2004 Sumo Year End
The Hatsu Basho banzuke was released today 2 1/2 weeks before the actual start of the basho in order for the Sumo Association to garner some sort of hype before the sport is completely forgotten as Japan heads into its busy year-end/New Year season. As any significant pre-basho keiko reports are still a few weeks off, you get my sumo year in review report to tide you over until we get back into the thick of things the first week of January. Happy Holidays everyone.
Basho of the year
On first instinct, I would be inclined to say the Kyushu Basho; however, I'm sure that's due largely to my ties to the basho itself and the fact that its recent ending was so dramatic. But no, the year's best basho was the Haru basho. The Japanese have coined the phrase "abareru Haru Basho," or the wild Haru Basho because the result is usually so unpredictable. Take the year 2000 version: Takatoriki winning the yusho from the last rung on the Makuuchi ladder. This year's version was anything but wild. It never sucks when the yusho line ends at 15-0 and you have three rikishi in the runner-up spot standing at 13-2. Hell, even Musoyama won nine bouts. Asashoryu, Chiyotaikai, Kaio, and Asasekiryu all won their first 11 bouts. On day 12 Asasekiryu upset Ozeki Kaio after the Ozeki delivered the sort of tachi-ai he saves for when Yokozuna promotion is on the line, but Chiyotaikai demolished Kotomitsuki and Asashoryu overwhelmed Wakanosato to leave a trio of rikishi perfect at 12-0. On day 13 Chiyotaikai finished off Asasekiryu after some brutal fisticuffs from both rikishi, and Asashoryu coasted passed Musoyama leaving the two highest-ranked rikishi on the banzuke perfect at 13-0. Chiyotaikai would succumb to the pressure (what's new?) falling to Kaio and Asashoryu on consecutive days allowing Asashoryu to put a stamp on his second straight 15-0 yusho. You can't ask for anymore than to have the Yokozuna go 15-0 and two Ozeki finish at 13-2. Then, when you have a Maegashira rikishi who also holds his own against the contenders, it just adds icing to the cake.
Bout of the year
Though several bouts readily come to mind, the bout of the year was one that didn't involve Asashoryu. The Haru basho was highlighted by no less than four rikishi jumping out to 11-0 starts: Asashoryu, Kaio, Chiyotaikai, and Asasekiryu. On day 13 Chiyotaikai and Asasekiryu squared off in a free for all that looked more like the final round of a prize fight than a bout of sumo. Chiyotaikai looked to prove a point early by bullying Asasekiryu from the tachi-ai with multiple blows to the face, but the Mongolian held firm and countered with some slaps to Chiyo's face as well. Round and round the ring the two rikishi went trading blow after blow to each other's face until Chiyo's stamina proved the deciding factor as the Ozeki finally pulled Asasekiryu to the dirt. That bout must have taken half a year's worth of energy out of both rikishi because neither of them has been worth a lick since.
Honorable mention goes to Asashoryu's dismantling of Kotomitsuki on day 10 of the Hatsu basho. With Kotomitsuki off to a 8-1 start (he would finish 13-2) and being hyped to no end as a potential rival to Asashoryu, the Yokozuna proved his prowess by getting deep inside of Kotomitsuki from the tachi-ai and toying with the M4 before hoisting him clean off the dohyo and bouncing him to the dirt by tsuri-otoshi, a waza that has since become Asashoryu's signature technique. Before the throw, Kotomitsuki had that helpless look in his eyes like the fish they slice up over here while it's still alive and serve on a stick so it doesn't wiggle itself off of the plate.
Rikishi of the year
This one is a no-brainer, thus the category after this one, "Rikishi of the year besides Asashoryu." To list a few of Asashoryu's accomplishments this year:
* 5 yusho in a calendar year, a feat performed previously by Taiho, Kitanoumi, and Chiyonofuji.
* A 35 bout win steak
* Two consecutive 15-0 zensho yusho performances to start the year
Asashoryu's greatness lies in his constant improvement of his weaknesses and mistakes. If he gives up a kinboshi loss, he seeks that rikishi out prior to the next basho and delivers a tsuri-otoshi or two or three during keiko to send a message. In 2003 Asashoryu failed to take a yusho outside of Tokyo; this year he responds by going 3-0 in the non-Tokyo basho. The biggest improvement for the Yokozuna in my opinion, however, was his demeanor outside of the ring. How many different incidences were there in 2003 that had fanatics calling for his demotion from the rank? There was the hair-pulling incident and feud with Kyokushuzan, Asashoryu's missing the former Takasago oyakata's funeral after a secret trip back to Mongolia, the pony-tail thing, and on and on. Seemingly after every basho, old-schoolers were calling for the Yokozuna's head. This year, the biggest incident came towards the end of the summer when Asashoryu got silly drunk one night and couldn't get the front door of his stable opened so he broke the window causing someone in the neighborhood to call the police. The newspapers and tabloids tried to make a story out of the incident--there were even reports that he punched his shisho, but everything died down before the story could gain any momentum. Like Takanohana 9 or 10 years ago, Asashoryu is making it look so easy that his accomplishments are a bit under appreciated. We've already written so much about Asashoryu this year, and there will be plenty more to come, so let's move on.
