2009 Year in Review
Have you ever been invited over to someone's house for dinner or been taken out to eat when you just weren't hungry? The food in itself is good, but with no appetite you just can't seem to make a dent in your meal and you keep thinking to yourself will this never end? I wouldn't call it a miserable experience, but you definitely look forward to the end of the meal when you can get on with something else. That's sort of how I viewed sumo in 2009 as it seemed we were stuck in the same rut the entire year. Like the food, the sumo wasn't bad, but there just wasn't any movement on the banzuke the entire year to get us excited about the sport's short-term future. With each Hatsu basho banzuke, I like to go back a year and compare the two banzuke to see where we were then and how things are now. But in making that comparison at the end of 2009, the only significant change is Chiyotaikai's having fallen from Ozeki to Sekiwake. It's like Pink Floyd's The Wall album where it ends and starts with the phrase, "isn't this were we came in?" giving the sense that you have come full circle only to be back right where you began the year.
Case in point...we had zero rikishi promoted to Yokozuna or Ozeki. We had the following two rikishi promoted to the sanyaku for the first time: Kakuryu and Tochiohzan. And the list of newcomers to the Makuuchi division in 2009 is about as exciting as the book of Leviticus: Yamamotoyama, Shotenro, Mokonami, Tosayutaka, Wakakoyu. I guess what I'm trying to say is that 2009 showed as much promise as a beauty contestant with buck teeth and hairy armpits.
If there is a positive aspect to this circumstance, it's that the focus of sumo was confined to the action atop the dohyo. In preparing for these year-end reports, I will go back and read the year-end reports from the few previous years, and I must say 2007 and 2008 were full of juicy headlines and topics, but they all focused on events off the dohyo that dealt huge blows to sumo's image. So in a sense, 2009 helped to get the sport back on the right track and moving in the right direction. Now we just need a rikishi or three to seriously threat the upper ranks of the Makuuchi division to pump some excitement back into sumo.
It's not the hottest of intros, but let's get to the best and not so best of 2009.
Basho of the Year
It seems the last few years that the early basho in the year have proven to be the most exciting, and 2009 was no exception. You had the Hatsu basho where Asashoryu literally came from the brink of retirement to capture his long-awaited 23rd yusho putting him alone in fourth place all-time, and then you had the Haru basho where Hakuho painted a 15-0 masterpiece leaving no question that he was still heads and shoulders above the rest of the field. But the nod in this case goes to the Hatsu basho due to the drama involved. If you care to remember that far back, Asashoryu had come off of a dismal 2008, and then just prior to the Hatsu basho, he was absolutely worked in the keiko ring with things coming to a head at the general keiko session held in front of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council were the Yokozuna was just plain embarrassed. And while Asashoryu had multiple close calls the first week of the tournament, he settled down in week two cruising through the Ozeki and Baruto leaving him 14-0 heading into senshuraku. Hakuho was 13-1 having slipped up to Harumafuji on day 10, but he was too much for Asashoryu to handle on senshuraku leaving both Yokozuna at 14-1 when the dust settled. In the playoff bout, Asashoryu managed to get deep on the inside of Hakuho scoring the force-out win and sealing an improbable yusho. Improbable not because he bested Hakuho in the playoff, but improbable that he was able to turn things around on a dime and enter senshuraku 14-0.
The runner up was the aforementioned Haru basho. Let's hope that 2010 also produces two great basho to start things off.
Bout of the Year
I cannot think of a year where there were so few dramatic bouts. In fact, I actually had to go back and peruse the comments from each basho on the archive page (not a bad thing) to remind myself of the significant bouts. It was slim pickings indeed, and the top choices involved either Hakuho vs. Kotooshu or Hakuho vs. Baruto. Since Haru lost out to Hatsu for basho of the year, let's give the bout of the year to the Hakuho - Kotooshu matchup that occurred on day 13 of the Haru basho. Though he ended the year in unspectacular fashion, Ozeki Kotooshu was the second best rikishi of 2009 in my opinion (yes, better than even Asashoryu); he just didn't stand out as much due to the dominance of the Mongolian triumvirate. Kotooshu consistently provided the toughest matchups for the two Yokozuna throughout the year, and the Haru basho was no difference.
