Aki Basho Roundtable
The drama surrounding this basho was as high as any tournament since the Aki 2002 basho when former Yokozuna Takanohana made that incredible come back after major knee surgery that sidelined him for over a year. But just because the drama was high, it doesn't mean that the sumo was good because this basho it was just plain horrible. This tournament actually reminded me a lot of the 2004 Natsu basho. You'll remember then that Hokutoriki stormed out to a 13-1 lead including a day 6 pasting of Asashoryu that ended the Yokozuna's 35 bout winning streak. When Kyokutenho handed Asashoryu his second loss on day 11, Hokutoriki entered senshuraku leading by one bout only needing to win on the final day to capture the yusho. Asashoryu was seething those last few days as he could only sit and watch hoping that someone would end Hokutoriki's improbable run. As fate would have it, M16 Hakuho defeated Hokutoriki on senshuraku setting up a playoff bout with the Yokozuna, a match that Asashoryu won easily to steal the yusho away from Hokutoriki. Now fast forward to this year's Aki basho. Kotooshu stormed out to a 12-0 start leading Asashoryu by two bouts heading into the final three days thanks to another day 11 loss for Asashoryu at the hands of Aminishiki. Asashoryu took care of business on day 13 handing Kotooshu his first loss, but he still needed help. How ironic was it then that another M16 rikishi would rise up and put a dagger into Asashoryu's foe opening the door for the Yokozuna to control his own destiny? Like Hokutoriki back then, allowing the Yokozuna to pull even by senshuraku took the air out of Kotooshu leaving little fight in the Bulgarian for the playoff bout with the Yokozuna.
Still, by all the accounts I've read, the Japanese press acted on Monday after the tournament as if Kotooshu was the winner. Why didn't any of us see this coming? We've been stating for the past few years that the sport needs a Japanese Yokozuna to revive it's popularity, but it turns out that a foreign-born Yokozuna will do the trick...as long as he has white skin. I get it now. Can the Japanese media be any more shallow than this? Before the Japanese people get too aroused, Kotooshu still has a long way to go before he reaches Yokozuna, but all of this new-found attention can't be bad for the sport's popularity. Reports indicate that NHK's senshuraku broadcast achieved an 18% share compared to the usual 10% for recent basho. Furthermore, the number peaked at 34% during the time surrounding the yusho kettei-sen, or playoff bout to decide the winner. The Sumo Association also stated that it sold a record number of tojitsu-ken (2,040), or walk-up tickets, on day 13 when Kotooshu battled Asashoryu. That's all good news I guess, but it doesn't mean that the sumo was worth paying for this basho because I saw far too many pull-downs, henka, and shenanigans for my liking. Let's get to the damage.
As usual, I will start first with the yusho rikishi, Yokozuna Asashoryu. Like the Natsu 2004 basho, Asashoryu's sumo this basho was not sharp. I can't remember a single victory where I came away from the bout saying, "Damn! That was unbelievable." He lost his cool on day two against M2 Kokkai when Kokkai sent a face-slap Asashoryu's way. The Yokozuna responded with fisticuffs that did knock Kokkai to the mat..er..uh..the dirt, but against a rikishi with better technique, it could have spelled another loss. Against Dejima on day 6, the M3 actually controlled the bout against Asashoryu, but a sudden pull at the back of Asashoryu's head by Dejima turned the tide in Asashoryu's favor. Against M5 Aminishiki, Asashoryu was beaten straight up make no mistake about it, but he seemed content not to press the action and let Aminishiki determine the pace of the bout. And then when it really counted on day 13, Asa's performance was pretty ugly from the start as he allowed Kotooshu an uwate grip with the Yokozuna turned completely around. I really am nitpicking here, but Asashoryu just didn't seem to have that swagger about him this basho. Perhaps, his first day 1 loss in 20 basho was the reason. Still, Asashoryu does pick up the yusho, and this is where all of those mind games against the other rikishi, the bullying during pre-bout keiko, and the singling out of his potential rivals comes to his aid. Kotooshu was intimidated both on day 13 and during the playoff bout to determine the winner. It wasn't a spectacular performance, but the yusho does put Asashoryu in a tie (Wajima) for fifth place all time list with 14. The yusho marks only the second time in history a rikishi has won six consecutive basho. And the yusho keeps Asashoryu's quest alive next basho to become the only rikishi ever to win seven consecutive tournaments and win each basho in the calendar year. You'd think that this is the kind of hype the Japanese media would buy in to, but leave it to the Japanese peoples' fascination with Westerners to make Asashoryu's run seem like second page news.