Rikishi of the year besides Asashoryu
Since Yokozuna Asashoryu is in a class by himself, the best of the rest this year was the only rikishi to post double-digit wins in each of the six basho, Ozeki Kaio. Kaio clearly separated himself from his Ozeki counterparts (of which there's only one other now) in the latter half of the year managing to capture a yusho and keep himself in prime position to secure promotion to Yokozuna in January. He evened his record against Asashoryu to 9-9 this year, and I'm not so sure that Kaio isn't the better rikishi when the two go at it head-to-head. We may not have two Yokozuna yet, but the Asashoryu - Kaio match ups in 2005 are going to invite the same kind of drama. When Takanohana was in his prime, no one came as close to the prestigious rank as Kaio is doing with Asashoryu in his prime. It's a shame that Kaio couldn't have reached this point in his career a few years younger and a few kilos lighter.
Newcomer of the year
In January we were hyping the likes of Kokkai, Kotooshu, and Kisenosato (former Hagiwara) as the next generation of sumo, and while it'd be foolish to give up on either of those three (add Roho to the mix as well), the future may have already arrived. In January 2004, this rikishi had just been promoted to Juryo reaching sekitori status in record time. After the Haru basho in March, this rikishi was practicing with Asashoryu when he picked the Yokozuna up clean off of his feet and dumped him off of the dohyo. At the Natsu basho in May, this rikishi ripped the heart clean out of Hokutoriki's chest beating him on senshuraku and preventing the surprise yusho. At the Nagoya and Aki basho, this rikishi went unfazed fighting among the jo'i pulling out kachi-koshi at each basho. And finally, we all took notice of Hakuho at the Kyushu basho where he handed Kaio his critical second loss and stole one from the Yokozuna for good measure as well.
Biggest surprise of the year
The year's biggest surprise has to go to Hokutoriki in my opinion for his near yusho at the Natsu Basho. From the Maegashira 1 position, a rank that is extremely difficult because the M1 are usually given all of the sanyaku and above rikishi the first week, Hokutoriki managed to storm through three Ozeki in the first four days. So when he was paired against Yokozuna Asashoryu on day six, you knew Hokutoriki's hot streak had to end. Asashoryu was riding a personal best 35 bout win streak after all, and we are talking about Hokutoriki here. No matter. Hokutoriki halted Asashoryu's initial charge causing the Yokozuna to panic and attempt a pull-down. Hokutoriki was right on top of the move and drove the Yokozuna back and out with a nifty choke hold that sent Asa crumbling down to the corner of the dohyo in a heap. Hokutoriki was defeated on day eight by Wakanosato, but he picked right back up where he left off starting with day nine and winning out through day 14. Kyokutenho really made things interesting on day 11 when he handed the Yokozuna his second loss giving Hokutoriki a one bout lead heading into the final day. Hokutoriki only needed to win his final bout against M16 Hakuho to take the yusho, but sometime after his day 14 bout up until his bout began on senshuraku, Hokutoriki remembered that he was Hokutoriki and completely laid an egg squandering the yusho in the process (Asashoryu won his bout against Chiyotaikai and the subsequent playoff with Hokutoriki to capture the yusho). So the most improbable run since Takatoriki's yusho in Haru 2000 wasn't to be, but Hokutoriki will never lose the title of "former Sekiwake"--something very few rikishi can boast.
Biggest disappointment of the year
Several rikishi come to mind for this category and since they all frequent the Ozeki and sanyaku ranks, my biggest disappointment of the year was the collective performance of the Ozeki and sanyaku rikishi (Ozeki Kaio and perennial Sekiwake Wakanosato are excluded). There were a total of 9 makekoshi from the Ozeki ranks alone for an average of 1.5 a basho. That's pathetic. And it's also no coincidence that as we start the year 2005 there will only be two Ozeki on the banzuke. The sanyaku ranks didn't fare much better. We saw a constant revolving door where a host of rikishi would have outstanding basho from the upper-Maegashira ranks only to be promoted to the sanyaku and suck against the exact same competition. It's no wonder that Asashoryu dominated the sport this year. On the bright side, Musoyama and Tochiazuma have vacated the Ozeki ranks, and we have three sanyaku stalwarts who all enjoyed solid finishes to 2004 in Wakanosato, Miyabiyama, and Kotomitsuki. If Hakuho can keep himself in the sanyaku ranks, these four should provide much more stability than what we witnessed in 2004.
