2007 Haru Post-basho Report
| Pre-basho Report
The further away we get from senshuraku, the more the disappointment of that day fades, and we're able to focus more subjectively on the Haru basho. My latest blog entry outlines my explanation of what I think happened on day 14 and senshuraku between Asashoryu and Hakuho. I'm not one of these nuts who is always looking for a conspiracy; it's just when I see something that is very out of the ordinary, I will try and piece together what I think happened. My speculation was simply fueled by the following questions that remain un-answered that I had after watching the ending of the spring tournament unfold:
1. How did Hakuho lose on day 14 after gaining the morozashi position from a perfect tachi-ai?
2. Why didn't Asashoryu seem as fired up after his win on day 14 as he normally does after huge wins?
3. Why wasn't Asashoryu completely furious that he was henka'd by Hakuho in the playoff?
4. Why was this playoff bout the first time that Yokozuna Asashoryu has ever been defeated by a tachi-ai henka?
Those sumo purists who refuse to believe that any shenanigans are going on in the sport among the rikishi (not the NSK itself) must answer my four questions above with reasonable responses and then follow up by answering this question:
5. How in the hell did Kaio manage a kachi-koshi after a 4-6 start?
Shukan Gendai actually did have some business bringing up the subject of yaocho in sumo; they just blew it by making the ridiculous claim that Asashoryu needed help winning 80% of his bouts. Using yaocho as an argument to defame Asashoryu's character and belittle his accomplishments was the wrong move, but their assessment that the rikishi are doing it wasn't far off at all.
But enough of the funny bidness. Let's talk about the rikishi performances, which leads us to our yusho rikishi, Ozeki Hakuho. Prior to the Hatsu basho, I talked about these funks that Hakuho gets himself into and how I believed he was emerging from his latest one then. He finished strong at the Hatsu basho, and then after his usual hiccup against Kisenosato on day one here in Haru, the Ozeki was solid the rest of the way. You look at the winning techniques of his bouts, and all but two were oshi-dashi, yori-kiri, and throws, and even the two pull down wins against Kotoshogiku and Chiyotaikai were set up by good, offensive sumo. Early on, you had the loss on day one and then that very close call against Miyabiyama on day 3, so it didn't seem as if Hakuho was completely back, but he just got better and better as the basho progressed despite the increase in difficulty of his competition. Hakuho's 2007 sumo is different from what we saw last year in that he now implements a bit of a tsuppari attack. It's definitely not overwhelming, but the Ozeki's lower body is always so solid that he has learned to use those tsuppari brilliantly to frustrate his opponents until he can get in on the inside. Hakuho's tachi-ai this basho was nails as he led with the right shoulder, and I loved how he still went for the early belt grip, but as that swipe for the belt often fails these days, he now has that bothersome tsuppari attack as plan B.
I was particularly impressed by how Hakuho quieted the pretenders this basho. Tochiazuma, the sole leader the first seven days, was dominated by Hakuho on day 9. Kotomitsuki, who had his best basho in years and was still among the leaders on day 12, was dismissed with no argument whatsoever. On day 14, I'm of the opinion that Hakuho could have dominated Asashoryu had he wanted to, and then with the pressure as high as ever on senshuraku, he toyed with Ozeki Kotooshu to force that awful playoff bout. I stated in January that Hakuho would fully recover from his broken toe and take the yusho in May or July. Looks like I underestimated him by one basho. We have also learned now that Hakuho is married and that the happy couple is expecting their first child in May. I think that only grounds this youngster further forcing him to focus only on the family life and his sumo. Let's suppose that Asashoryu won his first two bouts this basho and entered day 14 with a 13-0 record. Hakuho was still just one loss behind and had control of his own destiny. He provided the needed drama down the stretch despite anything that Asashoryu did, and that's all you can ask of an Ozeki. I felt the best rikishi won the yusho this basho, and hopefully we can get straight up chest to chest bouts between the two Khan from here on out because the electricity in the Osaka arena was electric on senshuraku until the successive henka.
