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2014 Haru Pre-basho Report

It's ironic as we head into the 2014 version of the Haru basho that we won't have our man on the street in Osaka, Clancy Kelly, around for the festivities, but Sumotalk never has been high on any of our priority lists, and so when life calls, you do as Hakuho says in 100% of his boring interviews and "go with the flow" even if it means going kyujo and possibly intai for good. I'm still holding out hope that Clancy will work ST back into his schedule at some future point, but until then we will soldier on like a car that has just had its tires spiked on the 405 on a sunny afternoon in southern California.

I vividly remember the first time I heard from Clancy back when I used to answer email. It was the 2005 Osaka basho, and he emailed me to agree with some take I had about one of the NHK English announcers, and then he referred to Roho as an ugly sumbitch. His email was only about four sentences long, but I can analyze more than just sumo, and I knew from that first correspondence that I wanted him to contribute for ST. Then, when he sent me a shirtless photo in his next email, I immediately forgot that I was ever a Kane Roberts groupie back in the day and a true friendship was born. Actually, it was more than a friendship as Clancy is like a brother to me, and when I say that, I don't mean that we would play a mean game of chess together at family reunions or throw out a topic like "I wonder where the peanut crop first originated" and then research it diligently on our smart phones. I do mean that we would have cranked the same tunes, played the same pick-up games, hit the same cars with snowballs, got in the same fights, cracked the same farts, told the same jokes, and cruised for the same chicks as I did with my three brothers. Clancy and I certainly don't agree on everything--religion and politics in particular, but we could duke it out intellectually in debates or physically on the tennis court and come away from the ruckus better friends and with even more respect for each other.

I know Clancy has always been a controversial figure on the web site, and many of the readers don't like him or his style, but he made Sumotalk so much better if only for the fact that he made me better. It's one thing when you write for an audience of people who watch an average of 8 hours of television a day, but it's quite another when you start writing to impress a genius. I knew that if I could write reports that made Clancy want to read them then I was writing quality reports, so just knowing that he was part of the audience made me better at what I do. I am going to miss Clancy's contributions to Sumotalk immensely, but I know he's still reading, and so even though I'll have to start doing those dohyo-iri at the shrines without him, his presence will continue to affect Sumotalk for the better as long as I keep the site going. Thanks my man.

Okay, now to take a serious hit in the interesting topic department as we turn our attention to the Haru basho. The two main storylines heading into the basho were Endoh and his (fill in the blank) and Kakuryu's quest for Yokozuna. Then, you had both of these dudes decide to do keiko with each other day after day after day after day, and so the majority of the pre-basho news has focused on these two rikishi and their lopsided keiko sessions. As bored as I was getting with the news, there's still some points to deduct from the keiko results between the two rikishi which turned out to be something like 63-3 in favor Kakuryu over four days with two of those Endoh wins likely gifts from the Kak.

Before we get to those points, let's first pose the question "how does Endoh compare to rikishi like Goeido and Kisenosato?" Let's suppose these three rikishi fought each other 10 times each with each rikishi going all out. What would the head-to-head records be? I would probably favor Endoh over both Goeido and Kisenosato to the tune of 6-4 or 7-3 simply because the latter two have horrible tachi-ai and cannot blow a rikishi off of the starting lines. Endoh's technique and adjustments in the ring are already better than the two veterans, and I think he could exploit both rikishi at the tachi-ai. Even if I'm overhyping Endoh a bit, I don't see either Kisenosato nor Goeido just kicking his ass because they don't have the sumo skills, the speed, or the size to do it (Kisenosato's large...but he takes the least advantage of his weight of any rikishi).

For the sake of argument, let's say all three rikishi are even and would finish their head to head clashes against each other with 5-5 records. What does that say about the legitimate distance between Kakuryu and Kisenosato/Goeido? Or what about the difference between Harumafuji and Kisenosato/Goeido? Then measure the distance between Hakuho and Harumafuji/Kakuryu. If you analyze the rikishi in this manner, you can easily see just how vast the difference is between the three Mongolians and the Japanese rikishi. So knowing that, you see how Kisenosato's dominating Kakuryu 13-3 over their last 16 meetings is a complete farce and even Kakuryu and Goeido splitting their last meetings 4-4 is a joke. Then don't get me started on Harumafuji's 0-5 against Kisenosato the past year.

