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Roundtable Part II

In part I of my roundtable, I talked strictly about the changing of the guard in the Yokozuna ranks and what it will mean to the sport.  In part II, I will discuss the rikishi's performances by rank.  Take away the retiring Yokozuna story and the newly promoted Yokozuna story, and this basho was rather weak.


As for the Yokozuna, Takanohana gave us one eventful ride this basho even though it did result in his retirement.  There were the two close calls the first two days, his withdrawal from the tournament on day 3, his subsequent re-entry to the tournament two days later, and his eventual retirement.  I hated to see Takanohana go out that way because even though he did have 4 wins in eight days, none of those wins were even a shade of his brilliant past.  Yokozuna Musashimaru was a no-show after having his left wrist operated on in November.  Rumor has it that he's out again for March.  Let's hope not because I'd love to see he and Asashoryu duke it out on senshuraku.


Besides Asashoryu's performance, a big thumbs down to the Ozeki rank.  Musoyama managed to scrape a kachi-koshi together, but only eight wins with 2 Yokozuna and 3 Ozeki sitting out?  I'll credit that to his bum shoulder which he dislocated in Kyushu, but when are we going to see the dominant Musoyama we've seen sporadically in the past?  This guy can take a basho over when he's on; unfortunately, that only happens once every two years or so.


Tochiazuma was just horrible going 0-6 before withdrawing.  He's already withdrawn from the Haru basho in March, so he's really going to have his work cut out for him in May if he wants to stay at Ozeki.  Personally, I think we need to purge the Ozeki ranks of a few rikishi.  How many of the current Ozeki could qualify now for the rank if they were seeking promotion?  Kaio and Chiyotaikai maybe.  Remember, it's an unwritten standard, but a rikishi must win 33 bouts over three consecutive basho to be promoted to Ozeki.  I'd really love to see the Ozeki fight like Ozeki this year.


The two Sekiwake, Takanowaka and Kotomitsuki, both turned in decent 9-6 records; however, that wipes their slates clean as far as any Ozeki hopes.  How about their bout on senshuraku?  Kotomitsuki just leveled Takanowaka with a right hand to the jaw and an equally mean head butt to boot.  I can't wait for round two in March.  Neither of these two rikishi is impressing me right now.


Komusubi Wakanosato redeemed himself with an outstanding 11-4 record.  I was disappointed by his bout with Dejima on senshuraku, but all in all, he performed well.  He'll jump back up to Sekiwake for March and continue his role as the Barometer.  Wakanosato is the best sanyaku rikishi right now and the brightest hope for the next Ozeki.  Fellow Komusubi Takanonami stunk it up.  Shame on him for going 7-8 with so many of the top rikishi out.  Does this guy even care?  For several basho, he was fighting as his old Ozeki self stiring talk that he may be the first rikishi in 25 years to be re-promoted to the rank.  His make-koshi will drop him from the sanyaku with a deserved pay cut.  Maybe I'm just bitter because he cost me big time in the fantasy sumo tournament.


The star of the upper-Maegashira ranks was Dejima going 11-4.  That record looks outstanding, but his three losses on days 12, 13, and 14 derailed his shot at the yusho and the shukunsho prize.  Dejima is a former Ozeki and a Makuuchi champion, and he looked as much for the first 11 days; however, he looked pathetic in his three consecutive losses late in the basho.  One reader, Andy K., pointed out that Dejima looked like a bull charging a matador in some of his losses.  It seemed his opponents would back Dejima up and step aside at the edge of the ring letting him fly out on his own.  One bad habit I see in Dejima is he commits himself too early on his final push of his opponent out of the ring.  It seems as if he makes a desperate dive at the edge of the ring hoping to catch his opponent square on.  It worked for him the first 11 days, but came back to haunt him at the end.  The question is are we going to see Dr. Jekyl or Mr. Hyde come March?


Tosanoumi deserves props for going 8-7 as M1, but this guy needs to stop losing to the lower-ranked opponents.  Will he finally get that promotion to Komusubi for March?  He should just switch places with Takanonami on the new banzuke.  Kyokutenho also managed 8 wins at M2, but I think that will still leave him short at rising into the sanyaku.


M5 Kaiho deserves an honorable mention for toppling Asashoryu on day 9.  Kaiho at 7-8 just missed out on a kachi-koshi, which could have also given him a special prize, but for someone at his size to display such brilliant sumo is entertaining.  M7 Shimotori notched a 9-6 performance, which will move him back up to the high Maegashira ranks to take on the big boys next basho.  Shimotori could be an eventual Komusubi, but he really lacks any depth to move higher than that.


Stealing the show this basho at M9 was Takamisakari.  He started off with an outstanding 8-2 record over the first 10 days, but fizzled out a little after that.  Not to worry though because he is the new fan favorite replacing Takanohana.  This guy is not only comedy on the dohyo, but he's a pretty good grappler as well.  Takamisakari is strong enough and fights well enough at the belt to become an eventual sanyaku player, but despite his place on the banzuke, his poor eyesight, pre-bout ritual of pummeling himself, and overall awkwardness may always overshadow his sumo.


At M10 Tochononada had a strange basho.  He looked just terrible losing his first 4 bouts to the likes of Gojoro and Kyokushuzan, but stormed back to win his last 11.  Winning 11 bouts in a row is an accomplishment for anyone; however, the Sumo Kyokai felt that the 4 losses in a row were not worthy of a special prize.  Tochinonada will rocket back up the banzuke in March to give the big boys some trouble from the Maegashira ranks.