Let's now move to our runner-up, Sekiwake Kotooshu, who finished 13-2 tied with Asashoryu at basho's end. The Bulgarian's 12-0 start was highly inflated. There's no denying that Kotooshu is extremely athletic, agile, skilled, and well-rounded in his technique. There's no denying Kotooshu's future in this sport. And, there's no denying that Kotooshu's sumo this basho sucked. I'm not talking about his magical escapes at the tawara because he did snatch victory from the jaws of defeat numerous times. I'm talking about his approach to the bouts and his execution. We were onto this early on in the basho. Not a single word of praise over the first three days, and then on day four this statement: "if he keeps this up and manages a 12-3 record, the Association will hesitate to consider Kotooshu's promotion to Ozeki because his sumo content this basho is so poor." Sex symbol Makiko Uchidate of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council also wasn't fooled. She had nothing positive to say about the Sekiwake after the basho, and she also publicly stated that she doesn't think he will secure promotion to Ozeki in Kyushu. It wasn't all bad. After being called out by Asashoryu mid-week, Kotooshu did finally win a bout moving forward against Kyokushuzan on day 8. He followed that up with an excellent win against Iwakiyama on day 9, and he thoroughly dominated both Ozeki (Tochiazuma on day 11 and Chiyotaikai on senshuraku). But that's it; only four solid bouts. Other than that it was bad sumo. There were too many tachi-ai henka against the tough rikishi, and there was too much retreating against the inferior rikishi. This all came back to bite the Sekiwake in the latter days of the tournament. He was riding no momentum, and when the going got tough mentally, Kotooshu folded. He had Asashoryu turned completely around with a grip on the Yokozuna's belt on day 13, yet he couldn't close the deal. Then on day 14 he looked like a sick dog that needed to be shot against Kisenosato. He just wasn't in any sort of groove because he failed to establish a style of sumo in the early stages of the basho that he could rely on when it really mattered. You can't lose to an M16 rikishi with the yusho on the line, but he did. And it wasn't as if Kisenosato kicked his ass either. The M16 simply followed sound sumo technique and stayed in front of Kotooshu The Sekiwake, however, had established no sound technique of his own this basho to fall back on, and this resulted in Kotooshu's panicking and going for a very meek pull down.
Despite all the negativity I've thrown Kotooshu's way, he still has 25 wins now from the sanyaku ranks the last two basho. The UNWRITTEN rule is that a rikishi needs to win 33 bouts over three consecutive tournaments from the sanyaku to receive Ozeki promotion, but a an 8-7 record in Kyushu will not get the job done. Kotooshu's sumo this basho was just too poor. Don't be surprised if the Association stipulates at least 10 wins for Kyushu. And even then, if the sumo content is like it was this basho, the Association has a dilemma on their hands. Look, Kotooshu is an eventual Ozeki, but he still has a lot of work to do in Kyushu to receive the promotion. I'll just remind everyone about Hakuho. Wasn't he a shoe-in for Ozeki at the start of the year with talk of Yokozuna promotion by the end of the year? And look what happened. Kotooshu is in the same situation. The upside is that Kotooshu is so damn big, and he couples that with excellent technique. The downside is he hasn't proven yet that he can handle the pressure. He went limp against Wakanosato in Nagoya with the yusho on the line on senshuraku, and he was just as bad if not worse this basho against Kisenosato and Asashoryu in the playoff bout. I mean, Kotooshu just walked out on his own that last step in the playoff. Where was his balance and agility at the edge of the ring then? It was overwritten by the pressure of the situation. Dodging the Kakizoe bullet on day 4 is probably a little bit easier than dealing with Asashoryu's wrath in a playoff bout for the yusho. We've seen two Ozeki runs earlier this year end badly with Wakanosato in January and Hakuho in March. Will Kotooshu fare better? We'll see in two months, but I don't know if he's up to the task mentally.
I'll move on to M16 Kisenosato who deserves at least half of the record setting 49 kensho (nearly 1.5 million yen) Asashoryu received by beating Tochiazuma on senshuraku for his downing of Kotooshu on day 14. Kisenosato's tachi-ai and seme (forward moving attack) this basho was nothing new. He latched onto his opponents' belts for the most part and forced them back. The difference this basho was that Kisenosato finished off what he started. How many times have we commented previously that Kisenosato just couldn't finish people off at the tawara? Pretty much every time he lost. Of course everyone will say that his win against Kotooshu on day 14 was his best sumo, and it was his biggest win, but in my opinion, his best sumo of the tournament came against Roho on day 12. Kisenosato fought off a nice choking tachi-ai from the Russian and turned it into a solid right belt grip. When Roho countered with a scoop throw attempt, Kisenosato kept his footing, and most importantly, kept himself in front of his opponent. It was beautiful sumo all the way around, and he really manhandled Roho. If you have the means, go back and watch that bout. It summarizes everything good about Kisenosato's sumo this basho. Kisenosato deserved and was awarded the Fighting Spirit prize for his 12-3 effort in September. He'll shoot up to the upper half of the Maegashira ranks for Kyushu, and I think he'll do just fine. He proved to himself this basho that he can beat some of the big boys. It can only help his confidence from here on out, and finally, Kisenosato has given us all something to get excited about.
