The sumo year is off to a great start thanks to a Yokozuna fulfilling his responsibility and dominating in the ring. And as much as I like to see a dark horse take the yusho, anytime a Yokozuna wins it all, I can only say 'this is how it should be.' Asashoryu was so good this basho, his bouts lasted an average of 5.7 seconds and that includes a 27 second bout with runner-up Kotomitsuki on day 10. The events surrounding that bout epitomize the mindset and killer instinct of Asashoryu. Throughout that day 10 broadcast, NHK frequently showed clips of Kotomitsuki practicing his suri-ashi at the morning's keiko...Kotomitsuki being interviewed...past bouts where Kotomitsuki had toppled Asashoryu and on and on. As most of you know, there are television monitors placed throughout the back halls and shitaku-beya (dressing rooms) of the Kokugikan and the other areanas where hon-basho take place that broadcast NHK's feed. Throughout the broadcast, I'm convinced that Asashoryu took careful note of all the run Kotomitsuki was given and determined that he would send a statement in the one environment where he has complete control: the ring. That statement came in the form of the Yokozuna hoisting the 157-kilo Kotomitsuki waist high in the air and bouncing him off of the clay in what is turning out to be a signature tsuirotoshi move for him. Gone was the Kotomitsuki hype along with Tochiazuma's run at Yokozuna, and all that was left was a Yokozuna standing in the ring undefeated. Damnation, this guy is good!
Asashoryu was never in trouble over the fifteen days. His biggest challenge came from Chiyotaikai, who was the only Ozeki to put up a fight against the Yokozuna. Nevertheless, Asashoryu beat the Ozeki at his own game and had an expression on his face after he pushed Chiyo out to clinch the yusho similar to that unforgettable display of emotion exhibited by former Yokozuna Takanohana just after he clinched the final yusho of his career bad knee and all by toppling Musashimaru. I noticed one other similarity to Takanohana that we haven't associated with Asashoryu until now, and that's his demeanor directly following a victory. Is it just me or is Asashoryu taking his opponents by the arm and helping them back into the ring a la Takanohana after he beats them? I think it is a conscious effort on the Yokozuna's part to improve his image after it's taken such a beating the last year. Nothing has quieted the pre-basho criticism that surrounded Asashoryu quite like his perfect performance in January. Now that doesn't excuse what he did prior to the basho, but it does let cooler heads prevail when talk of "let's force him into retirement" arises.
I got a kick out of a recent Japanese headline that read "Asashoryu wins 16 in a row!" The article was referring to the Yokozuna Deliberation Council's having announced that no disciplinary action would be taken against Asashoryu--apparently his performance won them over as well. Is there a more useless body than the YDC? When a rikishi is up for promotion to Yokozuna, as Tochiazuma was this basho, everyone hangs on the words of the Sumo Association's Director in regards to number of wins necessary, not the YDC. The YDC, which is made up of prominent people from all walks of life that have nothing to do with sumo, is just a puppet group that couldn't enforce anything without the complete backing of the Sumo Association's board of directors. Whenever you hear a YDC member speak out, just let it go in one ear and out the other. The only thing I enjoy about the YDC is watching them all crammed into a tiny section to watch the day 1 bouts; I have never seen a bigger bunch of misfits. You have really old guys with long hair, and that token lady who looks like Yoda in a bad brunette wig. And what business do they have commenting on sumo and making so-called "expert" judgment and analysis without ever having stepped onto the dohyo themselves? (Oops, strike that
Back to Asashoryu, the only thing that remains for him to do is yusho as a Yokozuna outside of Tokyo. The sky's the limit for this 23 year old. He has no weaknesses in the ring and more importantly none between the ears, and his behavior outside of the ring will improve as he matures in age. As for a breakdown of Asashoryu's sumo this basho, he controlled the pace of every bout with superb tachi-ais. Like a baseball pitcher who throws incredible junk, the Yokozuna mixed up his tachi-ai well to put him in the perfect position to dismantle each of his opponents in seconds. He will give you the tsuppari to your throat, he'll hold back and let you charge right into a morozashi trap, and over the final days against Kaio and Tochiazuma, he displayed a quick hit and inashi that put him to the side of his opponents before they knew what hit him. I'll be shocked if Asashoryu doesn't finally pick up a yusho this year outside of Tokyo. However, up next is Osaka where anything can and does happen.
The next biggest story regarding this basho was Ozeki Tochiazuma's run at the Yokozuna rank. His 9-6 record tells you all you need to know. This was the same Tochiazuma we've seen for the last two years save the last few days of the Aki basho last year and the 15 days in Kyushu. I think that Tochiazuma has the potential to become a Yokozuna, but he needs to work on the aspect that so many rikishi lack: his mental toughness. In Kenji's comments during the basho, he described Tochiazuma's sumo as "reactive." It was the perfect explanation and the reason for an ugly three bout losing streak mid-basho that completely took the life out of him. For the most part, his tachi-ai was mediocre, and he waited for his opponents to dictate the pace of the bout. For someone who had trained so hard physically for the last few months, it sure looked as if he lacked stamina in the ring as well. We'll just have to wait for him to rise up again in the next year or two and come out of nowhere to yusho.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai was his typical self this basho: race out to a great start, lose one bout during the first week that you should have won, and totally stink it up over the last few days to finish 10-5. His 1-4 record over the last five days was well below average, but we've seen it all before. The biggest disappointment was his resorting to the hiki-waza for two days in a row in the first week. He got away with it against Hokutoriki on day 4 but paid the price against Tosanoumi the next day. I was disappointed because we hadn't seen that from him for several basho; I guess old habits are hard to break. There's not much more to say although Chiyotaikai is the Haru basho's defending champion. We'll see if he can defend his title.
Like his fellow Ozeki, Kaio was par for the course. Absolutely no surprises here other than the fact that he finally beat Tochinonada. Kaio looked unbeatable on some days and then overmatched on others. I did notice more and more tape on his body as the basho progressed, which is a sign that Kaio is getting up there in age. Remember, he entered sumo in that famed class that included Takanohana, Wakanohana, and Akebono. Maybe he has one more yusho in him, but the clock is running out. So Kaio goes 10-5 with a three-bout losing streak of his own, what 's new?
Ozeki Musoyama looked fantastic over the first three days, and he was robbed of a win on day four against M1 Toki. I don't know if that loss affected him between the ears, but he suffered a terrible loss against M2 Hokutoriki on day 5. Musoyama pulled out of the basho after twisting his knee in yet another loss against Sekiwake Tamanoshima on day 8 leaving him with a 5-10 mark. The injury didn't seem too serious, and Musoyama should be back in March to eek out another kachi-koshi thus keeping him at the Ozeki rank. All four Ozeki seem to be stuck in the same mold basho after basho. Kaio, Chiyotaikai, and Tochiazuma are a step ahead of Musoyama, but no one seems to be making any continual progress.
Keeping in fine tradition with the Sekiwake rank the past few basho, Tosanoumi and Tamanoshima were horrible combining for a 9-21 mark between them. Four wins for Tosanoumi with one of them by default? I'd love for someone to explain to me how he can consistently go 10-5 ranked as a Maegashira fighting the exact same rikishi he goes 3..er..uh..4-11 against as a Sekiwake. He did have a good win against Chiyotaikai, but that was it. And the same goes for Tamanoshima. A good win over Musoyama and a decent win over Kyokutenho, but nothing else that stands out. Well, back down to the upper-Maegashira for these two where a kachi-koshi is all but guaranteed.
Ditto for Komusubi Tochinonada who finished with a slightly more respectable record at 6-9. One win over an Ozeki, but flat for the most part. His counterpart, Wakanosato, didn't exactly bull his way to his 9-6 record, but he was good enough to regain his Sekiwake slot for March. Wakanosato was the ultimate barometer this basho pounding Tochiazuma on day one to foreshadow the Ozeki's fate and getting destroyed by Asashoryu on day 4 as part of the Yokozuna's magnificent run. The only bad loss Wakanosato suffered was against an injured Takamisakari, but as good as his 9-6 record may be, there will be no talk of an Ozeki run.
