Mike cries foul...er...uh...yaocho on senshuraku

Talk about a cheesy ending to the Haru basho. It couldn't have been scripted any better right? I mean, everyone comes out as winners. Kaio gets his miraculous eighth win, Tochiazuma's Yokozuna hopes shockingly continue through May, and Asashoryu and Hakuho lose nothing as they legitimately duke it out in a playoff to determine the yusho. Two of the last three bouts on senshuraku were thrown in my opinion to give everyone a warm fuzzy feeling following the Haru basho. No problem, though, right? The yusho was not compromised in anyway. Wrong. I say sumo took a blow integrity wise thanks to the senshuraku happenings despite from what you'll hear in the Japan news media, both English and Japanese. It was obvious to me, and I'm sure to a lot of you.

Let me start my reasoning with a little quiz:

1) From the tachi-ai, Hakuho favors securing what position?

a. right outer grip
b. left frontal belt grip
c. moro-te (both hands at the throat of his opponent)

2) Which of the following rikishi past or present never attempts/attempted to grab the uwate over the top of his opponent?

a. Takanonami
b. Kyokutenho
c. Asashoryu

Now this is actually a pretty serious quiz that a lot of beginners to sumo will not know. If you fall into this category, I'll provide photos showing you what I mean. For those of you who got the answers right away, I don't see how you could say with a clear conscience that there was nothing fishy going on in Osaka.

First, the Hakuho - Kaio bout. I must preface this by saying if you go to my profile page, you'll note that Kaio is my favorite current rikishi. I wanted Kaio to win 8 as much as anyone else, but not in the way it happened. The first red flag popped up in my mind on day 14 after Kaio beat Kotomitsuki. I don't remember who was in the booth for NHK, but the guy commented on the implications of the Kaio - Hakuho bout because both rikishi are from the same ichimon (an affiliation of stables). These days, rikishi from the same stable do not fight each other, but it used to be that rikishi from the same ichimon would not fight each other. The announcer for NHK on day 14 did not expound, but he implied that it would be a very difficult situation for Hakuho come senshuraku. Ozeki promotion was in the bag for Hakuho, so normally, it would be nothing to defer a loss to Kaio, but the tricky part was that Hakuho was tied for the yusho.

Fast-forward to today's bout. The correct answer to the first question of my quiz is B. Just watch a Hakuho false start and you can see his left arm extended and turned upwards aiming for that frontal belt grip. He always tries to secure that grip and work from there, and today, the left frontal belt grip was WIDE OPEN yet Hakuho not only failed to grab it, but turned his hand inwards so that it wasn't even pushing against Kaio (see picture at right, opposite angle of the NHK broadcast). You couldn't see this from the shomen angle NHK broadcasts their bouts from, but the replay from the opposite angle showed it clearly. For the first few seconds of the bout, the back of Hakuho's left hand was touching Kaio's thigh just under the belt, but he obviously had no intention of grabbing the belt or even pushing against his opponent. This point is indisputable as you can see in my photos.  Hakuho's left arm just dangles as he waits for Kaio to grab that outer grip.  Also note in the picture lower left how Kaio is standing straight up.  He gave Kaio the right outer grip, then once that was secure, Hakuho grabbed the left inner to make things at least look interesting. From this point, Hakuho attempted no charge of his own, nor was there any wrenching of his body trying to throw his opponent off balance or break his grip. It was too easy for Kaio, and there was no "digging in" by Hakuho. Yaocho through and though in my opinion. The NHK announcers also knew something was up. Of course they can't say anything, but they're stumbling all over themselves afterwards trying to explain what happened. "Ah...er...uh...Hakuho just didn't seem to have that same desire this bout..." Yeah, that's what I'm saying.

Once Hakuho lost, I KNEW that it was now Tochiazuma's turn to win. You had to have known it. Hakuho would give up a loss to keep Kaio in his rank for two more tournaments at least, and Asashoryu would give up the loss to allow Tochiazuma's quest for the Yokozuna rank continue. No skin off either of the Mongolians' backs because they were still guaranteed a playoff for the yusho.