Let's move back up the ranks and talk about thee man...still...Yokozuna Asashoryu. Asashoryu was obviously flustered early on this tournament and it ended up costing him the yusho. You look at Asashoryu's winning techniques, and he used an astonishing 12 different kimarite in his 13 wins. Normally, you would use that number to point out the Yokozuna's brilliance, but he did not have his usual well-grounded basho. Too many of those kimari-te were the result of erratic sumo. He survived against upstart Toyonoshima; he came as close as ever to losing to Kotomitsuki; suppose the Asashoryu - Hakuho matchup was legitimate (I'm not 100% convinced that it was fake by the way), and he lucked out in that one; and then need I say more against Chiyotaikai? What, Asashoryu wasn't convinced that he could beat Chiyotaikai in the end to set up the playoff? On one hand I would say "are you kidding me?" but on the other hand, he obviously wasn't fully confident. Hell, I've come this far, and I still haven't even talked about his losses. He succumbed to the pressure on day 1 against Tokitenku and then flat out got his ass kicked on day 2 by Miyabiyama. The Yokozuna had as bad a basho as we've seen since Aki 2004, and before you say "well, he still finished 13-2", let me remind you how bad the competition sucked around him...and, as we frequently say on Sumotalk...that senshuraku win didn't count. A tachi-ai henka against Chiyotaikai? The Yokozuna was obviously rattled by the Shukan Gendai allegations. For whatever reason, his confidence was shaken this basho. Does he recover? Well, he has to recover because there's still just one legitimate contender close to him on the banzuke. The "other" Ozeki are a mess, Kotomitsuki is hit and miss, that West Sekiwake slot has been used lately more than Pamela Anderson, and we've got a nice revolving door policy in place in the Komusubi and upper Maegashira ranks. The Yokozuna is still the man, but I sense that Asashoryu's heretofore invincibility is starting to crack. I won't be surprised if by the end of this year, Hakuho takes over the East Yokozuna slot.
Sliding back down to the Ozeki, we can't clear the three Japanese dudes out soon enough, and Kotooshu is on thin ice as well. A combined 31-29 record? That is a crying shame. You had one Sekiwake kachi-koshi with 10 wins; one Komusubi kachi-koshi with 8 wins; and only one Maegashira rikishi in the top four ranks kachi-koshi with 8 wins. And yet, the Ozeki look that pathetic? I don't think I need to say anymore.
Perhaps even the sumo gods have had enough. Chiyotaikai was primed to set a new record this basho of most tournaments ranked at Ozeki. He entered the basho at 49, just one behind the record-holder Takanohana I. A kachi-koshi would have guaranteed him at least two more basho at the rank and the new record, but the Ozeki couldn't scrape out more than seven wins. Oh cruel fate! I don't have anything against Chiyotaikai, and I could care less about that record...I just want to see some Ozeki in the sport right now that challenge the Yokozuna. I won't shed any tears if he doesn't get it. Problem is, though, Chiyotaikai didn't look bad this basho; he was his usual self. Only managing seven wins while so many in the jo'i were down this basho speaks volumes. Three push-out wins early on; three pull down wins after that; and a default win over Tochiazuma. I don't recall a single wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am win from this Ozeki, which spells trouble come May. Still, as much as I'd like to see some of these guys get demoted, Chiyotaikai can pull with the best of 'em, so he should be able to scrape out eight wins in May, but it's going to be Lindsay Lohan ugly.
I'm sorry, but Ozeki Kotooshu is a friggin mess right now. And you can't say that nobody saw this coming. I specifically remember taking a LOT of crap from people in Aki and Kyushu 2005 during this guy's Ozeki run. You remember the words I used to describe his sumo...girly...cowardly...Takanonami-esque. But hey, was I really wrong then? Has the Bulgarian done anything at all from the Ozeki rank? Chiyotaikai, Kaio, and Tochiazuma have their excuses; they're old and battle-worn guys. Kotooshu has no excuse. A tachi-ai henka of Takekaze? A loss to Kyokutenho (and no I don't care if Tenho stepped out before Kotooshu's butt hit the dirt)? I loved Clancy's senshuraku comment on how Kotonowaka (current Sadogatake-oyakata) hasn't done squat for his pupil. I couldn't agree more. If you ever talked shop with a Japanese person about sumo back in the day, and you brought up Kotonowaka, the reaction was always sort of a disgusting sigh where the person would say, "what a waste of a perfect sumo body" or "he has no drive". Sound pretty familiar with his current prodigy? Kotooshu did clean up on the geezer Ozeki; I'll give him credit there, but other than that, you'd have to say his biggest win was again Ama. The problem with Kotooshu is between the ears. His lack of confidence is leading to mediocre tachi-ai that the other rikishi are learning to exploit. Kotooshu simply needs someone to ride his ass, so I suggest Kotonowaka pull out the bamboo sword and start whacking or nothing's gonna change. Homasho's figured Kotooshu out; Tochiohzan is a similar rikishi who will exploit the Bulgarian; Baruto will be back one day. Dude, they're comin' for ya so man up.
