My experience in following sumo so closely has come full circle with these last two basho. I saw bits and pieces of my first tournament back in Kyushu in 1989. That was the basho where Konishiki picked up his first yusho by defeating Chiyonofuji on senshuraku. From then until the summer of 1994, my ability to see any sumo bouts was extremely limited until I moved to Japan in August of 1994. My first full basho, where I was able to watch the action everyday, was the 1994 Aki basho when then Ozeki Takanohana scored his first ever zensho yusho. Takanohana repeated the feat at the following Kyushu basho going 15-0 again to secure his inevitable promotion to Yokozuna. Nearly ten years later, current Yokozuna Asashoryu has matched Takanohana's feat by winning two basho back to back with 15-0 records. Like Asashoryu, I believe Takanohana's consecutive zensho yusho were his fifth and sixth overall yusho respectively. It's no coincidence that these two rikishi are already drawing comparisons regarding personal achievements. I saw a fitting headline recently in a Japanese newspaper that read "Asashoryu: no rivals in the Makuuchi division." The subtitle mentioned the high hopes for some Juryo rikishi, but more on that later.
Lets' start with the champion, Yokozuna Asashoryu, who stands more than head and shoulders above everyone else in the division. Asashoryu was much more conservative this basho in comparison to his performance in January, but the result was the same. The Yokozuna remains perfect for 30 consecutive bouts, a win streak that greatly raises interest in the sport. Asashoryu had deservedly taken a lot of heat in the latter part of 2003 for his behavior outside of the ring, but no one can argue his worthiness of the rank in 2004. I see a lot of maturity in the ring exhibited by the Yokozuna that didn't exist a year ago. Compare his bout against Chiyotaikai last year in Osaka with the most recent bouts between the two rikishi. Last year, Asashoryu stood toe to toe with Chiyo absorbing over 30 thrusts before finally being pushed out. Lately, he sticks Chiyo at the tachi-ai and then moves making the oshi-zumo specialist chase him around. The same can be said against Ozeki Kaio. Previously, Asashoryu would try and match up with Kaio at the belt; the result was usually a belt throw by the Ozeki for the win. The last two tournaments, however, Asashoryu forced his bouts with Kaio away from yotsu-zumo giving the Yokozuna the advantage. Look at his win over Kotomitsuki this basho. We all remember what happened last basho, and Asashoryu was in the exact same position again this basho to perform his signature tsuri-otoshi move. The difference this time around, however, was that he didn't get the proper position until the bout was over a minute old. Asashoryu had exhausted his strength, and instead of wowing everyone with another tsuri-otoshi move, he wisely used his position to throw Kotomitsuki down. And finally, try and recall his recent bouts with Kyokushuzan. Remember the default loss last year in Nagoya? Asashoryu lunged into Kyokushuzan with whup-ass on his mind; the crazed mindset caused him to pull Shu down by the top-knot resulting in a loss by disqualification. Asashoryu was trying to avenge a loss the previous basho when he lunged right into Shu's trap and was pulled down to the dirt. Lately, Asashoryu has stopped trying to kick Shu's ass outright, and simply stands straight up at the tachi-ai and pushes him out. Asashoryu's maturity in the ring is what accounts for his perfect record in 2004 in my opinion. Like Takanohana, we can expect more dominance by Asashoryu for at least the next 18 months or so.
Moving to the Ozeki ranks, Chiyotaikai and Kaio may not have taken the yusho, but as Kenji pointed out, their records were "worthy" of a Yokozuna's performance. Therefore, it was no surprise yesterday when my favorite body, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, announced that both Ozeki would be considered for the rank pending their performances in May. The Natsu basho should be interesting because I think the pressure will be much lighter for Chiyotaikai and Kaio not going in as the Haru basho winner. Of course, Asashoryu's win streak will command the bulk of the headlines, so perhaps, one of these two can get it done. I'd love to see it. Kaio holds the advantage in my opinion due to Chiyotaikai's six bout losing streak to Asashoryu and 10 bout losing streak to Kaio.
As for their performances, Ozeki Chiyotaikai had maybe eight solid days of sumo, and seven horrible outings. In his first five wins or so, he failed to even cross his own starting line backing up for each victory. He righted the ship in week two, however, steamrolling anyone in his way. His two losses, to Kaio and Asashoryu on days 14 and 15, were disappointing. Chiyotaikai is a different rikishi when facing these two. The problem lies strictly between his ears, and the Ozeki knows it. Until he can overcome this mental roadblock, he's stuck with his current rank. Kaio outperformed Asashoryu in my opinion over the first twelve days, but like Chiyotaikai, he can't help but stink the arena up for a few bouts each basho. One bright spot for Kaio that I noticed this basho was his ability to resort to oshi-zumo. He scored some nice oshi wins over Chiyotaikai and Miyabiyama and used the pushing technique to set up a lot of his other wins. Let's hope for a repeat performance in May by these two Ozeki; if they don't show up in Osaka, the Haru basho is not the most exciting basho since Aki of 2002.
Ozeki Tochiazuma withdrew three days into the tournament with an injured shoulder. You knew things were bad when he was bested by Kyokushuzan on day one. Ugh! I'm afraid Tochi's stuck in that rut where he has that one good basho a year and then competes with Musoyama in the mediocrity department the rest of the time.
Ozeki Musoyama was very disappointing this basho. He jumped out to one of his best starts in recent memory, but obviously coasted in the second week after he picked up his eight win. His "effort" against Asashoryu on day 14 was embarrassing. He literally stepped out of the ring by himself seemingly more interested in the overhead lights than he was on his opponent. And why did the Association match Asashoryu up with Musoyama on day 14 instead of Kaio? All that did was give Sho a day off before facing Chiyotaikai. Simply put, Musoyama cares only about winning eight bouts at least every other basho. You can't argue otherwise having watched him the last few years.
Dipping down the ranks, is it too much to ask for a Sekiwake to make an impact on a basho? Wakanosato did pull out his eight wins, but he was a measly 5-7 through the first twelve days. Wakanosato must have been caught up in the Osaka nightlife because his mind wasn't in the dohyo. His biggest win and hardest fought bout was against Asasekiryu on senshuraku, but he had no choice then because he stood at 7-7. Wakanosato has not impacted a basho for at least half a year now. His counterpart, Kotomitsuki, was equally inept having to win his last three bouts to make his record seem semi-respectable at 7-8. The bottom line is Kotomitsuki's only win against a sanyaku rikishi or higher was against Musoyama, and that's not saying a whole lot his basho. Asasekiryu should bump him out of the sanyaku come May.
Our Komusubi both turned in respectable 6-9 records. Kakizoe and Shimotori graced the sanyaku for the first time in their careers, and it showed as they looked a bit overwhelmed this high in the ranks. Now having said that, I think with some experience both of these rikishi will be able to stick in the sanyaku down the road. Shimotori is a Tosanoumi-type rikishi in his stature and his approach for each bout. They may not have the greatest sumo, and Tosa prefers oshi while Shimotori prefers yotsu, but they bring it each bout. A few days before the basho, Asashoryu absolutely worked Shimotori over in a keiko session executing the tsuri-otoshi move twice on his way to a 14-0 record. I think a lot of guys would have been shaken up after having gone through that, but on day 1 when Shimotori was paired against Asashoryu, he really gave it his all and earned a lot of respect in my mind. A lot of guys would have wilted in that same position. Kakizoe was slightly less impressive this basho when compared to Shimotori in my opinion, but I may be saying that because Kakizoe committed several times what I consider to be the cardinal sin in sumo--the tachi-ai henka. I like Kakizoe's potential though. He has a spunk to his sumo that's exciting. He just needs some experience when fighting against the big boys, and he can become a mainstay between the Komusubi thru M3 ranks.
M1 Miyabiyama had a good basho aided by a seven-bout winning streak, but if could have been much better were it not for a three bout losing streak to end the tournament. Miyabi gave Asashoryu all he could handle, and he suffered some tough luck losses against Chiyotaikai and Asasekiryu. It is not a coincidence that pull-happy rikishi usually resort to the move when facing Miyabiyama. Miyabiyama is a horse who can beat anyone toe to toe. The only problem is his lack of speed usually allows his opponents to attack from other angles. Miyabi's performance should be good enough to propel him to the Komusubi rank for May where he will have the first shot at ending Asashoryu's winning streak. M1 Kyokushuzan managed a 4-11 record with one solid win over Wakanosato by...uwatenage? I'm sure he'll mend his ways next basho and stick exclusively to the rock-scissors-paper tachi-ai of guess which direction I'm going to move from the tachi-ai (hint, it won't be forward). Don't be surprised, though, if his gimmicks work in May in the mid-Maegashira, elevating him back up to the jo'i for July.
