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2014 Aki Pre-basho Report

If you've ever wondered how the timing works of hon-basho in terms of start and end date, the general rule is that the basho will start on the second Sunday of the month. Exceptions can be made where the start date is moved to the first Sunday if that first Sunday falls on the 6th or the 7th as it does this month, and it all evolves around how many holidays will fall during the two weeks. Holidays in Japan are guaranteed sell-outs for sumo, and so the Aki basho is allowed to start late this month in order to capture Keiro no hi, or Old Folks Day, which comes on day 2 and then Shubun no hi, or the celebration of the Autumnal equinox which will occur on day 10. Sell-outs on holidays and weekends indicates that more people would attend the sumos if they didn't have to take time off of work to do so, and ticket sales to the basho would drastically increase if the Sumo Association moved their start time back even an hour (I suggest two), but we've been down that road before.

As we gear up for the fall festival, there are plenty of intriguing storylines heading into the tournament, so let's begin with the rikishi who will receive the most attention during the fortnight and then review the banzuke in general.

Leading off, let's start with newly-promoted Ozeki, Goeido as he's been getting the majority of the pre-basho pub. Early on as the keiko reports began to flow in, it was reported that Goeido was suffering from an injured meniscus in his left knee. He reportedly hurt the knee in Nagoya although it wasn't reported back then, and the injury has hampered his preparation for the Aki basho. He sat out the Soken general keiko session held in front of the YDC and other sumo officials, and this week he has been nursing his way back by staying home to battle rikishi from his stable, most notably Toyohibiki and Sadanoumi. His keiko results have been good numbers-wise, but there's no doubt his stable mates are not making him move laterally and put unneeded pressure on the joint. Goeido will declare himself 100% healthy by the start of the basho, but this knee injury really doesn't matter other than giving him an excuse if he comes out and just flounders around the dohyo. I expect many of his opponents to perform the way his stablemates have in the keiko ring by doing sumo that doesn't require Goeido to move laterally and put a lot of pressure on that knee. I think the jitters, the gimpy knee, and Goeido's overall sumo of late (mediocre) will translate into a 9-6 basho with a few of those wins coming in suspect fashion.

It's being mentioned that M1 Endoh has a shot of reaching the sanyaku for the first time in his career with a kachi-koshi in Aki, but that fact isn't exactly being shouted from the rooftops in the headlines; rather, you have to get a few lines into the articles touching on Endoh before it's mentioned as an aside. The reason that the kid isn't being incessantly hyped as a sanyaku shoe-in is because he's not even close to such status. Endoh was finally allowed to do de-geiko in Tokyo, and so he visited the Kasugano-beya to hook up with Tochiohzan and Tochinoshin. The result was the youngster leaving with his tail between his legs after being drubbed to a 3-13 record. If everyone's wondering what happened to Endoh after his flashy debut in the division, I think he's suffering from the same mental setback as seen by Kisenosato and Goeido. Remember when Kisenosato used to be a badass who wasn't afraid to hari-te even Asashoryu? The Kid could actually defeat the Yokozuna straight up back then, and don't forget about his legitimately stopping Hakuho's win streak at 63 four years ago or so. He was a solid, solid rikishi, but ever since he was touted as a future Ozeki and as the next Hope of Japan, he has just wilted.

Due to the hype surrounding Kisenosato, I think that some oyakata felt that they could contribute to the cause by pulling the reins back a bit when their horse faced him, and so over time it just started messing with his head. I believe the same thing also happened to Goeido because these guys were so good early on and just flowing with potential, but now they've become utter basket cases in the ring. Generally, human beings are decent people by nature, and I think it really bugs these guys when things are handed to them that they don't deserve. Believe me, after working your way up the banzuke by fighting thousands and thousands of bouts of keiko, you can tell when your opponent is letting up, and I think these guys are genuinely perplexed as to how to handle it.

In the case of Endoh, I was calling foul in his very first basho as early as day 11 when Kyokutenho just stood there and let the rookie flip him like a sack'a potatoes. Look, I am purely speculating here as to why these guys can't seem to put anything together despite showing great potential, but I am not speculating as to whether or not guys are letting them win a handful of bouts each tournament. In the case of Endoh at M1 for the Aki basho, I've seen nothing from him the last few tournaments that would suggest he can win eight bouts on his own from this level, and you can totally see this cautious approach now from the media. They're still making him a huge focal point each tournament, but they can only ride fake momentum so long until people start getting burned out on Japan's next hope who can't seem to make anything good happen in the ring. I see Endoh coming away with 6-7 wins and maybe earning half of 'em.