I'll jump back up to the Ozeki ranks. Kaio, who came into the tournament sitting in the prestigious East slot, unfortunately injured a hamstring prior to the basho that rendered him completely useless once the festivities began. I can't comment on his sumo this basho because there was none. I applaud his initial effort in giving it a go, but the Ozeki ended up simply handing out four wins before withdrawing. Kaio has been down this entire year. The worst news about his hamstring injury is that it is a new one. I just don't see Kaio carrying on much past the Kyushu basho. His body has had enough.
Ozeki Tochiazuma was his usual 10-5. His failure to defeat Asashoryu, Kotooshu, or Chiyotaikai was an indication of his non-factor status this basho. I said in my pre-basho report that Tochiazuma always suffers a few bone-headed losses to take himself out of contender status. That loss this basho came as early as day 2 when he had Kotomitsuki on the run and pirouetting in the ring. You have to finish your opponent off in that circumstance, but Tochiazuma let Mitsuki back into the bout, and it cost the Ozeki. There's really nothing more I can say without repeating myself from past basho. Tochiazuma was average yet again.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai took me on a roller coaster ride this basho. He starts the basho out 0-2 losing to Kakizoe and Kyokutenho, and then goes on a 10-1 charge that had me changing my view from "he's buying the wins" to "he actually looks good." I was excited to see Chiyotaikai actually in the yusho hunt at the end and looking like his old self, but what does he do? He just rolled over against Kotooshu and Asashoryu those final two days. No tsuppari from the tachi-ai and no desire to put up a fight. He gave up the belt from the beginning and allowed himself to be walked back and out. I was extremely disappointed in that lack of effort, so all of the good will the Ozeki built up with me mid-basho suddenly disappeared. Expect more of the same...a horrible outing in Kyushu where Chiyotaikai withdraws and is kadoban for January where he will magically reinvent himself and post 10 wins. Been there and done that. I'm not wasting anymore time on the Ozeki.
Sekiwake Wakanosato had a tough luck basho. After a pretty solid start, he was beaten by Hakuho on day 6 in a very close match. The judges decided to call a rematch, and the result was Wakanosato wrenching his knee forcing him to withdraw. I have not read any reports of his current status. I assume he will be ready to go for Kyushu and hope that he is healthy. Wakanosato has been re-establishing himself as a presence in the sanyaku these last few basho, but I don't think he makes it to Ozeki. With younger rikishi like Kotooshu and Hakuho on the prowl, there aren't enough wins to go around to get Wakanosato into the club as well.
Komusubi Kotomitsuki had a very quiet and almost sloppy 9-6 outing. Don't ask me to describe his sumo because it was all over the place. He did beat Tochiazuma on day 2 by yorikiri, but that was set up by luck more than good sumo. Following that win, take a look at his winning techniques: kata-sukashi, fusen, shitate-dashi-nage, yori-kiri, tsuki-otoshi, tsuk-otoshi, hiki-otoshi, hataki-komi. Five of those eight wins were pull downs. That doesn't mean that his sumo was dirty and cheap, it just means that he was flopping around the dohyo like a fish out of water and surviving on experience and finesse. His sumo was too average this basho in my opinion to warrant a promotion to Sekiwake for Kyushu. Expect nothing more in Kyushu. This is the kind of sumo we've been seeing from Kotomitsuki the last little while.
Komusubi Futenoh had quite the lackluster debut in the sanyaku. His 5-10 record was low-lighted by an eight bout losing streak starting from day 3. And all of this after he just kicked Asashoryu's ass on day one. I think Simon said it best when he mentioned "remember that Kotooshu's first basho at Komusubi ended at 4-11." Futenoh is here to stay. He's just too good. The problem with Futenoh's sumo this basho is that he didn't stand his opponents up at the tachi-ai allowing him to secure a deep inside grip on their belts. And then of course there were the few tachi-henka thrown his way. I specifically remember Kotooshu and Kyokutenho. The bout with Dejima on day 4 was also telling. Dejima hit Futenoh straight up at the tachi-ai and then immediately grabbed Futenoh's arm and pulled him completely out of control. If Futenoh's tachi-ai is better and he moves forward with confidence in his de-ashi, he doesn't put himself in that situation. Here's another example. A pull down loss to Miyabiyama with a straight up tachi-ai from Lord Blubber. Futenoh's inability to grab Miyabi's belt is just another example of Futenoh being out of sync. That's what a big losing streak will do to you. I'm sure Futenoh will shake it off. There will be nothing like a nice M4 rank in Kyushu to do the damage from. Futenoh will be back shortly; mark my words.
Dropping down to the Maegashira ranks, there was not a whole lot to get excited about. M1 Hakuho did post a 9-6 record, but he mostly beat up on rikishi that didn't kachi-koshi and lost to the ones that did. I was especially disappointed in his tachi-ai henka against Hokutoriki on day 13. At times, Hakuho showed us his potential, but at other times, he looked too nonchalant, a weakness that he'll have to overcome if he has Ozeki aspirations. Giving the kid the benefit of the doubt, he was coming off of an ankle injury suffered in Nagoya that forced him to withdraw in July, and he didn't look as if he was comfortable with his feet the the first few days of the basho. I guess fighting Asashoryu, Tochiazuma, and Kotooshu the first four days isn't the best therapy. But even against the lame Kaio on day 3, he didn't look comfortable. Oh well. I expect an excellent basho from Hakuho in Kyushu as he fights from the sanyaku ranks.
