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Sumo-rich Osaka ready for stormy Spring Basho

by John Gunning

That stretch in the evenings and the plum blossoms in bloom means just one thing to sumo fans — it’s time for the Osaka Basho.

With a historical propensity for surprising outcomes, the meet has acquired the nickname ‘Areru Haru Basho’ or ‘Turbulent Spring Tournament.’

It’s a reputation that Osaka hasn’t quite lived up to over the past couple of decades however. Since March 2000, when Takatoriki claimed the title ranked at maegashira 14, just two non-yokozuna, Chiyotaikai in 2003 and Kakuryu in 2014 (both ranked at ozeki), have taken the championship there. Indeed Kakuryu was promoted to yokozuna immediately following his victory.

The odds of that long streak of top-dog dominance being broken this time out, though, are high. All three yokozuna have injury question marks going into the tournament and none are even certain of being on the dohyo on opening day.

One year after Kisenosato’s debut at sumo’s highest rank in Osaka brought the number of men with the white rope to four, the sport potentially faces having just one or even no yokozuna by the end of 2018.

Kisenosato, whose pectoral injury has led to five straight tournament withdrawals following his dramatic victory last spring, seems in the most precarious position. It’s doubtful his condition can be fixed without surgery and failure to compete (and be competitive) in March or May, could lead to retirement.

Certainly, given the fact that he is the first native-born yokozuna since Takanohana retired in 2003, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council will give him greater latitude. But the man himself may decide it’s time to hang it up if he can’t uphold the expectations of the rank.

It’s not just the yokozuna who are the walking wounded either. Terunofuji’s drop to the juryo division sees him become just the fourth former ozeki to achieve that unwanted distinction.

One man who is looking good, though, is Tochinoshin. The Georgian, fresh off a first title, looked sharp and focused in practice at Kasugano stable on Feb. 19.

Training with Aoiyama and Mitakeumi, Tochinoshin displayed strong forward-moving sumo in most of his bouts. I sat down for an interview with him afterward and he admitted that the number of interviews, parties and award ceremonies he had to attend after his title win left him feeling very tired.

At the same time, though, he said the whole experience has been really enjoyable and one he hopes to repeat.

The odds are against the big Georgian taking the championship again in Osaka, however, as a maegashira-ranked winner has never replicated the feat the following basho. Kotonishiki’s 12-3 runner-up performance in November 1991 is as close as anyone has come.

Regardless, Tochinoshin said he is just happy to return as champion to the place his sumo life started.

In 2004, only a few months after being introduced to the sport, Levan Gorgadze, as he was still known, represented his country at the Junior Sumo World Championships held in Osaka. He took bronze that day and shared a podium with three other future rikishi, one of whom was ozeki Goeido.

Goeido, of course, hails from Osaka, and with the top of the banzuke in flux, the city might see a homegrown winner for the first time ever.

Despite having a population of almost 9 million people and being a sumo heartland, only three men from the prefecture have ever won a tournament. Goeido’s victory in 2016 broke an 86-year drought for rikishi from Osaka.

If the veteran pulls it off in front of his boisterous hometown fans, he’ll probably never have to pay for takoyaki in the city again.

Kansai may not have produced much top-line talent in recent times but its links to sumo are broad and deeply ingrained. Sumo is said to have originated in the region 2,000 years ago, when Nominosukune kicked rival Taimanokehaya to death.

The actual battleground with a modern dohyo built over the spot can be found inside the grounds of the ‘Sumo Jinja’ shrine in nearby Nara Prefecture.

Osaka has also had its own rival sumo organizations at various times over the centuries. The most recent only disbanded in the 1930s.

The city also once boasted the largest-ever sumo-specific stadium. The Osaka Dai-Kokugikan, which was torn down in 1953, had a seating capacity of 25,000. For reference, that’s more than double that of the current Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.

Osaka’s sumo links aren’t just limited to rikishi either. Tanimachi is an area of the city that once housed many sumo stables’ Osaka lodgings.

A sumo-loving doctor who lived there in the Edo era used to provide rikishi with free medical treatment. The name ‘Tanimachi’ as a result became a term for a person who provides financial support to stables or wrestlers.

‘The nation’s kitchen’ unsuprisingly hosts a basho that many rikishi list as their favorite. The warm weather, central location (Osaka is the only tournament held in a central shopping district), outgoing people and great food makes the spring meet unique.

With over half of all rikishi having made their debut during the Spring Basho, the tournament understandably holds special meaning for most members of the Sumo Association.

This year’s tournament will have all those elements but it’s also shaping up to be one that restores its ‘stormy’ reputation.