Kisenosato injury hands yokozuna quest baton to Kakuryu

by Mark Buckton

Going into the 2014 Hatsu Basho all eyes were on ozeki Kisenosato and his quest to be promoted to yokozuna.

A yusho (tournament win), perhaps a runners-up slot, having pushed Hakuho to a play-off on the final day, and there would be, at the very least, serious consideration given to a promotion even without the unwritten prerequisite of late of back to back titles at rank.

With Kise, the sport’s best ozeki this side of the year 2000 by a country mile, and the second most consistent man in the sport after Hakuho in the past two years, few were in any doubt that he had at least earned the right to be considered.

Unfortunately for the promotion hopeful he started with a once familiar splutter on first day, losing by a sukuinage (beltless arm throw) to Toyonoshima. By the mid-way point of week one though he was back on course, and looking good for a serious run at remaining undefeated before being completely overpowered by the Bulgarian komusubi Aoiyama from the initial clash on Day 5.

Forced back over the straw bales in a matter of seconds Kisenosato’s yokozuna run was all but over. Back-to-back losses on Days 8 and 9 to Tochiozan and Toyohibiki cemented his fall from grace. It wasn’t long before talk turned to his collapse being the result of the pressure to become the first Japanese yokozuna since Wakanohana was promoted (in mid-1998). Was there an underlying and unannounced physical cause, hitherto unknown? In the end, the truth came out but only after further losses on Days 12, 13, and 14. Kisenosato had suffered a major toe injury.

His decision to pull out ahead of his Day 15 clash with fellow ozeki Kotoshogiku left him with an overall 7-8 record for the basho meaning that anything less than a kachikoshi winning record in Osaka in March will result in the man many saw as the next yokozuna being demoted to sekiwake.

As Kise is known for his aversion to pulling out of a tournament, it was also a sign of just how serious the injury was.

In pulling out, the spotlight shifted to Kakuryu (then 13-1). Until the final weekend on the back of two years of less than inspiring sumo Kakuryu has long been a man largely ignored by fans and media alike. Like Kise, he had also suffered a knockback on Day 1.

As such, the Mongolian ozeki went into senshuraku with the chance of a first championship still an outside possibility. “All” he would have to do would be to beat yokozuna Hakuho (14-0) twice in quick succession, once in regulation, and again in a play-off.

Incredibly, despite an awful head-to-head record against the yokozuna going into the bout he did manage to win by way of a scrappy yoritaoshi technique. Both men returned to the changing rooms to get back in the “zone,” and have their hair rearranged before returning to the dohyo for the play-off. And when they did, sumo service returned to normal: Hakuho delivered a convincing yorikiri to dispatch Kakuryu and claim his 28th Emperor’s Cup. Kakuryu left empty handed..

And so, at the end of a tournament that began with Kisenosato as the media darling, talk turned to whether or not Kakuryu himself would be considered for promotion with a tournament victory in Osaka next time out. Time will tell!

In other, arguably much bigger and further reaching news for sumo fans around the world, the Hatsu Basho saw the introduction of a pay-per-view system on the live stream from the Kokugikan.

Costing US$10 per day for the first 14 days, $15 for the final day, or $120 for the entire tournament, the concept drew immediate criticism  in online foreign language sumo forums from fans across Australasia, Europe and North America.

Several swore off ever watching sumo again. Others called for action by way of mass e-mails to the Sumo Association, while others suggested that a tweeting campaign targeted at the official sumo account, with its 36,700 followers, might work in reversing the decision.

A Facebook site was set up by one fan to get the message across to the Sumo Association as to just how many foreign and Japanese fans of sumo are less than impressed by the move, although only 157 had joined the Facebook movement as of Jan. 28.

Yet, as upset as fans currently may be, according to one source in the association, the lack of public support for the pay-per-view service, while noted in the halls of the Kokugikan, will likely change nothing.

And in the end, it may not need to. Even with the association opting to introduce what are universally seen as exorbitant fees for a once-free service, the ire of most outspoken fans online at present has seemingly been quelled by the stream somehow still being broadcast free of charge on a Mongolian-language online site.

More on this and any subsequent changes in the pay-per-view system in mid-February.