M2 Kakizoe had his typical basho: feisty wins and the occasional upset. There's no shame in his 7-8 record ranked this high on the banzuke. He'll be the usual pain in the ass (in a good way) come Kyushu. Counterpart Kokkai had that basho where nothing goes right. Part of the problem was his tough first week schedule: Kotooshu, Asashoryu, Tochiazuma, Chiyotaikai, Kotomitsuki, Kyokutenho, and Hakuho...all rikishi with at least 9 wins. But hey, you've got to win some of these if you even want to be considered for the sanyaku. Kokkai has to improve on his footwork. He makes such a big impact from the tachi-ai, but he can't recover fast enough from there. Except him to work out his trouble in Kyushu as he beats up on the mid-Maegashira.
M3 Kyokutenho had a very good basho until senshuraku where he cowardly jumped out of the way of Futenoh's charge. Still, his 10-5 mark is good enough to throw him into the sanyaku for Kyushu along with Hakuho. If you look at the four sanyaku rikishi for Kyushu (Kotooshu, Kotomitsuki, Hakuho, Kyokutenho), Kotooshu is the lock for the East Sekiwake slot, but then who takes the West slot? I think Kyokutenho deserves it (although Kotomitsuki will get it) after judging his sumo this basho. The highlight for me was when he just schooled Kisenosato on day 13. Kyokutenho has the ability to be a sanyaku mainstay, but he seems too content with the status quo. I expect a make-koshi in Kyushu...not because he isn't good enough, but because he is satisfied with average sumo.
Hey M4 Kyokushuzan...beautiful 9 bout losing streak to end the basho.
M5 Aminishiki had quite the interesting basho. How's this for inconsistency: a day 10 loss to Hokutoriki, a day 11 win over Asashoryu, and a day 12 loss to Takekaze. Aminishiki shined in spots jumping out to a 4-0 start and picking up big wins against Kyokutenho, Asashoryu, and Roho, but he was too inconsistent the latter half of the tournament losing to such rikishi as Tokitenku, Hokutoriki, and Takekaze. I'm going to write that all off to Aminishiki's not having fought at this level in the division for some time now. I think he composes himself in Kyushu, and comes back with a great performance. His win over Asashoryu showed just how good his technique really is.
M6 Kotoshogiku had quite the hard luck basho. Ranked at a personal best, the youngster jumped out to a very nice 7-4 proving to his peers that he should probably be ranked a little bit higher. However, the start was a little bit too good because the withdrawal of an Ozeki and a Sekiwake meant that the Association needed someone lower in the ranks to fill in for Kaio and Wakanosato over the final days of the tournament. Kotoshogiku was that man and suffered three straight losses to Asashoryu, Chiyotaikai, and Tochiazuma. On senshuraku, Kotoshogiku still had his chance at a kachi-koshi coming in 7-7, but Ama sidestepped him at the tachi-ai turning an otherwise great basho for Kotoshogiku into a make-koshi. Someone needs to drill it into the head of Kotoshogiku that his performance in September was very good. Hopefully, the Association only demotes him to the West side of the M6 rank. Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato are very similar rikishi in their styles; however, Kotoshogiku has the speed advantage. Look for another solid outing from the Geeku in Kyushu.
M8 Tamanoshima had a very quiet 11-4 basho that will shoot him up to M1 range for Kyushu. I expect this kind of performance from this former Sekiwake this low in the ranks. Tamanoshima had been hampered by a ribcage injury most of this year, but he looks as if his health has been completely restored. He's a very patient rikishi who is stubborn at the belt. He should provide a good test to the jo'i rikishi the first week in Kyushu. Watch out for this guy. Kotooshu side-stepped him on day 10 for good reason.
Our M10's are worth a little focus. Asasekiryu looked sharp the first two days before re-injuring his knee, the same injury that forced him to withdraw from the Nagoya basho. The Mongolian withdrew from day 3 but rejoined the festivities on day 11 hoping to garner enough wins to keep him in the Makuuchi ranks. He did just that posting a nifty 4-1 finish leaving his record at a very respectable 6-9. Asasekiryu looked good in Nagoya before he withdrew, and he looked good this basho as well when he did fight. We may see a little surge from Seki the next few basho, and I think it's the result of heightened determination. Something his counterpart, Roho, did not enjoy this basho. 8-7 for the big Russian with his highest opponent an M5? That's a disgrace in my opinion. Roho scored no big wins this basho, and it's not because he didn't have the chance. He suffered losses to Tamanoshima, Kotoshogiku, Kisenosato, and Aminishiki--rikishi who all made an impact this basho. Roho seemed too content this tournament to wallow around with the dregs of the division. I highly criticized Kotooshu this basho because of his sumo, but at least Kotooshu gives a damn and wants to win. I didn't see any of that from Roho.