Finally, the two newcomers M12 Takanotsuru and M13 Kasugao looked impressive in going 9-6 and 10-5 respectively.  At 9-5 after 14 days both rikishi came into senshuraku with the chance to win a special prize if they won.  Takanotsuru unfortunately lost to Iwakiyama, but he still had an outstanding basho in my opinion.  Not only does he have the awesome lambchops, but his sumo has some good content as well.  Takanotsuru's foot problems leave him susceptible when he fights larger rikishi, but this guy should be a Makuuchi mainstay.  His counterpart, Kasugao, injured his hamstring muscle on day 14, but he showed serious sack in not only competing on senshuraku, but beating Kyokutenho to earn a special prize.  This guy is good.  He's good at the belt, and he's also a great defensive fighter.  Several bouts during the tournament saw Kasugao with a disadvantageous position after the tachi-ai; however, he muscled his way to some impressive victories.  Oh yeah, he's also the first Makuuchi rikishi from Korea.


That does it for my review of the basho.  Definitely a memorable basho for the happenings with the Yokozuna rank, but until all of the Ozeki and Musashimaru are back, I can't get too excited about the sumo.


Roundtable Part I

This will have to go down as one of the most memorable basho in the history of the sport.  Not so much for the quality of the sumo (average at best), but for the changing of the guard in the Yokozuna ranks.  The two big stories of course were the retirement of Yokozuna Takanohana and the promotion of Asashoryu to the Yokozuna rank.  Because of the way he has carried the popularity of the sport for so many years, I'll begin with Takanohana.


I had mixed emotions when I heard that Taka would officially hang it up.  One part of me was relieved that he retired because 1) I was tired of having the big question of whether or not Taka was healthy enough to compete cloud up the days prior to each basho, and 2) Takanohana was clearly not fighting at the level I was used to seeing all of these years.  The bigger emotion is sadness, however, as Takanohana leaves a gaping hole in the sport, which has been struggling to maintain its popularity.  It may be dozens of years before we see another rikishi who brings the complete package that Takanohana did.


Taka entered the sport at the age of 15 to much fanfare as he is the son of Futagoyama-oyakata, who made it as high as Ozeki and also fought under the name Takanohana.  The youngster quickly shot up to the Juryo division after only two years.  Two years after that he won his first Makuuchi tournament becoming the youngest and fastest rikishi to ever achieve the feat (19 years old, 24 total tournaments).  A few basho before his first tournament championship in 1991, Takanohana toppled the wolf, Yokozuna Chiyonofuji, on the first day of the May 1991 tournament--a victory that would push Chiyonofuji into retirement two days later and send the entire country into a frenzy over this rising superstar.


Takanohana would win several more tournaments before putting together back-to-back 15-0 championships in 1994 that secured his promotion to Yokozuna for the Hatsu basho in January of 1995.  After promotion to Yokozuna, Takanohana was nearly unbeatable racking up a total of 22 tournament victories over the next seven years.  I really can't say anything that would give Takanohana his due justice, but it was a blessing to have watched him fight.


That being said, is a new era in the sport about to begin with the emergence of Asashoryu?  I think so.  As great as Takanohana was, do we even dare to speculate whether or not Asashoryu can be better?  Asa tied Takanohana's record of fewest total tournaments (24) to win the Makuuchi yusho with his victory in Kyushu two months ago; however, he one-upped the retiring Yokozuna by attaining Yokozuna status himself the very next basho.  Needing only 25 total tournaments in the sport to become a Yokozuna?!?  Are you kidding me?  When I talk of total tournaments, I'm referring to Asa's entering the sport at the bottom rung--the Jonokuchi division.


Asashoryu is only 22 and he already has two tournament victories under his belt.  If he has ten more good years of sumo in him, and he averages 2 tournament victories a year he will tie the mark set by Takanohana.  It's a very tall order, but barring a major injury, I think Asashoryu has the ability and more importantly the drive to do it.  Asashoryu's sumo is downright special, and you will see no one who wants to win as badly as this guy.


Finally, as bright a hope as Asashoryu may appear, I fear we're going to enter the dark ages of the sport in popularity among the Japanese.  Why?  The foreign rikishi are taking over.  Of the six divisions, only one (Jonidan, or second lowest division) was won by a Japanese rikishi.  Mongolians won three, a Georgian (former territory of the Soviet Union) took one, and a Bulgarian (who may be the next Akebono) took the other.  To top that off, two foreigners hold the prestigious Yokozuna rank with none of the Japanese rikishi on the verge of stepping up.  Anyone who has lived in Japan knows how fanatic the Japanese are when it comes to cheering on the home team, so with the onslaught of foreign rikishi making their marks, I'm afraid the sport may take a nosedive in popularity.  You can tell a difference in the reactions of the fans when a foreign-born rikishi wins and when a Japanese rikishi wins, and I'm sure the Sumo Kyokai will feel it in the pocket books too as less and less fans fork out big bucks to attend the bouts live.


I will post part II of my roundtable shortly.


Day 14 Comments

Asashoryu made it.  In a fierce bout today with archrival Kotomitsuki, Asashoryu overpowered the Sekiwake to secure his second yusho in a row and the coveted 13 win mark, which the Sumo Kyokai stated was the target for Asa's promotion to Yokozuna.   For those of you who saw the bout, Asashoryu was extremely emotional after the win closing his eyes as much as possible to fight back the tears.


The bout itself was hard fought by both rikishi and far from a pushover for the soon-to-be Yokozuna.  Kotomitsuki, who led the head-to-head competition 6-4 coming in, actually gained a strong position at the tachi-ai with his trademark migi-sashi position, or getting his right arm under his opponents left armpit.  However, as he has done all basho, Asashoryu neutralized the hold with a powerful outer grip of the belt with his left hand, which he held for the entire bout.  Both rikishi pushed and fought like cornered animals in the middle of the ring, but Asa's belt grip and overall sumo was just too good for Kotomitsuki to mount an offensive attack.  Asashoryu ended up pushing Kotomitsuki out at the edge of the ring to capture the biggest win of his sumo career so far.


Kotomitsuki suffered his sixth loss of the tournament, but it was obvious he wanted to beat Asashoryu badly.  Kotomitsuki should fight like that every bout.  That's the difference between Asashoryu and the rest of the pack--Asa wants it more than anybody else.  It's the mental strength required to become a Yokozuna, and that's why you'll see Asashoryu crowned the 68th Yokozuna in the history of the sport.  Kenji and I will comment more at length in our basho roundtable reports in a few days.