Getting to the bout at hand, Kotooshu kept his arms in tight at the tachi-ai looking for moro-zashi, but Hakuho forced his left arm on the inside leaving the two in the hidari-yotsu position where neither enjoyed an outer grip. After aligning chests and digging in for a few seconds, Hakuho went for the quick maki-kae, but Kotooshu responded with a maki-kae himself leaving the two now in the migi-yotsu position. The two dug in again when it looked as if Kotooshu was slowly forcing Hakuho back into harm's way, but the Yokozuna was baiting the Ozeki and then sprung the trap at the end lunging for the left outside belt grip that he seized and straightway used to throw Kotooshu down at the edge in spectacular fashion not to mention in about a second's time.
The bout didn't last long, but it illustrated perfectly just how dominating Hakuho was against the best competition in 2009.
Rikishi of the Year
I really think Yokozuna Hakuho is turning into the Babe Ruth of sumo. The Babe dominated baseball in the early half of the 20th century with one of his most famous moments coming in the 1932 World Series where he called his shot so to speak by pointing to the centerfield fence before blasting the next pitch over said fence for an incredible homerun. Prior to 2009 when it was clear that Hakuho was thee man, he mentioned to the press that his goal for 2010 was the record for most wins in a year. Not only did he crush that record, but he managed to do it while sharing half of the yusho. Hakuho is so good these days that the only way he'll lose is if he falls asleep against a weaker opponent as he did against Shotenro, let's a fast rikishi get moro-zashi, or falls victim to a perfectly-executed henka. And yes, the henka has to be perfect because Hakuho's tachi-ai is so good, he's virtually henka proof. Highlights for Hakuho this year include his perfect record against Asashoryu and his uchi-gake win over Baruto in Kyushu. And if you're wondering whether or not Hakuho has called his shot for 2010, he has indicated to the press that his next goal is to win five basho in a calendar surpassing his current best of four yusho in the year. Take that to the bank with the other yusho going to Asashoryu putting him past Kitanoumi once and for all.
Newcomer of the Year
As mentioned in my intro, the list of new rikishi to enter the Makuuchi division in all of 2009 reads as follows:
Doesn't exactly cream your Twinkie does it. Course, last year was just as bland leading me to declare the newcomer of the year a guy who wasn't even on the banzuke yet in Takanoiwa from the Takanohana-beya (currently ranked Makushita 13 if you need him). Since I'm not aware of any diamonds in the (Mongolian) rough for 2009, the newcomer of the year goes to the rikishi who will rise highest in the ranks, Shotenro. Shotenro sure took his lumps the latter half of the year, but I think in the end he can go as high as Sekiwake.
As an aside, the fact that the last two years has failed to produce a truly compelling rikishi among the Makuuchi division contributes to the current rut sumo is stuck in that I talked about in my intro.
When considering the most improved and least improved rikishi, you really have to choose guys that play an important role in the sport. Sure, Bushuyama (greatly improved in 2009) made a huge turnaround this year while Kasugao (greatly regressed) has declined considerably, but you need to focus on guys that impact sumo or at least have the potential to do so. So without question the most improved rikishi in 2009 was Yokozuna Asashoryu. At first, it seems crazy to give the award to a Yokozuna, but when you consider just how bad his 2008 was, Asashoryu has made the biggest turnaround of anyone. Coming off of his ban at the end of 2007, Asashoryu gave a valiant effort at the Hatsu basho managing a 13-2 record while falling one win short of the yusho in that bout for the ages against Hakuho. The Yokozuna managed another 13 win effort in March, but things began to spiral from there. Asashoryu went 11-4 at the Natsu basho and then just won eight total bouts the final three basho of the year. Sheesh, you would have thought he was an Ozeki
So this was the background heading into this year's Hatsu basho, which I declared to be the best basho of 2009. Asashoryu took the yusho at Hatsu and managed another yusho at Aki, but more importantly, he returned to his old fighting form, which consists of the hari-zashi tachi-ai and the occasional tsuri-dashi. Asashoryu's wins in 2008 mostly came after passive sumo where the Yokozuna used his speed to evade and pull, but in 2009, he began winning again with sharp tachi-ai and flawless yori charges. No doubt Asashoryu was the most improved rikishi in 2009...and good thing too because it's obvious sumo's popularity goes as he goes.
