Sumo

New Year Basho provides intriguing mix of storylines

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

Every sumo tournament contains a myriad of storylines.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the sport is the fact that the kachikoshi/makekoshi delineation of winning and losing records determines both the starting positions for the following meet and the lifestyle of the wrestlers.

In sports like soccer, football or golf no matter who wins a competition, everyone goes back to square one the next time out.

Sure, tennis has seedings, but being the 75th seed at Wimbledon doesn’t mean the player in question has to carry the racket bag of whomever is No. 1 and act as their personal servant. Similarly, being the top-ranked player doesn’t mean you face only the hardest opponents match after match.

The big names in sumo get the lion’s share of the media attention, as is only right, but all the way through to the final day, at every point in the rankings, bouts that will determine a rikishi’s social status, financial health and position in the hierarchy are taking place.

The main focus, though, of course is the destination of the Emperor’s Cup.

Who will be lifting that giant silver trophy for the first time in the 2020s?

We have to start with the defending champion and the man who has won more titles than any other wrestler in sumo history — Hakuho.

Apart from having to break up a fight in training between stablemates, it seems like the yokozuna has had a relatively relaxing new year break and has been able to train at his own pace without any major injury worries.

Talk all you want about a change of era and the whole host of up-and-coming rikishi, but if the G.O.A.T. is healthy and fit heading into the January meet, he is the heavy favorite, despite closing in on his 35th birthday.

The only sliver of hope his rivals can cling to is the fact Hakuho hasn’t won this particular tournament since 2015 — back when the decade-long title drought for native born wrestlers was still ongoing.

Kotoshogiku, Kisenosato, Tochinoshin and Tamawashi have emerged victorious in the January tournament over the past few years. Imagine the odds you would have gotten on that combination back in 2015.

Of course, out-of-the-blue winners have become so commonplace over the past few years, that these days when a yokozuna takes the title it’s almost a surprise.

Hakuho’s fellow yokozuna, Kakuryu, has reportedly had a fever over the past week, but since it’s not influenza the veteran has been training as normal and seems to be in reasonable condition.

Reports from practice sessions at various stables come out almost daily at this stage before a tournament but, as with preseason games in team sports, it’s unwise to put too much stock into the results — with one caveat.

While pre-tournament training reports aren’t a good guide of who will do well in an upcoming meet, they are a good indicator of who will do poorly.

A rikishi who is healthy can have mixed results due to being further behind in preparation than his opponents, having an off day, or being tired after several consecutive days of hard training, but one who is in bad condition or injured won’t be training at all or will be losing to people he can normally handle with ease.

So Asanoyama getting schooled by someone who retired a year ago is of little consequence. Losing a reported 16 of 17 training bouts against the well-rested and relaxed former yokozuna Kisenosato doesn’t mean much. The fact the new sekiwake is seeking out and taking on people of that caliber is much more significant.

Kisenosato, by the way, in a recent interview with NHK’s Murray Johnson and Hiro Morita, spoke about how he admired Hakuho’s ability to pace himself when it comes to training and expressed regret that he hadn’t dialed backed the intensity and rested more himself near the end of his career.

Asanoyama, though, is young and knocking on the door of ozeki promotion, so he is doing the wisest thing right now by pushing himself and taking on higher-ranked and more successful rikishi in training.

Expected post-championship slump in Nagoya aside, the Takasago stable man has been rock solid over the past six months and really seems to be hitting his stride. Asanoyama even broke his frankly ridiculous seven-bout losing streak against Daiesho last time out.

It has been stated many times, both in this paper and elsewhere, that the 25-year-old’s on-the-belt style of sumo is far more suited to long-term success than that of other recent title winners like Takakeisho. Even if Hakuho doesn’t follow through on his recent promise to retire by the end of 2020, the next 12 to 18 months should see Asanoyama complete his rise to the top. He is a good bet to make it to ozeki in the very near future and with just a little bit more consistency and avoiding soft losses he could well be lifting the Emperor’s Cup for the second time in a couple of weeks.

Outside of the yokozuna pair and Asanoyama things get much murkier when looking for potential tournament champions.

With the demotion of Takayasu we are down to a pair of ozeki. Goeido’s losing record last time out means he needs eight wins in January to avoid the same fate as Takayasu. The veteran is no stranger to this position, having been kadoban eight times previously. That phrase, which literally means “guarding the corner” is used to describe an ozeki who had a losing record last time out and needs a winning one in the upcoming tournament to save his rank.

Although Goeido has escaped demotion on each previous occasion, his age and slowing down means the end isn’t all that far away. His one championship came from a kadoban position but the odds of a repeat performance at this point in his career are slim.

By the way, the rule requiring there to be two ozeki on the banzuke may actually help Asanoyama’s promotion chances. If Goeido gets demoted, one of the yokozuna will need to be designated yokozuna-ozeki but given Hakuho’s declaration and Kakuryu’s age that would be a precarious situation. Asanoyama may get the nod even with a weaker record than normal just to avoid a situation where there is a danger of too few ozeki.

Takakeisho in the other ozeki slot appears to be in good condition and if he is fully back healthy deserves to be added to the conversation about potential winners. Mitakeumi has also earned that right. Unlike with the rikishi mentioned previously, however, both Takakeisho and Mitakeumi probably need some other things to fall into place if they are to lift the title. Both blow hot and cold but if they get on a roll either man is capable of adding more silverware to their collection.

There is only one new debutant in the top division this time out. Mongolian Kiribayama took four years to make it to the salaried ranks, but once in juryo things progressed more smoothly and he made it through the second tier in 10 months.

The untimely passing of Izutsu oyakata and the closing of his stable meant Kiribayama suddenly found himself sharing a practice ring with fellow countryman (and yokozuna) Kakuryu, as the latter moved over to the Michinoku stable.

In the long term, that should be of great benefit to the younger wrestler. One only need look at the progress Terunofuji made after moving into an Isegahama stable that contained Harumafuji.

Kiribayama needs to put on some weight and add a bit more aggression and variety to his sumo, but having Kakuryu in his ear each morning should ensure he sticks in makuuchi. It may be touch-and-go this time out as the bright lights are a big adjustment for anyone but Kiribayama won’t be 24 until April so he is one to keep an eye on.

Down at the very bottom of the sumo world another country joins the list of those that have produced sumo wrestlers. Sergey Sokolovsky, after a year living and training at the Irumagawa stable, finally took the new recruit exam and will be the first Ukrainian to set foot in a professional ring when he makes his debut.

Sokolovsky has been active in amateur circles for years, and at 191 cm and 162 kg he certainly has the frame for sumo. Only time will tell if the 22-year-old will succeed in the pro ranks and given his age he’ll probably need to make a fast start to do so.