In other bouts, Ozeki Musoyama secured his majority of wins by pushing out the slumping Kotoryu.  Both rikishi stand at 8-6.  Takanowaka easily forced out Takamisakari to even his record with his opponent at 9-5.  After an outstanding start, Takamisakari is running out of steam, but he could secure a special prize if he wins tomorrow.


Wakanosato easily pulled down M6 Kyokushuzan to capture his 11th win.  If Waka had lost the bout, that would have given Asashoryu the yusho before he even stepped in the ring.  If Wakanosato can win tomorrow and post 12 wins, not only should he win a special prize, but he will have made a giant step in his new quest for Ozeki.


The pint-sized Kaiho threw down the much larger Komusubi Takanonami keeping the latter from securing his kachi-koshi, or majority of wins.  Kaiho stands at 6-8, which is a very good record for having fought all of the big boys.  Remember, Kaiho was the one who handed Asashoryu his only loss of the tournament.


Dejima continued his slide with a half-hearted effort against Tosanoumi.  That's three losses in a row now, and it's tainting what otherwise would have been an outstanding basho.  Maybe Dejima gets the shukunsho special prize if he wins tomorrow.  Tosanoumi stands at 7-7, so he'll come hard tomorrow in search of that elusive 8th win.


Tochinonada made it an incredible 10 wins in a row after dispatching Kyokutenho.  If he wins tomorrow, he may be up for the fighting spirit award.  Going into senshuraku, or the final day of the tournament, the Sumo Kyokai loves to put the stipulation in effect that a certain rikishi can win a special prize only if he wins on the final day.  It keeps things interesting especially after the champion has already been determined.


In the battle of the two rookies, Kasugao threw down the larger Takanotsuru to even their records at 9-5; however, Kasugao suffered a slight muscle tear in his rear left thigh that may keep him out of action tomorrow.


Finally, those rikishi securing their kachi-koshi today were Wakanoyama, Shimotori, and Tamanoshima.


Day 12 Comments

Asashoryu owes rookie Takanotsuru a drink.  In perhaps a more stunning bout than Kaiho's win over Asashoryu on day 9, rookie Takanotsuru completely manhandled Dejima today not only keeping himself in the yusho hunt, but putting Asashoryu back on top as the sole leader.  One loss separating the leaders may not seem like much, but when Asashoryu is the one with the lead, it's huge.


With Dejima fighting the way he had been coming into the match coupled with Takanotsuru's bad left wheel, I didn't even think it would be close.  And I was right--it wasn't close.  Problem is Takanotsuru was the one who administered the beating.  Dejima seemed to bounce off of Takanotsuru at the tachi-ai never gaining any driving momentum.  Takanotsuru playfully kept Dejima at bay with his long arms before finally grabbing the back of Dejima's belt and throwing him down to the ring.  Takanotsuru was obviously in unchartered territory because after the win, he almost left without collecting his sponsor money.  Just another incentive to make it to the top and win.


Asashoryu easily dispensed of M7 Shimotori today to keep a firm grip on his yusho hopes and Yokozuna promotion.  It's a complete shame that Asa was matched against such a lower-ranked rikishi on day 12, but with 5 of the top 7 rikishi out the kyokai has no choice.  We really need the Ozeki to step up this year; except for Asashoryu, they've been a big disgrace lately.  I'm all for cleaning out that rank a bit.  The jury is still out on Asashoryu’s leg injury.  After sustaining the injury, he hasn’t been matched with a formidable opponent.  That all changes starting tomorrow.


Musoyama evened his record at 6-6 today with a gift win over Takanowaka.  The original bout was called a tie and a rematch ordered after it appeared Takanowaka's foot inadvertently stepped out of the ring before Musoyama hit the deck.  Replays clearly showed that Takanowaka's step out and Musoyama's body hitting the ring occurred simultaneously, but what everyone decided to overlook was the fact that Musoyama's left knee was resting on the dohyo well before his body hit the ground and before Takanowaka stepped out.  If any of you recorded the bouts, go back and take a look.  What is it with these botched mono-ii calls this basho?  Takanowaka still stands at 7-5 and should pick up at least one more win to secure his Sekiwake rank for another basho.


Fellow Sekiwake Kotomitsuki easily dispatched of Kaiho to secure his 8 wins.  After a slow start, Kotomitsuki is looking better, but he's still at least a year away from Ozeki.  The most dominant sanyaku rikishi this basho has been Wakanosato.  Waka, who overpowered Takamisakari today, is quietly putting together a spectacular run here at 10-2.  We'll really see what he's made of as he will fight Asashoryu on day 13.  An Asashoryu win coupled with another Dejima loss will assure Asashoryu of no worse than a playoff for the title.  It's coming down to crunch time, so we'll see if anyone has it in them to challenge Asashoryu.


Other rikishi securing the coveted kachikoshi (majority of wins that guarantees promotion for next basho) today were Kyokutenho, Kotoryu, and Tochinonada.  After losing his first four, Tochinonada has stormed back with eight straight wins.  I guess picking him for my fantasy sumo stable wasn't so bad after all.  Keep it up.


The leader board looks like this:


1 loss:     Asashoryu

2 losses:   Dejima, Wakanosato

3 losses:   Takanotsuru


Asashoryu and Wakanosato face off on day 13, Dejima has Takamisakari, and Takanotsuru faces Juryo rikishi Buyuzan.


Day 10 Comments

Though Takanohana's retirement leaves a huge gap in the sumo world, we still may have an exciting tournament on our hands here.  The big news coming into today was the injuries to Asashoryu's left leg.  In his stunning loss to Kaiho on day 9, he slightly tore his left calf muscle and dislocated the little toe on the left foot as well.  The injuries were not severe enough to keep Asashoryu from continuing to fight, but they are nagging enough to affect his sumo.  He was definitely favoring his left leg walking down the hanamichi towards the dohyo today, but I couldn't tell if it was because he was in pain or if he just wanted to keep his weight off of it.