Ozeki Kaio is in the same boat as Chiyotaikai minus the potential record. We all know now that Kaio wants to extend his career until Haru 2008, which would put his professional career at exactly 20 years. I admire the desire there, but I just hate seeing this guy get beat up, and I hate seeing the other rikishi feel sorry for him and let up sometimes in their bouts out of respect. You can't tell me that that is not happening. And I was extremely encouraged for Kaio coming into the basho based on his visiting the Sadogatake-beya every day for practice, a sign that his lower back was feeling just fine. And the back was feeling fine; this steam engine just has too many miles on it now to compete at this level.
Ozeki Tochiazuma stated prior to the basho, "If I start out 1-4, I will consider retirement." I'm hoping that for the Natsu basho he chops off the first half of that statement altogether. The dude needs to go. Alright...I'll concede the point that he had headaches early on...that he is suffering from high blood pressure...and that he even suffered a very minor stroke some time in the past. But are you trying to tell me that none of this affected him until he got his eight wins? He's fine to compete until he picks up eight wins, but somehow mysteriously after that, it all comes to a head and he must withdraw? What a joke. But hey, the Sumo Association is the one that has to wire salary into the Ozeki's account each month, so what do I care? As for Tochiazuma's sumo this basho, it was actually quite good early on. The Ozeki was effective in taking away his opponent's momentum from the tachi-ai, and he used his bread and butter slight-charge-to-the-left/otsuke combination to perfection. I still can't get over his pre-basho deceit tactics, though, about how he was on his last leg and was considering retirement. Yeah, right, and Martin's first language isn't English. Tochiazumartin's tactic of winning eight bouts every two basho is growing tiresome to me, and I'd just rather see him assume the title of oyakata rather than continue to water down the Ozeki ranks and the quality of sumo.
Well, well, well, Sekiwake Kotomitsuki picked a double-digit performance for the first time since gay actually meant happy, fruit was the stuff you ate, and dike was that massive thing that held back water. As part of Shukan Gendai's story, they alleged that Kotomitsuki and Miyabiyama had amassed these huge gambling debts so they gladly accepted money from the Yokozuna in exchange for thrown bouts to help pay off their debts. I know for a fact that Miyabiyama is a gamblin' man, and I'm sure Kotomitsuki enjoys the action as well, so I have to wonder if that revelation didn't inspire Hit and Mitsuki to clean up his act a bit. You may have noticed in my pre-basho report that I skipped over the Sekiwake altogether. What was the point of predicting another 8-7 performance? Unlike 4/5 of the Ozeki, Kotomitsuki did take advantage of the generally weak performances by members of the jo'i. The problem was though he lost all of those critical matches that kept bumping him a notch down on the leaderboard. Ama on day 9 for a share of the lead? Poof. Asashoryu on day 10 to eliminate the Yokozuna altogether? Nada. Hakuho on day 12? Greased. Mitsuki did take advantage of a star-struck Tochiohzan on day 14 and slumping Kisenosato on senshuraku to reach double-digits, but there were no rock-star wins among the ten whatsoever.
What was that Kotoshogiku? I predicted a fall from grace for the Geeku prior to the Hatsu basho. When that didn't happen in the least, I thought the kid is finally over it. Apparently not. And don't let that 6-0 finish over entirely make-koshi rikishi fool you. Here's a question or two Sumo Association: why would you pair Kotoshogiku against M7 Dejima (7-8) instead of M7 Tamanoshima (10-5)? Why give him M5 Tamakasuga (4-11) instead of M5 Homasho (11-4)? I see...cushion his fall a bit. Well, it didn't work. Kotoshogiku got his ass kicked in Osaka through and through. He had a token win over Kaio on day 4, and then other than that he couldn't beat another kachi-koshi rikishi nor anyone ranked higher than M2. The Geeku had no drive whatsoever this basho. It's hard to really analyze his sumo because he was always back pedaling after a meek tachi-ai. There's a pattern here developing of three or four solid basho followed by one horrible basho. I'm as excited as anyone to see what the Geeku's done this last year, but hopefully they don't reward this basho by only demoting him to Komusubi for May.
Our Komusubi had extremely quiet basho, but when a Yokozuna loses two in a row to kick things off, the entire focus shifts to his recovery and the rikishi in the lead. The highlight for Ama had to have come on day one when he crushed Ozeki Chiyotaikai back and out in two seconds flat. Combine that with his great win over Kotomitsuki and his cleaning up on the majority of rikishi ranked below him, and you have a solid kachi-koshi, not to mention a promotion to the vacant Sekiwake slot for May. Tokitenku had a solid basho himself, but unlike Ama, he was unable to take care of business against the Maegashira rikishi (he went 3-3) and it cost him a kachi-koshi and probable Shukunsho. That win over Asashoryu was largely a fluke, so you'd have to say his biggest win was against Kotooshu. Tokitenku is built too solidly to stay down forever. If we have one mainstay in the Sekiwake ranks emerge by the end of this year, my money is on Tokitenku.