M2 Dejima was uninspired this basho going 7-8. Only one of his wins was against a sanyaku or higher rikishi (Shimotori). A year ago, Dejima was in this same position bulldozing Asashoryu out of the ring, but now, he is competing with Musoyama in the who-gives-a-crap department. No wonder they both hail from the Musashigawa-beya. Dejima is flat out underachieving. Yes, his elbows and knees are always bandaged, but they've been that way for a couple years now. Dejima can perform well when he wants to; the problem is he usually doesn't seem to care. His counterpart, Mongolian Kyokutenho, had about as quiet of a 10-5 basho as you'll ever see. He did give Asashoryu a bit of a challenge, but seemed content to let the Yokozuna take care of the offense. Tenho will likely jump into Kotomitsuki's slot for May, but nothing this basho indicated that he will have a good basho as Sekiwake
Jumping down to the M4 ranks, Aminishiki and Tosanoumi had some hard luck outings. I refuse to criticize either of these two because they give it their all every bout. As for Aminishiki, he's simply overmatched this high up the banzuke. Chalk it up to his small stature. There's nothing he can do but try, and try he does. His 3-12 record was not as bad as it sounds, but Aminishiki didn't give any of the heavy-hitters fits this basho as he usually does. See ya back up here in July. Tosanoumi had an uncharacteristic basho at this rank going just 5-10. Unlike Aminishiki, Tosanoumi is a big boy, but what he gains in his stature, he lacks in his technique. Credit Tosanoumi's performance to his sanyaku like schedule. The only sanyaku and above rikishi he didn't face was Ozeki Tochiazuma, who withdrew early on.
M6 Hokutoriki had a solid basho at 9-6 with some good wins over the likes of Dejima, Miyabiyama, and Kokkai. Now, he needs to repeat this same performance next basho when he's ranked among the upper Maegashira. He has yet to have a good basho ranked between M1 - M3, and I don't see anything changing for May.
M8 Takamisakari petered out a bit after a 4-0 start, but he still managed to secure his kachi-koshi to the delight of the Osaka fans. Takamisakari just walking down the hanamichi generated more buzz in the crowd then an actual bout by any rikishi fighting a zenhansen (first half) bout. The Robocop wasn't fantastic, but most importantly, he stopped his make-koshi steak that had reached two basho. He'll find himself in the same position in May rank-wise, but I sense that his heyday in the jo'i is over. M8 Takanonami's 5-10 outing only deserves mention because this could be the beginning of the end. This former Ozeki may not make it through the year. It would be curious to see what his relationship with new stable master Takanohana is like. Takanohana is a stickler for hard work and effort, two terms that are quite foreign to Nami.
M9s Buyuzan and Kokkai both managed 8-7 marks this basho. Let's focus on Kokkai as many of us agree that he may be Asashoryu's next nemesis. Kokkai shot out of the gate to a brilliant 7-1 start but lost 6 of his last 7 to fall out of the spotlight. Let's look at his seven losses. All but one were to rikishi who attained a kachi-koshi this basho. His last two losses were against Takekaze and Kaiho, two pint-sized rikishi who can give a newcomer a lot of trouble with their unorthodox styles. It's kind of like facing a pitcher who throws a lot of junk in baseball. He'll fool you your first few at bats, but after you've seen him enough, you'll tee off on him. Kokai is the same way I believe. Once he gets used to his opponents, he'll begin to dominate them. If you look at Kokkai's efforts in the Juryo ranks for 2003, you'll find that he usually hovered around the 8-7 or 9-6 mark until nearly a year in the division when he suddenly breaks out with a 14-1 performance. I expect the same from him in the Makuuchi division. Believe me, Kokkai is a marked man already; none of his opponents will ever take him lightly. As for Kokkai's sumo, it's not fantastic. He can barely fight at the belt, and his oshi-zumo isn't exactly stable, but you could say the exact same thing for a certain ex-Yokozuna who's now embarrassing himself in K-1 fighting. Kokkai holds a strong future in this sport.
M12s Toki and Asasekiryu both obtained a kachi-koshi this basho and both hail from the same stable, but the similarities end there. Let's get Toki out of the way first. Eight wins this low in the ranks? I think Toki's day in the sun has passed. He's not fooling anybody anymore. Furthermore, I don't see the same fire in him that he exhibited last year when he bullied his way up to Komusubi with some powerful wins over the likes of Kaio. Asasekiryu, on the other hand, finally had that break out basho we've been expecting for a year now since he first entered the division. Seki has always had the tools to pull off what he did this basho, but the difference this time around was his mental approach. His crowning performance this basho in my mind actually occurred in his first loss when facing Chiyotaikai on day 13. Seki went toe to toe with Chiyo and dished out as many blows to the face that he took. While he couldn't overcome Taikai in the end, he never backed down and showed no fear in his two bouts with the Ozekis Kaio and Chiyotaikai. Now, the big question is will he display the same intensity in May? Seki was ranked at M12 last basho as well and only managed a 7-8 record. We've seen rikishi have huge basho recently (Tochiazuma in Kyushu and Kotomitsuki in January) only to fade away in subsequent tournaments. Will Seki follow the same course? The odds are no because he has a unique advantage in stable mate Asashoryu to first, show him an example of what intensity in the ring is all about, and second ride the youngster's butt in keiko. Asashoryu and Asasekiryu are the same height and virtually the same weight. If Seki can acquire a similar mental intensity that his ani-deshi Asashoryu constantly displays, then watch out. Seki will face a huge test in May when he is promoted to or just below the Komusubi rank. He'll have to fight all of the big boys, so we'll find out of he is a one-hit wonder or not.
How nice was it to see M13 Kotonowaka post an 11-4 record and pick up the Kantosho for his efforts? As far as I'm concerned, he can't climb back up the ranks fast enough because this grizzly veteran can still cause some commotion amongst the jo'i.
M14 Harunoyama picked up a nice kachi-koshi in his debut in the division going 9-6. The performance should guarantee him at worst two more basho in Makuuchi. His six losses were all against rikishi who had solid basho themselves attaining a kachi-koshi, so that tells you that Harunoyama is not losing to the scrub rikishi in the division. The jury is still obviously out on this late bloomer, but so far so good. Fellow newcomer M15 Futenoh did fare as well only managing a 7-8 record. The bright side was a good 5-1 finish to keep himself in the division come May. The story with Futenoh is he's only been in professional sumo for over a year now having debuted in the Makushita division fresh out of college. He's slowly grinding his way up the ranks with two good basho followed by one below average basho. Give him some more experience, and he could become the next Kotomitsuki.
That's it for the Makuuchi division this basho, but there's plenty more to talk about in the lower ranks. First, allow me to give some huge props to the Juryo winner M8 Hakuho, who fights from my favorite stable, the Miyagino-beya. This was only Hakuho's second tournament as a sekitori, and he's done so well he may just find him in the Makuuchi division in May. We'll have to wait for the new banzuke five weeks hence, but at worst, he'll be the topdog in Juryo for the Natsu Basho. As Kenji pointed out, Hakuho is yet another Mongolian who shows promise.
Now let's move to the goodies, who are collectively two Makushita guys that will undoubtedly impact this sport over the next few years. I'll start with MS2 Koto-oshu by virtue of his having won the Makushita Division yusho clinching his seventh win in the Juryo division. First, this guy is tall as in the tallest rikishi in the history of the sport since such records were kept. Second, he is as coordinated for a big guy as I've ever seen. In the few bouts I've seen of him, he actually appears to favor fighting at the belt, and he's shown some deft technique in beating his opponents. I recall NHK showing a clip of his first ever Jonokuchi bout last year. I was flabbergasted that he actually won by shitate-hineri. If you see clips of other former giants like Akebono, Musashimaru, and Konishiki when they were young, they just pulverized their poor opponents with their mass usually flailing away with some tsuppari. Koto-oshu is different. He's big and he shows a lot of finesse in his sumo. Koto-oshu competed in his first tournament in January of 2003. He's a confirmed sekitori for the upcoming tourney in May. I could go on and on about this guy, but I'll just say that when he gains thrity more kilos, he'll be unstoppable. Asashoryu needs to pile up as many yusho now as he can because when Koto-oshu rises to the top, our current Yokozuna will no longer be the sole top dog. Oh yeah, Koto-oshu is yet another foreigner, who hails from Bulgaria.
As if Koto-oshu wasn't enough of a future goldmine, there's also MS1 Hagiwara, who secured promotion to Juryo with a 5-2 record (one of the losses was to Koto-oshu). Is he the next Takanohana? He jumps into second place all time of youngest rikishi to make it to Juryo at 17 years and nine months. Takanohana did it at 17 years and two months. I've seen a few of his bouts, and he's actually bigger than Takanohana was at that age. Furthermore, Hagiwara's sumo is amazingly polished. He already shows excellent patience and technique in his sumo. He, along with Koto-oshu, will usher in the next revival of sumo's popularity. The Japanese press are already hyping these two, so you know the female fans will hop onto the bandwagon as they did when Takahanada and Wakahanada first broke onto the scene.
You can just see the planets aligning themselves once again in regards to sumo's popularity. The next resurgence will undoubtedly be fueled by foreign rikishi, but the likes of Hagiwara will still give the Japanese a hometown hero to cheer for. I'm optimistic that sumo has finally turned the corner and will once again draw the masses to the sport. Asashoryu, Chiyotaikai, and Kaio must bear the load for now, but help is definitely on the way...probably sooner than the aforementioned would like.