M11 Ama got back to his winning ways this basho including a beautiful utchari win against Tamaasuka on day 3, but his 9-6 record is tarnished in my opinion thanks to a tachi-ai henka against a 7-7 rikishi on senshuraku. That's just dirty pool.
M12 Hakurozan was unspectacular at 7-8, and the only reason I mention him is because I think we were all hoping that he'd be matched up with his brother, Roho. No such luck...well maybe this basho it was for the better.
M13 Kotonowaka pulled out yet another 8-7 kachi-koshi to keep himself alive in the division.. On one hand, I really think he should retire because he's resorting to tachi-ai henka and other shenanigans these days to keep himself alive. On the other hand, there's nothing like the veteran pride that keeps Kotonowaka going in his desire to show the younger rikishi who's boss.
Since I am really scraping the barrel this low in the division, I'll end with M17 Tochinonada who came up just short at 7-8 probably inviting his demotion to the Juryo ranks. Tochinonada just did not have the strength this basho in his lower body to pull out eight wins. You may remember his doing the involuntary splits in Nagoya, an injury that caused him to withdraw and also invited a muscle tear somewhere that's gotta hurt. I just respected his effort this basho. No shenanigans; just straight up sumo. He got beat, but so what? Look for the gentle giant to make a roaring return in Kyushu.
Now to the good stuff. Who's going to Las Vegas next weekend for the sumo exhibition tournament? I will be in Vegas on Saturday and Sunday and would love to meet some of you if you're going as well. Float me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested in having lunch or dinner on either day, and I'll try and get something organized. As for the tournament itself, Sumotalk will be covering the event, but our hope is to catch the rikishi on the streets and other places instead of focusing on the just the tournament results...this is exhibition sumo after all. To be honest, I'm more interested in scraping together some reasonably priced tickets to the Motley Crue concert at the Hard Rock Cafe Hotel that weekend than I am in the outcome of the tournament, but regardless of what happens, the atmosphere that weekend should be dynamite. And remember folks, what happens in Vegas...STAYS in Vegas. I'll hopefully see you there.
Aki Basho Pre-basho Report
With the release of each basho's banzuke, the section I look at first is the sanyaku. You know what you're going to get from the Yokozuna (a lot) and the Ozeki (very little) already, so it's the sanyaku ranks that either get me excited for a tournament or make me sigh and think "here we go again." As I glanced at this year's Aki Basho banzuke, I could not help but to feel the excitement. Three of the four rikishi were major players during the Nagoya tournament in July, and the fourth, Kotomitsuki, was below average which means this hot and cold Komusubi is due for a good performance. I can only think that seeing Kotooshu's name above his own on the wall of the Sadogatake-beya's keiko room is enough to motivate this former Aki Basho winner. We're coming off of a fairly dramatic tournament in July, and we've got a solid banzuke; I can't wait for the tournament to begin.
These feelings of anticipation certainly weren't bolstered during the 6 weeks in between basho. We had the news of the new Juryo rikishi three days after Nagoya, then there was the Asashoryu - Takamisakari "incident" at an exhibition tournament where Asashoryu gave the crowd something to laugh at as he scolded the Robocop, but other than that, not a single report regarding sumo. That is unless you count the seeming frequent news articles about Akebono and how he has already made a huge impact in his switch to professional wrestling. Can I just send one memo to the Japanese press? I really hate to break this to you but pro wrestling is...how should I put this...IT'S FAKE! Stop publishing crap...er...uh...articles describing Akebono's "victories." I don't need to surf the net for sumo articles only to find coverage of pro wrestling in supposedly respected publications.
Since pre-basho keiko reports are almost non-existent this early on, I'll focus my comments on the banzuke itself starting at the top with Yokozuna Asashoryu. I see that Asashoryu is in fine form already as far as playing mind games and trying to intimidate his opponents. With the release of the banzuke, Asashoryu made a specific point of "declaring war" as some publications put it on Kotooshu, who toppled the Yokozuna in July. It's actually been nearly a year since we've seen these scare tactics, but then remember that it's been a year since Asashoryu has been beaten straight up by a non-Ozeki. Asashoryu is only doing what the great ones of the past have done, which is to weaken your opponents mentally before the basho even starts. We'll see how Kotooshu reacts to all of this, but in reality it is a huge sign of respect from the Yokozuna, and someone needs to drill this point into Kotooshu's dome. Asashoryu knows that Kotooshu has positioned himself as the possible number two rikishi in the sport, and he's already preparing for the potential rivalry to come. One interesting thing of note is that Asashoryu has made no mention of Kokkai, a rikishi who also beat him last tournament. The answer is simple really. Kokkai is not a threat at this point. His win over Asashoryu in Nagoya was controversial, and the Yokozuna knows that Kokkai has still got a few issues in his sumo to work out before he can even become a sanyaku mainstay.