Dropping down to the Maegashira ranks, M1 Kisenosato apparently ate from the same trough as Kotoshogiku this basho because the Kid could get nothing going. His big win of course came on day 1 against Hakuho, but even then it wasn't impressive at all as he back-pedaled and pulled his opponent down with him. Kisenosato has got to rededicate himself while he's still young. Losing to Kotoshogiku (this basho) and the four slothful Ozeki was a tragedy. He should be smoking at least half of those guys like weed at a Grateful Dead show.
Counterpart Toyonoshima was one of the few bright spots of the basho. His day 1 win over Kotooshu was probably my favorite bout of the tournament because it gave the M1 the confidence that he could compete at this level, especially after his disappointing pre-basho keiko sessions. Toyonoshima was simply fantastic scoring huge wins over two Ozeki and a resurgent Kokkai, and could anyone have rooted against him heading into senshuraku facing Roho with both rikishi standing at 7-7? I can't say enough about his performance, and he better be sitting in the sanyaku come May...none of this lateral promotion crap.
I guess we needed a few rikishi to pad the records of the sanyaku. Allow me to introduce the M2's, Kyokutenho and Asasekiryu.
After a terrible start on day 1, M3 Miyabiyama was ready to roll this basho, and he proved as much by smashing Asashoryu on day 2. He held his own against eventual yusho winner Hakuho on day 3 despite the loss, and you knew Tochiazuma was going to evade him on day 5. Other than that, Miyabiyama should have rolled in Haru if it weren't for that hammy injury. I expect him to come out blazing in May, especially when you consider his rank. Kasugao's 5-10 record was par for the course despite the charity towards the end of the basho he received from the scheduling committee in getting Kasuganishiki and Ushiomaru. Kasugao has the body and the strength to fight at this level, but he doesn't have that knack to compete with the best.
M4 Futenoh was a disgrace finishing just 3-12, but I really enjoyed counterpart Takekaze's run. A lot of guys when they get this high up just quit, Hakurozan being a prime example. And I thought Takekaze had every reason to just give up coming in as well, but he damn near pulled off a kachi-koshi. He really earned my respect and proved just how far a rikishi can go when he gives it his all.
M5 Homasho's 11-4 performance had to have had most sumo fans feeling downright gay this entire basho, and as I mentioned earlier in my basho comments, the dude actually lost to Tamakasuga on day 1. Without that fluke, he's 12-3 again with wins over the likes of Kisenosato, Kokkai, Kotooshu, Kotomitsuki, and both Komusubi. When Homasho first entered the division, I admit that I thought he was too soft for Makuuchi. But he's slowly changing his style from a finesse rikishi who would fight passively until he saw an opening, to a quick and powerful rikishi who can now take command at the tachi-ai. Couple that with the complete respect he shows everyone atop the dohyo, and this kids is the complete package. He should move into one of the vacant sanyaku slots for May, and with his attitude and experience having already fought and beaten Ozeki and sanyaku rikishi, he should fit right in. Can't say enough about Homasho these days.
M6 Takamisakari failed to get over the kachi-koshi hump yet again after a nice 4-2 start. The problem of course is he gets paired with better rikishi the more wins hi accrues, and there's probably some mental issues there as well...although you'd never think of that just looking at the guy. Counterpart Kakizoe spared himself a whippin' at the hands of his broa..er..uh..bride by managing a nice kachi-koshi. Kakizoe has all but disappeared from the spotlight these days, but with the number of solid rikishi in the mid-Maegashira ranks, his was a fine accomplishment.
M7 Kokkai and counterpart Roho were perfect case studies this basho in how important drive and initiative is in sumo. Roho is the better, more polished rikishi by far, but Kokkai far outclassed his fellow Eastern European by taking it to his opponents from the tachi-ai day in and day out. Of Kokkai's five losses, the only guy that didn't have double digit wins was Toyonoshima, but Toyo's 8-7 from M1 can easily be prorated to double digits from the mid-Maegashira. Kokkai's overall technique is not good, but he plays to his strengths (his massive size and wingspan) as well as anyone, and shows up to fight every day. Kokkai can usually expect to lose to the technically sounder rikishi, but at least he dies trying. This drive is what also makes him so successful against the struggling Ozeki. Roho completely contrasts Kokkai. We know what Roho can do, and we've seen him be successful high in the ranks, but the Russian just hasn't shown any drive the last three basho. 7-8 from M7? That's a shame. Roho has great size and strength, and his technique isn't half bad. The problem is he just didn't give a damn this basho. His sumo was so passive as if he thought he could just show up and win. Problem is this attitude translated into a body that was always too upright leaving him exposed. Probably the signature bout describing Roho's sumo this basho was his loss to Takamisakari. He had the cop by the short hairs from the initial charge, but he failed to just hunker down and beat his opponent eventually letting Sakari hang around long enough to turn the tables. It's a waste that a Sekiwake-caliber rikishi is floundering down this low in the ranks due to a lack of effort, but that's Otake-oyakata's problem, not mine.