There more things change, the more they really stay the same. Despite the wild ride we have enjoyed in Osaka over these two weeks, the law of averages has finally caught up leaving us with just one rikishi alone at the top through 14 days. And while it's still possible to see a wild finish on senshuraku, I'm not counting it.
Beginning in chronological
order with the rikishi vying for the yusho coming into the day, M12 Asasekiryu
was matched up against M1 Miyabiyama, who is having a good basho himself. This
was a disappointing bout that saw Asasekiryu jump to the side from the tachi-ai
and easily slap down the charging Miyabiyama. While I think that Asasekiryu
deserves a day off after going toe to toe with Chiyotaikai in a lengthy bout
that saw more swats to the face than an average round of boxing, I can't stand
the tachi-ai henka. A half-step henka to avoid a Tosanoumi charge I can live
with, but just jumping completely out of the way and watching your opponent face
plant himself in the middle of the dohyo is wrong. Seki got this far by going
toe to toe with each of his opponents. Why stop now? I understand that this is
an easy way to keep himself in the yusho hunt, but I don't want to remember this
bout when I look back on his performance this basho. Anyway, Asasekiryu improves
to 13-1 and it still in the running for the yusho.
The most anticipated bout today was a matchup of the two best Ozeki, Chiyotaikai and Kaio. Kaio has won the last nine meetings between the two, but Chiyotaikai held a two bout advantage in the loss column over Kaio this basho. Chiyotaikai exhibited the exact tachi-ai that I wanted to see. He bolted into Kaio with both arms flying. The only problem is that Kaio is the only rikishi in the division who can stand directly in front of a Chiyotaikai assault without flinching. Chiyo managed to fire a few blasts off before Kaio displayed a kaina move where he pushes upwards on his opponent's triceps area throwing him off balance and twisting him around. Nobody performs this technique better than Kaio, and today was no different. Kaio performed the kaina with his right hand against Chiyo's left arm throwing Chiyotaikai off balance and to his right. Kaio was right on top of his opponent and shoved him out with relative ease. Kaio is really a piece of work. He loses two bouts in the span of about 4 seconds looking awful, and then he comes around the next day and clobbers Chiyotaikai at his own game. It's too little too late, however, as Kaio at 12-2 was eliminated from the yusho race. Chiyotaikai suffers his first loss to stand at 13-1, but he still controls his own destiny.
Kaio has Yokozuna Asashoryu to thank for his elimination after the Yokozuna handled Ozeki Musoyama with ease to stay perfect at 14-0. Musoyama delivered a decent but unaggressive tachi-ai charging with his eyes fixated to the dohyo floor. Asashoryu adjusted in a flash and pulled Musoyama forward by the head. Musoyama recovered at the ring's edge but as he turned around to face his opponent, Asashoryu was right there to push him out for his 29th win in a row. I am really disappointed in Musoyama's performance in week two. He just doesn't care. With the victory, Asashoryu not only picks up another wad of cash from the kensho, but takes sole possession of the lead at 14-0. I don't know how many kensho (those sponsorship banners that are marched around the ring) Asashoryu has collected this basho, but I think he's averaged at least 15 per bout. Multiply that by his number of wins and at 30,000 yen per kensho that totals a cool 6,300,000 yen just for winning his bouts. That fact that I've gotten off on a tangent regarding the kensho shows that first, I wish I could make that kind of money in two weeks, and second, Asashoryu is so much better than everyone else that sometimes it's more interesting to talk about the little subtleties of the sport instead of the sumo itself.
In the Sekiwake ranks, Kotomitsuki easily pushed out M4 Tosanoumi (4-10) to pick up his sixth win against eight losses. Kotomitsuki can probably manage a Komusubi rank for next basho if he wins tomorrow. Wakanosato evens his record at 7-7 with a scoop throw win against Iwakiyama; he must now topple Asasekiryu to obtain his kachi-koshi. That's my second most anticipated bout for tomorrow. Has Asasekiryu's performance been good enough to yusho this basho? We'll find out tomorrow.
Picking up that coveted eighth win in the Maegashira ranks was M14 Harunoyama, who turns in a successful Makuuchi debut, and M12 Toki, who doesn't seem to be fooling people as much with his one-dimensional style.
Looking ahead to tomorrow, the final bout of the day between Asashoryu and Chiyotaikai is the key bout obviously. An Asashoryu win gives him his second consecutive zensho-yusho. A Chiyotaikai win would make things interesting, especially if Asasekiryu wins. That would leave three rikishi at 14-1 and force a tomoe-sen playoff. I wouldn't count on it, but it'd sure be fun and a fitting end to this basho.
Wow, what a basho! And that's a phrase I haven't used since Aki of 2002. The beauty of this tournament is that even though one of the four unbeatens went down to today, we're still no closer to figuring this thing out than we were coming in. And how nice is it to see the Osaka faithful rewarded with such an epic basho after having put up with so much crap sumo the last few years?
Getting right to the action in chronological order, Ozeki Chiyotaikai was pitted against Sekiwake Kotomitsuki, a match up that favors Kotomitsuki in my opinion. But my opinion obviously matters little as Chiyo just blew Kotomitsuki away from the tachi-ai and had him pushed back and out nearly as fast as it took me to stop visual fast forwarding on my VCR and hit the play button. Simply unbelievable! I didn't think that I could work the remote controller that fast. Getting back to sumo, Chiyotaikai's having obliterated both Sekiwake in this fashion is amazing. It makes me wonder why he was screwing around with that back-up-and-pull-down-from-the-tachiai nonsense early in the basho. IF Chiyo continues to approach his remaining bouts with this same attitude, he is the favorite to win this basho. At 12-0, he will face Asasekiryu tomorrow. The key will be whether or not Asasekiryu can grab Chiyo's belt. This will be the ultimate oshi-zumo style vs. youtsu-zumo style bout. Kotomitsuki falls to 4-8 and officially secures demotion from the Sekiwake rank.
The penultimate bout and most anticipated bout of the day had M12 Asasekiryu squaring off with Ozeki Kaio. This bout would prove if Seki was for real or if he was just having his way with the bottom feeders. From the tachi-ai, Kaio attempted an immediate, ill-advised kotenage throw whiffing on the move and leaving himself off balance, turned to the side, and dangerously exposed. Asasekiryu never hesitated in pulling down his opponent, only this time it was faster than my handy remote control work. It was over in a second...maybe two. This was a case of Kaio taking a huge gamble with one of his patented kotonage throws that nearly separates his opponent's elbow from his body. The move obviously didn't work, and Kaio paid the price. Though this was an ugly ugly bout typical whenever these two meet up (Seki leads overall 2-1), Asasekiryu deserves huge props for not being intimidated and taking full advantage of his opponent's mishap. Kaio returned to his zabuton at the base of the dohyo clearly disturbed by his performance as well he should have been. Nobody can say it was a stupid move because if it had worked, we would have all been praising Kaio's strength. It was just poor judgment and execution by the better, more experienced rikishi. Kaio drops to 11-1, but is still right in the thick of things. He has Asashoryu tomorrow, so let's hope he bounces back mentally and is ready. Asasekiryu remains perfect at 12-0 after another big win. I've underestimated him two days in a row now because I predicted he'd lose to Kotoryu, and I was sure Kaio would get him today. Can you imagine if both Seki and Asashoryu went 15-0 and had to square off in a playoff for the yusho? Remember, we're in Osaka.
The final bout of the day saw Yokozuna Asashoryu do battle with Sekiwake Wakanosato where Asa never lost control of the bout's pace, but had to work for his win. Asa came from the tachi-ai with a huge scoop throw attempt that threw Wakanosato entirely off balance and back to the edge of the ring. Wakanosato survived the scare, and both rikishi hooked back up in the center of the ring in the yotsu position with Asashoryu holding an advantageous left uwate. With his head securely pressed upwards into Wakanosato's jaw, Asashoryu maneuvered into a solid uwate-dashi-nage throw for the victory. Asa completely dictated the control of the bout and won convincingly to stay perfect at 12-0. Wakanosato falls to a dangerous 5-7. There's not much more to say other than Asashoryu is getting the job done. Tomorrow's Asashoryu - Kaio match up should be epic.
In other bouts of interest, Ozeki Musoyama is coasting towards the finish line with his 8 wins secured. Against Iwakiyama, Musoyama came with his tachi-ai of not wanting to push and not quite wanting to go for the belt. In other words, Iwakiyama just stepped back and pulled the Ozeki with him. Musoyama nearly pushed Iwakiyama out of the ring before he fell to the dirt, but a mono-ii verified that Iwakiyama was justly declared the winner. Ugly sumo here that leaves Musoyama at 8-4 and Iwakiyama at 6-6.