The answer to question number 2 of my quiz is C. You all remember Takanonami constantly going over the top of his opponent to grab the back of his belt. Kyokutenho is tall enough and lengthy enough to do it too on occasion, hell, even the lanky Takamisakari does it all the time. But stubby- armed Asashoryu? Has anybody ever seen Asashoryu attempt this? So why today? He needed to give Tochiazuma a position from which the Ozeki could not screw it up. After giving Tochiazuma the deep inside position, next Asashoryu grabbed Tochiazuma's right arm and looked confused as to what do to next. Not having practice throwing bouts will do that to you. Tochiazuma instinctively drove Asashoryu to the straw where the Yokozuna stood fully upright for a moment before Tochiazuma finished him off with a shove (see lower right). When have you ever seen Asashoryu not dig in his heels and pull out every stop when he was in trouble. And that's when the yusho ISN'T on the line for hellsakes. He'll arch his back, he'll hold onto the mawashi when thrown for as long as possible (remember that bout against Kotonowaka?), he'll do everything physically possible to dig in and hope. Today, however, at the tawara he stood straight up and gave up on the bout before he was even out of the ring. Very uncharacteristic, especially when all he needed was a win to clinch the yusho outright.

Once again, the NHK announcers were in a difficult situation. They knew what they saw too. Kitanofuji oyakata stumbled a bit and then offered, "What was the Yokozuna trying to do?". We all knew, but there's no way anyone affiliated with NHK or the Japanese mainstream press can even hint that something was going on. No problem. I'm here to tell you straight up what happened.

Let's address the question of "why." For Asashoryu, what has been the biggest criticism of his domination and current yusho run? Answer: there's no competition. However, if another Yokozuna is on the banzuke when Asashoryu racks up yusho 17 through 30 or whatever, the take of "weak competition" becomes just that...weak. Having another Yokozuna on the banzuke affects Asashoryu in no negative way. His pay isn't reduced; his likelihood of losing doesn't increase; he know longer has to shoulder all the burdens of a lone Yokozuna, etc. I honestly don't think Asashoryu cares one way or the other if there's another Yokozuna, so for him to throw today's bout to extend Tochiazuma's run is no sacrifice to him whatsoever.

How about Hakuho? Not only are he and Kaio from the same ichimon, but their stables are very closely-knit. I saw this first hand in the mid-90's when I used to live in Fukuoka and loiter around the sumo stables. If I wanted to find Kaio early on in the pre-basho keiko sessions, I'd always go to Miyagino-beya and find him. It's the old "o-sewa ni narimasu" thing in Japan. Kaio was the Makuuchi rikishi who lent his chest to the Miyagino boys all these years when there were no Makuuchi rikishi of their own. Hakuho loses nothing if he throws the bout assuming he knows Asashoryu will lose too. He does Kaio a favor, he still has Ozeki promotion tied up, and he still has a fair shot at the yusho. Once again, absolutely nothing to sacrifice.

Now the question of "who" as in who arranged it. I don't know. I'm not close enough to the sport living 6,000 miles away, and even if I did have close contacts, no one would dare say anything. My thinking is that it was between Asashoryu and Hakuho for the reasons I've mentioned above. Both fought from the East side today, so they were in the same dressing room. It also helps that they speak the same language. Perhaps there was some encouragement from their oyakata, but I don't think any was necessary. I knew the scenario heading into today, and one of our loyal readers Natsuki Yamamoto emailed me the exact same scenario after day 13. I'm sure a majority of you figured it out coming into the day's bouts. I think all it took was a certain "look" between Asashoryu and Hakuho to seal the deal.

So is sumo fake?  No...but I guarantee you that bouts are thrown when someone needs a favor and one's own yusho, kachi-koshi, promotion, etc. is not on the line.  Today's two yaocho really doesn't hurt anything, but it sure left a bad taste in my mouth and really ruined the fantastic playoff between Asashoryu and Hakuho.  Get used to those two occupying the final bout of senshuraku for the years to come...both as Yokozuna.  I'm looking forward to it; just stop the hand-outs and favors.


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