He still left me wondering after his bout with Kotonowaka today.  Though Asa obviously didn't have his superior de-ashi today, he didn't really need to drive with his lower body to topple the much slower Kotonowaka.  Despite his injury, Asa was brilliant again in gaining the outer grip and using his other hand to help trip up his opponent.  He did exactly what he needed to do: finish off his opponent in a matter of seconds and keep as much pressure as possible off of his leg.  His opponent tomorrow is sophomore Iwakiyama, who has the same build as Kotonowaka.  Iwakiyama is getting his first taste of bouts with the big boys, and he isn't showing much resistance, so I expect another easy time for Asashoryu tomorrow.  That being said, it's going to get a lot tougher when he faces the likes of Wakanosato, Kotomitsuki, and Musoyama--rikishi who will force him to go all out.


Keeping pace with Asashoryu, Dejima was overpowering in his match with Kotoryu to stay at 9-1.  Dejima has manhandled every opponent he's faced except Asashoryu, and it's a shame we can't see these two duke it out at the end of the basho.  Dejima's going to be tough to shake, however, as he's fought most of the tough rikishi already.  He still must face Wakanosato, but Dejima is going to be a thorn in Asashoryu's side all the way to the end.


Holding strong with just two losses are rookie Takanotsuru and crowd favorite Takamisakari.  Both rikishi toyed with their opponents today in securing a majority of wins this tournament and guaranteeing a promotion for next tournament.  If these two keep up this pace, they are going to find themselves matched with the big boys in the next few days.  Wakanosato is also making his presence felt keeping pace with two losses.  His showdown with Asashoryu later on in the week will be the most anticipated bout of the tournament so far.


Mongolian Kyokutenho and rookie Kasugao both kept themselves within arms length of the yusho by upping their records to 7-3.  Tochinonada also pushed his win steak to six with an impressive throw down of Tamanoshima.  Too bad he came out and lost his first four bouts, or he would be in the mix here.


Well, we're entering the shubansen, or final five days of the tournament.  It's still anybody's basho.  Asashoryu's injuries bring him back to the pack, so in my opinion this thing is up for grabs. Of the five rikishi at the top, it's going to come down to Asashoryu, Dejima, and Wakanosato.  Sorry Takamisakari and Takanotsuru.  While you should both receive special prizes this basho for your outstanding efforts so far, beating up on the dregs of the Makuuchi division and facing off with the best of the best are night and day.  This thing is not over.  I'll give the nod to Asashoryu just because of his mental intensity, but Dejima hasn't lost since day 2, and Wakanosato still gets a shot at bringing down the favorite.  Stay tuned!


Day 8 Comments

The nakabi, or middle day of the tournament, ended on a very sobering note with Takanohana losing to then 1-6 Aminishiki.  Losing to Dejima the day before was understandable, but losing to Aminishiki the way he did today forces the Yokozuna to seriously consider retirement.  When asked about the subject, Taka said that he needed a night to think it over.  In the final bout of the today, Aminishiki was cat quick at the tachi-ai and grabbed the back of Takanohana's belt swinging him around the middle of the ring a couple of times before pushing him out with one hand.  That was only Aminishiki's second victory of the tournament, but it proved very profitable.  Not only does he receive an extra 15,000 a month for the rest of his career, but 19 sponsors paid to have their banners marched around the edge of the ring before the match.  It costs the sponsor 60,000 yen per banner with the Sumo Association taking half and the other half going to the winner.  Aminishiki just pocketed 570,000 yen ($4,900 US) for five seconds of work. (See our FAQ page for details on how rikishi are paid)


We won't know until Monday morning Japan time, but my feeling is that Takanohana will retire.  Sitting out a string of basho due to injuries is one thing, but losing to Maegashira-ranked rikishi in consecutive days is another.  Takanohana just doesn't have it anymore.  Last September, I thought he still had it in him; however, it's obvious now that though the mind is definitely willing, the body is just too weak.  Hang it up now big guy, and thanks for the many memories--too many to list here, but I feel it an honor to have watched one of the top five Yokozuna the sport has ever produced.


The other big news of the day is Asashoryu's eighth win in as many tries.  As Kenji mentioned, he has now gone 32-0 for the first eight days over the last four basho.  Simply incredible.  What else can we say about him?  While it took him a bit longer today to decide how he was going to dispose of Tokitsuumi, he never gave his opponent a chance.  Today, Asashoryu showcased his brilliant speed--just one factor of his sumo that will make him the next Yokozuna.


In other bouts, Musoyama continued his lethargic basho by easily being forced out by Kotomitsuki.  The only remaining Ozeki besides Asa is now 3-5.  Sekiwake Takanowaka seemed to forget that he has to charge into his opponent at the tachi-ai.  Kyokutenho pushed him out in a matter of seconds.  In one of the most anticipated bouts of the day, Wakanosato continued his strong run by overpowering Tosanoumi.  Waka has now totaled six wins, and Tosanouomi is still stuck on five.  Out of Asashoryu's remaining bouts, I think Wakanosato will give him the biggest run for his money.


Dejima was the only rikishi with one loss coming into the day who won.  He overpowered the much taller Takanonami to earn his seventh victory.  He is in second place all by himself now as Kotoryu and Takamisakari both lost.  Takanotsuru also continues to impress as he notched his sixth victory today.  Also, Tochinonada may begin to make some noise in the lower half of the ranks.  After starting 0-4, he's put together four impressive wins in a row.


So, we're half way through now and here's how the tournament leader board stands:


0 losses:   Asashoryu

1 loss:     Dejima

2 losses:   Wakanosato, Kotoryu, Takamisakari, Takanotsuru


Dejima has the best chance to keep pace as he and Asashoryu have already faced each other.


