SUMO: There's A New Yokozuna In Town

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SUMO: There's A New Yokozuna In Town

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SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 1)

It’s been a surprisingly busy six weeks since the end of January’s hon-basho [grand tournament]. Following his first ever yusho [tournament championship] win and an overall 2016 record that was better than anyone else in the sport of sumo, bar none, the Kyokai [Sumo Association] decided to promote Kisenosato from ozeki to yokozuna. This makes him the first native-Japanese rikishi to be promoted to sumo’s top rank since 1998 . . . and the Haru Basho [Spring Tournament] in Osaka will be the first to see competition from a native-Japanese yokozuna since 2002. 
As is traditional, within a few days of being promoted, Kisenosato did his first dohyo-iri [ring entering ceremony] outdoors in front of a crowd of 18,000 people at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine. Then, in early February, he made a definitive statement by winning the annual one-day tournament. And throughout the rest of the winter break, he continued to train and (more importantly) was judicious in the number of congratulatory parties and events he attended, hoping to avoid the all too common post-promotion slump.

The Haru Basho doesn’t start until tomorrow, and already there’s enough drama to fill an issue os Soap Opera Digest.
To begin with, can Kisenosato repeat his performance from January and win back-to-back tournaments? (The fact that he didn’t meet that threshold has some sumo purists saying that he doesn’t actually deserve his new promotion . . . though I think they’re nuts.) Can Hakuho bounce back from what was (by his standards) a mediocre performance that had him failing to win a yusho for four straight tournaments (something that had NEVER before happened since he was promoted to yokozuna in 2007)?
Hakuho said something interesting the other day. Actually, the fact that Hakuho said ANYTHING at all to the press is pretty much news in its own right, but what he said was that his dream was for all four yokozuna to be undefeated when they begin to face each other during the final days of the basho. And given that over the past few years you could pretty well COUNT on Harumafuji or Kakuryu—often both—to stumble and five up a kin-boshi [gold star awarded to a maegashira-ranked rikishi who beats a yokozuna] somewhere in the first week, that IS a lofty dream. But in a time when all the yokozuna are healthy, that sort of performance OUGHT to be standard. It’s just a shame that it’s been so long since we’ve seen it actually HAPPEN.
In the days leading up to Day 1 of the Haru Basho, it seems like all the the yokozuna ARE healthy, and in good mental states. So perhaps Hakuho will get his wish . . . and the rest of us will be treated to some real top-notch sumo.
For the past two years we’ve had banzuke [ranking sheets] that featured four strong rikishi at the rank of ozeki. However, with Kisenosato’s promotion and Kotoshogiku’s demotion (after failing to achieve kachi-koshi [majority of wins] for two tournaments in a row), the Osaka Basho only has two men at sumo’s second-highest rank. One of them is Terunofuji, who has been plagued with injuries so badly that he only seems to be able to make kachi-koshi every other tournament. Indeed, after another terrible performance in January, he is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] again in Osaka, and word is that he’s added a left arm injury to his chronic knee problems.
That leaves Goeido as the only “solid” ozeki in the basho . . . Goeido, who has a long record of narrow kadoban escapes over the past few years, and only TWICE in his three-year ozeki career has managed to get double-digit wins (a mark which generally is considered the baseline for an “acceptable” performance at that rank). Of course, both of those tournaments happened in 2016, including his zensho yusho [perfect record tournament victory] in September. It’s possible he really has turned a corner and will put up more double-digit win tournaments this year . . . but if he doesn’t then we’re apt to be saddled with a very weak class of ozeki for some time to come.
Meanwhile, Kotoshogiku’s demotion means that he’s fighting as a sekiwake this basho. However, if he can manage to get ten or more wins in Osaka, he will have his ozeki status restored (if he doesn’t, though, he’ll have to re-earn the promotion the hard way, just like all the other rank-and-file rikishi). It seems like a dauntingly tough ask of Kotoshogiku, who has been plagued with injuries over the past year. Basically, he must have a perfect record against all maegashira, komusubi, and sekiwake opponents, and THEN still find a way to beat at least one of the ozeki or yokozuna, ALL of whom he will certainly have to fight.
That’s plenty of drama for any tournament . . . and we’ve still only talked about the top nine rikishi on the banzuke! There are two other rikishi—sekiwake Takayasu and komusubi Shodai—who, if they do well this basho could put themselves in position for promotions to the rank of ozeki in May. Meanwhile, there are some strong rikishi who did poorly in January that, if they are healthy and focused, could take advantage of their low banzuke rankings to compete for the yusho in Osaka (the way Ichinojo did in January)—I’m looking at you M10 Tochiozan, M10 Tochinoshin, M12 Sadanoumi, and M14 Myogiryu.
And to top it all off, there’s an exciting young rikishi making his Makeuuchi debut. Ura is an undersized fighter (only 5’6″ and 282 lbs.) who has a reputation for high speed sumo with all kinds of inventive maneuvers. He’ll be M12 this tournament, while Ishiura—a similar rikishi—is ranked at M11, and this means LOTS of very interesting matches in the middle of the banzuke for the whole of the tournament.
The 2017 Haru Basho kicks off tomorrow and runs for the next fifteen days. I’ve got some deadlines and other work on my docket, but I’ll do my best to keep a steady stream of reports and video links posted here on my blog. If you enjoy those, please consider donating to the tip jars of the YouTubers who make that coverage possible—Kintamayama and Taisha Jason.

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