In the Komusubi ranks, M2 Dejima used his bowling ball style to force out Shimotori in short order. Dejima evens his record to 6-6 while Shimotori officially hits the eight-loss mark. He'll be demoted in May, but I've been pleased with his effort. Komusubi Kakizoe hit M4 Aminishiki at the tachi-ai and immediately pulled him down sideways. This wasn't a side-step move where he completely dodged his opponent's tachi-ai, rather it was good, strong sumo with Kakizoe taking advantage of his opponent's size. The victory keeps his kachi-koshi hopes alive at 5-7 while Aminishiki falls to just 2-10.
In the Maegashira ranks, how about M1 Miyabiyama picking up his kachi-koshi on day 12? I didn't expect him to get this far through 15 days, but he's put together a solid effort albeit a quiet one. With both Sekiwake in danger of losing their ranks, one more win for the Ozeki probably solidifies a new Sekiwake rank for May. M13 Kotonowaka also posted his impressive ninth win today. It's safe to say he'll vault back up to the upper Maegashira as usual to give the jo'i headaches.
And finally, we've been keeping an eye on M9 Kokkai who was in the midst of a three bout losing streak coming in. M3 Tochinonada is not the best cure for that, and it showed today as Nada forced the bout to the belt and easily won from there. Kokkai is still stuck at 7-5 while Tochinonada goes to 6-6.
The chubansen, or middle five days, are in the books, and Kenji and I may as well be copying and pasting remarks from previous days into our new comments. Let's see here, Asashoryu wins with speed and remarkable technique, check; Kaio has yet to be in any serious trouble, check; Chiyotaikai wins via a pull down method, check; and Asasekiryu is a lock for the Ginosho, check. Nothing much has changed, but that's a good thing. The big three are all winning the bouts they're supposed to win, and that is going to set up some serious fireworks over the last few days.
Let's start with M12 Asasekiryu, who is the most surprising rikishi this basho considering his record over the two previous basho is 10-20. For the second day in a row, Seki was matched up against an oshi-zumo rikishi, and for the second day in a row he was able to secure a grip on his opponent's belt which resulted in a victory. Today against M6 Hokutoriki (7-3), Asasekiryu grabbed a quick left shitate from the tachi-ai. Hokutoriki, who looked lost from the start, executed a makikae, which turned Asasekiryu's good shitate grip into an awesome uwate grip. Asasekiryu, sensing he had his opponent completely handcuffed, easily threw Hokutoriki over with the left uwate. This wasn't a difficult bout by any means, but it was good to see Asasekiryu react instantly to his opponent's mistake. Seki now stands at 10-0 tied for the lead, but he is going to have his hands full tomorrow with M6 Kotoryu. Kotoryu is a bulldog if he grabs your belt, and since Seki is primarily a yotsu-zumo guy, I see this bout becoming a fight at the belt where Kotoryu uses his experience to prevail. I would really love to see Seki win tomorrow and continue this streak, but my gut feeling tells me otherwise.
Seki's ani-deshi, Yokozuna Asashoryu, played it smart today in his bout with M4 Tosanoumi. NHK showed a close-up of Tosanoumi just before the tachi-ai, and you could see it in his face that he was coming full board. To Asa's credit, he hit Tosanoumi straight up but then wisely got the hell out of the charging Tosanoumi's way stepping to his left and grabbing Tosanoumi's wrist with his left arm and hooking his right arm up and under Tosanoumi's bicep area using the hold to twist/pull Tosanoumi (1-9, ouch!) out of the ring with the seldom seen tsunauchi technique. Asashoryu has not dominated his last three opponents, but he's still winning with solid sumo, and he definitely holds the mental edge over his upcoming opponents. Asa at 10-0 is pitted against Komusubi Kakizoe tomorrow. The Yokozuna should dominate the bout, but if Kakizoe throws a tachi-ai henka wrench into things, you never know.
Keeping pace with the Takasago stable mates at 10-0 is Ozeki Chiyotaikai, who easily defeated M4 Aminishiki (2-8) by pushing him back from the tachi-ai and then pulling him down at ring's edge. I'll admit I took a cheap shot at Taikai in my opening paragraph. His win today was mostly a matter of Aminishiki losing his footing and leaning forward too far. Chiyo took full advantage and slapped him down for the easy win. Up next for Chiyo is Wakanosato who will beat the Ozeki if he can withstand the initial thrusts from the tachi-ai. Chiyo can't let Waka touch his belt tomorrow or he suffers his first loss. Getting back to Aminishiki, who cursed the Maegashira 4 rank this basho? Aminishiki and Tosanoumi are a combined 3-17.
Ozeki Kaio knocked off Sekiwake Kotomitsuki with surprising ease today. The Ozeki drove upwards into Kotomitsuki from the tachi-ai standing him straight up. Kaio then used his right arm to force Kotomitsuki sideways before forcing him out of the ring in three seconds. Kaio has yet to be in any danger through his first ten bouts. Normally, I'd say he is in trouble tomorrow against nemesis M3 Tochinonada, but Kaio is showing excellent confidence and initiative in whipping his opponents. He rounds out the four 10-0 rikishi who will do battle with each other in a few days. Kotomitsuki falls to a paltry 3-7.
Ozeki Musoyama is back to his old lackadaisical self. Today he showed no tsuppari whatsoever from the tachi-ai as he hooked up with Sekiwake Wakanosato. Musoyama got his left arm inside of Wakanosato's right arm a bit, but he didn't try and grab the belt and didn't really seem to apply much pressure with it. What Musoyama did do was leave himself wide open for Wakanosato to grab a firm right uwate, which the Sekiwake promptly did using the grip to throw Musoyama off balance before easily forcing him out. Wakanosato took exactly what was given to him and was rewarded with his fifth win to stand at 5-5. Musoyama drops to 7-3 and has now lost two in a row. There's nothing one can do but sigh when Musoyama performs as he did today.
In the Komusubi ranks, Shimotori didn't fall for M1 Kyokushuzan's shenanigans, which means Shimotori easily won via the push-out to move to 4-6. Shu falls to 2-8. Kakizoe stumbled today against M3 Tamanoshima. Kaikzoe actually drove Tamanoshima back a step from the tachi-ai, but he charged with his head down too low and Tamanoshima said "thank you very much" as he effortlessly pulled kakizoe down by the back of the head. Kakizoe gave Tamanoshima (5-5) a dirty look after the bout but a) what do you expect when you keep your head down too low? That's like Tosanoumi complaining about getting pulled down so often. And b) isn't that the pot calling the kettle black? I seem to recall a cheap win over Tosanoumi by Kakizoe using the same tactics. Kakizoe falls to 4-6 and must face Asashoryu tomorrow.
In other Maegashira bouts of interest, M13 Kotonowaka smothered M8 Takamisakari (6-4) to improve to 7-3; and M8 Kokkai (7-3) was obliterated in two seconds by none other than M17 Yotsukasa (5-5). The fact that Kokkai has not gotten off any tsuppari in his last two bouts is no coincidence regarding his two-bout losing streak.
I don't ever recall a basho where four rikishi attained a kachi-koshi through the first eight days, but that's exactly what we have here in Osaka. The usually wild and unpredictable Haru Basho is fast turning into the best basho in the last 18 months. What would make things even more interesting is if the Association decided to match M12 Asasekiryu and M9 Kokkai against some of the Ozeki and Yokozuna in week two to fill the void left by Ozeki Tochiazuma's withdrawal. Since Asashoryu, Kaio, and Chiyotaikai all won today with few surprises (unless you consider Chiyotaikai's actually moving FORWARD in his win today as a surprise), I'm going to start down in the Maegashira division with some of the lower-ranked rikishi who deserve some love.
Standing 8-0 to remain tied for the lead is M12 Asasekiryu, who defeated M17 Yotsukasa (4-4) today in a grueling bout where Seki's stingy left uwate would prove to be the deciding factor. Asasekiryu has never been just average it seems in the Makuuchi division; he's either downright impressive displaying amazing technique, or he's downright awful seeming not to care about his performance. Fortunately, we're seeing an Asasekiryu this basho who is dominating the lower Maegashira with stellar technique. I'm hoping this win steak continues and that the Association pairs the Mongolian with the sanyaku or Ozeki in the final days of the basho. Asasekiryu would definitely be the underdog, but he's an exciting rikishi to watch when he's on.
Nipping at Asasekiryu's heels is M9 Kokkai, who continues to dominate among the rank and file. Today, the Georgian nearly ripped Takamisakari's head off with a thrust at the Robocop's throat that sent him flying off the dohyo. Takamisakari managed a mae-mitsu from the tachi-ai, a grip he often uses in his counter attacks, but today he was only left with two choices as Kokkai unloaded some massive thrusts at Sakari's head: maintain my belt grip and literally have my head torn from my body or let go and live to fight another day. He thankfully chose the latter, which upped Kokkai's record to 7-1. The Robocop falls to a very respectable 5-3. I can't ever remember when my chumoku-ichiban (most anticipated bout of the day) has been a bout between and M9 and M12 rikishi, but that will be the case on day 9 when Kokkai takes on Asasekiryu.