I guess a 10-5 performance by Tamanoshima from the mid-Maegashira is newsworthy again. Normally, I'd say show me the money higher up the banzuke, but I think Tamanoshima's body has been beaten down too much for him to really threaten the sanyaku again. Good performance for the veteran at M8.
M9 Aminishiki isn't ready to fade into the Juryo ranks just yet. It looks as if his knees are still bothering him, but other than a couple of henka per basho, he's holding is own beating quality opponents like Roho and Tamanoshima. Good showing for the lad at 9-6.
Dropping down to M11, Iwakiyama is now on the brink of possible retirement. A 5-10 record from this neighborhood just doesn't contain any positives. Iwakiyama simply can't move anymore. Call it what you will...too old...too fat...whatever the combination, it ain't good. The problem is, I don't think he can survive in the Juryo ranks either. The younger kids down there will just run circles around him. It looks as if he'll have one more go-around from the bottom rung of Makuuchi, but like a dude using a combover to cover his baldness, it doesn't look good.
Counterpart Kakuryu had a decent basho in my opinion checking in at 9-6. The evasive sumo that Martin obsesses over doesn't bother me this low in the ranks. Still, you look at Kakuryu's losses (Tamanoshima, Tochiohzan, Wakanosato, Kokkai) and you can readily see that he has a tough time beating anyone with real game. Reminds me a lot of Asasekiryu when Sexy first entered the division.
M13 Hakurozan finally signed his ticket to Juryo finishing just 5-10. Geez, can you tell by the way he's so passive and stands around that his older brother is Roho? I hope the Brothers Ro are saving their yen because this kind of sumo isn't going to keep them around much longer. It's as if somebody fused Hakurozan's knee joints so he can't bend them anymore. Hakurozan needs to rethink his center of gravity or he's no longer getting paid by the end of the year.
Which brings us to M14 Tochiohzan, our lone Makuuchi rikishi who had a sensational basho. The most impressive aspect of his basho to me was his straightforward attack that resulted in 10 forward-moving wins, most of which were obtained in mere seconds. To emphasize just how powerful and quick this kid is, he had three pushing/shoving wins, but none were of the simple oshi-dashi variety. Rather he crushed the likes of Tamanoshima and Homasho with oshi-taoshi and tsuki-taoshi wins respectively. Tochiohzan's name was also the last one to drop from the leaderboard leaving just Hakuho and Asashoryu in the end. Understandably, Tochiohzan's nerves caught up to him on day 13 and 14 when he looked completely lost against Roho and Kotomitsuki, but the message has been sent that this could be the key piece to team Japan regaining some respect in their own sport. The biggest compliment I can pay to Tochiohzan is that I don't see any weakness in his sumo. None. A 20 year-old kid is going to get nervous in his first basho when the press begins to hound him and ask him about his yusho chances, but a little experience near the top will cure him of that. You can't help but get excited with the likes of Tochiohzan and Homasho new on the scene. Now, if Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku can get their arses in gear.
Finally, veteran Wakanosato had a solid basho from the M16 rank marking a successful comeback into the division. The most encouraging aspect of his basho was that his four losses were all to kachi-koshi rikishi who had good basho themselves. If Takekaze, Kasugao, and Asasekiryu can make it up near the M2-M2 range, there's no reason why Wakanosato can't get back there. Having him among the jo'i would make the sport that much better.
For the first time in years, we actually see a wild and crazy Haru basho, but the basho was exciting for largely for the wrong reasons. A two-bout losing streak to start the bash for the Yokozuna shouldn't be what gives everyone a chance in the tournament; rather, we need more rikishi to step up and challenge the Yokozuna in week 2. Hakuho is already there and will be trading equal blows with the Yokozuna in the short term, but the two tachi-ai henka to end the basho from these guys was a complete travesty. The key to reviving interest in the sport is the following five rikishi: Kotooshu, Kotoshogiku, Kisenosato, Homasho, and Tochiohzan. We need them to rise up and challenge the two Khan basho in and basho out. Enjoy the month off, and see you all at the end of April.