As an aside, there was some interesting manipulation going on in the media early last week when Asashoryu attended a pep rally held in Endoh's behalf just after the banzuke was released. I all of a sudden started reading these headlines that were touting things like, "Asashoryu loves Endoh!" and "Asashoryu proclaims he's only rooting for Endoh!" As I dug a bit further into some more newsies, I found what he really said was, "I like Endoh the most, and I want to see him advance through the ranks quickly. Of all the Japanese rikishi, he's the only one right now." Now, the media will shorten up phrases and change up words all the time--especially from foreigners--to simplify them and make them more grammatically correct, but they rarely change the meaning. In this case, it's not as if they're fabricating something from nothing, but they change Asashoryu's word "suki" (like) to "dai-suki" (love) and then imply he's only rooting for Endoh when he actually said "of all the Japanese rikishi," he roots for Endoh. He's obviously rooting for his Mongolian peeps first, but I think it's worth pointing out the way the media skewed his statements as an example of how Endoh is being hyped in an exaggerated fashion. And for the record, Asashoryu also said off hand that someone called him after 9 PM and invited him to Endoh's party. That tells me that nothing interesting was going on the first few hours of the bash, and so they had to start calling VIP's in order to generate headlines. It's like a story problem you'd find in my kids' math homework:

Let's move back to the top of the banzuke where Hakuho looks to pick up career yusho #31, which would put him in a tie with Chiyonofuji for all time career yusho. It's not so much that Hakuho is the clear favorite as he is the only favorite. He's literally been spotting the field two losses every basho of late, and he's still running away with the yusho in the end. I realize that the yusho wasn't decided last basho until senshuraku, but the other two "leaders" lost on day 15 while Hakuho easily won. The Yokozuna has been pretty low key prior to the basho. At the Soken general keiko session, he only fought 8 bouts, and keiko reports surrounding him have been quiet. As I've stated all along, I think Hakuho is going through the motions and more than happy to let someone pass him up in the end to take the yusho, but he's not just going to lie down. He chooses his losses strategically, and when the dust settles, if no one has been able to put together 13 or more wins, yusho to Hakuho. It's another easy prediction to say that Hakuho will hoist the cup in the end with a likely 13-2 record.

I'm of the opinion that Yokozuna Harumafuji and Yokozuna Kakuryu could win 12 or 13 every basho, but like Hakuho, they sit back and go through the motions as well providing others the opportunity to shine if they can. Even before Kakuryu's first basho as a Yokozuna, I pointed out that you will never see all three Yokozuna post a combined 39 wins or so even though they're capable. The last two basho, the threesome has finished with 34 wins, and I think that's a good baseline moving forward. For Aki, I think they up that to 35 and possibly 36 just because there's no one else to take the wins away. With Goeido safely promoted to Ozeki, there's less of a need to give him one or two, so look for the three Yokozuna to win, place, and show in September.

Ozeki Kotoshogiku sits in the top Ozeki slot, and despite his shtick in July, I don't see him winning more than eight bouts in Aki. This guy is broken down physically and has a make-koshi to spare, so I don't see any sympathy for the Geeku.

Ozeki Kisenosato has been okay in pre-basho keiko reports but not great. If there's a positive for the Kid, the focus will remain on Goeido. I'd love to see Kisenosato come out with a mean streak and display the kind of sumo back in the day when he was one of Asashoryu's rivals, but if we haven't seen that the last few years, there's no reason why he'd do it now. I look for Kisenosato to be the top dog among Japanese rikishi in the elite ranks finishing 10-5.

I've already talked about Goeido, so let's move to the Sekiwake rank, which is occupied by Myogiryu and Takekaze. There used to be a time when you'd always get fired up over the Sekiwake, but those days are long gone. In Myogiryu, you have a rikishi who has battled an injury the last year, and who frankly is too small to really be a mainstay at this level. He was promoted from the M6 rank's West slot with 11 wins because there was no one else to put there. I don't see how he makes an impact at this level after a year's hiatus from fighting among the sanyaku. I don't perceive that he's gotten any better while younger guys around him have. I'd say 5 - 6 wins.

Takekaze is an interesting story in the West slot. At 35 years of age, he's setting all kinds of records like oldest first-time Sekiwake, slowest climb to the rank, and one of the longest stints in between sanyaku appearances. Over the past year, has anyone gotten the sense that, "Hey, Takekaze is resurgent," or "I kinda like what I see from Takekaze lately." The answer is a flat out no. Takekaze is here because there's no one else to fill the role, and so you have to ask yourself, what's the explanation? I don't see any other answer than this is a terribly weak banzuke and has been for several years now. It will be shored up by Terunofuji, Osunaarashi, and Ichinojo, but those three dudes are all foreigners. Myogiryu and Takekaze serving as the Sekiwake this basho is a huge statement of mediocrity...and that's being nice.?

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