A final Maegashira rikishi who is looking very good this basho is M6 Hokutoriki, who stands at 6-2 after demolishing M10 Kasuganishiki (3-5) in two seconds today with some fierce tsuppari. I've been a little tough on Hokutoriki the last few basho, but this basho he deserves some praise for sticking to his tsuppari guns and beating his opponents while moving forward. Hokutoriki tends to resort to cheap tactics when matched up against the jo'i rikishi, and that's exactly the position he's going to find himself again next basho. He needs to follow Shimotori's example. Take your lumps with the big boys, but just stick to your guns. You may not win eight right away ranked high up the ranks, but it will come. Other rikishi deserving praise in the Maegashira ranks at 6-2 are M9 Buyuzan and M10 Kotoryu.
Now on to the heavy hitters. Yokozuna Asashoryu continued his win streak by simply outclassing M3 Tamanoshima (3-5) with some very effective oshi-zumo. Asa resorted to the nodowa tachi-ai, which stopped the M3 in his tracks. Asa then used his left hand to push Tamanoshima around 90 degrees turning him into an easy target to finish off. Most importantly, Asashoryu avoids a long drawn out yotsu-zumo bout that would have further taxed his strength. The Yokozuna moves to 8-0 and next faces Aminishiki, who is only 2-6. Since Asa will have to fight one more Maegashira rikishi after Aminishiki, I'm hoping that the Association gives us all what we want to see: Asashoryu vs. Kokkai.
In the penultimate bout, Ozeki Chiyotaikai completely dismantled M3 Tochinonada (4-4) with an oshi-zumo performance similar to his win over Shimotori two days ago. The win keeps Taikai on pace for the lead at 8-0, but let's hope it gets him back on track as far as some consistency in his sumo. NHK listed Chiyotaikai's winning techniques through the first seven days. Only two wins were by oshi-dashi with the rest being pull-down maneuvers, which is unacceptable for someone of his rank. You know it's bad when the conservative NHK points out that Chiyotaikai's sumo content has been well below average. I echo Kenji's sentiments in his comments yesterday that this has got to be the ugliest eight wins we've ever seen. I cut Chiyo some slack early on due to a calf injury, but when he comes out and completely dominates against Tochinonada today and Shimotori a few days ago as he did, there's no reason why he shouldn't have been doing that all along.
Ozeki Kaio continued his torrid pace by defeating M4 Tosanoumi (1-7) in a good yotsu-zumo chess match. This was an awesome tachi-ai where both rikishi came hard at the initial charge. Tosanoumi ended up with a solid right uwate, but Kaio was able to get his left arm deep enough inside of Tosanoumi's armpit that it somewhat neutralized Tosanoumi's grip. After pausing for several seconds in the center of the ring, Kaio was able to maneuver his body inside deep enough to where he was able to nudge Tosanoumi back with his hip. With the momentum now in his favor, Kaio easily forced out Tosanoumi for the win and perfect 8-0 mark. If Kaio can keep this up, I say he's the favorite against Asashoryu when the two face off on day 14.
Ozeki Musoyama stumbled today against Sekiwake Kotomitsuki in a bout that he should have won given Kotomitsuki's pull down attempt just after the tachi-ai. Musoyama read the move and immediately drove Mitsuki back, but the Sekiwake solidly braced himself against the tawara to stay alive. With Musoyama's forward momentum halted, the Ozeki seemed to lose his fighting spirit allowing Kotomitsuki to get the best of him. Take nothing away from Kotomitsuki's fine effort after his weak pull down attempt, but how is this guy only 2-6 after displaying the kind of sumo he has the last two days? Musoyama falls to 6-2, which likely kills any yusho chances.
In the sanyaku ranks, Sekiwake Wakanosato looked listless for the third day in a row as he displayed a decent tachi-ai, but then just seemed to stop and wait for his opponent to make a move. When that opponent is M2 Kyokutenho it spells danger. Kyokutenho hit hard at the tachi-ai and must have noticed the lack of resistance from his opponent because he took one step sideways and slapped Wakanosato down by the shoulder. Both rikishi stand at 4-4.
And finally, in the match up of our Komusubi, Shimotori prevailed with a scoop throw at the ring's edge against Kakizoe. Both rikishi stand at 3-5 now, but I've been a lot more impressed with Shimotori. Shimotori has fought straight up every bout and earned his three wins. I can't say the same for Kakizoe who has a good win over Kotomitsuki, but has also shown too many tachi-ai henkas this first week. The good news for the Komusubi is that week two usually brings lower-ranked opponents, so I'd like to see both of these guys finish strong.
We're halfway done and not even close to deciding the winner. Gear up for what should be a solid week of sumo.
We're nearly a week in and Asashoryu, Chiyotaikai, and Kaio are commanding all of the attention with perfect 6-0 records. But don't forget Musoyama who is only one loss back and has definitely looked in top form the last few days. While Asashoryu has to be the favorite at this point, I wouldn't be surprised to see one of the Ozeki snatch the yusho away from the Yokozuna.
In the actual bouts themselves, Yokozuna Asashoryu came firing away with some effective tsuppari from the tachi-ai to drive M2 Tochinonada back to the tawara. Nada braced both heels on the ring's edge and surged back with some thrusts of his own that forced Asashoryu to backtrack, but Asashoryu used his speed advantage to quickly turn the tables by evading the charging Nada and pushing the M2, whose forward momentum was carrying him right out of the ring, off of the dohyo and onto the yobi-dashi carrying the salt basket and his wooden stool. The slight offensive by Tochinonada did draw some enthusiastic screams from the crowd, but Asashoryu was never in any real danger. As long as he has room to move around, they Yokozuna always has the advantage. Nada falls to 3-3, but I appreciated his effort against the Yokozuna. At least he tried to win instead of doing nothing but trying to survive as we've seen several rikishi do this basho.
Ozeki Kaio was nails today as he defeated M2 Kyokutenho in a straight up yotsu-zumo bout. Kaio got his left arm in deep at the tachi-ai and used that to maneuver Kyokutenho into a position where he could grab the right uwate. Once secured it was over as Kaio easily forced Tenho out. Not much else to say about Kaio; he just needs to finish off his opponents fast and save up his strength.
Ozeki Musoyama easily handled M3 Tamanoshima by coming out with his seldom seen tsuppari. The thrusts allowed him to grab the mae-mitsu and force Tamanoshima back. After a few seconds of grappling for position, Musoyama executed some well-timed pushes to finish Tamanoshima off. Musoyama improves to 5-1 and could still factor into the yusho race. Interesting how we're actually talking about the yusho race and Musoyama in the same sentence and not "can he pull out eight wins?". Tamanoshima falls to 3-3.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai was masterful today in completely obliterating Komusubi Shimotori. Chiyo lunged into his opponent from the tachi-ai with all tsuppari cylinders firing. Charging forward for the first time this basho, he had Shimotori out of the ring in four or five pushes. This was vintage Taikai and something that I hope to see the rest of the basho. His sumo today could have defeated Asashoryu in my opinion. Chiyo stays atop the leader board at 6-0 while Shimotori falls to 2-4.
The two Sekiwake had off days today. M1 Miyabiyama stepped to his side from the tachi-ai today against Kotomitsuki but didn't seem to gain any advantage from it. The two rikishi immediately began a war of tsuppari, which Miyabiyama completely controlled pushing Kotomitsuki across the ring and out. I had such high expectations for Mitsuki this basho, but at 1-5 he's in danger of even winning eight. Sekiwake Wakanosato lost to none other M1 Kyokushuzan today...by uwate-nage no less. Waka stood straight up at the tachi-ai, as he should do against Kyokushuzan, but seemed content to grapple with the Mongolian for good position instead of just driving him out. Kyokushuzan grabbed a firm belt grip that he used to throw the Sekiwake over with seeming ease. I did a double-take just to make sure that was Kyokushuzan who beat Wakanosato today; by all indications it was. Wakanosato still stands at 4-2, but he can't lose this bout today if he has serious hopes for ever capturing the yusho or being promoted to Ozeki.
Rounding out the Komusubi ranks, Kakizoe is proving that he wants to be the top matador in the Makuuchi division. Today he masterfully jumped to his left at the tachi-ai letting M4 Tosanoumi dive head first into the dirt. The only thing missing from Kakizoe's act today was a red cape and the Osaka fans shouting "Ole!!" as the bull missed its target. You can't fault Tosanoumi (1-5) for wanting to fight straight up; Kakizoe (2-4) on the other hand is fast wearing out his welcome in the sanyaku. Nut up and don't disgrace your rank.
In the Maegashira ranks, M12 Asasekiryu cooled off the red hot M9 Buyuzan with a nifty uwate-hineri technique. Seki remains perfect at 6-0 while Buyuzan falls to 4-2. I think we have our favorite for the Ginosho prize after week one. M9 Kokkai suffered his first defeat of the tournament today against M6 Hokutoriki (4-2). Hokutoriki effectively traded tsuppari with the big Georgian forcing the bout to yotsu-zumo, where neither rikishi is comfortable. Kokkai used his size to force Hokutoriki to the ring's edge, but as the NHK announcers aptly described it, "he fell through the trapdoor in the dohyo." I still can't figure out how Kokkai lost, but all of a sudden he was on the ground. This had shades of last basho where Kokkai would get his opponent all the way to tawara and then falter that last step. Rounding out the Maegashira ranks, M10 Kotoryu continued his hot pace forcing out M14 Ushiomaru to pick up his fifth win.