Day 6 Comments

Today marked the first day of the chubansen, or middle five days.  The final two bouts of the day revealed the who's hot and who's not in sumo.  Who's hot?  Asashoryu.  Who's not?  Takanohana.  Is Asashoryu calling his Yokozuna shot by dismantling his opponents in the trademark style of Chiyonofuji?  Fans may have noticed the past two days Asa has thrown his opponents down by uwatenage, or outer grip throw.  What makes the move stand out, however, is with his non-belt hand he is pushing down on the back of his opponents’ necks to make them fall even harder.  This is strangely reminiscent of Chiyonofuji's style, one of the top three Yokozuna of all time.  In a sport where trash-talking doesn't exist, is this Asa's way of telling us "I'm the man, and I know it!"?  If so, fine by me.  If he keeps fighting like this, he can do whatever he wants.  Today he easily dispatched of Aminishiki to run his record to 6-0.  Looks like his fourth straight basho where he wins his first 8 bouts.  Incredible.


Who's not hot?  Yokozuna Takanohana, that's who.  If I've said it once, I've said it a million times, but I can't stand the tachi-ai henka (sidestepping one's opponent at the initial charge).  And in my opinion, it is UNFORGIVEABLE for a Yokozuna to do it.  I don't care if Taka's dinged up, and I don't care if he nobly came back after sitting a few days out--fight like a man!  In today's bout, Taka side-stepped Tosanoumi on his way to a cheap victory that ruined the most anticipated bout of the day.  To make matters worse, did you see the smirk on his face after he did it?  There is no one who is more excited than me to see Takanohana compete these days, but not if he's going to perform like this.  I'm still waiting for him to beat one of his opponents straight up this basho (sorry, the win over Toki doesn't count).  He better think about resorting to the henka again because he's got anther fierce charger on his hands today with Dejima.


In other news, Ozeki Tochiazuma withdrew from the tournament today after failing to post a win in his first five bouts.  He just didn't have it this basho.  Kenji cited earlier that Tochiazuma was hospitalized before the basho with intestinal problems.  Let's hope he can come back full force in March because we need at least one Ozeki to step up here and challenge Asashoryu.  The one remaining Ozeki besides Asashoryu is Musoyama, but he is struggling mightily as well.  Grant it, his opponent today, Wakanosato, is no patsy, but Musoyama's had some terrible losses this tournament contributing to his paltry 2-4 record.  Remember that Musoyama was questionable coming into this basho after dislocating his shoulder in Kyushu.


The four sanyaku rikishi--Takanowaka, Kotomitsuki, Takanonami, and Wakanosato--are all sitting with identical 4-2 records.  Kotomitsuki made it 4 straight with his win over Kyokutenho today.  Takanowaka brought Kaiho a little closer to earth handing him his second loss of the tournament.  Wakanosato overmatched Musoyama, and Takanonami won by default over Tochiazuma.  With two losses each, I don't think any of the sanyaku rikishi has a chance of running down Asashoryu.


Dejima may be the second hottest rikishi in the mix right now at 5-1.  He was solid again in downing Kyokushuzan.  Remember, Dejima's sole loss was at the hands of Asashoryu on day 2.  Dejima is matched against Takanohana today, which should be an outstanding match.  Will Takanohana side-step his opponent for the second day in a row?  Let's hope not.


Takamisakari is also impressive this basho with a 5-1 record.  This equals fellow Maegashira Kotoryu and Kasugao.  Kasugao is the rookie here, and if he can win just 5 more, he's a shoe-in for the kantosho special prize.  The other rookie, Takanotsuru, lost today to Tochinonada to drop to 4-2, but he's still doing well.  Fans may not know that Takanotsuru was born with a deformed big toe on his right foot.  The nerve structure in his foot is also abnormal, which causes him some pain in that foot.  He has had several operations on the foot to improve the situation, but it's obviously a factor in his sumo.  Takanotsuru has compensated for this by strengthening his upper-body; however, when he meets a big opponent as he did today, he really has no de-ashi (driving power with the lower body) to combat his opponents’ size.  It's no coincidence that his two losses are to opponents who outweigh him.  Overcoming this disability as he has and making it to the Makuuchi division, really makes it hard to root against him.  Ganbare!


Day 4 Comments

Just when we were entering the dog days of this basho with 4 of the top 7 rikishi out, Takanohana makes a surprise announcement that he is back in again beginning on day 5.  It may be too little too late, however, because Asashoryu has taken this basho over.  Sure we're only four days in, but the way Asashoryu is dismantling his strong opponents is spectacular.


I'll start with the big news of the day...Takanohana's announcement that he's back.  While it's not too uncommon for a rikishi to take a few days off mid-basho (he is tacked with a loss for each day he sits out), it's almost unheard of for a Yokozuna to do it.  In fact, the last time it happened was 40 years ago.  So the question is why is he coming back?  The official reason he gave was that he didn't want to disappoint the fans, but the fans are the least of these rikishi's worries.


My belief is that people within the Sumo Kyokai are calling for his retirement, and this is one way of showing he's not done yet.  After Takanohana's gift of a win vs. Miyabiyama on day 2, the Sumo Kyokai was flooded with calls from irate fans pointing out that the Yokozuna clearly lost to Miyabi the first time around.  The obvious "coddling" as Kenji put it, doesn't make the Kyokai look good, and it also begins to take away from the prestige of the Yokozuna rank.  With the popularity of sumo dwindling, the last thing the Kyokai needs now is negative criticism.  I'm sure there are others in the organization who don't want Takanohana forced into retirement because that would mean no Japanese Yokozuna and two foreigners holding that rank (is it too early to assume Asashoryu is a lock?).  At any rate, Taka's back, but I think his two losses now are too much to overcome in an attempt to derail Asashoryu's momentum.


Onto the bouts themselves, in the final bout of the day, Asashoryu did it again beating a formidable opponent in Takanonami.  Midway through the bout, Takanonami had Asa right where he wanted him--at the edge of the ring with his long arms locked over the Ozeki's shoulders.  Any other rikishi would have lost to Takanonami today after falling into that position, but Asashoryu is just too good to lose right now.  All I can say is this guy is impressive.