So, the first point that we learn from the marathon keiko sessions between Kakuryu and Endoh is that there's a helluva lotta yaocho going on just to make things appear competitive. The second thing we learn is that Kakuryu and even Hakuho's focusing so much on Endoh pre-basho is being done because they need to bring Endoh along as quickly as possible. You can't just throw a newbie like Endoh up among the jo'i and expect him to shine (not even Baruto took the jo'i by storm his first few years), but I believe the Mongolians taking Endoh under their wings in the keiko ring is an effort to toughen him up and get him competitive at the top of the banzuke as quickly as possible.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how the three Mongolians choose to approach their bouts against Endoh at the hon-basho. We know from these keiko sessions that all three of them could just kick Endoh's ass if they so choose, so let's see what happens in the bouts. Why this is even a topic has to do with Kakuryu and the way he's gone soft against Goeido and Kisenosato head to head at the hon-basho. If Kakuryu was doing sumo the way he did against Endoh in the keiko-ba, he'd likely be 15-1 against Kisenosato and 8-0 against Goeido in recent head-to-head clashes. It is so easy for a rikishi to go mukiryoku simply by changing his tachi-ai, keeping his hands high, and/or keeping himself wide open. I'm not saying that's going to happen when the Mongolians fight Endoh, but if any of the bouts appear close, you know that the Mongolian is letting up. Two years from now they won't need to, but now? Yes.

That's about everything I gleaned from the pre-basho keiko reports, so let's now focus on the playuhs this basho starting with Endoh. Just after the release of the banzuke, I saw the picture at right with the headline, "Endoh forces the fastest reprint ever! The most spectacular accomplishment since Takahanada!" The magazine in question is simply titled Sumo, and with Endoh on the cover, the magazine sold out so fast it forced the Baseball Magazine company that prints the rag to print more issues, and apparently they haven't seen demand like this since Takahanada. The difference is that Takanohana was making waves in the ring; Endoh is simply being forced down everyone's throats. I mean, Endoh will be the real deal eventually unlike guys like Kisenosato and Goeido, but he's not there yet. Furthermore, I snapped the pic below during the Hatsu basho when they were (coincidentally) pointing out that Endoh was the leading vote-getter in the fan balloting for the rikishi with the most fighting spirit, but the thing about the pic that really stood out to me was the type of female fan going gaga over Endoh.

Big difference from the Takanohana days...trust me, I was there.

As for Endoh's rank this basho, the East M1 slot, there's plenty of politics behind that as well. Endoh is now the highest ranking Maegashira rikishi on the banzuke, and while it's not the sanyaku, you don't want him ranked there until he's ready. There's always much ballyhoo made about a rikishi's sanyaku debut, so you don't want to put Endoh there prematurely only to have him go 5-10 and deflate the balloon. Instead, put him at M1 because it's easy to hype, it guarantees that he will fight as late in the broadcast as possible, and even if he does go 6-9, you don't have to demote him out of the jo'i. It's a brilliant straregy really, and the positive thing about Endoh is...he can handle all the hype.

As for his prospects at the Haru basho, I would be a bit surprised if he manages kachi-koshi although it's not entirely out of the question. Endoh has been prepared this basho in the keiko ring unlike any other rikishi and besides the Mongolian rikishi, who is his toughest competition? Who also has a crushing tachi-ai among the jo'i that's going to give him problems? My prediction is that Endoh pulls off a few upsets but comes up just short with six or seven wins. You never know what's going to happen at the wild and crazy Haru basho, but Endoh already knows that he is the shuyaku (lead role).

Next up, let's discuss Ozeki Kakuryu's prospects for the Yokozuna rank. I give him about a 1% chance, not because he can't do it but because it would look terrible to see Kakuryu gain the Yokozuna rank in his first try while Kisenosato couldn't even come close in two tries over the last year. It's also the same reason why Kakuryu's head to head against Kisenosato is so poor the last little while. There's also no way that Kakuryu can secure the rank without taking the yusho, and he's not going to take the yusho for political reasons. I look for the Kak to have a nonchalant bahso and finish with about 11 wins conveniently having his Yokozuna hopes dashed officially dashed by the Japanese rikishi.

Yokozuna Hakuho has received little run this pre-basho, but I don't see how he doesn't take the cup yet again in Osaka. Kakuryu won't do it for reasons previously explained, and it sounds as if Harumafuji is still dinged up a bit, so I don't see him taking the yusho. Whose left after that? Nobody. Pencil in Hakuho for his career 29th with a 14-1 record.

Headlines have stated that Yokozuna Harumafuji is still hampered by his left ankle that caused him to miss the Hatsu basho, but I'm still trying to figure out how he injured it in the first place. Not having fought for four months and declining to spar with Kakuryu the day after the Ozeki bested him 8-2 at the Tokitsukaze-beya, I'm going to assume that Harumafuji is not 100%, so I give him a 10-5 record in Osaka.

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