We still haven't had that wild and crazy day that we usually see in Osaka. And it's fine by me if we don't. So far the active Yokozuna and Ozeki have shined with only one loss among the four of them. It's all good.
We're four days into the tournament, and most of the rikishi are fulfilling expectations. The only three rikishi in my mind who have a shot to yusho are all 4-0, so let's hope that their records stay close throughout the basho to guarantee an exciting week 2. Yokozuna Asashoryu easily pushed his record to 4-0 today out-maneuvering M2 Dejima. Coming into the tournament, I thought that Dejima was someone who could give Asa a serious run for his money, but not on this day. Both rikishi hit straight on at the tachi-ai, but Dejima didn't seem to drive into the Yokozuna using the push from his legs. The mediocre effort cost him as Asashoryu moved to his left and spun Dejima completely around with an arm bar throw. Dejima did recover and stay on his feat, but Asashoryu was right there to greet him again with a right uwate and left shitate grip on Dejima's belt. Using his upper thigh for leverage, the Yokozuna easily threw Dejima down by the belt before the M2 could regroup. Asashoryu was fast and precise today in dismantling the underachieving Dejima, who now falls to 0-4.
Keeping pace at 4-0 is Ozeki Chiyotaikai who once again failed to advance past his own starting line against M1 Miyabiyama today, but nonetheless PULLED out the victory. I'm actually going to go easy on the Ozeki because NHK showed a replay of today's bout focusing on Taikai's feet. Chiyotaikai simply does not have sufficient traction in his left leg, which is heavily taped at the calf area, and he can't seem to push off of on it. It's a devastating handicap to his oshi-zumo style, so all I'm going to say is survive while you can, but it's a only a matter of time until everyone clues into it. Chiyo was driven back by Miyabiyama's bear paw thrusts from the tachi-ai but managed to execute a well-timed pull down of the M1as he himself tight roped the tawara. Miyabiyama falls to 1-3.
The third rikishi keeping pace at 4-0 is Ozeki Kaio who faced Mr. Gimmick, Kyokushuzan. Kyokushuzan's 1-3 record just tells you that no one is falling for his act this basho. Kaio stood up at the tachi-ai, and waited for an opening before easily pushing the Mongolian to his third loss. What's strange is that Kyokushuzan seems to always get both of his hands to his opponent's throat. That's a position that most rikishi could do serious damage with, but Shu just uses it to keep his opponents at bay. Perhaps if he tried an offensive attack from that position, he wouldn't look so out of place in the ring.
Ozeki Musoyama is my favorite rikishi and not because of his act the last three years. I like Musoyama so much because in my opinion, his sumo is more well-rounded than anybody's including Asashoryu (I'm strictly talking about technique here, not mental toughness, speed, etc.). The problem the last few years is he never shows it except for maybe two or three days a tournament. Today was one of those days; Musoyama blew M2 Tochinonada off of the shikirisen with the best tachi-ai we've seen from anyone this basho and forced him down with a right thrust to Tochinonada's side driving the large Nada to the dirt in two seconds. Tochinonada sat up after the bout with a dazed look on his face like "what the hell just hit me?" No one else can dismantle the mammoth Tochinonada as fast as Musoyama did today to up his record to 3-1. The question nobody including Musoyama knows is why don't we see this from him everyday? Tochinonada falls to 2-2.
In the Sekiwake ranks, Kotomitsuki once again looked like a rikishi without a plan in his bout with M3 Tamanoshima. Kotomitsuki lined up several paces back from the starting line for his tachi-ai today; that tells me that whatever was going through his mind, it didn't include sound sumo basics. Tamanoshima received the crash from Kotomitsuki and promptly backed up dragging Kotomitsuki down to the dirt at the ring's edge. While I don't necessarily like to see someone win while back pedaling, I think it was a good move for the M3 who climbs to 3-1. A running start at the tachi-ai completely takes away any lower-body stability. If Kotomitsuki had had any de-ashi today, he would have sent the retreating Tamanoshima halfway up the hanamichi. Kotomitsuki, at 1-3 now, needs to get back to basics.
His counterpart, Wakanosato, showed brilliant technique today in dismantling Komusubi Shimotori. Both rikishi solidly met at the tachi-ai, but Waka managed to work his way into a quick morozashi grip, where both hands are on the inside, and grab Shimotori's belt. When the next push from Shimotori came, Wakanosato arched his back and lifted Shimotori clear off of his feet. Shimotori kicked his legs frantically, but Waka remained steady walking his opponent out of the ring for the tsuri-dashi win and a good 3-1 start. Shimotori is giving it is all, but he is simply overmatched by the jo'i at 1-3. I do think, however, that with some more experience this high up the ranks, he can become a mainstay.
Rounding out the sanyaku, Komusubi Kakizoe was completely outclassed by M2 Kyokutenho. Kakizoe moved to his left a bit at the tachi-ai wrapping his left arm over the top of Tenho's shoulder grabbing a quick arm bar hold. Kyokutenho somehow slipped his arm out of the hold and reversed the move now grabbing Kakizoe in an arm bar grip. He used the position to turn Kakizoe around into the man-love position where Kyokutenho easily pushed his opponent out from behind to up his record to 3-1. Kakizoe falls to 1-3.
Jumping down to the Maegashira ranks, M9 Kokkai remains on fire at 4-0 after surviving a scare from M8 Takanonami. Kokkai pushed Nami back from the tachi-ai, but the grizzled veteran evaded and grabbed a patented arm bar grip. Takanonami looked to be on his way to a kime-dashi win, but Kokkai slipped out of the hold and positioned himself in front of Nami again easily pushing him out for the win. This was eerily similar to their January bout where Takanonami got the best of the Georgian, but give Kokkai the experience he gained last basho, and he's now winning the close bouts that he lost in January. Kokkai's sumo is still very raw and unpolished, so it's scary to see him winning like this already. Give him time, and I think he may cause Asashoryu fits down the road. Nami falls to 0-4.
M8 Takamisakari remained perfect at 4-0 to the delight of the crowd and behest of opponent M10 Kasuganishiki. This was Sakari's worst performance this basho, but he got the job done by pulling Kasuganishiki down at ring's edge before the taller Kasuganishiki could push him out. It was vintage Robocop sumo where he wins with his counter sumo, but he really mounted no offensive attack whatsoever and was fortunate to win.
M10 Kotoryu and M12 Asasekiryu also remained perfect today at 4-0 while M3 Tamanoshima, M2 Kyokutenho, M6 Hokutoriki, M11 Takekaze, and M17 Yotsukasa are all off to good starts at 3-1.
In closing, we (people who have access to NHK's broadcast) got our first glimpse of MS1 Hagiwara today as he beat Juryo rikishi Daimanazuru today. Hagiwara is only 17 years old but finds himself just two wins away from promotion to Juryo. I cannot say enough about the youngster's performance. Daimanazuru had his opponent pushed back to the tawara several times, but Hagiwara didn't panic as so many MS rikishi do when facing the sekitori. He stayed within himself and showed unbelievable confidence and technique to defeat the much larger Daimanazuru with an uwate-dashi-nage throw. Hagiwara simply wore his opponent down with patience and then finished him off. Brilliant sumo for a 17-year old. If the Japanese are desperately looking for that next native superstar, they will find him in Hagiwara. He's young, he's rocketing up the ranks, and he doesn't have that Jabba the Hut body that will turn the female fans away. Remember the name. Coincidentally, the most anticipated bout of the tournament in my opinion occurred on day 3 when MS2 Kotooshu defeated Hagiwara in a bout that NHK unfortunately did not broadcast.
Day 2 is in the books, and we're already getting a pretty good picture regarding the condition of the rikishi in the spotlight. Getting right to the action, M1 Miyabiyama gave Yokozuna Asashoryu the best fight that anyone has in the Yokozuna's last 17 bouts, but a stubborn grip on the front of Miyabiyama's belt proved to be the deciding factor. The Yokozuna came with the left shoulder from the tachi-ai but seemed to bounce right off of the larger Maegashira. Miyabiyama charged forward using his sheer size to force Asashoryu back, but in the process, the Yokozuna grabbed a crucial left mae-mitsu on Miyabi's belt. Both rikishi jockeyed in the ring for position for several seconds with Miyabi's size keeping the Yokozuna from getting ideal position at the belt. Miyabiyama finally settled for the migi-yotsu position giving him an inside grip on the Yokozuna's belt, which he used to attempt a belt throw. Asashoryu's perfect defensive position allowed him to withstand the throw attempt and use Miyabiyama's compromised position against him to throw him down and out of the ring with his left grip on the belt. I really enjoyed Miyabiyama's solid effort; he stuck to his strengths today and never let up in his attempt to defeat the best rikishi in the field. While he did come up short today, if he brings it like this against the Yokozuna every time, he can definitely pick up at least one win a year against him. As for Asashoryu, this was excellent tactical sumo where he never put himself in position for the larger Miyabiyama to take advantage. So far so good for the Yokozuna at 2-0. Miyabiyama falls to 0-2, but has looked good so far in defeats against Kaio and Asashoryu.