2007 Haru Pre-basho Report
For the past two years, the Haru basho has been the best tournament of the year in my opinion, so let's hope the trend continues in 2007. Asashoryu comes in riding a four-tourney yusho streak, and the lame attempt in between basho by the Shukan Gendai tabloid to discredit his legitimacy has only inspired the Yokozuna to be in top form when the basho starts. And while I expect a nearly flawless performance from Asashoryu, I've been extremely encouraged by a few of the Ozeki prior to the basho. Couple that with the big shake up in the sanyaku and upper Maegashira ranks, and I think we're in for a solid basho with an outstanding cast in the top 16 ranks who are for the most part hungry enough to prove themselves.
As always, let's start with the Yokozuna who is really up against it this basho, right Shukan Gendai? Now that Asashoryu has been exposed as a fraud, we're finally going to see his true colors, right naysayers? Well, actually, yes, we will see the true Asashoryu in Osaka, and to no one's surprise it's going to be the same Yokozuna we've seen the last four years, only this time around he has something new to inspire him. As I mentioned in my blog, if things were really going to be different this basho due to a tabloid's exposť, we would have seen a different pre-basho routine from Asashoryu, but it's been business as usual: show up late, take every other day off, skip keiko to visit a pachinko parlor stocked with fresh bunny girls, and rough up a new sanyaku rikishi that he respects (notice how I said "respects", Roho). If there has been any difference, it's been that the Yokozuna has been more intense and fired up, but he promised as much after the first Shukan Gendai article. If something does cause Asashoryu to slip up this basho, I think it will be that he's too deadset on proving everyone wrong, and he lets his emotions get the best of him. You know how he sometimes gets in those brawls with rikishi who give him a hari-te at the tachi-ai? The Yokozuna loses his cool and the bout turns to a virtual fist-fight from there. That may happen once or twice this basho, but the Yokozuna usually wins those bouts anyway. Course, Toyonoshima is lurking in the M1 slot. Good thing that Takekaze isn't ranked a bit higher and that Hokutoriki is in Juryo or Asashoryu would really be in trouble.
As if the Shukan Gendai allegations weren't inspiration enough, Asashoryu's also on the heels of Takanohana. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the number of yusho separating Asashoryu and Takanohana now equals the total number of rikishi left in the Takanohana-beya. It's called recruiting my man. Way to take a once dominant Futagoyama-beya and turn it into a floundering stable on par with the Chiganoura and Tagonoura stables. Asashoryu can catch Takanohana in May if he wins the next two tournaments, so not only will he be tied for number four all time, but he'll also be at six consecutive yusho, close enough to start thinking about breaking his own 7-basho yusho streak. Simply put, there was plenty of inspiration around before the alleged yaocho articles came along. I see Asashoryu doing no worse than 14-1 this basho. I think a combination of the chance he'll lose his cool once or twice, the return of Hakuho, and the sky-high confidence of Kotooshu will likely saddle him with one loss, but the same story applies this basho as it has for the last five. If Asashoryu doesn't win in Osaka, who will?
Checking in at number two is Ozeki Chiyotaikai, a rikishi guaranteed not to win the yusho, but I'm encouraged that the Ozeki was proactive enough to make a couple of de-geiko visits to the Sadogatake-beya where you've got one Ozeki and two Sekiwake. I don't think I read a single keiko report from the Sadogatake-beya where Kaio wasn't there either, and we know Asashoryu visited twice. You couldn't ask for better rikishi to practice with, so I expect Chiyotaikai to have a good basho by his standards, which means 9-10 wins. As a side note, if Chiyotaikai can manage just 8 wins in Osaka, he'll be guaranteed the Ozeki rank for two more basho. He's at 49 basho now ranked as an Ozeki, so two more would put him one past the all time leader, the late Takanohana, who spent 50 basho at the rank.
As long as we've mentioned Kaio, the same applies to him as to Chiyotaikai. He's been practicing with nearly the best the sport has to offer day in and day out. I guess we learn two things from that. First, the Ozeki's lower back is probably in as good as shape as it's been in over a year. And second, like Chiyotaikai he's going to be well-prepared for the tournament. If anyone makes a surprise run in Osaka, it will be Kaio. I look for him to dominate those rikishi ranked Komusubi and below and pull off at least nine wins. Let's say 10-5.
The two Ozeki I have high expectations for this basho are Hakuho and Kotooshu. Finally, I think we're going to have a presence from these two that you would normally expect from an Ozeki basho in and basho out. All reports from the Hakuho camp have him practicing well and moving well. I think he's finally recovered from that broken toe, so the only thing hampering him now will be ring rust. If he can bust out to an 8-0 start, I'll make him the favorite to yusho over Asashoryu. Prior to the basho, both Asashoryu and Hakuho visited the Dewanoumi-beya for some de-geiko. The Yokozuna, however, avoided Hakuho. It was an interesting move, and I think the reason is that Asashoryu senses that Hakuho is back, so why give him any practice with the best, especially when Asashoryu has a lot to prove this basho to the easily deceived. A bad day at the office in September and a fluke toe injury has taken Hakuho off of the radar for a season, but don't forget how dominating he was this time last year. 12 wins.