That honor goes to M4 Kotomitsuki who put together an excellent basho going 13-2 including solid wins over Chiyotaikai, Tochiazuma, and Wakanosato. Kotomituski is a lock to join Wakanosato in the Sekiwake ranks come March, a position that I think he deserves. It was exactly one year ago when Kotomituski was fighting as a Sekiwake before elbow problems nearly dropped him out of the division. He has come back with a roar, however, and has as much upside in the talk of a future Ozeki as anyone. Don't pencil him in too soon, however, as fighting lower-ranked rikishi through the first nine days (I'm including M2 Kyokushuzan in that group) is much different from fighting in the jo'i. Nevertheless, the potential has always been there, and this guy has as good of shot to yusho when Asashoryu has an off basho as anyone; he's done it once before. I'm cautiously optimistic regarding his potential in March.
Nipping at Kotomitsuki's heels all basho was M5 Kakizoe who finished at 11-4 and was awarded the Ginosho (Technical Merit Prize). Talk about lightening in a bottle. His only losses came at the hands of Asashoryu, Wakanosato, Kotomitsuki, and a pull down effort from Aminishiki. Not too shabby. He's as worthy as anyone to take over one of the vacant Komusubi slots for March, and he's someone whom I think can actually stick there. He's not huge, but he combines terrific speed (second only to Asashoryu) and powerful tsuppari to overwhelm his opponents. Keep your eye on him.
Jumping back up the ranks, M1 Toki was rotten-egg awful. 1-14 ? And that one win was a gift from the judges. Toki did sit out a few days to recover from a minor injury, but this guy had no life whatsoever. Never fear, Toki fans, he'll drop down into the double-digit Maegashira ranks and thrash the scrubs down there. He'll be back sometime around May. Toki's one-dimensional style, however, may have run its course amongst the big boys. Toki's fellow M1 Hokutoriki had a decent basho at 5-10 considering his rank, but then I look at his two cheap pull down wins and feel like saying "get the hell back down to the mid-Maegashira ranks where you belong." Hokutoriki just doesn't have enough power or technique to cause a stir among the jo'i.
M2 Iwakiyama posted his second straight 6-9 record fighting among the big boys (last basho he was ranked as Komusubi). He should fall enough in the ranks to have a good shot at another kachi-koshi come March. Just look at Kotomitsuki's opponents through the first nine days (one M2 and everyone else ranked lower than M4) compared to Iwakiyama's (1 Yokozuna, 4 Ozeki, 1 Komusubi) and you can see how big of a difference an M2 rank and and M4 rank are. Fellow M2 Kyokushuzan PULLED out eight wins yet again. Will he make it to Komusubi for March? He certainly doesn't deserve it, but unless the Association wants to jump Kyokutenho and Kakizoe ahead of him, he'll be there for the first time since 1995 I think. Only one of his eight wins was by a forward-moving technique, and since I have no memory of that epic bout with Jumonji on day 14, I won't comment any further.
M3 Takamisakari suffered yet another make-koshi going just 4-11. He had a small brace just below his right knee, and he was limping after seemingly every bout, but that could be the Dejima syndrome: bounce up the hanamichi after a win one day then limp back to the dressing room the next after a loss as if you needed knee replacement surgery. My take is that Takamisakari's knee was bothering him. We're used to seeing the Robocop use that leg to brace himself at the tawara before swinging his opponents out of the ring with crafty counter moves. That just wasn't there this basho, which tells me that he was hurting. Remember, this guy used to heavily wrap his left leg up until a few basho ago. Takamisakari falling down the ranks is the last thing the Association needs now regarding the sport's popularity, especially with the eminent rise of some new foreign rikishi. Fellow M3 Kyokutenho eeked out his kachi-koshi by going 4-0 over the last four days. The upside for the Mongolian this basho is that he dominated Tochiazuma for a good win and gave Asashoryu as much trouble as anyone.
M4 Tokitsuumi goes 7-8, which is no surprise. He just not quite good enough to stick with the jo'i. M5 Kasuganishiki is in the same boat although his body and youth may propel him to the sanyaku someday. M6 Dejima went 10-5, which may propel him into the Komusubi ranks for March. Is Dejima back? Not if he continues to lose to the likes of Kasuganishiki, Tochisakae, and Kaiho. Like Kaio, Dejima brings the goods but a few head-scratching losses early always seem to keep him just out of the spotlight. Counterpart M6 Takekaze had a forgettable basho going just 4-11. He was simply overmatched this high up in the ranks. Only one of his four wins was against someone who obtained a kachi-koshi, and that was Kyokushuzan. I think this pint-sized rikishi is going to follow a similar career path to that of Kaiho.
Our two M7s produced excellent records both ending the tournament at 11-4. Shimotori, who has been ranked as high as M1 I believe, beat everyone who he was supposed to and lost three of his four bouts to Kotomitsuki, Kakizoe, and Buyuzan. Shimotori will find himself near the top of the Maegashira ranks again for March, but I think it's territory that he can handle. He's a few centimeters taller than the average rikishi and his sumo is well rounded enough that I think he can be a M1-M4 mainstay. Don't let him get your belt or you're in trouble. His counterpart, Miyabiyama, got off to a lousy 1-3 start but went 10-1 the rest of the way. That sounds nice, but let's see the former Ozeki do it next basho as well when he fights the heavy hitters. Miyabi's best win in my opinion was against Kokkai.
M10 Kokkai appears to be the real deal. Yes, he only posted an 8-7 record, but Kenji hit the nail on the head when he said "Kokkai won all the bouts that he lost." Ok, he was beat straight up a few times by Miyabiyama and Dejima, but look at his last three bouts of which he lost all: Kakizoe (11-4) who I thought was awarded the win due to poor refereeing and lazy judges. Kokkai blew Kakizoe off the line and completely controlled the bout. Kotomitsuki (13-2) had his hands full as Kokkai dictated the pace and had Kotomitsuki driven to ring's edge, but what liked look some disorientation by the Georgian in the ring cost him the loss as he failed to finish Kotomitsuki off that last step. The exact same could be said for his bout with Shimotori (11-4). Kokkai controlled the bout the entire way, but seemed to lose track of where he was in the ring allowing the more experienced Shimotori to steal the win. Kokkai's last three opponents' had a combined 35 wins among them, yet the rookie dominated all of them. He did lose the bouts, but wait until he gains a little bit more experience. The simple fact that the Sumo Association paired Kokkai with these last three opponents over the last three days tells you all you need to know. If I had to put my money on who the next Yokozuna will be, I'd put it on either Kokkai or Koto-oshu, who you'll definitely hear more about a few basho down the road.
Since there are just too many Maegashira to comment on everyone, honorable mention goes to M8 Aminishiki who at 9-6 could have done even better if he hadn't lost to Asanowaka and Ushiomaru down the stretch (ouch); M8 Jumonji and M9 Kinkaiyama, who are finally able to keep themselves in the division; M10 Takanonami who finally got a kachi-koshi at 8-7 after a year's wait; M11 Tochisakae at 9-6 who finally regained the form he briefly showed when first fighting in the division several years ago; and M14 Buyuzan who at 10-5 seems to have one of these basho twice a year. Sorry M16 Asanowaka, your 10-5 record means nothing to me.
Underachievers were M12 Asasekiryu at 7-8 and M13 Takanowaka at 4-11. Thanks to a generous number of ranks on the banzuke, Asasekiryu will be around for awhile, but it looks as if the former Sekiwake, Takanowaka, will have to pride himself on beating up the Juryo rikishi.
Looking ahead to Osaka, I would have to say that Asashoryu is the favorite; however, the Haru basho is always the wackiest of the year. It should be fun. Until then, we will continue to update our news page as new sumo headlines come down the pipe. Thanks for everyone's support and congratulations to Sashimaru of Germany for winning the Fantasy Sumo tournament. We have t-shirts designed that we will award to all previous and future winners (when we actually get them printed up is a completely different story). Until then...
This basho is winding down in a hurry, and everything from this point is basically mop up work. A few of the Maegashira scrubs are still grappling for that coveted eight-win mark, and those who are already there are still fighting for a sansho (special prize); but, the magic number for Asashoryu's yusho is down to one, which means that either an Asashoryu win or a Kotomitsuki loss over the last two days will solidify what we've known for the last few days: Asashoryu is king.