The other two Ozeki, however, are sporting a combined 2-6 record; hardly worth a mention, so I'm tempted not to say anything.  0-4 Tochiazuma seems to have peaked a year ago with his first yusho and promotion to Ozeki, but this guy is falling fast now.  Yes, he's still Ozeki, and no he can't be demoted after this basho even if he wins fewer than eight, but I think it's a matter of time.


Kyokutenho is sporting an impressive 3-1 record, which looks good on paper with wins over Takanohana and Tochiazuma, but he beat Taka by default, and Tochi is struggling.  Nevertheless, this Mongolian will exploit your weaknesses and is poised to jump back up to the sanyaku.  We’ll see how he fares on day 5 against Asashoryu.


Kotomitsuki ran his record to 2-2 today winning by default over the hard-luck Miyabiyama.  I'm still not impressed, however, because winning by default and one other win over Toki is meaningless.  This guy is slumping.  Fellow Sekiwake Takanowaka was brought back down to earth for the second day in a row falling to Tosanoumi.  Tosanoumi is bringing it this basho, but what else do you expect from him?  His only loss was to Asashoryu, so look for more good things to come with him.  Hopefully, he isn't looked over again for a promotion to the sanyaku for next basho.


M3 Dejima is also an impressive 3-1 after toppling Shimotori.  Like Tosanoumi, Dejima's sole loss is to Asashoryu, and like Tosanoumi, his other three wins have been impressive.  That says two things: one is these guys are up to the task this tournament, and two is Asashoryu is just kicking everyone's you know what.


Kotoryu and Kaiho are also standing tall with 4-0 records.  Kotoryu is short of stature, but this guy is strong.  He's famous for lifting his opponents up in the air and setting them outside of the ring (a move called tsuridashi).  Kaiho's sumo is also excellent; however, this guy is so tiny that he has to scrap for every win.  Kaiho was only the second rikishi to have ever entered the sport from college and made it to Juryo before his hair grew long enough for the top know.  The other?  Musoyama.


Newcomers Kasugao and Takanotsuru are also hanging in there with 3 wins apiece.  The lovable crowd favorite Takamisakari suffered his first loss today, but he's also fighting well with a record of 3-1.


Finally, Day 5 bouts to look forward to:  Takanohana will be one to watch although the Kyokai is easing him back in by giving him Toki.  Of course Asashoryu will command the most attention as he faces fellow Mongolian Kyokutenho.  I don't think Kyokutenho's sumo is diverse enough to stop Asashoryu right now.  Tochiazuma's got his hands full yet again with the steamroller Dejima.  Fellow sanyaku rikishi Wakanosato and Kotomitsuki will duke it out, and the 4-0 Kaiho will receive a major test on day 5 when he meets Tosanoumi.


Day 2 Comments

Day 2 brought another exciting day of sumo with a controversial ending to boot.  The final bout of the day matched Miyabiyama with Yokozuna Takanohana.  The match went back and forth with Taka finally grabbing what seemed an insurmountable outer grip; however, just when you thought Miyabiyama was finished, Takanohana was flat on his back on the dohyo floor in a flash after a brilliant nichonage move administered by Miyabiyama.  But hold on...a mono-ii (conference called by the judges) determined that both rikishi hit the dohyo at the same time, thus calling for a rematch, which Takanohana subsequently won.  Though nobody in the press will mention it, Miyabiyama was robbed.  The gyoji (referee) emphatically pointed to Miyabiyama after the first bout, the NHK announcers after watching the replay stated that Takanohana's arm hit the dirt first, and anybody watching the bout could see that Miyabiyama pulled off the finest counter attack you'll see in a long time.  Miyabiyama: though it will never show up in the record books and even though you lost out on a kinboshi, nice win.


Okay, now that that's off my chest, here's a summary of the days matches.


Takanohana looks exactly as he did in September when he made his historic run.  Extremely shaky, but finding ways to win.  He is 2-0, but he could easily be 0-2.  I personally thought his bout with Wakanosato deserved a mono-ii on day 1, but the Yokozuna received the benefit of the doubt.  Takanohana should still be considered a favorite, however, because we've all seen what he can do when faced with adversity.


Asashoryu looked fantastic again in his bout with Dejima.  As was the case on day 1, he neutralized his opponent's fierce tachi-ai, grabbed his belt, and had him out of the ring in seconds.  After Dejjima just steamrolled Kotomitsuki on day 1, I thought Asashoryu was in for a match, but it was business as usual--another impressive win.  Asashoryu is making it look so easy it's ridiculous.  Was it just me, or was there absolute silence after Asashoryu’s win?  Are the Tokyo fans not happy about the inevitable change of the guard in the Yokozuna ranks?  Or where they just confused because Asashoryu fell down just after driving Dejima out.  Hopefully, the latter.


Fellow Ozeki Musoyama was nearly done in a matter of seconds after a horrible tachi-ai, but he shook himself mid-bout with Takanonami and impressively drove the Komusubi out of the ring after gaining his footing.  It really was an impressive victory after a bad start.  Musoyama could still be a player this tournament.


Tochiazuma looks worse now than he did coming off of that injury in Kyushu.  His bout with Tosanoumi was over before it really began.  It didn't really look as if Tochi slipped at the tachi-ai, and it really didn't look as if Tosaonumi hit Tochi hard, but a half second after it started, Tochiazuma was on his knees having suffered his second loss in as many days.


Sekiwake Takanowaka looked fantastic again today pushing out Kotonowaka in a matter of seconds for his second win.  Usually, Kotonowaka doesn't give an inch in the ring forcing a long grueling match, but today Takanowaka would have nothing of it.  This guy looks for real.  Taka's Sekiwake counterpart, Kotomitsuki, laid another egg today in his match with Tokitsuumi.  Kotomitsuki just could never get on track today before Tokitsuumi threw him down with an inner grip.  Kotomitsuki looks mired in a slump.


