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Harumafuji bounces back but cracks are still there

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

Harumafuji made many a sports-page headline Monday morning thanks to his latest 15-0 championship, his third zensho-yusho to date, and in claiming his fifth Emperor’s Cup; his first as a yokozuna.

For his fans and casual onlookers, his unbeaten record, and final-day victory over fellow yokozuna Hakuho was proof that he is truly worthy of the rank.

For those with a slightly more informed eye, however, the cracks are starting to appear even as he appears to be downing any and all of those selected to face him.

Harumafuji is just 133 kg. And, as the lightest in the division, this means he must employ far more finishing techniques than most in defeating his opponents known more for their forward-moving, big-man sumo. Herein lies the problem: This type of sumo is what is expected of a yokozuna. The incumbent need not be 2 meters tall, and 180 kg plus, but his sumo is expected to be of a level at which he can take on all others in “honorable” forward-moving style.

In securing promotion to the rank this was exactly the sumo Harumafuji employed, and employed so well.
And in November he was intent on focusing on the quality of his sumo at the Kyushu Basho. Repeatedly he went chest-to-chest with bigger men as is expected of his rank.
Not once did he resort to the oft-disliked hatakikomi slap-down, or hikiotoshi hand pull down, both commonly used when backing away.

Yet, on six occasions he came up short, and subsequently felt the ire of the very people who had recommended him for promotion: the Yokozuna Deliberation Council.
Cue the January Hatsu Basho held in the Ryogoku Kokugikan, however, and such techniques were back, firmly entrenched in his armory, aiding and abetting the 28-year-old to his eventual two slap-downs, a hand pull down, and three rear push outs — another move in which backing away from a foe allows a rikishi to get behind — all on his way to 15-0.

By comparison, Hakuho used none of these techniques and finished 12-3.

The Haru Basho in Osaka in March will thus be one at which Harumafuji will once again have to go chest to chest and stop himself moving backward.

Relying on his lack of girth forever simply won’t work. He is almost 29, and is noticeably slower than five years ago even allowing for the extra kilograms on board. It is therefore only a matter of time before the powers that be, and the fans start to frown then openly criticize his opting to go into reverse gear so often.

Two ranks below Harumafuji’s success at the Hatsu Baho sat Baruto, the former ozeki making an attempt to bounce back to the sport’s second highest rank after demotion in November. And, as predicted in the pre-basho Sumo Scribblings, he failed to make the grade and will remain at sekiwake for the Osaka basho.

He may even be thanking his lucky stars to be ranked this high after a final-day judges conference ruled his first bout against relative new boy Ikioi (8-7) was too close to call. In fact, as most bar the judges saw, Baruto’s hand was clearly down on the clay well before that of the 26-year-old man from Isenoumi-beya.

The rerun did see the experience of the Estonian shine through, however, and had him looking rather sheepish in securing the recorded victory that will ensure he stays at sekiwake, with a final day 8-7 of his own.
Lower still, in the maegashira ranks of the makunouchi division, the three men in the top flight picked by Sumo Scribblings for retirement in the coming 12-months all scored disappointing 4-11 or worse records.

One, former ozeki Miyabiyama (3-12), will find himself in the mid-low juryo division in Osaka but has vowed to continue fighting . . . for now.

Wakanosato at maegashira 11 before the basho, finished with a poor 4-11 record and will consider himself lucky to remain in the division when the next rankings are released.
Kyokutenho, also 4-11, at maegashira 2, and now closing in on 40, will head back down to the foot of the division from whence he came.

In juryo, the fourth man targeted for a final jaunt on the dohyo in 2013, was Takamisakari, a komusubi way back in the early 2000s. A decade on, he won just five of 15 at juryo 12. As expected called it a day when he won his final bout on senshuraku. He will be missed by many who, over the years gave him the nickname Robocop thanks to his somewhat erratic pre- and post-bout movements.

  • tartanohana

    An interesting, but I think overly negative take on Harumafuji’s 15-0
    yusho. The main priority he had – as you yourself noted – was to prove
    to the crusties in the sumo council that he was capable of getting at
    least double digits, and ideally a 12 or 13 winning record. He has
    certainly achieved that. I for one am mightily relieved, not least as
    it has at last dislodged Hakuho and his depressingly tight stranglehold
    on sumo. Judging from your articles this is not a view you hold??

    Though
    I can sadly only watch it on TV it does seem that Harumafuji has helped
    sumo recover some if its recently lost popularity – even Abe was
    getting in on the limelight – something the council crusties should (but
    won’t) take note of before embarking on whispering campaigns on his
    ‘dishonourable’ style. I would love to learn what they thought of the
    dull-duller-dullest oshidashi/yorikiri Musashimaru and such disgraceful
    ‘ozeki’ like Chiyotaikai and Musoyama.

    It is good to read sports
    writers with opinions, particularly on sports I have a passion about,
    though I disagree with your pessimistic takes on Baruto and Harumafuji’s
    fates. However, judging by the last few days it sadly seems that
    Baruto will join Goeido in the sekiwake safety zone. And what a
    shocking way to get 8-7… Keep the articles coming~

  • Mike DeJong

    This writer’s opinion is off the mark, in my opinion. Will Japan’s baseball team be criticised for winning the WBC again by hitting homers instead of bunting and playing station-to-station baseball? A win is a win. We should celebrate Haramafuji’s intelligence and ability to think outside the box. Winning despite being the smallest guy is admirable in my book.

  • Alisdair

    Nice article Mark. I think Ikioi was already a “dead body” when Baruto’s hand touched. I was surprised that the Gyoji went with Ikioi in that instance. A return to Ozeki will require his knee fully healing. And as followers of sumo know, major injuries are hard to recover from as you have to keep fighting to maintain your rank.

  • Smokey Snaps

    This seems to be the only story in the JT sports section getting
    comments but it’s also the only one that you can’t find in the paper.
    Perhaps some food for thought for the JT there? Great column, Mark.

  • http://twitter.com/MarkBuckton1970 Mark Buckton

    Some interesting comments above / below with this new feature of the site.
    Thanks to all who took the time, agree with my take or not.
    Mark