Asashoryu took a giant leap forward today in his quest for his first 15-0 yusho by defeating Ozeki Kaio in a rather anti-climactic bout. Kaio didn't appear to come as hard today as he had over the last few days at the tachi-ai, and this cost him. Asashoryu led with the right shoulder and quickly wrapped his right arm around Kaio's left arm in the arm bar hold. He then locked his right leg around the Ozeki's left leg basically paralyzing Kaio's movements. This allowed Asashoryu to put himself in the man love position where he has both arms wrapped around Kaio's waist from behind. I thought it was very classy of Asashoryu to gently walk the Ozeki out of the ring at this point because he could have easily sent him into the third row. One thing you don't want to do is get on the Yokozuna's bad side. Another solid win for Asashoryu, which puts him at 13-0 and more importantly, chalks Kaio off the list of his remaining foes. Asashoryu, who won with speed and technique today, has yet to be in any danger whatsoever over his first 13 bouts. He'll face Chiyotaikai tomorrow and Tochiazuma on senshuraku. Kaio falls to 9-4.
Asashoryu could have wrapped up the yusho entirely today if Komusubi Wakanosato could have beaten M4 Kotomitsuki, but it was not to be as the former champion pushed Wakanosato out with little trouble in a strange bout. Both rikishi seemed to bounce off of each other at the tachi-ai, which left them standing about a meter apart. Rather than crashing back into each other, they both put their hands up in the on-guard pose waiting for the other to make a move. They finally slowly touched their heads together to put each on an even keel, but Kotomitsuki pressed the action first and easily pushed his opponent out of the ring. Another good win for Kotomitsuki, who now stands at 11-2. Wakanosato falls to 7-6 after two bad performances in a row. Up next for Kotomitsuki on day 14 is the Makuuchi newcomer M10 Kokkai. That says something for the rookie when the Association chooses him to face Kotomitsuki with the yusho still on the line.
It's too bad Kokkai didn't get as much respect from the judges today in his bout with M5 Kakizoe. I know this was a rather meaningless bout, but what occurred was something that I have to comment on. Kokkai came out with a wicked right nodowa from the tachi-ai and immediately drove Kakizoe back. Kakizoe, in a last ditch effort, attempted a pull down, which threw Kokkai's balance off enough that he put his hand down to the dirt to brace his fall but not before Kakizoe had stepped out of the ring. The referee pointed his gunbai towards Kakizoe and was received with such a surprised reaction from the M5 that the Kokugikan crowd started laughing. Kakizoe next looked at the yobi-dashi in his corner confirming that it was really true. Kokkai, of course, was glaring at anyone he could because it was clear that at least a mono-ii should have been called, but nary a hand up from any of the judges. Replays showed that Kakizoe's foot stepping out and Kokkai's hand touching the dirt where simultaneous (at least as far as I could tell), and it's just plain ridiculous that a mono-ii (judges conference) wasn't called. Kakizoe asked the yobi-dashi several more times if he really did win while he was waiting to give the chikara-mizu to the next combatant.
The problem I have here is this is not the only time this has occurred during the basho. Luckily, such a call hasn't affected the outcome of the yusho, but it arguably affected the recipient of the Kantosho. Is it too much to ask the judges to get off of their lazy asses for a minute to confirm a close call? Furthermore, wouldn't it make more sense to allow a 70 year old man with the title of "referee" to wear a pair of glasses in the ring? I know it would clash with his traditional shinto garb, but it would probably improve his judgment. My favorite is when the referee obviously has no clue who won a bout, so after a few indecisive jerks of the gunbai, he finally makes his decision.
As long as I'm on the topic, I might as well bring up the fact that the referee blew the call today in the Chiyotaikai-Tochiazuma bout. The judges had no choice here but to call a conference and review the action; I'd like to see the same dedication regarding all bouts involving sekitori. Tochiazuma brought a fire to his bout today that we've rarely seen this basho. He neutralized Chiyo's tachi-ai and actually drove his fellow Ozeki back with some sharp thrusts of his own. However, in a last ditch effort, Chiyotaikai evaded with his foot on the tawara and was successful in pulling Tochiazuma down to the dirt before he stepped out of the ring himself. Though the kimarite was hataki-komi, I thought Chiyotaikai displayed some pretty good technique in the win. He stuck to his guns the whole bout until backed up to the brink of defeat. I have absolutely no problem with a rikishi winning via pull-down as long as he doesn't set it up with a tachi-ai henka or an obvious back pedal seconds after the initial charge. Chiyotaikai at 10-3 looks to be the dominant Ozeki this basho while Tochiazuma (8-5) is damn lucky he's got his eight wins because the going isn't getting any easier with Kaio and Asashoryu over the last two days.
In other sanyaku bouts, Sekiwake Tosanoumi (3-10) deserved to lose after a horrible tachi-ai henka that failed to finish off M2 Iwakiyama. Iwakiyama recovered nicely forcing the bout to the belt where he easily forced Tosanoumi out. M2 Kyokushuzan "won" today by what else: jumping completely out of the way at the tachi-ai and pulling your opponent down by the shoulder. Sekiwake Tamanoshima took the bait hook line and sinker and thus falls to 4-9. Komusubi Tochinonada (5-8) made his make-koshi official today by pressing too fast against his opponent without a firm grip on his belt or having him under control with tsuppari. M4 Tokitsuumi (5-8) dodged Nada at the edge and easily pulled him down.
No Maegashira rikishi secured kachi-koshi today, but it should be noted that M7 Shimotori picked up his tenth win today. Talk about flying completely under the radar. The key bouts tomorrow are Asashoryu vs. Chiyotaikai where Chiyotaikai has five seconds to beat his opponent or he loses; Kotomitsuki vs. Kokkai, which will be decided on whether or not Kotomitsuki can grab Kokkai's belt; and Kaio vs. Tochiazuma in a battle of who's the second best Ozeki this basho.
If you listen carefully, you can already hear it. It's the fat lady singing because this basho is over. The only two issues that remain are will Asashoryu run the table for the first 15-0 yusho since Takanohana's in 1996, and who will win the Fantasy Sumo tournament? I guess as a secondary storyline we could also ask will Ozeki Tochiazuma finally secure that coveted Yokozuna..er..uh kachi-koshi that has eluded him for three straight days now.
There's only one place to start and that's the top where Yokozuna Asashoryu is having the best basho of his career so far. He still has four days to go and a well-conditioned Kaio stands in his way, but I've never seen the Yokozuna perform with more confidence and such dominance in the ring. The yusho is a given at this point; now it's just a matter of whether or not he'll run the table. Today the Yokozuna easily handled up-and-coming M5 Kakizoe who was still in the yusho race coming into the day. Asashoryu welcomed Kakizoe to the jo'i with a couple of sharp thrusts to the throat before getting on his inside and forcing him out by the belt. The Yokozuna made Kakizoe (8-3) look slow and lost, and Kakizoe has some of the best quicks in the division. I can't say enough about the Yokozuna's performance this basho, but in deference to those who don't like Asashoryu (99% of Japan), I'll move on.
M4 Kotomitsuki officially put a fork into Ozeki Tochiazuma today and his quest for the yoko-zuna. Today's performance by Tochiazuma (7-4) was a carbon copy of yesterday's: half-hearted tachiai, passive sumo, give up the uwate, and wait for your opponent to make his move. We don't need to see a candidate for Yokozuna pick himself up out of the first row of spectators two days in a row at the hands of two Maegashira rikishi. I know this is kind of harsh, but the same thing also applies to Kaio and Chiyotaikai and their numerous failed attempts at the prestigious rank. While I'm on the subject, I hate to break it to those who desperately want a Japanese Yokozuna, but I just don't see a future Yokozuna among the current native Makuuchi rikishi. I would almost bet anything that you'll see an Eastern European ranked in the top spot before you see another Japanese rikishi there.
Getting back to today's bout, Kotomitsuki bounced (pun intended) back nicely from his loss yesterday to overpower Tochiazuma sending the Ozeki to his third straight loss and a 7-4 record. Kotomitsuki at 9-2 is all but guaranteed a slot in the sanyaku for March, but I don't see him burning it up against the jo'i next March. The term "rank-and-file" has been bandied about forever to describe the Maegashira rikishi who climb up and down those ranks year after year, but Wakanosato aside, I think it's also safe to dub the current sanyaku rikishi and some of the M1 - M3 as "sanyaku rank and filers." Nobody can stick for the life of them.