Most improved rikishi of the year
You'd be hard pressed to find a rikishi who has taken more heat from us this year than Miyabiyama. Sure he has his flaws, which are highighted by the two or three tachi-ai henka he usually mixes into his performance, but he's managed to keep himself at the Sekiwake rank for three consecutive basho. He joins only three other rikishi whose performances among the jo'i could boast the same results over the last three tournaments: Asashoryu, Kaio, and Wakanosato. That's pretty good company of which Miyabiyama rightfully belongs at this point of his career. Miyabiyama's sumo isn't pretty, but he's blessed with the ultimate sumo body. He's learned of late that he can tsuppari his way through pretty much anyone, and as long as he keeps his opponent away from his belt, chances are the former Ozeki will win. Can Miyabiyama once again regain that prestigious rank? I don't think so. He seems to me to lack the necessary fire. When he was first promoted to Ozeki, he had one Yokozuna (Musashimaru) and two Ozeki (Musoyama, Dejima) as stablemates, so he was exempt from fighting them and rewarded with Maegashira scrubs lower down the banzuke. Since Miyabiyama is now top dog in the Musashigawa-beya, he simply doesn't have enough help to repeat another Ozeki run. Nonetheless, in my mind, he's the most improved rikishi over the past year.
Least improved rikishi of the year
As I look at the January 2004 banzuke for the Makuuchi division, sure there are rikishi there who managed to fall farther down the ranks than this year's recipient, but none of them can even be mentioned in the same sentence as Toki when it comes to sumo body and sumo potential. Toki has lost it. By "it" I mean the desire to even show up anymore. Remember his Komusubi run in 2003? At the time, Toki would come out of his tachi-ai and just fire away at his opponent's neck and head area, usually with positive results. You knew exactly what was coming, but most of the rikishi couldn't stop it. I remember a basho when Toki pounded both Kaio and Chiyotaikai with this attack fueled by excellent de-ashi that strained to move forward from the get-go? Now, he looks like Kyokushuzan 50 kilos heavier with bushy side burns. There is absolutely no reason why Toki should ever retreat or act passively during a bout. He's big, and he's proven his strength and surprising speed before, so for him not to use it anymore is a disgrace. 2-13 from the depths of Maegashira at the Kyushu basho? The Association should demote his ass down to Makushita to teach him and a handful of other rikishi a lesson.
Biggest non-sumo news of the year that interrupted NHK's live broadcast of the bouts
I can't stand it when NHK interrupts their live sumo broadcast to report some sort of breaking news. Okay, I can stand it for about 5 minutes, but not when they replay the same three 10-second clips of video over and over and over and over (you get the point). This year's award goes to US army deserter Charles Jenkins, who in 1964 left his unit stationed in South Korea and defected into North Korea. There he met and married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese native who was abducted from her home on Sado Island by the North Koreans in a move to have her teach Japanese to potential North Korean spies. Coincidentally, Jenkins-san was also instructed to teach English to the North Koreans but was fired from the position after several years when they realized he could barely speak English himself (he was a junior high school dropout from the backwoods of North Carolina who's English was so hard to understand, a Time magazine reporter almost needed a translator to conduct an interview). The two managed to fall in love and raise a family that includes two daughters. Soga was allowed to return back to Japan alone about two years ago after the Japanese government pressed the North Koreans for information on their missing citizens presumed to have been abducted by the North. After much political wrangling, Jenkins-san was allowed to leave North Korea as well with his two daughters and meet his wife in Indonesia earlier in the year (during the Natsu basho). From Indonesia, he eventually came to Japan with his family (during the Nagoya basho) despite the realization that he would be turned over to US military authorities to answer for his desertion from the army. I was genuinely pleased to see the US army go easy on the guy and turn him loose after a brief trial and dishonorable discharge. Jenkins-san and his family have finally returned to Sado Island to live in peace (if you can call hounding by the Japanese press peace). I couldn't be happier for the Jenkins-Soga family and am fascinated by the tales Jenkins-san has related about his life in North Korea. The only un-answered question now is how in the hell did he manage to escape North Korea in the early nineties, make it across the Pacific Ocean to America, and run for the presidency of the United States under the guise of a Texas billionaire named Ross Perot?
(Pictures: Ross Perot, pictured at far left, welcomes home Charles Jenkins, pictured to his right...no wait...Jenkins is on the far left and Perot is on the right...ah, you know what I mean)