is probably one of the softest targets that Kotoshogiku is likely to face in the remainder of the basho. Second, what the hell was Kotoshogiku thinking by pulling a half-henka against someone with a 1–9 record?! That he didn’t drive straight at Ikioi tells me that Kotoshogiku is hurting and he’s trying to get wins as easily and quickly as possible. That’s just not going to cut it at this juncture. If he wants his ozeki rank back, he’s going to have to go in and fight tooth and nail to get it. At this point he must win three of his remaining four matches . . . and those will be against ozeki Terunofuji, komusubi Shodai, M3 Takarafuji, and probably one of the M4s (Yoshikaze or Arawashi). There isn’t a soft target among that group! I hate to say it, but losing to Ikioi may have doomed Kotoshogiku’s chances of regaining his former rank.

M14 Myogiryu (5–6) vs. M10 Tochiozan (10–1)—Tochiozan looked a little shaky yesterday. One more loss and he’s pretty much out of contention, so he’d better sharpen up for today’s match against Myogiryu. (0:37)

Yokozuna Hakuho vs. yokozuna Asashoryu—A flashback match from the January 2008 basho. It’s amazing see Hakuho in the prime of his career, just his fourth basho as a yokozuna. Sit back and enjoy one of the all-time best sumo bouts you’re ever likely to see. (2:10)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (7–4) vs. M3 Takarafuji (5–6)—Kotoshogiku’s loss to yesterday to Ikioi really puts him in a tough spot. He’s got to win three out of his next four matches, starting today. It’s no easy task, but I’m certainly rooting for him . . . at the very least, I want him to make a good run at it. A win today secures his kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and puts him on a 50/50 track to reaching his ultimate goal. (5:50)

M5 Endo (6–5) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (10–1)—Terunofuji showed just how “in the zone” he is this tournament with his win yesterday over M4 Arawashi, who seemed to have the ozeki at a severe disadvantage for most of the bout. But Terunofuji dug in his heels and practically willed himself to win. Endo is going to have to come up with some kind of spectacular performance to win this match. (6:22)

M4 Arawashi (3–8) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (11–0)—Arawashi gave a stellar performance in vane yesterday. He’s going to have to be at least that good and probably better if he wants to beat the shin-yokozuna. Kisenosato still seems like a man on a mission—this tournament is now his to lose, and he knows it.  (7:05)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (8–3) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (10–1)—Takayasu has had a terrific basho up till now, and his loss to yokozuna Kakuryu yesterday is more or less how things were “supposed” to go . . . but the sekiwake doesn’t want it how it’s “supposed” to be. He’s still in the hunt for the yusho at this stage, but in order to remain there he’s going to have to beat his yokozuna opponent today, and that’s a feasible task. Earlier this week, Harumafuji was showing clear signs that his ankles were hurting and that the didn’t have the same speed or power that he usually brings to the dohyo. If Takayasu can bring the kind of power and command he used to beat Terunofuji on Day 6, he should have a similar result. That having been said, Harumafuji is one of the smartest, toughest rikishi I’ve ever seen . . . and he seems to dearly relish proving that he deserves his spot atop the banzuke. (7:40)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 11)

Two-thirds of the Haru Basho are in the book, and the Day 11 leaderboard remains the same as it’s been for the past few days. Yokozuna Kisenosato and sekiwake Takayasu have perfect 10–0 records and the lead over ozeki Terunofuji and M10 Tochiozan, who both are 9–1. Weirdly, with yokozuna Kakuryu’s vert sloppy loss yesterday, there are NO rikishi with 8–2 records, meaning that it’s almost impossible for some dark horse to finish strong and sneak into the yusho [tournament championship] race.

One weird thing the past few days has been Tochiozan’s sudden use of henka [side-step “trick” plays at the initial charge]. When I first was able to start watching sumo again (when I discovered Jason’s and Kintamayama’s YouTube channels back in late 2014), Tochiozan and Takayasu were both sanyaku-ranked rikishi . . . and I had a very hard time telling them apart over the course of a tournament. I’d confuse their records or which of them had made a particular performance a few days earlier, and I even had trouble remembering which one was which when they both were on the screen.