Speaking of Kaio, the Ozeki was solid yet again in overcoming a tachi-ai henka from upstart Komusubi Kakizoe and using some oshi-zumo to set up a force-out of his opponent. Kakizoe jumped to his right at the tachi-ai in what I'm hoping is not going to become a bad habit for this guy. Kaio, who is known for not lunging into his opponents at the tachi-ai, simply turned to his left and began shoving at the smaller Kakizoe. Kakizoe attempted to evade to his left, but Kaio showed excellent de-ashi in keeping his opponent directly in front of him allowing an easy force it in a matter of seconds. It was quite an anti-climactic bout considering the fair amount of hype NHK was giving it during the broadcast. Kaio jumps to 2-0 while Kakizoe falls to 0-2.
I think it's safe to say that a red flag has been raised regarding Ozeki Tochiazuma's condition this basho. In his bout with Komusubi Shimotori today, Tochiazuma clearly won the tachi-ai getting both hands placed solidly against Shimotori's armpits, but then...nothing. Tochiazuma just stopped in the middle of the ring and waited. Shimotori took what was given and grabbed a right inner grip. Tochiazuma countered by grabbing the left uwate, but Shimotori's size left the Ozeki standing too upright. Shimotori took matters into his own hands and drove the ozeki back a few steps before unleashing a powerful sukuinage throw handing Tochiazuma his second straight loss. Shimotori grabs that ever important first win as a new Komusubi to move to 1-1. It's important because the Association always seems to pair the new Komusubi with the Yokozuna and Ozeki that first week (Shimotori gets Musoyama tomorrow). Ozeki Tochiazuma is in serious trouble although I'm not sure that this is as much physical as it is mental. The reason Tochiazuma took the yusho in Kyushu was because he never let up from the tachi-ai as he has been doing this year.
Ozeki Musoyama picked up his first win today by holding back at the tachi-ai and just stranding straight up against Kyokushuzan. Without Musoyama's forward momentum to manipulate, Kyokushuzan lamely extended both arms pressing against Musoyama's shoulders, but the Ozeki calmly inched forward before slapping Kyokushuzan silly out of the ring with a swiping right thrust. If your opponent stands straight up at the tachi-ai with his hands at his sides and you don't beat him, your name must be Kyokushuzan. Shu falls to 0-2 while Musoyama picks up an important first win.
Rounding out the Ozeki, Chiyotaikai won in unimpressive fashion in his bout with Dejima today. I won't criticize Chiyo's performance too much because Dejima's was just as poor. Chiyo, knowing that he can't move Dejima with his tsuppari, hit his opponent squarely at the tachi-ai and looked to be trying to force the bout to yotsu-zumo, but the very next moment, the Ozeki backed up and stepped to his side pulling Dejima along for the ride. Dejima attempted a last gasp diving push out attempt against the retreating Taikai, but as is often the case, he committed himself too early and ended up hitting the dirt before Chiyotaikai stepped out. Although Chiyo's move technically wasn't a tachi-ai henka, he picks up his second win in as many days retreating with his hand pulling down at the back of his opponent's head. Poor sumo from both of these rikishi. Dejima falls to 0-2.
Sekiwake Kotomitsuki suffered a rare loss this year as he fell to M2 Kyokutenho. Kotomitsuki looked like a rikishi without a plan as he crashed hard into Kyokutenho at the tachi-ai but pursued nothing after that. Kyokutenho absorbed the crash well grabbing a firm left uwate in the process. The Mongolian quickly stepped to his left and threw Kotomitsuki forward by the belt in the process. This was over in two seconds with Kyokutenho picking up another impressive win to move to 2-0. Kotomitsuki falls to 1-1.
Sekiwake Wakanosato failed to pick up his second win as he was overpowered by M3 Tochinonada in a good yotsu-zumo bout. Wakanosato grabbed the quick right outer grip from the tachi-ai, but that also left Tochinonada with his bread and butter, the left inner-grip. Both rikishi went chest to chest, but the heavier Tochinonada had his way bulldozing Wakanosato out in a matter of seconds. I think the difference in this bout was Wakanosato's jaw being forced too high up in the air by Tochinonada's shoulder. The Sekiwake never could seem to gain a comfortable position despite his good grip, and Tochinonada wasted no time in pressing the action. Both rikishi stand at 1-1.
Several rikishi of interest in the Maegashira ranks are M8 Takamisakari, who really looked good forcing out M5 Tokitsuumi to pick up his second win. Takamisakari looks completely healthy so far and has won both of his bouts without using retreats and counter moves that he implements so well. This can only contribute to the excitement surrounding the tournament. There was a noticeable murmur sweeping the crowd when Takamisakari entered the arena prior to his match, and the ten kensho sponsoring his bout were the most of any of the day's bouts. I'm happy to see the Robocop off to a solid 2-0 start.
Both M9 Buyuzan and Kokkai are off to 2-0 starts. Kokkai has yet to take a single step backwards in the first two days. He is just bringing it with his long-armed tsuppari. Also, M12 Asasekiryu looks to be back on track with two solid wins in his first two bouts where the Mongolian has displayed fine technique.
It's still early, but so far so good. I'm still waiting for that one hectic day where all hell breaks loose and throws a wrench into the outcome of the tournament. I don't know when that will be, but in Osaka, you know it's coming.
It's been an extra long layoff since the Hatsu basho due to the Haru basho starting on March 14th instead of the 7th. I assume the Sumo Association wanted the extra week to get settled in after the Korean Jungyo in mid-February. Nevertheless, the long layoff and Asashoryu's apparent good behavior have given the Japanese press little to talk about. Even now, one week before day 1, any kind of news report other than the official opening of the Takanohana-beya is few and far between. That aside, it's time to gear up for what is usually the wackiest basho of the year.
I'll start at the top with Yokozuna Asashoryu, who seems to be on his best behavior heading into the basho. I did see one report way back in early February where someone snapped a photo of Asashoryu wearing a suit while home on a short vacation in Mongolia. In the sumo world, only oyakata are permitted to wear suits. That ridiculous headline lasted for about one day. The Japanese paparazzi are going to have to do much better than that to try and steal the thunder away from Asashoryu's performance in January, which was sensational. In case you are just now coming out of the jungle in the Philippines thinking World War II is still ongoing, Asashoryu posted the first 15-0 zensho yusho in January the sport has seen since ex-Yokozuna Takanohana accomplished the feat in September of 1996. I dare say we will see another Yokozuna or two crowned before we see a rikishi besides Asashoryu go 15-0. It's fitting that Asashoryu and Takanohana are mentioned so frequently in the same sentence. Though their styles in the ring are quite different, their accomplishments are eerily similar.
Going into Osaka, there's no doubt that Asashoryu is the favorite. The only practice report I've read so far regarding Asashoryu had the Yokozuna posting a 9-3 record against Sekiwake Kotomitsuki on March 4th. Asashoryu also won both mini tournaments held in Korea in February, and he defeated Wakanosato in early February at an NHK sponsored tournament. The bottom line is Asashoryu is more than head and shoulders above the rest of the field much like Takanohana was in his prime. It's his basho to lose. I say a 5-0 start for the Yokozuna seals the deal. Asa just doesn't relinquish sole possession of the lead once he gets it. It's almost more interesting to speculate on who will come in second place.
Therefore, let's turn to the Ozeki, none of which were impressive in January. Chiyotaikai comes in ranked in the East 1 slot, but it seems that he has been hampered by a calf injury. His stable master, ex-Yokozuna Chiyonofuji, has been riding his Ozeki in the press of late, but doesn't that happen every basho? There have also been some doubt as to whether or not Chiyotaikai will even participate in Osaka, but I think the fact that he is the Haru Basho defending champion will be the deciding factor causing Chiyo to throw his top-knot into the ring. Last year, Chiyotaikai sat out the Hatsu basho with a very minor injury leaving him well-rested for the Haru Basho, a factor that contributed to his fine performance. This year, he doesn't have that luxury. Throw his slight injury into the mix, and I can't see Chiyotaikai repeating his fine performance of a year ago. I think double-digit wins is an accomplishment.
Regarding Ozeki Kaio, I have not heard any reports of his condition prior to this basho, which in Kaio's case is excellent news. The story is simple with this Ozeki: stay injury free and he factors into the yusho picture. I'll save further comment regarding Kaio until I actually see him in action, but he's as safe a bet for the jun-yusho as anyone.
This will be a telling tournament for Ozeki Tochiazuma, who is coming off of a very disappointing performance in January. Normally, I would look at a 9-6 record for Tochiazuma and say, what's new? But considering he posted that record with promotion to Yokozuna on the line and an entire nation behind him, it tells me that he's stuck in the same rut as fellow-Ozeki Kaio and Chiyotaikai. I don't see Tochiazuma making a run as he did last year in Kyushu.