As for Asashoryu's performance this basho, I fully expect him to take the yusho with maybe one loss along the way. The Yokozuna's focus can be compared to that of Tiger Woods. He knows full well who's ahead of him in the record books, and his primary goal is to surpass the best there ever was. Asashoryu has plenty of motivation heading into this tournament. He's looking to match Taiho as the only rikishi to win 6 consecutive tournaments; he's looking to be the first ever to win each basho in a calendar year; and of course he's looking to become the all-time yusho leader in the sport (Taiho - 32 yusho). True rivals to Asashoryu will come in time, so while the rest of the field is down right now, the Yokozuna realizes that every yusho is critical to reach the magic number of 33. You'll remember that last year Asashoryu won the first four tournaments of the year before dropping the Aki basho. That was not a huge surprise. Asashoryu showed signs of sloppiness at the 2004 Natsu and Nagoya basho despite winning them, but this year, I only see pure focus from the Yokozuna. As for stopping the Yokozuna's dominance, it can't come from one rikishi. You can't have Kotooshu for a few basho here and Hakuho for a few basho there; you have to have these two plus at least one more rikishi applying the pressure every basho. That may be a year or two down the road, but the time will come. In the meantime, even if you hate Asashoryu, you're crazy not to at least appreciate what he is presently doing in the dohyo.
Now here comes the sigh as I look at our three Ozeki. Kaio holds the prestigious East slot, but he has never been the same since he overpowered Asashoryu on the final day of the 2004 Kyushu basho. Kaio briefly showed some flash in May going 5-0 before exerting similar strength against Tochinonada and throwing out his back in the process. Depite Kaio's strength and his sound sumo, his age has caught up to him. Last basho how many times was Kaio on the run only to somehow come away with the win after a sly kotenage move or slapdown? The constant yorikiri and migi-uwate-nage wins are gone, and so are Kaio's chances of holding together over the course of 15 days exhibiting his brand of chikara (power) sumo. I see Kaio hovering around the 10 win mark again, but he is no longer a threat to beat Asashoryu on day 15.
Ozeki Tochiazuma is in his late twenties, but unlike Kaio, I still think that there's plenty of gas left in his tank. Whether he has the drive or not is another question. Tochiazuma seems to have fallen into that rut Kaio was in the last few years where he had the ability to yusho but two stupid losses or so per basho always kept the emperor's cup just out of arms reach. Last basho was the first tournament this year where Tochiazuma didn't win in double digits thanks to a thorough ass-kicking at the hands of Kyokushuzan, so I expect a bit of a rebound in Aki with 11 wins or so.
This may be the last we see of Ozeki Chiyotaikai. He reportedly hasn't fully recovered from an injury sustained in Nagoya that may keep him from any real practice with Makuuchi rikishi prior to the Aki Basho. That's not the way you want to "prepare" when you're a kadoban Ozeki as Chiyotaikai is. The Ozeki was in a similar position coming into the Natsu basho this year where he somehow magically reeled off ten wins in eleven days with as lame of sumo as you'll ever see. While some rikishi were apparently "buying" Chiyotaikai's run, I wasn't. Of the ten opponents Chiyotaikai beat in May, he faced four of them in July and lost to all four before withdrawing. That means he owes a few more rikishi some losses...er...uh...what I really mean is that I don't think Chiyotaikai has a chance in hell of winning eight legitimate bouts this basho.
In the Sekiwake ranks, Kotooshu replaces Hakuho as the upstart rikishi to play king of the sanyaku roost. This will be a very telling basho for the giant. In his first basho as a Komusubi, he sucked. In his second basho when no one was paying attention to him, he threatened Asashoryu for the yusho. This tournament the spotlight is already chasing Kotooshu around. Not only is he coming off of his best basho that included a defeat of Asashoryu, but he is a new Sekiwake, and the possible Ozeki rumors have already started. That translates into at least five times the pressure he faced coming into last basho. Kotooshu is just too good at utilizing his size and fighting at the belt to choke his current momentum away, but with Hakuho failing to live up to the hype earlier this year, I'm going to take the cautious approach with Kotooshu. Nine solid wins with Kotooshu maintaining a stingy hold on the East Sekiwake slot. Still, of the ten fastest rikishi to have ever obtained the Sekiwake rank, 6 reached Yokozuna, one reached Ozeki, one is current Ozeki Tochiazuma, and the final two are Hakuho and Kotooshu. It's not if, but when.
Counterpart Wakanosato makes a welcome return to the Sekiwake ranks after stints as a Maegashira and Komusubi. Waka proved last basho that he can still impact a tournament and the yusho race, but he also proved that he can't win the big one. Case in point? Take his last three losses. He entered day 9 tied with the Yokozuna for the basho lead. The day's most anticipated match between Wakanosato and Asashoryu wasn't even close. Waka was backed up and out with nary a struggle. Fast forward to day 12 where Wakanosato finds himself tied yet again with the Yokozuna after Kokkai upset Asashoryu. Wakanosato promptly loses to a struggling Kotomitsuki, who used a shenanigan tachi-ai. Finally, on day 14 with his name still on the leaderboard, he is just blasted back and out by Futenoh. Granted, those are three losses to damn good opponents, but when a lot was on the line, Wakanosato went 0-3. Including basho where he has been up for Ozeki promotion, Wakanosato has never been able to win when it counts. It's harsh I know, and I really do like this rikishi, but it's reality. I see Waka entering senshuraku at 7-7.