The Barometer, Wakanosato, picked up his first win today with a win over feisty Kyokutenho.  Wakanosato is starting anew in his quest for Ozeki.


Other notables from the Maegashira ranks include the miniature Kaiho who has a surprising 2 wins at the M5 rank.  You better not let him get your belt or he spells trouble.  Obvious crowd favorite Takamisakari received the biggest ovation of the day after notching his second win with a dominating victory over Kyokushuzan.  Takamisakari should continue his roll if he doesn't knock himself out with his pre-bout pummeling of himself to get fired up.  This guy's antics are worth staying up late for.


M7 Shimotori is 2 for 2 and looks solid as does M10 Gojoro who also has two impressive wins.  The two Makuuchi rookies, Kasugao and Takanotsuru, looked good again as they each picked up their second victories.  With the Makuuchi bottom feeders particularly weak this tournament, I think both Kasugao and Takanotsuru are poised to chalk up double-digit wins.  These guys will be responsible for knocking a couple of has-beens completely out of Makuuchi.  Sorry Tamakasuga and Tochinohana.


Finally, in the first Makuuchi bout of the day, Mongolian Asasekiryu ranked Juryo 1 showed he's ready for the big time with an impressive win over Tochinohana.  He is still small, but his sumo is eerily similar to compatriot Asashoryu when he first broke into the ranks.  Like Sho, Seki is still small, but once he builds up some muscle, he should be someone to be reckoned with.


Pre-basho Update

January 9, 2003 -- We're 48 hours away from the year's first tournament, and I'm guaranteeing an exciting basho. Why? It was announced today that Yokozuna Takanohana will indeed compete in the Hatsu basho. This means that on the final day of the tournament we'll see the two best rikishi in the sport stand toe to toe with serious pride and a Yokozuna promotion on the line.


Takanohana's participation completely changes the face of this tournament.  Without him, Asashoryu had a relatively easy path to his second tournament victory in a row and subsequent promotion to Yokozuna; however, with Takanohana in the mix things won't be so easy.  Since Takanohana pulled out of last November's Kyushu basho, speculation has been widespread as to whether or not he would sit out this tournament as well.  I wonder if Asashoryu's bid for Yokozuna promotion wasn't the deciding factor that made Takanohana elect to throw his chonmage in the ring.  I suspect there is an immense amount of pride involved here, and I can't wait to see one of the greatest Yokozuna ever defend his rank against the most promising candidate.


With the announcement that Takanohana is in, here's how the rest of the Makuuchi rank stands.  Confirmed no-shows are Yokozuna Musashimaru, Ozeki Kaio, and Ozeki Chiyotaikai.  This is a plus for Asashoryu because it means he has three less power hitters to face, and three extra lower-ranked Maegashira rikishi to pad his record with.  The Sumo Association's Director, Kitanoumi, stated that Asashoryu needs 13 wins this tournament along with a yusho to be promoted to Yokozuna.  It won't be easy though, as every rikishi will be gunning to bring Asashoryu down.


The two other Ozeki, Tochiazuma and Musoyama, have been lying low.  Both may not be 100%, but both are streaky enough that if they get on a roll they can snatch the yusho away from Asashoryu.  The sanyaku and first three ranks in Maegashira are top-heavy this basho, so we should have promising matches nearly everyday of the tournament.


Asashoryu has yet to choke whenever he's been up for a promotion in rank, but he'll have Takanohana's presence to deal with throughout this tournament.  Strap yourselves in because this Hatsu basho should be can't-miss.  Look for all the marbles to come down to the senshuraku (final day) bout between Yokozuna Takanohana and Ozeki Asashoryu.


2003 Hatsu Basho Pre-basho Report

December 29, 2002--Usually, the Hatsu basho means a fresh start to the upcoming year of sumo; however, I’m a bit worried that this year’s first tournament will be a let down.  I don’t think the overall performance of the rikishi themselves could get any worse than what we saw in Kyushu, but what disappoints me this time around is the number of top-ranked rikishi sitting this tournament out from the beginning.


The one positive note and by far the biggest storyline going into the New Year is Asashoryu’s quest to become the first Mongolian-born Yokozuna.  Whenever a non-Yokozuna wins a tournament, there is usually half-hearted talk during the next basho about whether or not he can win two in a row to attain the sport’s highest rank.  However, the focus on Asashoryu this tournament will be down right intense--and deservedly so.  Asashoryu is the clear favorite to take the emperor’s cup for the second tournament in a row.  Both Kenji and I covered his recent Yokozuna-like achievements in detail during our Kyushu reports, which can be found on the archives page, so I won’t mention them again here; just suffice it to say that this guy is the entire package, and this run for the top rank is no fluke.


Breaking down the banzuke by rank, I’ll start with the Yokozuna.  Musashimaru is confirmed out with a wrist injury, so that just leaves a suspect Takanohana.  Taka sat out the Kyushu basho due to his ailing right knee, and he is questionable for this basho as well.  At the first of December, NHK’s sports team did a short story on the Yokozuna stating that he resumed his practice regime at the Futagoyama stable; however, it wasn’t clear whether practice consisted of actual bouts with stable mates or just stretching at ringside.  My guess is the latter since there was no footage of Takanohana actually in the ring.  With Takanohana, it will be wait-and-see, but who can forget his stunning run last September?  I really feel that in order to be crowned Yokozuna, you have to prove that you can handily beat the existing Yokozuna, so for Asashoryu’s Yokozuna run, let’s hope Takanohana competes.


