Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Injuries continue to impact sumo landscape

by John Gunning

Sumo fans continue to be spoiled, with September serving up yet another incredible and dramatic tournament.

What seemed early on like a Kakuryu procession to a second straight title turned into a battle royale, with any of three or four contenders looking like the most likely champion at various stages.

At the halfway point, Okinoumi appeared set to become the latest name on the list of currently active Emperor’s Cup winners.

That’s a list, by the way, that has stretched to ten men — one shy of the all-time record, and something that has only occurred three times since the concept of an individual overall champion was introduced in the 1900s.

Having so many potential tournament winners is a boon to sumo as more fans can legitimately expect that their favorite rikishi is in with a shot at the title each time out.

In the end, the final bout of the tournament, while not one for the ages, confirmed that Takakeisho and Mitakeumi’s previous championships were no flash in the pan and that both are around for the long haul.

At least that’s the hope.

A pectoral muscle injury sustained in the bout has already placed Takakeisho participation in the next tournament in doubt.

It’s a huge blow for the Chiganoura stable man as it will put his newly regained and hard fought for ozeki status under threat once again.

Of course, upon hearing the words “pectoral tear” the image that immediately jumped to mind for many is Kisenosato.

The former yokozuna never recovered from an injury to that part of his body and after having missed just one bout in his first 15 years in sumo, he spent most of his last two years the sidelines, being absent for 104 of 165 fights before retiring.

No two injuries are the same of course and Takakeisho has already has shown a more prudent attitude towards injury and long-term planning when it comes to taking time to heal and receiving medical treatment.

Despite that though, what this injury shows is that even if a wrestler does the “smart” thing, and takes time off, there are no guarantees he won’t be injured again right away after returning and out once more for an extended period.

The reality of sumo is that injury is an ever present. It’s a brutal and violent sport that takes a toll on its participants. Rikishi fight while injured and in pain all the time and it’s rare to meet a former top-level wrestler whose body hasn’t been decimated by his time in the ring.

Takakeisho, of course, is one of the rising stars of sumo and fans will be hoping his injury isn’t as serious as the one that ended Kisenosato’s career and that the young ozeki will be back on the dohyo soon.

The sole American in sumo wasn’t so lucky. Twenty-four-year-old Musashikuni retired this month after failing to recover properly from a broken ankle sustained last November.

The Hawaiian was one of Musashigawa stablemaster’s first recruits when the former yokozuna opened his stable in 2013.

Musashikuni, who is Musashimaru’s nephew, was also involved in a bout that highlighted a much more serious injury related issue for sumo and one which is a ticking time bomb that could threaten the very existence of the sport.

I’m talking, of course, about concussions.

In January 2017, the 187-cm, 145-kg Waianae native faced 168-cm, 110-kg Tomisake in the ring and completely knocked his much smaller opponent out at the initial charge. No one rushed to help Tomisakae and he was left to flop around helplessly for what seemed like an eternity on the ring to the shocked reaction of the crowd.

The Isegahama stable man had to be carried back to the dressing room.

In any other sport he would have been out for an extended period, but sumo has no Head Injury Assessment or concussion protocol and Tomisakae was back in the ring fighting the very next day.

Brain injury and the related long-term damage repeated impacts and concussions cause is something that has only reached the public consciousness in the last five or 10 years.

American football and rugby have had major problems dealing with the issue and while some progress has been made in making those games safer, the latter in particular is struggling to attract younger players as parents no longer want their children doing a sport that continuously puts their long-term health in danger.

I’ve raised the topic numerous times on-air and in discussions with sumo people, but as yet it’s something that hasn’t really become an issue.

That will change, however, as knowledge spreads and when parents are aware of the risks, sumo is going to have an even bigger problem than the aforementioned sports.

There is no helmet to improve the technology of in sumo. No tackle laws to change. Sumo is two individuals hurling themselves at each other with great force and velocity. Head-to-head collisions are not just commonplace — they are actually encouraged, even at the kids sumo level.

Coaching needs to be modernized and those in charge of children and young men educated on the risks of head injury. Better on-site medical assessment is also a must.

As for what can be done to make the sport safer? There are no easy answers but one solution might be a return to the 1970s style of sumo where rikishi almost never put their hands down and bouts began almost from a standing start. That would avoid the American football-like head-to-head clash at the start and while you can never legislate injury out of a combat sport it would remove the most dangerous element of sumo.

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