Helping to cement Asashoryu's pending yusho was Ozeki Chiyotaikai's losing to Komusubi Tochinonada. Chiyotaikai was the last one-loss rikishi to fall giving Asashoryu a two-bout lead over second place. I was proud of Chiyo today in his loss--which might sound strange--but he stuck to his guns and didn't go for the cheap pull down despite the fact that his opponent was taking charge. Chiyo attempted a left nodowa from the tachi-ai, but Tochinonada didn't budge and actually wiped away Chiyo's thrust with a couple of effective nodowa of his own driving Chiyotaikai back a few steps. Chiyo, with his back up against the edge, charged again, but Tochinonada evaded the charge and grabbed the Ozeki in an arm bar holding using that to throw him down with the kotenage technique. Good win for Tochinonada now at 4-7 and a good effort from Chiyotaikai who falls to 9-2.
Ozeki Kaio improved to 9-2 today with another good tachi-ai that resulted in a fairly easy win over Sekiwake Tamanoshima (4-7). Kaio hit his opponent hard at the tachi-ai and grabbed another of his patented holds--a right arm bar. He used the grip to keep Tamanoshima on the defensive before wrenching the Sekiwake's arm and throwing him down. Tamanoshima laid on the clay for a moment holding his left elbow, which had just taken more force from the Kaio throw than any joint should. I have not seen any reports of Tamanoshima's withdrawing, so it's wait and see. Kaio really looks good, and one can only wonder how different this basho would be if Kaio wouldn't have actually followed protocol and charged from the tachi-ai against Mr. Gimmick, Kyokushuzan. Tomorrow is Kaio's turn to welcome Kakizoe to the big time.
Rounding out the sanyaku, Sekiwake Tosanoumi easily forced out M3 Takamisakari to pick up only his third win. Both rikishi stand at a measly 3-8. I'm still trying to determine who was more terrorized by Akebono's recent antics: his wife and two kids who were forced to sit in the Nagoya Dome and watch their dad/husband get worked over by Atlas on New Year's Eve, or Takamisakari who has lost his mentor and gone only 8-18 since Akebono's retirement from sumo. Komusubi Wakanosato is just one win away from getting back his Sekiwake rank at 7-4 after easily dispatching M2 Iwakiyama (3-8) with a scoop throw.
Securing kachi-koshi to stand at 8-3 at day's end was M7 Shimotori, M8 Aminishiki, and (oh brother) M16 Asanowaka. Asanowaka "defeated" M11 Yotsukasa (4-7) by--well, you know--but I really got a kick out of Mainoumi's comments after the bout. He basically said, "well, you know it's coming, but these rikishi just can't seem to help charging forward against Asasnowaka." And as much as I harp on Kyokushuzan and Asanowaka, its' true. If you're dumb enough to charge straight ahead against these guys, I guess you deserve to lose. What ever happened to the good 'ol Mainoumi-Tomonohana tachiai days where both guys stood straight up and egged each other on with their hands just daring the other to make the first move. You'd be five seconds into a bout before anyone made contact.
Today wasn't exactly a huge turning point for the basho itself, but it was a red-letter day for Ozeki Tochiazuma. In his quest for promotion to Yokozuna, Tochiazuma suffered a huge loss at the hands of M3 Takamisakari. It was a no-win situation for the Kokukigan crowd: in one corner stood everyone's favorite Takamisakari, and in the other stood Tochiazuma, who is shouldering the high expectations of a nation desperate for a native Yokozuna. Tochiazuma delivered a solid tachi-ai, which gave him the quick momentum, but as he drove the Robocop back, he kept his head and upper-body too low allowing Takamisakari to execute a maki-komi move where he grabs his opponent's torso and twists him around and down. It was a vintage Sakari win where he turns the tables while retreating, but more than that, it was a mental breakdown by Tochiazuma, and one that probably cost him the white belt--for now anyway. Had Tochiazuma used the strategy that was so successful in Kyushu where he uses the power from his lower body to drive his opponents up and out, this bout wouldn't have been close. It's a mental lapse such as this that separates the Yokozuna from the rest of the pack. The Kokugikan crowd, which normally erupts after a Takamisakari (3-6) win, could only politely applause today as they knew the implications of Tochiazuma's loss.
In breaking down Tochiazuma's sumo thus far, I can't say that today's loss surprised me. Look at his performance on day 8 against Tosanoumi. A dodge-your-opponent's-tachi-ai followed by a cheap pull down win a la Kyokushuzan hardly worthy of a Yokozuna. There's nothing that will take you out of a Yokozuna mindset more than dodging an opponent who beat you last basho instead of sticking to your bread and butter and coming out with a kick-ass mentality. I would describe Tochiazuma's sumo thus far as good, but not great. How many times have the announcers loudly proclaimed "tsuyoi!" (powerful) or "choushi ii!" (top of his game) this basho after a Tochiazuma bout? Maybe once or twice. Tochiazuma falls to 7-2 and cannot lose again if he still holds Yokozuna hopes let alone the yusho. The future looks bleak, however, as the Ozeki must go unscathed against two Ozeki, Asashoryu, Tamanoshima, and possibly some firey Maegashira in Kotomitsuki and Kakizoe.
Standing firmly in Tochiazuma's way and completely dominating this basho is Yokozuna Asashoryu who came out with some cautious tsuppari today against M4 Tokitsuumi before getting on the inside and easily forcing Tokitsuumi out. Asa stands at 9-0 and has yet to be in any trouble whatsoever. It seems as if his toughest opponent this basho so far as been the cold and fever he's fighting, but the Yokozuna's opponents will all start getting progressively tougher starting with Kotomitsuki on day 10.
As long as we're talking about M4 Kotomitsuki, I'm not sold on the former Sekiwake. Why? He has only faced one rikishi ranked higher than him and that was M2 Kyokushuzan who doesn't count. Kotomitsuki has been good this basho standing at an impressive 8-1, but if his sumo is going to be classified as great, he's going to have to pull out some wins against the big boys. It's expected that someone who has won it all previously should tear up the mid-Maegashira, so I won't start getting excited until he beats his upcoming jo'i opponents.
I am excited about M5 Kakizoe, who like Kotomitsuki is 8-1and tearing up the mid-Maegashira. The difference between Kakizoe and Kotomitsuki is this basho is Kakizoe's second in the division. Not many rikishi can claim a solid sophomore basho as Kakizoe can. Kakizoe began to impress me last basho when he pulled out a kachi-koshi basically on one leg. I'd love to see a Kakizoe-Asashoryu match up as the two rikishi have similar statures, styles, and speed.
Tied in second place at 8-1 one loss behind Asashoryu is Ozeki Chiyotaikai who scored a huge win over Komusubi Wakanosato today. How ironic was it that Wakanosato easily held his own at the tachi-ai, actually had the pace of the fight in his favor by forcing it to yotsu-zumo, and then panicked by going for a pull down move, which the Ozeki easily responded to by pushing Wakanosato completely off of the dohyo into Tochiazuma's lap who was sitting ringside. Just to make sure the job was finished, Chiyotaikai did a little stage diving himself landing on top of Wakanosato, Tochiazuma, and half of the front row spectators. Taikai hasn't exactly been spectacular, but he stands at an ominous 8-1 heading down the stretch.
While I'm on the subject of Wakanosato, this basho is a perfect example of why he is the barometer of the sanyaku. Wakanosato is great at times, but just isn't consistent enough yet to reach Ozeki. Kenji and I have always talked about a Barometer theory where a rikishi has to be good enough to beat Wakanosato in order to yusho. The theory held true for five years and was finally disproved last year (of course just two basho after launching our site), but you can see how the theory is working this basho: Asashoryu pounded Wakanosato and stands at 9-0; Chiyotaikai stood his ground and is still in the yusho hunt at 8-1; Kaio was overpowered by Wakanosato and at 7-2 is probably out of the race; and Tochiazuma was soundly beaten by Wakanosato and is also probably out of it at 7-2. In short, if you're good enough to beat Wakanosato, you're good enough to yusho.
In other notes, Ozeki Musoyama withdrew from the tournament today citing a knee injury. The withdraw gave Kaio a free pass, and also gives Tochiazuma a glimmer of hope as that will be one less top-notch rikishi he doesn't have to face.
Looking ahead to day 10, the Asashoryu-Kotomitsuki match-up is intriguing; Chiyotaikai gets his free pass against Kyokushuzan; Kaio will have his hands full with nemesis Tochinonada; Tochiazuma must bring his A-game to beat Kyokutenho; and Kakizoe get Aminishiki.
