Sumo

Higher-ranked wrestlers in driver’s seat in Kyushu

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

November is upon us and that means the final sumo tournament of the year is just days away.

So far 2018 has seen Tochinoshin claim the first championship by a maegashira-ranked wrestler in six years, a dramatic return to form by yokozuna Kakuryu, a surprise Emperor’s Cup for Mitakeumi and a 41st title for Hakuho.

The Fukuoka meet will be hard pressed to top what the other five tournaments have already offered up this year, especially given that it’s been a decade and a half since a non-yokozuna has taken the title there.

That streak could well be broken this month however, as Hakuho and Kakuryu have been struggling with injury in the lead up to the event, and Kisenosato is still working his way back to full fitness after missing all or part of the eight tournaments prior to September.

Of the three, Hakuho is the most doubtful to enter, having had surgery on his right knee and ankle following his victory in September. While he has shown up at practice, it has just been to do the basic movements, and so far the veteran hasn’t taken part in any training bouts. Hakuho generally builds up to each tournament at his own pace, but even if he decides to enter this time, a lack of preparation will seriously hinder his chances.

Kakuryu, as always, is playing his cards close to his chest. Also affected by a leg injury, he has kept his training schedule light and avoided any of the other top rankers. The leg, which he initially hurt during the 2017 Nagoya Basho, has worsened this year.

Given his age and the fact that the injury can be managed with rest, Kakuryu has opted against undergoing surgery but as with Hakuho, a lack of serious training will impact his stamina in the latter stages of the tournament.

If the 15-year streak of yokozuna championships in Kyushu is to continue, Kisenosato looks like the best bet to extend it. The 32-year old seems almost fully back to pre-injury form, which is a minor miracle when you consider that virtually everyone was expecting the September tournament to be his final hurrah. Just how the Ibaraki native has recovered from a serious pectoral tear without undergoing an operation is anyone’s guess, but a healthy and competitive Kisenosato is good for the sport, so no one is complaining.

Tochinoshin could become the first ozeki to win in Fukuoka since Tochiazuma back in 2003. The burly Georgian seems fully recovered from the injury that caused him to pull out of the July meet. Prior to that he had gone 14-1, 10-5 and 13-2 since the start of 2018, winning the Emperor’s Cup in January and getting promoted to sumo’s second-highest rank after the May tournament.

Tochinoshin is at his peak both physically and mentally. As he showed earlier this year, when healthy he is a match for anyone on the banzuke (rankings). He also has the added boost that becoming a parent for the first time seems to provide to rikishi.

Given that he is already 31, it’s no surprise that having a child in November 2017 has focused Tochinoshin’s mind on achieving the greatest amount of success as possible in the few years he has left as a wrestler.

For most athletes, post-retirement futures are often murky right up to the moment they happen. Maximizing one’s earnings while active is something that becomes more urgent when they start approaching the end of their career or have a family.

This year’s other surprise champion, Mitakeumi, will be hoping to get the 12 or 13 wins he needs to join Tochinoshin in the ozeki rank as well as possibly win a second championship.

The Dewanoumi man, to this writer’s mind at least, hasn’t shown an ability to beat the top rankers with the consistency needed to be considered a true title threat.

Mitakeumi’s victory in July came when all three yokozuna were absent and while you can only beat whoever is in front of you, it was telling that when the big guns returned, he once again failed to crack double digits.

His main problem, apart from his well-known half-hearted efforts in training, is a lack of physicality. At 179 cm and 149 kg he is shorter and lighter than everyone ranked above him. If the Toyo University graduate is to fulfill the promise that many see in him, he needs to hit the gym more often and get stronger.

Goeido continues to produce good reports out of various training venues. The veteran ozeki has put together several solid months of sumo and if everything falls right for him he might even be a dark horse for the title. Certainly with the way things are right now at the top of the sport “surprise” tournament championships are almost becoming expected.

Takayasu likewise is another wrestler to keep an eye on for a potential title run. Kisenosato’s stablemate has shown an ability to beat anyone when in form, but what he hasn’t yet done is strung enough of those wins together in the same tournament to take a title. There is no doubting Takayasu’s talent but his career-best mark of 12 wins in a single meet is a score rarely good enough to lift the Emperor’s Cup.

Only five times in the last 15 years have 12 or fewer wins resulted in a championship. If Takayasu is to emerge victorious in Kyushu he’ll likely need to get to Day 10 unbeaten, or with one loss at most.

Even with question marks over pretty much all of the top dogs, it’s difficult to see anyone outside the yokozuna or ozeki ranks emerging victorious in Fukuoka.

While wrestlers can struggle to maintain their conditioning in the stifling heat and humidity of Nagoya in July or the cold of Tokyo in January, the mild weather this time of year in Kyushu, along with the sea air and incredible food, helps the rikishi forget about their various aches and pains and produce good sumo.

Life in Fukuoka puts everyone in a good mood and an optimistic frame of mind as evidenced by Kaisei, who is back in the sanyaku ranks (the three ranks below yokozuna) for the first time in two years and will likely be facing any yokozuna taking part in the tournament.

The Brazilian has yet to down a yokozuna, and in fact owns a 0-35 record against the yokozuna, but when I interviewed Kaisei this week for an upcoming show on NHK World he was joking with my producer about his 35-bout WIN streak against yokozuna.

Even some normally-irascible stablemasters started laughing and kidding around with me in the JSA offices at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center last weekend. Kyushu really does have a positive effect on sumo people.

For the record Kaisei engaged in a series of bouts with Takarafuji who was visiting Tomozuna stable that morning. The two veterans seemed in good condition but neither will offer much challenge to yokozuna Hakuho for whom they were attendants at a ring entering ceremony at a shrine in central Fukuoka later that day.

There are no new entrants in the top division this tournament but four men are at a career high rank. Of those, the most promising seems to be Takanosho. The 23-year-old had a respectable 8-7 debut in makuuchi last time out and will have benefited from the increased level of competition in his stable.

All the wrestlers from the suddenly-shuttered Takanohana Stable moved to Chiganoura Beya and Takanosho went from having his toughest training partner being ranked in the third highest division to being part of a stable with three men in the top tier alone, including rising star Takakeisho.

Yamanashi native Ryuden finds himself ranked at maegashira 3. The Takadagawa stable wrestler initially reached the paid ranks in 2012 before a devastating injury caused him to miss most of the next two years and dropped him down to the jonokuchi division.

Ryuden has never even faced an opponent ranked at komusubi but his 10-5 record in September got him promoted to a level where he will be going up against the yokozuna and ozeki. It promises to be a rough first week for the 27-year old.

Ryuden, along with most of the men mentioned above have been part of various meet-and-greets and promotional visits and events that the Sumo Association has organized ahead of the upcoming tournament in an effort to boost ticket sales. While the figures there have been reasonably good, there are still seats available for nine of the 15 days.

Most of those are for the weekdays in the first half of the tournament so they are unlikely to be affected by results early on, but if Kisenosato or a local hero like Kotoshogiku makes it to the midway point unbeaten expect the remaining tickets to be snapped up.