Honorable mention goes to Tochinoshin, who is from the 2008 class and largely stunk that year but has begun to turn things around this year thanks to his new keiko partner, Asashoryu.
Continuing in the same vein of focusing only on rikishi who have the ability to impact a basho, Goeido was the least improved rikishi in 2009. To his credit, the kid was hampered with a nagging elbow injury thanks to a Kaio kote-nage throw early on in the year at the Haru basho, but Goeido failed to impact a single basho in 2009...a big no-no for Japan's only realistic hope. Sure, Goeido actually had two 10-win basho in 2009, but both of them came outside of the jo'i range. From the Komusubi rank in Haru when he first injured his elbow, Goeido actually managed a 9-6 record, but things went downhill from there to the tune of a 6-9 record from the Sekiwake rank in Natsu to a 5-10 effort from the M1 rank in Nagoya and capped off by a 7-8 performance from the Komusubi rank in Kyushu.
Saddling Goeido with this award may sound harsh, but considering his potential, the Osaka'n failed to impact a single basho in 2009. Honorable mention goes to Harumafuji and the core of Ozeki, but we've been there and done that with them.
Quick, name the current commissioner of sumo. Up through 2008, the answer would have popped immediately into your mind, but these days, it always takes me a second to remember who is actually in charge. Well, on paper. Since no surprise rikishi emerged during 2009, the biggest surprise in sumo was the lack of a major scandal. Sure, Wakakirin was booted out early in the year for smoking marijuana, but that's just because he was caught in 2009...by the police (he was actually caught by the Sumo Association during the drug testing in September of 2008--a fact that was finally reported later); so it should have been no surprise when he was arrested.
Sumo's ability to keep its nose clean in 2009 was the biggest and most pleasant surprise to everyone. Runner up was the fact that it took Chiyotaikai this long to be demoted to Ozeki.
The biggest disappointment regarding sumo has to be the double-standard the Association employs when handling foreign rikishi and even sometimes their own. In 2009, the biggest disappointment for me was the removal of Oguruma-oyakata from the public spotlight after Wakakirin was busted for weed. For those of you who watch the English broadcasts, you likely don't know who Oguruma-oyakata is, but for those who watch the Japanese broadcasts, Oguruma was the most likeable oyakata of them all and a constant presence on the broadcasts for the last decade it seemed. The former Ozeki frequently provided color commentary for the bouts, and not only was he good in the booth, but he had an endearing charm about him highlighted by his Gene Simmons tongue that always got tangled in his teeth when he talked causing a slight lisp. When they talk about the good guys in sumo, Oguruma-oyakata is at the top of the list.
The oyakata was also an officer in the Sumo Association, a rank held by three oyakata that flanks the board of directors. However, after his prodigy, Wakakirin, was arrested for possession of marijuana, Oguruma-oyakata was forced to take responsibility as only the Japanese can do. He was demoted from his position in the Association all the way down to toshi-yori status, the same status held by guys who retire from active fighting. Along with his demotion, he was removed from the broadcast booth altogether.
Aside from missing his commentary during the bouts, it's disappointing to see Kitanoumi still maintain his seat on sumo's board as a director. In September 2008 when the infamous drug tests were first administered, two Japanese rikishi tested positive for marijuana. The rumors spread, but Kitanoumi flatly denied any knowledge that Wakakirin and one other Japanese rikishi tested positive even though it was revealed a few months later that the then commissioner was told that Wakakirin had tested positive on the day they administered the tests. So, not only did Kitanoumi lie to the media (something Oguruma-oyakata didn't do), but one of his own rikishi was busted for marijuana usage and kicked out of the sport--the same as Oguruma-oyakata--yet, Kitanoumi is still a director while Oguruma doesn't have a pot to piss in. Oguruma-oyakata covered nothing up; his only crime was that his boy was Japanese. It's one thing to have inferior people like foreigners screw up, but to soil the Japanese race?