Week one is done and this basho seems to be in cruise control with the Yokozuna and four Ozeki going 10-0 over the past two days. With Asashoryu still undefeated, I really see this as coming down to a three horse race with the Yokozuna, Tochiazuma, and Chiyotaikai. Kaio and Musoyama will have to settle for the role of spoiler; I just don't see Asashoryu giving up a two bout lead at this point.
Asashoryu continues to impress easily pushing out Sekiwake Tamanoshima today to make it seven straight. Asa has yet to be in any kind of trouble during his first seven bouts, and his sumo has been top notch so far. And just as soon as I'm about to declare the possibility of his running the table, I look at his opponent on day 8, Kyokushuzan, and am reminded that anything can happen. Not that Kyokushuzan has any business whatsoever to be standing in the same ring as the Yokozuna, but Asashoryu's sumo and Kyokushuzan's dodge ball antics are two different sports. If sumo prevails tomorrow and Asashoryu wins, I just don't see anyone derailing him from the shihai at the end of fifteen days.
Ozeki Tochiazuma continues to do what he needs to: defeat the Maegashira and hope for the best against fellow Ozeki and Asashoryu. I don't see the fierceness in Tochiazuma's sumo this basho when compared to Kyushu, but he's still winning and only one off the lead. Tochiazuma defeated Iwakiyama on day seven using his speed to overcome his larger opponent. Regarding his run to Yokozuna, I think it may be a question of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council awarding him the rank with a record "worthy" of a Yokozuna. He has to finish 13-2 regardless regardless of what Asashoryu does.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai keeps pace as well only one loss behind the leader. With his usual head-scratching loss to a nobody out of the way, Chiyotaikai controls his own destiny. He steamrolled Tokitsuumi today to improve to 6-1. I still think Chiyotaikai has a good shot to come out of nowhere and win this thing. There's no pressure on the Ozeki.
Ozeki Kaio stands at 5-2, but is a long shot to yusho...especially after he came up favoring his right hand in his bout with Kyokutenho today. It looked as if Kaio sprained his right thumb today in a pull down win over the Mongolian. Kaio has to be 100% to yusho, so with this new injury, I don't see it happening. That doesn't mean, however, that he wont factor into the outcome. Kaio completely dominates the three rikishi still in the hunt.
Ozeki Musoyama looks solid. He stands at 5-2, but I think he was robbed against Toki on day four. While I'm on the subject, I've seen a lot of questionable calls this basho and the ringside judges doing nothing about the majority of them. Most of them have been occurring in the Maegashira ranks, so they've largely gone unnoticed, but I'd hate to see the yusho affected by a no-call. Back to Musoyama: I sure wish he'd fight like this every basho, and he will definitely not be a pushover when matched against the best of the best.
Our two Sekiwake, Tamanoshima and Tosanoumi, are drastically underachieving and are unworthy of their rank. Come to think of it, there's only one guy who is worthy of Sekiwake and that is Wakanosato fighting as Komusubi this basho. Wakanosato proved just how good he is by overpowering Tochiazuma on day 1. Consistency and beating lower ranked opponents are the areas he needs to focus on. Wakanosato still has a decent shot at the yusho. He stands at 5-2, but remember, four of those seven bouts have been against Ozeki ranked rikishi or higher.
Focusing on the Maegashira ranks, M4 Kotommitsuki is positioning himself to jump up into the sanyaku come March. It looks as if his elbows are pain free, and we should see him duking it out with the sanyaku in week 2. I sincerely doubt that he can yusho this basho, but he's done it before and he's got plenty of scrubs to pad his record with. M5 Kakizoe is another one to keep your eye on as he also stands at 6-1. To look at this guy you wonder how in the heck he can even win five bouts in the division, but he combines great speed with surprising power. The sanyaku isn't out of the question for Kakizoe in March with most rikishi ranked higher than him stinking it up.
Through the first week, I'd say we've been treated to an average basho. The Ozeki have looked bad at times, but I'm happy to see all of them with solid records going into week two. It's still anybody's game, but you have to favor Yokozuna Asashoryu. He's looked head and shoulders above the rest.
My, how a basho can turn in just two days. After day 3, I was as high on sumo as one could be proudly proclaiming that the Yokozuna/Ozeki-gun was 14-1. Their performance since? 5-5. And it could have been worse if Toki hadn't of withdrawn and given Tochiazuma a free pass today. Yes, Tochiazuma, who moves to 4-1, is the superior rikishi to Toki, but you never know what to expect when you face someone who is pull-down happy.
I may as well start at the top since Yokozuna Asashoryu is putting on a clinic this basho. I've noticed that Asashoryu has two different tachi-ai that he uses regularly. One is where he comes out of his stance mercilessly firing tsuppari at his opponents' throats as he displayed yesterday against Wakanosato. The second, which he used today against his opponent M2 Iwakiyama, is where he goes for the morozashi grip (both hands inside of his opponent's arms) allowing himself to be driven back a step or two in exchange for position and footing that allows him to throw his opponent down or turn the tables on his charging opponent putting the Yokozuna in prime position for the force out. From the tachi-ai today, Iwakiyama actually drove the Yokozuna back a few steps, but before you had the time to think 'is the Yokozuna in trouble?' Iwakiyama was flat on his back from a perfectly executed scoop throw. The bout was over in two seconds, which is a testament to the speed in which Asashoryu takes care of his business. The Yokozuna is atop the leader board at 5-0 while Iwakiyama falls to just 1-4. I like Iwakiyama's potential even though he's struggling with the jo'i. Once he gains more experience this high up, he won't be burned and baited as much at the tachi-ai. Getting back to the Yokozuna, Asashoryu now finds himself alone at the top (yes, I know Kotomitsuki his also 5-0)--a position he has yet to give up in his career. I won't say it's over, but with both dangerous Komusubi out of the way and two sub-par Sekiwake, the Yokozuna is definitely in the driver's seat.
Now that the good stuff's out of the way, let's turn to the bad: namely Chiyotaikai's sumo. I must say, it's been quite a while since Chiyo resorted to and was burned by the pull down, but he must have been inspired by the Hatakikomi parade so adequately described by Kenji yesterday that he couldn't resist. Paired against Sekiwake Tosanoumi today, Chiyotaikai met one of the few rikishi who can match him pound for pound at the tachi-ai. The tachi-ai was excellent with both rikishi refusing to given an inch; however, the Ozeki quickly resorted to the pull-down, and Tosanoumi wasn't fooled. The result of course was Chiyo being sent a few meters up the hanamichi. The look of disgust on Chiyotaikai's face said it all not to mention the announcer screaming "hiite shimatta!" Chiyo suffers his first loss to stand now at 4-1 while Tosanoumi scratches his way to 2-3. The most disturbing aspect of Chiyo's performance today was that he wasn't in trouble. Sure his forward progress was stopped, but it wasn't exactly as if Tosanoumi was pushing the Ozeki back. Big mental lapse that just derailed Chiyotakai's momentum.
In a decent bout of sumo today, Komusubi Wakanosato overpowered Ozeki Kaio to hand the Ozeki his second straight loss. As is usually the case, this was decided at the tachi-ai where Wakanosato exerted so much force on the Ozeki that Kaio was forced to overextend himself in an attempt to grab Wakanosato's belt. The Komusubi took advantage of his outstretched opponent by getting his left arm in deep under kaio's right armpit. Wakanosato used the position to lift Kaio off balance and easily force him out of the ring. Both rikishi now stand at 3-2.
Ozeki Musoyama continued to slide after losing to M1 Hokutoriki by what else--a cheap pull down. When all else fails and you have yet to pick up a win, just follow Hokutoriki's example and pull your opponent down. As much as I can't stand the cheap wins, you gotta love the interviews afterwards when a Maegashira scrub beats an Ozeki via hataki-komi and then has to try and keep a straight face during the post bout interview. The interviewer has to spin the situation to somehow make it look as if the Maegashira actually defeated his opponent with superior technique, but lost for words he goes to the staple question: "donna kimochi desu ka?" How does it feel (to win)? The rikishi, who is sweating not because of the hard fought bout but because he has to face a national audience after a chicken-shit performance, always responds with "uh, ureshii desu." (I'm thrilled).