The best news I've read regarding any of the rikishi this basho has come from Kotooshu. The dude seems confident, and why shouldn't he? He's had multiple Ozeki and the Yokozuna visit his stable for practice, and he held his own. Remember last September when Baruto, Kokkai, and Roho went into the Soken General keiko session and just cleaned house? Baruto's basho was cut short by injury, but Kokkai ended up at 8-7 from the Komusubi rank and Roho went 10-5 from the M1 rank. That success stemmed from the Eastern Europeans' thinking that they were on a roll heading into the basho. Kotooshu is in the same boat now, especially after that four-bout win streak over Asashoryu during a recent keiko session. Sure, it was in the practice ring and Asashoryu did say he had some numbness in his neck (wink, wink), but regardless, if Kotooshu's thinks he's back to top form, don't tell him otherwise. Sumo is such a mental game for these guys, so couple Kotooshu's size and ability with a little confidence, and he can soar. I expect 12 wins from the Bulgarian and a decent yusho race among Kotooshu, Hakuho, and Asashoryu.
Rounding out the Ozeki, I read one keiko report touching on Tochiazuma two weeks ago that had the Ozeki practicing with non-sekitori rikishi in his stable. Coming off of knee surgery in December, I doubt the Ozeki has fully recovered, which means his back will really be up against the wall in Osaka, but no one can dig down like this Ozeki and pull out wins when demotion is on the line. I see Tochiazuma winning those magical eight, but I don't see how he plays a factor in Osaka.
Expect the two Sekiwake to keep their current places on the banzuke. With the Sadogatake-beya being the focal point of the high-profile keiko sessions this basho, it doesn't matter how bad some of Kotoshogiku's results were. He's as primed for this basho as anyone due to the competition he's faced on a daily basis. He's going to get into the basho, and anyone ranked lower than him will seem like Juryo rikishi after what's he's been through. That keiko session where Asashoryu singled him out and roughed him up is nothing but a positive. Having attended the same high school, Kotoshogiku knows that Asashoryu really likes and respects him. Call it tough love. You ever wonder why Asashoryu will single out a Kotoshogiku or a Kisenosato upon promotion to the sanyaku, but he never bothered with Kokkai or Roho? Why waste his time? The competition for the Geeku won't change a bit this basho compared to the last few, so that's a plus. I don't think he'll experience any nerves ranked this high because he's used to being in the company of great rikishi starting with the dudes in his stable. There's another plus. I just don't see any downside to Kotoshogiku going into this basho. These brutal keiko session have only toughened him up. I say 9-10 wins and the East Sekiwake slot for May.
Dropping down to the Komusubi ranks, Ama has a great shot at kachi-koshi, simply because he can out-quick the older rikishi ranked above him, and he's got the technique to best the rikishi below him. He's been ranked in the sanyaku before, so the spotlight is completely off of him. I see Ama notching 7-8 wins. Counterpart Tokitenku should cause problems from this rank as well just because of his size and technique that seems to get better each basho. I don't see him scoring a kachi-koshi because of the brutal first week schedule, but he's going to be a pain in the ass for the Ozeki. 6 wins.
Kisenosato heads the Maegashira ranks, and as much I want to see him make a comeback to the sanyaku ranks, I think he's going to struggle again this basho. He hasn't had great keiko sessions, and reports have him being bothered by a cold. Furthermore, you just look at the banzuke around him, and you find nothing but tough rikishi. For the last several basho, the Kid has gone into senshuraku 7-7, and that's after making a comeback just to get his record to .500. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm going to say another disappointing seven-win outing.
Counterpart Toyonoshima has received a great deal of ink prior to the basho after his impressive 12-3 outing to kick off the year, but as bad as some of the keiko reports have been for Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato, they've been worse for Toyonoshima. I think the dude's in over his head here...at least for the time being. I actually think Toyonoshima has the ability to reach Komusubi one day, but he's going to get slaughtered up this high on the banzuke this basho. Four wins.
Kyokutenho checks in at M2, and as much as I'd love to see him give a damn, he has no reason to. 5 wins. Counterpart Asasekiryu posted a 10-5 record the last time he was ranked at M2. At Komusubi the next basho, he suffered an injury on day two after upsetting Hakuho on day 1. That injury sent Seki into a tailspin down the banzuke, but he should be completely healthy this time around. I think if we have a surprise from the upper Maegashira, it comes from AsaSexy. I'll give him 8 wins.