On November 10th we reported the outcome of a civil suit filed by Kitanoumi and the Sumo Association against the Shukan Gendai tabloid for their allegation of fixed bouts in sumo in a series of articles that spanned about a year or so. Click here to read the news nugget. Shukan Gendai actually had a tape of Miyagino-oyakata admitting to a mistress that he paid the Asashoryu camp 3 million yen to have Asashoryu throw his Nagoya 2006 bout against Hakuho. With possession of this smoking gun, the tabloid began running a series of yaocho articles in January 2007 starting with allegations that 85% of Asashoryu's bouts were fixed. They followed that up with other articles, one of which went back to 1975 alleging that Kitanoumi threw his playoff bout against Takanohana I, a result that gave Takanohana his first career yusho. Through the series of articles, the Shukan Gendai never once published an article where the focus was on the 2006 Nagoya Asashoryu - Hakuho bout even though that was the key bout for which they had irrefutable evidence that was admissible in court.
Did it ever occur to anyone why such an article never appeared?
The Shukan Gendai folks first teased the Association claiming that they had such a tape even though they didn't actually come forth with it straightway. They waited for about a year before they actually introduced the tape in court, but they did so during the civil case filed by Kitanoumi and the Sumo Association for the article alleging yaocho in that 1975 bout.
So ask yourself this question...why would the Shukan Gendai introduce the actual tape that has Miyagino-oyakata admitting yaocho for the 2006 Asashoryu - Hakuho bout during the trial for a bout that occurred nearly 35 years ago that had nothing to do with their evidence?
The answer is that they never had any intention of winning the court cases. They were more than happy to pay a nominal judgment against them in lieu of selling a helluva lot more magazines than they normally would have, especially when they had a smoking gun regardless of how they used it.
As the various trials for the different articles began to unfold, I was perplexed at the strategy employed by the defense. They obviously had the tape in question, and their lawyers were savvy as well, but just when you thought they had the prosecution where they wanted them, they backed off. When they called Asashoryu to the stand in October of 2008 I think it was, I loved their line of questioning. Their very first question was, "have you heard of the term hana-zumo?". Asashoryu stated that he had. Hana-zumo is the term used in sumo to describe bouts where the rikishi are not going at it full throttle. You most often hear the term during the exhibitions, which are meaningless events in terms of a rikishi's rank and are only held for recruiting purposes and to generate income. Hana-zumo is not a negative term at all, and you will find it in every book that attempts to describe the world of sumo.
The next question from the defense was, "have you ever participated in hana-zumo?". Asashoryu of course had to say that he had, so right there you had the Yokozuna admitting on the stand that he knew of and took part in bouts where one or more of the combatants were not trying to win. Now, having said that, the term hana-zumo is only used in conjunction with exhibitions, and that's what was implied in this case as well, but it was a smart move by the defense to have rikishi in court openly talking about fixed bouts. The defense next asked Asashoryu point blank if the Asashoryu - Hakuho bout in question was hana-zumo, and the Yokozuna of course denied that it was.
You don't have to be Daniel Caffey with your magical bat to realize that at this point you pull out the tape in question and contradict Asashoryu's denial that the bout was fixed, or go for the homerun by cornering Miyagino-oyakata on the stand and asking him point blank about the bout before you produce the tape. But the defense backed off on Asashoryu and never called Miyagino-oyakata to the stand because it was never the defense's intention to win the lawsuits.
The lawyers eventually did produce the tape in court, but it was during the trial against them for alleging that the Kitanoumi - Takanohana bout was fixed back in 1975. The Association's response to the tape? It has nothing to do with the trial at hand. Just that. They didn't even try and refute it as bogus because they couldn't. The last thing they wanted was Miyagino-oyakata to take the witness stand or god forbid a lie detector test. The judge eventually ruled in favor of Kitanoumi and the Sumo Association (as everyone knew he would) because the tape provided no evidence or proof regarding the Shukakn Gendai's claims about the bout in question 35 years ago.
For over a year I had been scratching my head regarding the Shukan Gendai's tactics in court, but once I read the amount in damages the tabloid had to pay up (about $40K US) and Kitanoumi's comments in the end about how his name and the name of the Association was restored by the verdict, it all made sense.