Rounding out the sanyaku, Sekiwake Tamanoshima picked up his first win by forcing out M3 Kyokutenho in a good yotsu-zumo struggle. Hopefully, Tamanoshima learned his lesson about moving forward in your sumo and not backwards. Tama is 1-4 while Kyokutenho drops to 2-3. And lest we forget, Komusubi Tochinonada was defeated by M2 Kyokushuzan in a brilliant display of the aforementioned chicken-shit sumo. I guess since Kyokushuzan jumped to his left yesterday against Kaio, it was time to jump to his right today. Tochinonada gave a decent effort, but what can you do? Tochinonada falls to 2-3 while Kyokushuzan moves to 4-1. With all the uproar over countryman Asashoryu's behavior before the basho, Kyokushuzan's act during the basho is downright despicable, reprehensible, and punk-assed. How does this guy live with himself?
Deserving praise in the Maegashira ranks is M4 Kotomitsuki who has jumped out to an excellent 5-0 start with a defeat of M9 Kinkaiyama (1-4). Kotomitsuki has yet to face a rikishi ranked higher than him, so the jury is still out, but hey, so far, so good. M5 Kakizoe continues to impress picking up his fourth straight win against the no-slouch M7 Shimotori (3-2). M10 Takanonami is 4-1 despite a loss today at the hands of his nemesis M13 Takanowaka (3-2). M12 Asasekiryu is rolling at 4-1 after defeating M17 Hayateumi (2-3). And in the most gratifying bout of the day, M10 Kokkai moves to 4-1 after literally knocking M16 Asanowaka (3-2) on his ass in one fell swoop with that giant wingspan of his. Asanowaka of course went for the pull down and was rewarded with a trip through the air landing his butt right were the yobidashi place that bowl of salt in the corner. The Sumo Kyokai needs to do us a favor and pair Kokkai up with Kyokushuzan and Hokutoriki before this thing is over.
How nice is it to see the Yokozuna/Ozeki-gun with a combined 14-1 record after three days? We have been treated to rock solid sumo over the first three days, and this, if anything, is what will raise sumo's popularity again among the masses. I'll give Musoyama a little love today and start with him first as I think he had the biggest win of the day. The Ozeki was paired against Komusubi Wakanosato in a match up that promised to be a stellar yotsu-zumo bout. Musoyama forced the action from the tachi-ai with the deepest left inner grip you'll ever see. This stood Wakanosato up a bit and gave the Ozeki the momentum. Wakanosato was able to wrangle a right outer grip, but Musoyama was too strong for the Komusubi to mount a formidable attack. This was power against power with the Ozeki capturing the victory making it look easy. We hardly ever get to talk about Musoyama's yotsu-zumo ability because he rarely shows it, but it's the style and prowess he showed today that makes him my "favorite rikishi." Musoyama finds him self in a rare position at 3-0 while Wakanosato drops to 2-1. This was a very impressive win for Musoyama considering what Wakanosato did to Tochiazuma on day one.
Speaking of Tochiazuma, he did win today against M2 Kyokushuzan, but it was another curious performance reminiscent of his sumo on day one. Tochi pushed Shu back and grabbed a firm right outer grip from the tachi-ai, and just when you expected him to bulldoze his opponent out of the ring, he paused allowing Kyokushuzan to catch his breath leaving both rikishi in the hidari-yotsu position. Tochiazuma did force Kyokushuzan out after a few seconds, but he seemed very cautious in his approach. Coming out cautiously against Kyokushuzan at the tachi-ai is very understandable because you know the only direction Shu isn't going to come is straight forward, but once you have Shu a step away from the tawara and a fierce uwate grip, you need to finish him off quick and with authority. Good win today I guess, but bad strategy. Tochiazuma stands at 2-1, but his sumo hasn't been nearly as aggressive as it was in Kyushu. The jury's still out, but with all of the other Ozeki and Yokozuna seemingly in top form, Tochiazuma has got his work cut out for him. Kyokushuzan falls to 2-1.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai looked good as he blasted M3 Takamisakari out of the ring in seconds. Chiyo pushed the Robocop back from the get go and for a second it looked as if Takamisakari would grab one of Chiyotaikai's arms and use it to twist his opponent out as he did against Tamanoshima on day one, but Chiyo's strength and quick tsuppari proved to be too much for the smaller Sakari. It's vintage Chiyotaikai so far, but that also means there may be a head-scratching loss in the near future. Chiyo holds steady at 3-0 while Sakari falls to a respectable 1-2 considering his first three opponents.
Ozeki Kaio kept pace among the leaders at 3-0 after easily grabbing his coveted right outer grip against M2 Iwakiyama. He used the hold to steadily drive Iwakiyama back and out of the ring with little trouble. This was a classic case of Kaio using his experience to gain the upper-hand from the tachi-ai on a relative newcomer. Kaio also keeps pace with the leaders at 3-0 while Iwakiyama continues to struggle against the jo'i; he falls to 0-3. Things look bright for Kaio's future as he faces Kyokushuzan on day 4. The first real test for Kaio should come when he faces Tochinonada, someone he has been dominated by lately. If he can beat him (the day of their bout is not set yet) then Kaio is in the driver's seat.
And lest I forget, Yokozuna Asashoryu was as good as ever today against M1 Hokutoriki. Sho gave up the uwate to Hokutoriki from the get-go, but it didn't matter; he secured a cat-quick morozashi grip and had Hokutoriki spun around and forced out seemingly before the referee could finish his first Hakke-yoi. I was sure down on Asashoryu prior to the basho for his poor attitude and aloofness, but there's no denying that his performance inside of the ring is impeccable so far. Asashoryu stays perfect at 3-0 while Hokutoriki is obviously over-matched this high up on the banzuke.
As for the sanyaku ranks, Sekiwake Tosanoumi picked up his first win of the tournament over M1 Toki. I focused on Tosanoumi's head at the tachi-ai, and sure enough, he kept it up disallowing Toki to pull him down. In short, Tosanoumi didn't take Toki's bait, which seems to be wearing thin this basho. Elvis stands at a disappointing 0-3 and may want to rethink his strategy a bit. Here's some advice for Toki: try moving forward from the tachi-ai and use your bulk and fierce tsuppari for a change. In one of the best--and longest--bouts of the day, Sekiwake Tamanoshima was defeated by Komusubi Tochinonada. Tamanoshima looked as if he won the tachi-ai, which caused Tochinonada to attempt a pull down. That maneuver failed and Tochinonada was lucky not to be pushed out at that point. Tamanoshima did grab an outer grip, but this allowed Tochinonada to secure his coveted migi-shitate. Both rikishi spun around and around the ring using their respective belt grips to try and force out the other, but Tochinonada prevailed in the end as Tamanoshima looked worn out after nearly thirty seconds of chikara-zumo. Tamanoshima struggles at 0-3 while Tochinonada jumps out to a solid 2-1 start.
Shining in the Maegashira ranks at 3-0 are M4 Kotomitsuki, who overpowered a strong Shimotori today; M10 Takanonami, who is cleaning up on the rank-and-file rikishi as he should; and M12 Asasekiryu, who's staking an early claim for the Ginosho. I've also liked what I've seen from M5 Kakizoe who stands at 2-1.
On the docket for tomorrow is a huge bout between Asashoryu and Wakanosato. Normally, I'd say this one is a push, but after viewing the Yokozuna's speed and precise technique this basho, I see Asashoryu as coming out on top. Also, Tochiazuma receives another tough test in Tochinonada. I believe that whoever forces the fight to their style will win: quick oshi-zumo for Tochiazuma and drawn out yotsu-zumo for Tochinonada.
What an enjoyable day of sumo. I'm not sure if it was Fujii Announcer and Kitanofuji-oyakata in the booth providing their classic commentary, Mainoumi in the mukojomen seat adding his precise analysis, Naito Announcer handling the interviews, the familiar dark dirt used to create the Kokugikan's dohyo, or that old lady with bright purple hair in the third row, but it was good to lay back on the couch in the middle of the night and watch the day 1 bouts. I felt that the sumo was top-notch as well with all of the rikishi sticking to their guns.