The Ozeki rank looks as if it will be depleted for this basho.  Kaio and Chiyotaikai will probably sit out with muscle injuries to their arms, and Musoyama is suspect after dislocating his shoulder on the final day of Kyushu.  Even if any of these Ozeki compete, they will not have been able to put in a sufficient amount of pre-basho keiko (practice).   I think the wild card for this tournament will be Ozeki Tochiazuma.  Tochiazuma was coming off a major injury when he fought in Kyushu, and it was evident early on that he didn’t have his sumo-no-kan, or ring sense.  He should be completely ready to go for the Hatsu basho, and don’t forget that Tochiazuma is the defending Hatsu basho champ.  Tochiazuma is as stubborn in the ring as they get and will resort to anything to pull out a victory.  If anyone puts a chink in Asashoryu’s armor it will be Tochiazuma.  Will this basho come down to Asashoryu and Tochiazuma vying for the yusho on Day 14?  Could be.


As for the Sekiwake rank, we have rookie Takanowaka and semi-veteran Kotomitsuki.  Takanowaka surprised many with his impressive 11-4 record in Kyushu fighting as Komusubi.  Can he do it again?  I don’t see why not.  With several of the top rikishi out, he will have virtually the same competition again.  Takanowaka’s height and surprising strength should allow him to reach double digits again and keep his Ozeki promotion hopes alive.  Kotomitsuki barely pulled off a kachi-koshi in Kyushu, but he struggled immensely in doing it.  Remember though, that Kotomitsuki does have a Makuuchi yusho under his belt, and he his capable of a yusho in any given tournament.  Kotomitsuki suffered from injuries during 2002, so he was largely forgotten, but he is as solid as the sanyaku rikishi come.  I’d be surprised if Kotomitsuki has another bad basho in Tokyo.


The Komusubi ranks also consist of two solid rikishi.  Takanonami is a former Ozeki and has several tournament victories to his name.  Takanonami’s size and counter attack should enable him to reach double digits in wins for the second basho in a row.  If he does this, he will be up for Ozeki promotion in March.  Can he be the first rikishi in 25 years to accomplish the feat of attaining Ozeki status twice in his career?  There’s no reason why not.  If Takanonami had the mental drive of the average sumo rikishi, he’d be a possible Yokozuna candidate.  Takanonami’s counterpart, Wakanosato, is as tough as they come.  Waka stumbled in Kyushu causing him to fall from the Sekiwake rank, but look for him to perform well enough to make this Komusubi business a one-basho affair.  This basho’s Komusubi are two sanyaku veterans who are probably more of a threat than the Sekiwake.


The Maegashira ranks also pack quite a punch at the top.  The blue-collar man, Tosanoumi, leads the way as the highest-ranked Maegashira.  Tosanoumi is probably the last guy you want to see across from you at the shikiri-sen (starting lines) when you’re having a bad day.  Tosa seems to display the most aggressive sumo of anyone, and sometimes his aggression leads to careless losses, but this guy is down right entertaining in the ring.  Tosanoumi was passed over for a deserved promotion to Komusubi for this basho, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.  Is the Sumo Kyokai looking to cut costs by keeping some of these rikishi at a lower rank?  The higher your rank the higher your monthly salary, and it’s obvious by the half full venues that the Sumo Association’s income is not what it was in the late 90’s.  I think Takanonami should have jumped from Maegashira 1 to Sekiwake after is impressive 10-5 record in Kyushu, but this topic deserves further discussion on a different day.


Former Ozeki Miyabiyama comes in as the other number-one-ranked Maegashira.  Miyabiyama’s size always makes him a threat to upset the big boys.  Miyabiyama is still young and has a lot of sumo left in him, so we’ll see if he can cause a stir in the outcome of the yusho.  Two spots below Miyabiyama is fellow stable mate and form Ozeki Dejima.  Dejima has a tournament victory under his belt, and seems to be making a comeback after some nagging knee injuries.  Dejima can be likened to a bowling ball that if it strikes you dead on, you’re done for the day.  Kyokutenho, ranked M2, is a regular Komusubi who always seems to topple at least one big name per tournament.  M3 Kotonowaka can’t be overlooked as well.  His mammoth size and equally mammoth stubborn yotsu-zumo can cause some really big problems if you don’t dispense of him quickly.


Further on down the ranks, Makuuchi sophomore Iwakiyama comes in at M5.  This rank may keep him from grappling with the big boys for one more basho.  He will face virtually the same competition that he faced in Kyushu where he pulled off an impressive 11-4 record.  Usually, a newcomer to the Makuuchi rank will have two good basho in a row whereby advancing him high enough to face the top guns, who will inevitable send him spiraling back down the banzuke.  It’s just too early to tell with Iwakiyama, but he’s built like a mountain.


Also someone to keep your eye on is M10 Tochononada.  Tochi is far better than his rank implies, and he is the only rikishi who beat Asashoryu in Kyushu.  Tochinonada is probably the best bet for a kantosho prize this basho.


There will be two newcomers to the Makuuchi division for this tournament: Kasugao and Takanotsuru.  Kasugao has only been in the sport for just over four years, and he shot through the Juryo division in just three basho.  He could be someone to keep your eye on.  Takanotsuru will be mistaken for Toki’s identical twin as they both sport those outlandish, unkempt lamb-chop sideburns.  Takanotsuru’s sumo is a lot better than Toki’s though.  If you have trouble confusing the two, Takanotsuru will be the one who actually tries to grab his opponent’s belt, whereas Toki comes out with the tsuppari and looks for the easy slap down.  I expect both newcomers to be Makuuchi mainstays.


In summary, the major storyline going into this basho is whether or not Asashoryu can make it two in a row and thus be crowned as the sport’s newest Yokozuna.  I really see this basho mirroring the last tournament in Kyushu—too many of the heavy hitters injured to create any excitement, and Asashoryu coming out on top.  My predictions:


* Asashoryu wins again although not as impressive only pulling out 12 wins.

* Wakanosato takes advantage of Takanohana’s ring rust on Day 1 and topples two Ozeki on his way to the shukunsho.

* Kasugao establishes himself as a rookie to reckon with as he pummels the lower Maegashira and earns a kantosho along with Tochinonada.

* No one’s performance has enough variety and wins to garner a ginosho.


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