In the Komusubi ranks, Kotomitsuki fills the East slot. Here is a rikishi with all the ability in the world--ability that he even used to yusho four years ago at this tournament, but he just can't settle into his own brand of sumo lately. Kotomitsuki usually redeems himself well after a down basho, so I see him hovering around the 9 win mark. Counterpart Futenoh is the one rikishi I'll be keeping my eye on the most this basho. I was a bit surprised that Futenoh's status as a first time Komusubi has not received any attention in the press. I'm telling you, his 10-5 record may have been overshadowed by Kotooshu's 12-3 and Wakanosato's 11-4, but I thought Futenoh was the most impressive rikishi next to Asashoryu in Nagoya. I just hope his performance wasn't the type that Hokutoriki had in May of 2004. You know...a one-hit wonder. My bet is that Futenoh continues to fight like a bull dog. His being overlooked by the media is a positive as that's less pressure to deal with when the basho starts. He'll face a murderous week one as a Komusubi and will probably get Asashoryu on day 1. My gut tells me that Futenoh doesn't come away with a kachi-koshi, but since I'm so impressed with this guy, I say eight wins.
Heading up the Maegashira rikishi are Miyabiyama and Hakuho, two rikishi who are recent Sekiwake. Shame on Miyabiyama for floundering a 6-4 start last basho as a Komusubi into a 7-8 finish that included losses to four Maegashira rikishi the last five days. Like Kotomitsuki, Miyabiyama has got to get his act together and decide on a style of sumo and stick with it. My vote is for the tsuppari attack from the tachi-ai. When the lumbering tsuppari are working, Miyabiyama is a double-digit wining rikishi from this rank. Counterpart Hakuho is definitely one to watch this basho IF his ankle is no longer bothering him. I haven't yet read any reports on his condition, but this Mongolian was extremely sharp last basho before spraining his ankle. As an M1, Hakuho will be put through the meat grinder in the first week, so if he can weather the Yokozuna/Ozeki storm at 5-2 or better, he is in the yusho race at the end. It all depends on the ankle. A healthy Hakuho equals 11 wins. A lame Hakuho scrapes together eight wins.
M2 Kakizoe is as gritty of a rikishi as there is. He has no business fighting among the jo'i due to his [lack of] size, but here he is again mixing it up with the big boys. With oxen such as Roho and Tochinonada down south on the banzuke, Kakizoe manages eight wins. Counterpart Kokkai finds himself yet again in the perfect position to leap into the sanyaku. Nine wins will git 'r done, but I just haven't seen enough consistency from the Georgian to think that he will do it. I go back to his bout against Asashoryu in Nagoya. A battleship tachi-ai that volleys Asashoryu clear back to the tawara, and then a sudden retreat across the entire length of the dohyo even though he was in little danger. It's this mid-bout panic that causes Kokkai to abandon his strength and go for the pull down tactics. Remember when Kotooshu first entered the division? We'd see a couple of tachi-ai henka each basho and more pull down wins then we care for, but now? He had two pull-down wins in a 3-2 start in Nagoya and then he finished up 9-1 the rest of the way with no pull-down wins. So when Kotooshu performs straight-forward sumo his winning percentage is at 90% instead of 60%. It's not a coincidence. The whole reason I've digressed to this point is because Kokkai is still struggling with the abandonment of "his" sumo, which is a crushing tachi-ai and fierce tsuppari to the end while Kotooshu is starting to mature greatly and trust in his strengths. I see Kokkai mustering eight wins.
At M3 we have a former Ozeki in Dejima and a once-worthy Ozeki candidate in Kyokutenho. These are two rikishi who can no longer impact a basho, but they can sneak up and surprise anyone in on any given day. Expect more upsets from the fiery Dejima than from the coasting Kyokutenho.
Iwakiyama leads the way at the M4 rank, a position from which he can excel. This former Komusubi is one of my favorite rikishi to follow. Not only does he clobber opponents with tsuppari fueled by his girth, but his profile is a spitting image of a fat man in the moon. In all seriousness, Iwakiyama is a legitimate sanyaku rikishi. He needs to avoid hooking up at the belt early on in his bouts and stick to his tsuppari. I see at least nine wins and a major threat to climb back into the sanyaku if one of the current Komusubi falters. Counterpart Kyokushuzan, may be a little bit high in the ranks for his liking, but I know this guy can win eight from this position if that's what he sets out to do. I don't like his rock-scissors-paper tachi-ai and I don't like the shenanigan sumo, but if Kyokushuzan will stick to sound sumo, I'll root for him. Eight wins this time out so he can rise back up the ranks and suck in Kyushu.
