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Autumn Basho flourishes in absence of stars

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The 2017 Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament ended with a yokozuna beating an ozeki in the title-deciding final bout.

That was pretty much the only normal thing we witnessed over the last 15 days at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.

In one of the wildest basho in recent memory. A whole host of top-ranked rikishi withdrew injured and one upset loss after another contributed to a tournament whose likely outcome seemed to change almost daily.

In an early surprise, three of the four yokozuna pulled out right before the tournament began. They were soon joined by ozeki pair Takayasu and Terunofuji.

The two rikishi remaining in the yokozuna and ozeki ranks ended up in a playoff for the Emperor’s Cup, but that wasn’t an outcome that seemed probable early on.

Onosho, one of the youngest wrestlers in the top division, got off to a roaring start, winning his first five bouts to stand 7-1 at the halfway point. The Onomatsu man, fighting at a career-high rank, benefited from all the absences. Normally, a No. 3 maegashira on the east side would have an even tougher slate, evidenced by the fact the last winning record at the rank was back in summer 2015 and the average performance there hovers around 4-11.

The 21-year-old’s record, though — injuries notwithstanding — is impressive. The fact that it’s the third straight basho since his debut in the top division that he has finished 10-5 is even more so.

Terukuni, the only other man to have three consecutive double-digit records upon entering the makuuchi ranks, ended up at yokozuna. Onosho finished 7-3 against the rikishi above him, downing a yokozuna, an ozeki and both sekiwake. Of course there is no way of knowing how high Onosho will go, but his style of sumo and ability to execute difficult moves under pressure, at such a young age, is a very good sign.

Unfortunately, this time out he couldn’t keep his torrid pace going, and four losses in five days dashed the hopes of everyone who wanted to see the first hiramaku yusho (title won by a maegashira) since Kyokutenho in 2012.

Former ozeki Kotoshogiku, the man who broke the 10-year title drought for native-born rikishi in 2016, started even more impressively, defeating a yokozuna and two ozeki, but faded just as quickly, losing four in a row from day five.

Harumafuji of course was already 2-3 at that stage, and with all three losses having come to rank-and-filers, the yokozuna was in a position that would normally require a face-saving withdrawal. However, as he later admitted, Harumafuji felt he had no choice but to continue, as the idea of all four yokozuna pulling out just wasn’t acceptable.

That obviously turned out to be a wise decision, and the 33-year-old Mongolian got his ninth title, leaving him just one Emperor’s Cup away from double digits, and what is usually termed dai (great) yokozuna status.

Of course in an era when Hakuho with 39 titles (and counting) followed Asashoryu with 25, Harumafuji’s numbers might seem prosaic, but there are far more yokozuna with less than 10 titles than there are with more. The Isegahama man also broke a few records he’d probably rather not have. Harumafuji became the first yokozuna to take a tournament with just 11 wins and the first to give up four kinboshi (losses to lower-rankers) and come out on top.

It would be remiss not to attempt to offer some explanation for all the absences. As has previously been stated here and elsewhere, sumo’s current popularity and the demands that places on the rikishi is quite clearly a contributing factor. The length, both in time and distance, of the summer regional tour meant injuries couldn’t heal and bodies didn’t get the rest they needed.

Age also has to be considered. All four yokozuna are in their 30s and past their peak. At most they’ve got two or three years left at a level where they can be competitive. The physical nature of sumo means even the most skillful and experienced rikishi start to struggle once they enter their fourth decade and injuries begin to take longer to heal.

Not only that, but yokozuna status comes with huge mental and emotional pressure. There is no freedom for the men at the top and they are expected to live the role 24 hours a day. Hakuho has already been doing so for more than a decade and it would be no surprise if he were looking forward to the day when he can finally relax.

There will be no putting the feet up in the immediate future, though. The winter regional tour kicks off on Oct. 4 with a special event at the Kokugikan and takes up the entire month. As soon the rikishi finish that barnstorming trip through 18 of the 47 prefectures in Japan, they’ll set up their temporary lodgings in Kyushu and will already be in full-on training for the next tournament.

Exciting and all as the autumn meet was, with Onosho likely making his sanyaku debut, hopefully most of the absentees will be back in November to face him and offer a real challenge to the up-and-coming star.