What makes Japan’s national sport special? How has Hakuho been so dominant for so long? Why have many tournaments over the past few years seen first time winners?
The answers to these, and many other, questions can be found in a single word.
The initial clash when two rikishi come together is a moment that has few (if any) parallels in the wider world of sport.
That impossible to define, but easy to recognize, split second of harmony right before a pair of rikishi collide, blurs the line between sport and art, and creates a tension unique to sumo.
No referee’s whistle or starter’s pistol is required on the dohyo. Instead, each and every bout begins only after the combatants have, in common parlance, synchronized their breathing.
Starting at the same moment as your opponent, while simultaneously getting the jump on him would seem to require a Schrödinger like understanding of quantum superposition, yet somehow hundreds of men with junior high school educations manage the feat thousands of times each tournament.
That mystical aspect of the tachiai is matched only by its importance to the result. A refrain commonly espoused in sumo attributes the outcome of 80% of bouts to what happens at the initial charge. Whether or not there is data to support such a claim, it is certainly one that passes the eye test. Coming off second best at the tachiai in a 4.55-meter diameter ring puts any wrestler in an extremely difficult position.
Conversely, if a rikishi can get his timing right at the tachiai, it invariably leads to an ability to do his “own brand of sumo” i.e., control the flow of the bout and achieve victory.
Given the supreme importance of that first hit, it’s easy to understand why top-division wrestlers are given a full four minutes in the ring before they have to fight. The unchanging ritual of going back and forth to the corner, throwing salt, and stomping their feet, allows rikishi to get into the zone and block out the noise and distractions that come from 10,000 roaring fans.
While to followers of other sports that might seem like an inordinately long gap between each few seconds of action, it’s nothing compared to what used to be the norm in pre-broadcast days.
Prior to the introduction of radio commentary, it could take up to an hour for wrestlers in a single bout to get themselves into the right headspace to complete a false startless tachiai.
That was reduced to 10 minutes per fight for makuuchi in 1928, but it wasn’t until live television coverage started in 1960 that we reached the current time limits.
In contrast to the tightly scripted pre-bout rituals, once rikishi come to the middle of the ring for the final time, almost anything can happen. While the vast majority of tachiai involve men propelling themselves forward with as much power and speed as they can generate, there are numerous other options available.
Though derided by purists, henka (sidesteps) are a key component in preventing sumo from devolving into a simple contest of size and strength, and a means for smaller rikishi like Enho to survive and thrive among the giants. A person’s ambivalence towards henka is also a good way to judge how long they’ve been following sumo. Generally speaking, newer fans have stronger feelings about it and tend to criticize the rikishi doing the sidestep, while longer term sumo followers understand henka is a necessary evil and assign blame for the loss to the rikishi who charged forward with his eyes down.
One technique at the tachiai that hasn’t been seen much since the heyday of Mongolian Tokitenku is ketaguri, where a sidestep is combined with a leg sweep. Used properly it can fell much larger opponents instantly and dramatically.
The most exciting tachiai tend to occur when there are large size imbalances between opponents. Diminutive Mainoumi was sumo’s ultimate joker — a man who just did what he pleased at the initial charge.
The Dewanoumi stable man’s unpredictability may have caused headaches for opponents but it generated enormous excitement whenever he faced giants like Akebono or Konishiki.
Unusual approaches aren’t just the preserve of the small men. Both Hayateumi and Wakanoho were known for occasionally pulling out leaping henka that almost vaulted them over opponents.
While using such a move against a smaller wrestler may be tolerated (if frowned upon) for most rikishi, yokozuna are generally held to a different standard.
Henka or rough techniques at the tachiai are generally considered beneath sumo’s grand champions. Although they can’t be sanctioned for using such moves, yokozuna can expect condemnation from all corners if they resort to henka or forearm blasts.
Hakuho has in the past incurred the wrath of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council for his overreliance on the latter, but the veteran has also drawn praise for his use of the highest form of tachiai — go-no-sen.
Akin to the hero in a cowboy movie that never draws first in a gunfight, Hakuho at his peak allowed opponents to take their best shot before putting them down. Employing the almost mythical go-no-sen, made famous by the legendary Futabayama, put Hakuho on a different plane from the other merely great yokozuna.
Hakuho is no longer at that level and doesn’t have the power or vibrance he once did, but in sumo success comes mainly from mastery of the initial microseconds, which means the G.O.A.T.’s lightning-fast reflexes at the tachiai should allow him to stave off the effects of time and injury for some time to come.
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