Our M5's are both worth commenting on. Takamisakari leads the way in the East slot and will undoubtedly struggle with the larger, better opponents this high up the ranks. Still, if the Robocop can stop giving away so much position at the tachi-ai, he can easily kachi-koshi from this rank. He's a former Komusubi and a legitimate one at that. Don't let the circus overshadow what he can do in the ring. There's not a better counter-attacker in the game although I wish he wouldn't always put himself in the defensive position. Counterpart Aminishiki finds himself this high in the ranks for the first time since buggering up his knee. As Clancy pointed out on senshuraku last basho, Aminishiki has beefed up quite a bit since the last time he was up this high. Let's see if he can couple this bulk with his technique to parlay a kachi-koshi. I like his chances this time around.
At M6 two rikishi climb to their highest ever rankings in Kotoshogiku and Tokitenku. Kotoshogiku is still just 21 and shows great speed. Coupled with his ideal 150 kilo frame, this kid is on his way to the sanyaku. Kotoshogiku prefers the belt match, but he's adept at winning the shoving match, and most importantly, he rarely retreats. Tokitenku is actually kind of a Futenoh-type story. This Mongolian blasted out to 22 straight wins after entering sumo to either tie or surpass by one win the record established by Konishiki. His rise to the Makuuchi division was equally swift and impressive, but once in the big leagues, he just floundered about unable to win eight bouts in his first three tries. I had labeled him as soft, but he's apparently shed that moniker to the tune of two straight kachi-koshi performances in the division. He will just be out of reach of the jo'i, but I don't think he can overcome the tougher opponents at this level. I look for a make-koshi from Tokitenku this basho.
Skipping down to M8 we find two very recent Sekiwake in Tosanoumi and Tamanoshima. Tosanoumi is on the downside of his career, but still should kachi-koshi from here. Tamanoshima, on the other hand, has a lot of good sumo left in him if he can regain his health. Since injuring a rib muscle a few basho back, he has not been the same. I expect Tamanoshima to do very well this basho if he's healthy. In fact, he should win in double digits...unless his muscle tear hasn't fully healed. We'll find out the first few days.
At M9 we find Makuuchi sophomore Tamaasuka, who was far more impressive than fellow Makuuchi newcomer Hakurozan was last basho. I'd be surprised to see him win more than eight, but I love how Tamaasuka is a straightforward sumo guy...no gimmicks here.
M10 Asaseki-who? Counterpart Roho should find the pickings nice and easy this low in the rankings. I'd be surprised if he hasn't recovered from his leg injury suffered in Nagoya. I do think he was actually injured, but I also think his withdrawal was mostly out of frustration at a horrible start in July. Look for this gorgeous george to win 11 or 12 easily.
Ama checks in at M11 after his first Makuuchi make-koshi. I only mention him because I know there are a lot of Ama fans out there, and what's not to like about him? It will be awhile before this guy can impact a basho if ever. Look at Aminishiki and Kaiho. I love to watch them implement their technique, but physically, they're just too small. Ama has got to put on more weight--not necessarily fat as muscle will do--but he needs some pop at the tachi-ai.
M12 Hakurozan gets ready for his sophomore try in the division. His debut was average, but maybe I just have a bad taste in my mouth after his punk-ass tachi-ai henka against Kotonowaka on senshuraku in July to pick up his eighth win. The upside to Hakurozan is he's strong like his brother [Roho] and he's a forward moving guy for the most part. Hakurozan gets burned too often by letting his opponents gain the lower position from the tachi-ai. Once he works this out, he should surpass o-niichan in the ranks consistently.
For the first time in 13 tournaments there has not been a new face in the Makuuchi division, so as I scan the dregs of the division I'm thinking more along the lines of who do I get to stalk in Vegas in October and who just misses out. M14 Jumonji has inconspicuously slid down the ranks farther than a lot of us expected. He should do well this basho. M16 Kasugao makes his Makuuchi return. Let's hope he's completely healthy; he's one of my favorite yotsu rikishi to watch although he avoids the belt frequently in favor of a kotenage throw. Counterpart Kisenosato will be going to Vegas, but do the authorities know he's only 19. Uh, one suite at the Circus Circus please. I'm officially volunteering to chaperone him and Hakuho around in Vegas if anyone is listening.
And finally, M17's Tochinonada and Shimotori breathe easily as their all-expenses paid vacation to Sin City is assured. I'm a bit worried about Tochinonada. His doing the splits involuntarily with that 166 kilo frame of his was not a pretty site in Nagoya. I'd be surprised if he has fully recovered from that. If so, he should skate to 12 wins, but it will be wait and see for this gentle giant.
Losing out on the Vegas sweepstakes are J1's Harunoyama and Toyonoshima, and J2's Katayama and Kasuganishiki. Sorry fellas, but if it's any consolation, the slots in Japan are far more easy to manipulate...er...uh...play than the ones in Vegas, but that's talk for another day and another website, pachinkotalk.com. My predictions for the Aki basho by solely looking at the banzuke are as follows:
Yusho: Asashoryu (14-1)