Rounding out the Ozeki ranks, Musoyama comes into the tournament--get ready for a big surprise here--ranked as kadoban, which means he failed to obtain eight wins in his previous tournament giving him a make-koshi. If an Ozeki suffers another make-koshi with kadoban status then he is demoted from the rank. Granted, Musoyama's make-koshi was the result of a knee injury, and he looked very good in my opinion during the first week that he competed in January, so I see no reason for him not to pick up at least eight. I would love nothing more than to see Musoyama pick up his second career yusho in Osaka, but frankly speaking, I don't think he is even as big of a threat to pull that off as are the two Sekiwake.
Speaking of which, I'm confident that the two Sekiwake for this basho will finally break the year-long slump of both Sekiwake failing to obtain a kachi-koshi in any given basho. Since I'm too lazy to look that up, I'll just state that I believe the last time it happened was when Takanowaka (yes, that Takanowaka) and Kotomitsuki did it in January of 2003. Ranked in his usual East slot is Sekiwake veteran Wakanosato, who ties a record by staying in the sanyaku for 14 consecutive basho. If you breakdown Wakanosato's sumo (superior yotsu-zumo skills, big wins over top-ranked opponents every basho, and head-scratching losses to the rank-and-file to ruin yusho chances) then it's no surprise that he and Kaio share the record. Wakanosato also adds another basho to his personal best of 21 consecutive basho ranked Maegashira 1 or higher. I think the Ozeki rank for him is inevitable, but I sure wish it would come sooner than later. I'll say Waka wins ten in Osaka.
His counter part, Kotomitsuki, is very deserving of the rank and actually has a leg up on Wakanosato in terms of a run at the Ozeki rank. Kotomitsuki's stunning 13 wins in January means that he only needs twenty more wins over the next two basho to secure the promotion. I think that's very doable considering the mediocrity everyone save Asashoryu seems to be displaying of late in the upper Maegashira. I think Kotomitsuki goes 9-6 in Osaka forcing him to win 11 in May.
Now to the most exciting rank on the banzuke this tournament, the Komusubi. Deservedly occupying the East slot is Kakizoe, who I think will be a sanyaku mainstay. Kakizoe is small but he employs excellent speed and solid technique in the ring. I actually see a lot of similarities between Kakizoe and Asashoryu although I think Kakizoe lacks that absolute killer instinct and will-to-win that separates the Yokozuna from everyone else, but as far as getting maximum mileage out of his small stature, he ranks second only Asashoryu. Kakizoe has yet to make-koshi as a sekitori, and he has a great shot of continuing that trend although I'll be surprised if he wins more than eight.
I was thrilled to see his counterpart, Shimotori, sitting in the West slot when the new banzuke was announced. Shimotori makes the jump after an 11-4 performance from the M7 rank in January and wrestles the slot away from other worthy contenders Kyokutenho, Miyabiyama, and Dejima. It's heartening to see the Sumo Association give a relatively young rikishi the shot at a sanyaku rank considering most of the aforementioned others usually stink it up when in the same position. Shimotori doesn't necessarily have amazing technique but his advantage in the ring lies in the fact that he's a few centimeters taller than the average rikishi. Combine that with solid yotsu-zumo skills and good strength, and you have the making of a Komusubi. Now having heaped some praise on the relative newcomer, I don't see him attaining a kachi-koshi. Having to fight everyone in the upper division will prove to be too formidable a task. Six wins maybe.
Highlighting rikishi of note in the Maegashira ranks, M1 Miyabiyama finds himself within striking distance of the sanyaku, but this former Ozeki has struck out every time he's been ranked this high for the last little while. Considering his body and where he has stood before, he is underachieving at this point in his career. Fellow M1 Kyokushuzan reigns supreme in the how-in-the-hell-is-he-ranked-this-high department (Musoyama is in close second). There's nothing new to say about Shu; his sumo is cowardly and a disgrace to watch. No kachi-koshi for either of our M1s.
The M2 rank is arguably as solid as the Sekiwake this basho with Dejima in the East and Kyokutenho in the West. Dejima, himself a former Ozeki, can beat anyone on a given night without the win being classified as an upset; his sumo is that good. However, recklessness in the ring and nagging injuries always cause him to lose more than he should. Like Dejima, Kyokutenho is also capable of beating any rikishi straight up in the top of the division. His sumo content is impeccable, but I think he lacks the drive to seriously make a run at Ozeki. Nine wins for each is reasonable with history showing that Dejima will obtain his nine with a red-hot start and lousy finish while Kyokutenho will take the opposite course.
M3 is also solid with former sanyaku rikishi Tochinonada in the East and Tamanoshima in the West although these two are far too inconsistent to demand sufficient attention amongst the jo'i. Both rikishi should kachi-koshi but that will be due to a handful of lower-ranked opponents that they wouldn't face if they were ranked a few notches up on the banzuke.
I love the M4 rank, which is occupied by two rikishi who give it their all every bout. Aminishiki in the East will be hard-pressed to kachi-koshi due to his small frame, but his solid technique will keep him hovering around the seven-win mark. Tosanoumi is a bit under ranked here, but what else can the Association do with him when he pulls out only four wins as Sekiwake? Double digit wins? Why not?
M5s Tokitsuumi and Iwakiyama are ranked right about where they should be, which means both of them will finish right around 8-7 with Iwakiyama likelier to make another sanyaku run due to his girth. Tokitsuumi may as well be Aminishiki's twin: Outstanding technique with a lousy sumo body.
No disrespect towards M6s Hokutoriki and Jumonji and M7s Tochisakae and Kinkaiyama, but none of these rikishi will make an impact and don't warrant my pretending to make up some insightful comment.
M8 is compelling with crowd-favorite Takamisakari occupying the East and former Ozeki Takanonami sitting in the West. It will be business as usual for the disinterested Nami: an uninspired eight wins wrapping his long meat hooks over the top of his opponents and latching on to their belts. Takamisakari, however, is a different story. A keiko report had Sakari actually losing multiple times to a shin-deshi from the Tomozuna-beya while on a de-geiko trip. The shin-deshi is entering the sport from college after achieving the daigaku-yokozuna rank but still. Takamisakari was berated by Kaio for the losses. Sakari complained of numbness in his elbow, a condition that was apparently bothering him in January. I'm a bit concerned about Takamisakari because there's only a fine line that separates the lower half of the Maegashira ranks and the Makushita jo'i, and an injury however slight to a rikishi of Sakari's stature can be devastating. I don't know what to think of the Robocop because he's famous for being a pushover in pre-basho keiko, but judging from his performance in January, I think he's injured. I desperately hope he proves me wrong, but I think he struggles for his third consecutive basho.
Occupying the M9 West slot is none other than Kokkai, a sophomore Makuuchi rikishi in Osaka. As I stated in January, I think this guy is the real deal, and I'm talking all-the-way-to-the-top real. When I look at the broader sumo picture and try to identify up-and-coming rikishi who I think will impact the sport, Kokkai and MS1 Koto-oshu top the list. Let's list everything that Kokkai has going for him: youth, strength, size, great attitude, and a wingspan second to none that will make it very difficult for his opponent's to grab his belt. His only downside: inexperience. But that goes away once he gets his feet wet in the division. Kokkai's 8-7 record in January was a few centimeters short of 11-4; he gave current sanyaku rikishi Kotomitsuki, Kakizoe, and Shimotori all they could handle. I expect nothing but great things out of this Georgian native. I can't wait to see his performance in Osaka.
Other compelling rikishi rounding out the lower Maegashira ranks are M12 Toki who seems vastly under ranked after falling eleven slots on the banzuke; M13 Kotonowaka who sat out January's festivities with an injury and like Toki is under ranked; and M13 Chiyotenzan, a former Komusubi who breaks back into the Makuuchi division after a lengthy stint in the Makushita and Juryo ranks.
There are two fresh faces in the division for March. M14 Harunoyama who finally breaks through after 12 years in the sport. Harunoyama's got the size and the girth that a sumo rikishi needs, but the level of his technique probably explains why it's been a twelve-year journey to get this far. Give the guy his props for making it, but I don't see him hanging around the division for too long.
The other newcomer is M15 Futenoh, who is fresh out of college as of last year. Futenoh had high expectations coming out of Nichi-dai University, and while he did make it to the Juryo division in two basho after a Makushita tsuke-dashi debut at MS15, he never really had that breakout basho in Juryo. Nevertheless, he's made the steady climb and should be a Makuuchi mainstay. I expect Futenoh to have very good basho and continue his steady climb up the ranks.
Re-entering the division after stints in Juryo are Toyozakura, Wakanoyama, and Kaiho.
My predictions for this basho are:
Jun-yusho: Kaio at 11-4 (do I need to even mention who I think will yusho at 14-1?)
Shukunsho: Dejima 10-5
Kantosho: Kokkai 11-4