I'll begin with not only the most anticipated bout of the day, but one of the top four most anticipated bouts of the basho in regards to Tochiazuma's Yokozuna run. The Sumo Association knew what is was doing by pairing Ozeki Tochiazuma with Komusubi Wakanosato on day one. Getting past one of the best yotsu-zumo fighters in the sport would be a huge test for the hopeful Ozeki, and one that he would not pass. You'll remember that Tochiazuma rarely fought in the yotsu-style during his magnificent run in Kyushu, so today it was a matter of who was going to determine the pace of the bout. Wakanosato actually came out with some tsuppari to throw the Ozeki off, but quickly grabbed a dangerous shitate hold. The Ozeki countered with a firm outer grip with the right hand, and both rikishi stood at a stalemate in the center of the ring with Tochiazuma seeming to have the advantage with the uwate. I was waiting for the Ozeki to attempt a throw, but Wakanosato pressed the action by forcing Tochiazuma back so strongly that he lost the coveted uwate leaving him completely vulnerable at ring's edge. Wakanosato easily pushed out Tochiazuma from there to hand the Ozeki a costly loss. No one wants to start a run at Yokozuna with a day one loss because it basically forces you to win 13 of your next 14 bouts, but looking on the bright side, one of Tochiazuma's toughest opponents is out of the way. If Tochi is going to see success this basho, he has to dictate the pace of the bout. Getting caught in a yotsu-zumo clash with one of the best is a mental breakdown. I wonder if he's feeling the pressure now?
Yokozuna Asashoryu also faced a formidable opponent and one who has given him trouble in the past in Komusubi Tochinonada. Unlike last basho, the Yokozuna came hard at the tachi-ai, but instead of going chest to chest with his larger opponent, he evaded slightly and grabbed a quick right outer grip, which he used to whirl his opponent around and up against the ring's edge before forcing him out with the body. Asa's sumo was so fast today that I didn't even catch his uwate grip until the replay. I had considered his pace a little bit reckless after watching the bout live, but the replay showed he was in full control and never in danger. Excellent performance in the ring today, but his performance outside of the ring may catch up to him over the course of the next two weeks.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai easily handled M1 Toki today. Taikai's attack was so swift and strong, Toki had no time to attempt his trademark pull-down. Nothing more to say here other than it doesn't matter if Chiyotaikai is out of shape this basho as long as he finishes his opponents off in a matter of seconds. Fellow Ozeki Kaio also made short work of M1 Hokutoriki. The latter charged with a few tsuppari to Kaio's face and throat area, but Kaio used his bulk and strength to stave off his opponent's initial attack before muscling him down to the dirt with a hard shove. Good start for Kaio; he needs to rack up as many wins early as possible. Rounding out the Ozeki ranks was Musoyama who easily defeated Iwakiyama with a throw down move. Iwakiyama's charge was too low, and Musoyama easily stepped around his opponent and threw him down. Good start for the Ozeki, but he's too unpredictable to say anything at this point.
Both Sekiwake were defeated today in two careless performances. Tosanoumi charged with his head too low as he is prone to do, and it's especially uncalled for when you do it against M2 Kyokushuzan, who easily backed up at the tachi-ai dragging Tosanoumi out of the ring and off the dohyo. Big mental mistake for Tosanoumi in a bout he should win. Our other Sekiwake, Tamanoshima, pushed M3 Takamisakari back to ring's edge in a flash from the tachi-ai, but his attack was more bark than bite as the Robocop easily evaded a the tawara stepping aside to basically let Tamanoshima throw himself out of the ring with his forward momentum. This was classic Takamisakari where he baits his opponents before turning the tables at the end. Takamisakari has added a few more slight routines to his pre-bout ritual to go along with a new, bright blue mawashi.
One notable performance from the Maegashira ranks was turned in by the division's only newcomer M10 Kokkai, who hails from the country Georgia and is the first Caucasian Makuuchi rikishi in history. With his knee heavily taped, Kokkai unloaded some powerful two-handed thrusts to drive M11 Yotsukasa out of the ring. At one point, Yotsukasa dodged a thrust that threw Kokkai off balance, but the Georgian showed excellent balance today in keeping his footing and continuing his offensive charge. Kokkai's wingspan is amazing, and I see him using those long arms to keep his opponents from getting in close. Kokkai is young; he's blessed with a great sumo body; and call me crazy, but I saw flashes of a young Akebono today in his performance. I'm really high on this guy, and I've only watched him for one day. Another nice aspect of his sumo is his attitude. Kokkai patted Yotsukasa on the back in a grateful gesture after the win, and he also thanked his tsukebito with a tap in the tunnel after the bout. Here's a guy who's obviously thankful to be in the position he is in.
Looking ahead to day 2, Tochiazuma should pick up his first win against Tokitsuumi, and Chiyotaikai faces his nemesis of late, Tamanoshima; but the most anticipated bout of the day has to be Takamisakari vs. Asashoryu. If Asa loses tomorrow, he will not yusho.
Hatsu pre-basho report
When I wrote my first pre-basho report, I had found exactly zero reports detailing the pre-basho keiko, so many of my predictions were a stab in the dark. I'll stick to most of them, especially in regards to how I think the individual rikishi will perform this basho, but I need to revise stance on the yusho.
A slow and out-of-breath performance by Chiyotaikai at the Soken practice session, where all of the top rikishi perform keiko in front of sumo dignitaries, officially drops him out of my "favorite" status to take the yusho. Maybe a repeat performance in Osaka, but not this month. Instead, I see the yusho coming down to two rikishi: Tochiazuma and Kaio. All reports indicate that both rikishi are healthy performing well in the keiko ring.
Defending champ, Tochiazuma, has continued the same strict keiko and exercise regime that brought him so much success in Kyushu. He made an interesting comment yesterday where he said, "Thanks to Asashoryu, all of the pre-basho headlines and hype have been focusing on the Yokozuna, not on me. I feel no pressure and am not even thinking about promotion to Yokozuna." I'll agree with him that Asashoryu has made things much easier for Tochiazuma by acting irresponsibly before the basho, and he may not be feeling any pressure at this point, but I guarantee that he'll feel it as he stares across the shikirisen at Wakanosato on day 1. There is no way a rikishi up for promotion to the sport's highest rank can fly under the radar during the tournament when everyone's focus is on the sumo itself and not the rikishi's behavior outside of the ring. All it's going to take is that first loss for Tochiazuma to really feel the pressure.
Now having said that, I think Tochiazuma is ready for the challenge, and I would give his chances of taking the yusho at 50-50, but where has he been from March 2002 to Aki 2003? That's the only aspect of his sudden Yokozuna run that bothers me. I'd hate to see him get the promotion and then fall back into his lazy, defensive ways. My take is this: Tochiazuma comes up one win short as his fellow Ozeki Kaio captures the yusho. All reports indicate Kaio is completely healthy and pain free as he enters the New Year's basho. A Kaio who is completely healthy physically is the best rikishi in the sport in my opinion. Kaio takes the yusho with a 13-2 record and begins his own Yokozuna run in March. My previous sansho predictions stand with Takamisakari taking the Kantosho and Kyokutenho picking up the Ginosho.
Hatsu basho pre-basho
If I could use one word to describe the upcoming Hatsu basho it would be "unpredictable." Due in large part to Japan's shutting down for nine straight days over the recent New Year's holiday, very few reports have been circulating regarding the individual rikishi and their condition. The headlines that did surface over the last few weeks focused on two topics: Asashoryu's delinquent behavior outside of the ring and Akebono's terrorizing his family by entering the K-1 ring and facing Bob Sapp. And while those two topics are quite compelling, I'll begin with one of the biggest changes to the sport in recent memory: the abolishment of the kosho system.
For those unfamiliar with the kosho system, the Sumo Association would allow an injured rikishi to miss one full tournament and keep his current place on the banzuke if the injury was sustained during a major tournament and at least two months were required for the injury to heal sufficiently. In the last few years, the Association had expressed their concern over the growing number of rikishi sitting out tournaments due to their kosho exemption. The numbers over the last few years were absolutely ridiculous with double-digit numbers of sekitori withdrawing from any given tournament. After the Association's announcement prior to last year's Kyushu basho that the kosho system would indeed be abolished, a total of two sekitori withdrew from Kyushu. Chalk one up for the Sumo Association. As compensation to the rikishi for the system's abolishment, four new sekitori slots have been added to the banzuke--two in Makuuchi and two in Juryo. We've fielded several questions since the release of the latest banzuke asking why are there now 17 Maegashira slots on the banzuke when before there were only fifteen. The answer is the two new slots added due to removal of the kosho system and one more vacancy created by the retirement of Musashimaru. There will now be 42 Makuuchi rikishi and 28 Juryo rikishi per tournament instead of 40 and 26 respectively.