The Shukan Gendai had the Association by the short hairs as soon as they connected with Miyagino-oyakata's broad and actually got her to get Miyagino to admit that he paid the Asashoryu camp 3 million yen to throw that bout in Nagoya 2006. Normally, when a tabloid secures that sort of damning evidence they break the story immediately out of fear that someone will beat them to it. Just ask Tiger Woods how his Thanksgiving turned out last year. But the Shukan Gendai? They waited. They waited for six months before the first yaocho article, and at the time it had nothing to do with their damning evidence. They had the ability to deal the Sumo Association its biggest blow in history; yet, they refrained.
Why they did so is probably best summed up by saying it's the whole Japanese harmony thing where you just don't cause waves in society, especially to an entire institution like sumo. Take down a politician for screwing a gal half his age with double D's? Sure. But attempt to take down the entire institution of government even if you have the proof? Nope. Not in Japan.
Regardless of what went on behind closed doors between the two parties, let's conclude by examining how each party either saved face or came out ahead in this case.
The Sumo Association:
* They won all of their lawsuits thus restoring their good name on the surface
* It was never proved in court that any sumo bouts were ever fixed
The Shukan Gendai:
* They sold a helluva lot of magazines, more than enough to make up for any damages they had to pay
* They enjoyed 18 months of free publicity
* They actually played a tape in a court of law where an oyakata admitted that he paid 3 million yen in exchange for a victory
Good ole Japan where it's all such an amusing game.
The reason I even bring all of this up is because I spent a good deal of time in 2009 insinuating that the top three Mongolians were working together and manipulating the yusho (that the Ozeki work together to obtain kachi-koshi is obvious and accepted by most readers). I know that kind of talk bothers the majority of readers, but I can't just gloss over the actual events taking place in sumo and pretend that nothing is going on.
Talk of yaocho in sumo shouldn't bother anyone because it is as intricate an item in the sport as anything else and always has been. Miyagino-oyakata getting caught on tape admitting buying a bout wasn't a new revelation; it was just an example of how big of a dumbass that guy really is. I stated this take before, but since good takes are always worth repeating, I'll 'splain it again, and maybe it will help put things in perspective in terms of yaocho and the yusho.
If you follow women's tennis, you undoubtedly know Venus and Serena Williams. The sisters dominated the sport for about a decade, and while they seem to have gotten bored with things lately, they are still winning majors from time to time. When the girls began their domination, they would meet in the final of majors at least twice a year, but tennis fans quickly figured out that their head to head matches were hana-tennis if you will. We kept waiting and waiting for the sisters to meet in a grand slam final and go for each other's throats, but they never did. Instead, they traded yusho and still do figuring that as long as a Williams sister wins the title, it's all good.
So does that disgrace women's tennis or even mean that it's scripted? Of course not. Either sister is worthy of winning a grand slam, and in order to even get to the final, they have to beat everyone else. Taking turns winning the majors as they've clearly done over the years doesn't discount the validity of women's tennis; it only denies the fans a legitimate match in the finals.
And in my opinion, that's what is happening with the Mongolians and the yusho in sumo. It doesn't mean that anything is scripted, and it doesn't mean that sumo is not legitimate. It means that Hakuho and Asashoryu are so far ahead of the rest of the field that they are able to beat everyone else and then do each other favors in the final if necessary.
In conclusion, what I am rooting for in sumo right now is for someone...anyone to rise up and challenge the Mongolians for they yusho. I am huge fans of both Hakuho and Asashoryu, and I have treasured every moment that they have given us in the ring up to this point, but I want drama all the way to the end, and if I suspect that we are being denied of a legitimate final, I will say so.
As we look forward to 2010, it is imperative that rikishi like Kotooshu, Baruto, Kisenosato, and Goeido step up. We also need a good class of rikishi to make their debut in the Makuuchi division. In the meantime, Chiyotaikai will retire with Kaio and Kotomitsuki hopefully not too far behind. I also get the feeling that Asashoryu is close to retirement once he gets yusho number 25. Once all of these events take place, things will begin to open up and the drama I crave will return to sumo.
As always, we will be here to cover it all.
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