Talk about a beast in the M3 ranks in Miyabiyama. Question is, are we going to see some desire from this former Ozeki? I really think the mental pressure of that Ozeki run for most of 2006 finally took it's toll on the Sheriff. Has he recovered? Who knows, but I still think there's plenty left in Miyabiyama's tank. We'll find out three days in what kind of basho Miyabiyama will have. If he resorts early to his confident tsuppari attack from the tachi-ai, he'll win 11. If not, he'll coast his way to 9. Counterpart Kasugao is compelling in this rank. If the Korean can get an uwate, he can beat anybody this high up the ranks. The problem is he has one of the worst tachi-ai in the game and can rarely set the good yotsu position up against the quality rikishi. I say the speed of the rikishi this high up overwhelm him to the tune of 5 wins.
I like what I've read regarding M4 Futenoh's pre-basho keiko. His position on the ranks is normally in sanyaku striking distance, but with Asasekiryu at M2, Futenoh will get Asashoryu, and he's also guaranteed the three Sadogatake rikishi. At his prime, this dude could manage 9 wins from this position, but I only see him stumbling to seven in Osaka. Lucky Takekaze checks in at number 17 on the ranks. If he was one notch higher, he'd go 2-13, but from here, he's good for four wins! Like Futenoh, Takekaze will get all three Sadogatake rikishi. Couple that with the quality rikishi surrounding him and he's doomed.
I love Homasho in the M5 slot. Like Ama, I've generally underrated Homasho in the top division so far, but his unorthodox style is proving tough to deal with, even if he needs a little more beef on his bones. I see Homasho blue-collaring his way to a kachi-koshi and hopefully more. Counterpart Tamakasuga is way too high in the ranks. I hate to say it, but he's gonna hand out a lot of freebies to his opponents. His tsuppari attack and grit low in the division are enough to survive, but he's going to get eaten alive at M5. 3 or 4 wins?
M6 Takamisakari will be sporting a nice gut for the Haru basho. I think that hampers is sumo. He always loses the tachi-ai, and I don't see how the extra weight helps him with his counter sumo because he has always relied on those gangly limbs of his to survive. I think the Cop only musters 5 wins. M7 is an interesting rank with two former Komusubi in Kokkai and Roho. These two Eastern Europeans should clean up at this rank. I expect double-digit wins from both.
M8 also sports two solid if not aging rikishi in Dejima and Tamanoshima. The M7 and M8 ranks alone will keep the mid-Maegashira bouts interesting. As good as these guys have been up higher in the ranks, I'm glad they're down here. Let's let Kisenosato, Kotoshogiku, Ama, and Tokitenku provide the youthful spark. No way any of those four will give up.
M9 Aminishiki should easily skate to a kachi-koshi from this rank if he's healthy. His experience and technique is good enough to burn all the rikishi ranked below him. And speaking of the rikishi below him, the pickings are slimmer than Ms. Michael Jackson's nose. And am I reading those news reports correctly that there are actually Japanese people paying 400,000 yen to attend a party with the chick? And I thought Britney Spears was certifiable. I guess attacking a car with an umbrella while wearing exercise clothes purloined from the Salvation Army isn't so bad after all. It's all good Brit...you're still my vote for mom of the year.
If we must dig deeper, I think we'd all like to see M12 Yoshikaze have a good basho. Looking at his surrounding cast, I think he'll kachi-koshi. M13 Baruto made the correct decision to withdraw. I think he could have actually eked out 8 wins from here, but it would have taken the kind of sumo made famous by his counterpart, Hakurozan. The yusho money from the Juryo division in May will more than make up for Baruto's cut in pay the next coupla months. Course, the biggest downside is he won't be able to make that trip to Hawaii in June unless the Association makes a big exception. They should.
Which brings us to our Makuuchi rookie, M14 Tochiohzan. This kid is the real deal. Anyone who is in the top ten in terms of fastest rise to Makuuchi is already Ozeki material. Tochiohzan's strengths are his youth (he turned 20 today), his speed, and his ability to fight at the belt or shove his opponents. Japan's future in this sport lies in Kisenosato, Kotoshogiku, and Tochiohzan. Take it to the bank. 9-10 wins.
And finally, we see Wakanosato back in the division at M16. Don't expect a 12-win performance. I think this former Ozeki and perennial Sekiwake has lost a step not to mention the mental toll of having been replaced as the cornerstone rikishi of the stable. I think Wakanosato can flirt with 10 wins, but I'd be surprised to ever see him in the sanyaku again.
The first two days' worth of pairings have been released, so game on. My expectations are high this time around; here are my predictions:
Yusho: Asashoryu (14-1...Hakuho and Kotooshu finish 12-3)