Now onto the rikishi themselves where I'll begin with Yokozuna Asashoryu, who has once again dominated headlines with his behavior outside of the ring. Up until now, I have usually defended the Yokozuna's behavior and been opposed to all of the criticism directed his way, but over the last few weeks, my mind is changing fast. The problems began several weeks ago when the former Takasago stable master, ex-Komusubi Fujinishiki, passed away. Asashoryu was conspicuously absent from the funeral and was nowhere to be found. It turns out that he had gone back to Mongolia without informing his stable master or the Sumo Association of his whereabouts. Upon Asa's return to Japan, he headed straight for the home of the deceased to pay his belated respects, but that's too little too late. Next, Asashoryu has been a no-show at his stable's pre-basho practice sessions. Intense keiko usually begins about two weeks prior to day one of the tournament, but once again, Takasago-oyakata had no idea of his Yokozuna's whereabouts. Once Asashoryu resurfaced, he blamed a severe cold for his absence. And finally Asashoryu was a no-show for the second consecutive time at the tsuna-uchi ceremony, which is where the rikishi of a Yokozuna's stable and ichimon gather to create the new belt to be worn by the Yokozuna for the next two basho. The ceremony is held prior to the three basho held in Tokyo. I have not read any reports as to why the Yokozuna was absent from the tsuna-uchi ceremony, but enough is enough. Showing up at the airport with your hair in a ponytail and giving Kyokushuzan's mage (top-knot) a nice tug during a tournament bout is one thing, but blatantly disrespecting your elders and understudies is quite another. Ok, maybe Asashoryu's mother really was sick causing him to go home in December, and maybe he really did have a cold causing him to skip out on the first week of practice, but not informing anyone of your whereabouts is irresponsible and inexcusable. Asashoryu has played by his own rules for some time now, but if he's going to continue to draw a paycheck from the Japan Sumo Association, he's going to have to wise up in regards to following Japan's rules. And the number one rule on the list is respect your elders. If you see an unusual amount of gray hair in Takasago-oyakata's coif this basho, blame it on Asashoryu.
Asashoryu finally did resurface on Monday (1/5) at the soken practice, where the top-ranked rikishi in the Makuuchi division perform keiko in front of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council and other Association officials. Asa reportedly went 14-2 against the likes of Takamisakari and Tochinonada and looked good in the ring, but I don't think he can show up come day 1 with less than one week of practice under his belt and have an outstanding basho. Asashoryu has proven that he is the best rikishi in the field the past year, but the Yokozuna has to be firing on all cylinders mentally and physically to yusho. His body is too small too just "show up" a week before the festivities and be in top form. Also, how can he be mentally preparing himself for the basho by not even showing up at his stable's functions let alone performing any de-geiko through the Monday before day 1? It's been 16 months since anyone besides Asashoryu has taken the yusho in Tokyo, but I see the streak ending in January. Twelve wins falls just short of the yusho.
Ozeki Tochiazuma is fresh off of an outstanding yusho performance in Kyushu and finds himself the highest-ranked Ozeki for the first time in his career. You could just see a hunger in Tochiazuma's belly last basho that was absent for almost two years. Tochiazuma's style in Kyushu could be summed up as driving hard and up into his opponents giving them little chance of mounting any offense. Reportedly, he stuck to these guns at the soken practice faring well against the upper Maegashira. The Ozeki finds himself himself staring promotion to Yokozuna in the face this basho. The question now is can he do it? Half of me wants to say that yes he can as he's easily the hottest rikishi right now and I love his mental attitude of late regarding his pre-basho keiko; but the other half says he'll buckle under that same pressure that has caused him to resort to such poor, defensive sumo in the past. My take is that Tochiazuma is the favorite to take the yusho, but he will be upset by a fellow Ozeki.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai has been second best at seemingly every tournament since his last yusho in Osaka 2003. He's been as solid as ever against the sanyaku and hiramaku, but he's prone to losing streaks against the Ozeki and Yokozuna. The bottom line is if Chiyotaikai can come away with 3-1 record against fellow Ozeki and Asashoryu, then the yusho is his. I see Chiyotaikai dominating Tochiazuma in January as he did in Kyushu; the two rikishi have similar styles, but Chiyotaikai is more powerful. Chiyotaikai has struggled against Asashoryu of late, but the Yokozuna is not prepared to neutralize a Chiyotaikai tachi-ai. I'll give Chiyo a loss against Kaio as Kaio always has Chiyo's number, so that leaves Musoyama. If Chiyotaikai can beat Musoyama, he wins the yusho. I say he does it and takes the shihai at the end of fifteen days.
Ozeki Kaio is coming off of a solid performance in Kyushu. No, he wasn't in the yusho race the last few days, but his performance with a sore tailbone was admirable. I would lean towards Kaio this basho, but I just haven't heard a single report about his health. If Kaio is completely healthy, look out; but if he inherits some of that tape that seemed to drape his ex-stablemate Sentoryu's body, then it's another 10-5 basho.
Ozeki Musoyama has the luxury this basho of being kadoban free. That's a plus, but his lack of keiko prior to the tournaments is what keeps him one step behind the other Ozeki. This guys has the tools, but lacks the fire. I don't see anything that would make him a factor down the stretch. Nine wins for the Ozeki? Why not?
I was extremely pleased to see Tamanoshima sitting in the Sekiwake slot with the new banzuke. Do I think he's a perennial Sekiwake? No, but it's nice to see him rewarded for his best basho ever last November. I'm going to group Sekiwake Tamanoshima, Sekiwake Tosanoumi, Komusubi Tochinonada, M1 Toki, M2 Iwakiyama, M3 Takamisakari, and M3 Kyokutenho in the same group. None of these guys can kachi-koshi while ranked in the sanyaku, but each seems to have terrific tournaments ranked in the upper-Maegashira. You can take it to the bank that Tosanoumi, Tamanoshima, and Tochinonada will struggle while Toki, Takamisakari, and Kyokutenho will shine. There's nothing more to say until one of these guys can stick in the sanyaku for consecutive basho.
A notch above this group and a step behind the Ozeki is Komusubi Wakanosato. If Komusubi sounds strange next to his name, never fear; he'll be back at Sekiwake in Osaka. Wakanosato is too good to have two bad basho in a row. I see him winning at least eleven this time around and restoring talk of another Ozeki run.
Hokutoriki enjoys his highest rank ever at M1. This middleweight version of Chiyotaikai is probably over ranked here. I just don't see how he can pull out eight wins after facing Asashoryu, four Ozeki, the four sanyaku members, and the stacked upper-Maegashira. Same goes for M2 Kyokushuzan. I won't put it past the Mongolian to somehow sneak out eight wins, but it's highly unlikely. I will say this for Kyokushuzan, his sumo content has improved that last few basho, but he's still to retreat-happy to get much praise from me.
Tokitsuumi is right where he belongs at M4. His compatriot, Kotomitsuki, would normally be under ranked at M4, but his sumo as of late has been below average. Kakizoe and Kasuganishiki are two exciting young rikishi at M5. Kakizoe showed serious stones in Kyushu pulling out eight wins after injuring his knee prior to the basho and fighting with a leg brace that puts Dejima's bandages to shame.
Speaking of Dejima, he's ranked low enough at M6 to pull out double-digit wins easily. Fellow M6 Takekaze will be tested this high up the ranks in his sophomore basho. Miyabiyama should be ashamed to be ranked at M7 with his body, and what in the hell is Takanonami doing at M10? His compatriot at M10 is the only rookie in the division, Kokkai, who hails from the country Georgia in Eastern Europe. Kokkai comes into January with loads of hype as he just cleaned up the Juryo division in Kyushu going 14-1, but a serious knee injury in late December may put a damper on his debut. Nonetheless, standing at M10 after less than three years in the sport is no small feat.
Kotonowaka at M13 should dominate the bottom feeders as he did in Kyushu before getting injured and withdrawing. His compatriot, Takanowaka, was sitting in the Sekiwake slot a year ago and just can't seem to get any momentum going after a knee injury. M15 Kaiho finds himself back in the Makuuchi division after a few basho in Juryo, and coming in at M17 (yes, you read that rank correctly) is Hayateumi, who has Musashimaru's retirement to thank for his first tournament in Makuuchi in 18 months.
My shaky predictions for the 2004 Hatsu basho are as follows:
Yusho: Chiyotaikai at 13-2
Kantosho: Takamisakari 10-5
Ginosho: Kyokutenho 10-5