For most of the past two years they have fallen and risen through the banzuke [ranking sheet] more or less in sync until last summer. Since then Takayasu has put on a great surge of confidence and consistency, made one run at an ozeki promotion, and now is in the middle of a second . . . with a real shot at the yusho this basho. Meanwhile, Tochiozan has continued to yo-yo up and down the banzuke, and really is only contending for the yusho this time because he’s ranked so low and doesn’t have to face the top competition. The fact that he’s reduced to using henka maneuvers against such relatively weak opponents, while Takayasu is going chest to chest with top-rankers makes the concept of finding the two interchangeable to be ridiculous.

Each rikishi has just five more bouts to go to decide their fate in this tournament . . . let’s see how they do with today’s.

BREAKING NEWS: One member of the Sumo Association publicly stated that if Takayasu wins the yusho it is possible that he could be promoted to ozeki, despite not having achieved the usual requirement of 33 wins over the course of three basho. (In point of fact, if Takayasu finished 15–0, he WILL have 33 wins over the past three basho, even including his 7–8 make-koshi in November.) Now, since it’s only one oyakata [sumo elder] that has said it, this means that winning the basho wouldn’t guarantee the promotion. The Sumo Association likes to tip its hand this way to give itself more options, but it’s very leery of promising rewards or promotions beyond the bounds of general practice, but almost always let it be known when they’re considering doing so. This is, in fact, why Kisenosato’s promotion was so controversial . . . they hadn’t let slip the rumor that a single yusho would be enough to get the job done.

M6 Chiyonokuni (7–3) vs. M10 Tochiozan (9–1)—Tochiozan lucks out again in that while Chiyonokuni is ranked above him, the schedulers haven’t yet pulled him up to face any of the rikishi at the top of the banzuke yet. He has to take advantage of these relatively easy pairings while they last, because during the final weekend they’re CERTAIN to give him tougher pairings if he’s still hanging in there on the leaderboard. (5:45)

Sekiwake Tamawashi (5–5) vs. M3 Shohozan (2–8)—This match has nothing to do with the yusho race, but it is a super energetic example of yotsu [slapping and thrusting] sumo. Plus it’s just a heck of a lot of fun to watch! (9:20)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (7–3) vs. M1 Ikioi (1–9)—Ikioi may be ranked M1, but he’s having a terrible basho, and that means that he may be the easiest pairing that Kotoshogiku will see for the remainder of the tournament. Kotoshogiku needs three more wins to regain his ozeki rank, and winning today would make that a 50/50 shot (with him needing to win only two of his remaining four matches). On the other hand, a loss today means that he has to win three-out-of-four against the top rikishi . . . and the fact that he failed against Ikioi will decrease the already long odds that he can pull off that feat. (10:55)

M4 Arawashi (3–7) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (9–1)—Arawashi has a very bad record this tournament, but he’s been fighting strong, pushing lots of the sanyaku rikishi to the edge of defeat . . . only to slip over that edge himself at the last minute. Terunofuji is doing GREAT, but he’s not invincible. As long as he stays focused, he should win this one handily. (11:30)

Sekiwake Takayasu (10–0) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (7–3)—This is the first of Takayasu’s two biggest challenges—the remaining yokozuna. He’s certainly been performing like someone who has the ability to win even against a grand champion, but actually DOING it is another matter. Add to that Kakaryu’s embarrassment over yesterday’s loss, and his yokozuna pride to prove his dominance, and this seems like it ought to be a big-hitting match. (13:45)

M4 Yoshikaze (6–4) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (10–0)—Yoshikaze has what it takes to beat just about any of the top-rankers. He’s fast, tricky, highly skilled, and easy to underestimate. He spent a good part of 2016 ranked among the sanyaku, and he’s shown that he’s comfortable there. Kisenosato has to remain calm, focused, and confident and treat this as “just another day at the office.” He can certainly beat Yoshikaze, as long as he doesn’t get into his own head and sow too much worry or doubt. (15:25)