Mike Wesemann

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2006 Hatsu Basho Roundtable Report
Ticket sales were up, television ratings were up, and most importantly, the number of legitimate yusho candidates was up as well all contributing to an excellent Hatsu basho. If you thought that this was a good basho just because Asashoryu didn't yusho, you need to go home and rethink your life. This was a great basho because not only one but two rikishi rose up and punked Asashoryu legitimately prying the yusho streak from his grubby hands. That's what makes a basho great...multiple rikishi ranked high who actually live up to their expectations. Let's review the action starting with the yusho rikishi.

Ozeki Tochiazuma came into the basho with kadoban status meaning he needed to win at least eight bouts to prevent demotion from his rank. That he would win eight was a given; that he would go on a 14-1 run and hoist the emperor's cup in the end was expected by no one. These days, unless you're Asashoryu, all of the cards have to fall perfectly into place to take the yusho. Said cards consist of an injured Yokozuna, a lighter than normal schedule, a couple of lucky wins, and a good non-call by the judges always helps. Take nothing away from Tochiazuma. Despite how light the field may have been, everyone else fought the same schedule too didn't they? No doubt about it...Tochiazuma was the best this basho although I wasn't overly impressed with his two-week run.

Quick, conjure up in your mind memorable Tochiazuma bouts this basho good or bad. What comes to my mind is the bout with Roho where the Russian kinda just stepped out, the bout with Hakuho that ended in a non-mono ii, the bout with Iwakiyama where Iwakiyama suspiciously went down at the tawara, the right fist to Kokkai's class jaw that felled the Georgian, a blundering Ama tachi-ai, the bout against a fading Kotooshu, the day off against Hokutoriki, and the easy win over the injured Yokozuna. Are there any moments that stick out where Tochiazuma rocketed from the tachi-ai and authoritatively kicked someone's ass? The only one was against Asashoryu who was fighting with one arm and then maybe the Kotooshu bout. This is why I say all of the cards fell into place. Go back two years and try and remember Tochiazuma's last yusho. His sumo then could be described as a low charge from the tachi-ai and quick dismantling of his opponents. 8 oshi-dashi wins when he was employing oshi-zumo from the tachi-ai and three good belt wins. This basho? 7 oshi wins after stalling at the tachi-ai, 7 pull down wins, and just one belt win against the Yokozuna on senshuraku.

I know this sounds negative, but when I recap a basho, I like to pick out the highlights of the yusho rikishi. The problem is I'm having a tough time finding any. Because my mom is forcing me to say something positive, one of the bright aspects of Tochiazuma's sumo this basho came towards the end when he abandoned his turtle sumo in favor of taking the initiative from the tachi-ai starting with the Kokkai bout. What's turtle sumo? It's where Tochiazuma goes into his shell from the tachi-ai and hunkers down just daring someone to try and pull him down. Like a turtle, you can kick him, you can run over him with your bicycle, and you can even throw dirt clods at him. But in the end, he isn't hurt and the score is Tochiazuma 3, you 0. After lulling his opponent to sleep in true Tortoise and the Hare fashion, he pounces on you and wins. There's nothing wrong with it; it just isn't very flashy sumo. And another thing it ain't is Yokozuna sumo. Still, I have no problem whatsoever if Tochiazuma can go on one more run in March and be promoted to Yokozuna. Call it a lifetime achievement award.

In regards to Tochiazuma's pending promotion, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council and the Sumo Association have already stated for the record that Tochiazuma needs one of the following qualifications to secure promotion: an outright yusho where even a 12-3 record will do or a performance of 13-2 or better regardless of whether or not he takes the yusho (if only Konishiki had those odds). It's very doable simply because the other rikishi are having a tough time figuring out his current strategy. I'm fine either way although I don't think Tochiazuma has been fighting at a Yokozuna level for two years now. He'd give up a helluva lot of kinboshi before he retired, but the Sumo Association and YDC would take that in a minute because it would mean a Japanese Yokozuna on the banzuke. I'll comment on whether I think he'll do it in my Haru pre-basho report after I've had more time to digest it. In the mean time, to honor Tochiazuma's yusho, I'm upgrading my Bible reading prior to Tochiazuma bouts from Leviticus to Isaiah. Then, if Tochiazuma takes the yusho again in March, I'll start reading about Joshua kicking the crap out of Jericho prior to his bouts. All in all, it was a great basho for Tochiazuma. He deserved the yusho, and while I can recall a handful of flashy Takanohana moments, that former Yokozuna was pretty dull for most of his 21 career yusho.

Let's move on to Sekiwake Hakuho, our runner up who finished 13-2. Unlike Tochiazuma's sumo this basho, I can think of plenty of Hakuho highlights not the least of which was his domination over Asashoryu on day 12 that ironically opened the door completely up for Tochiazuma because the Yokozuna was injured in that Hakuho bout allowing Tochiazuma to take advantage of the freebie on senshuraku. Contrast Hakuho's sumo to Tochiazuma's. Hakuho employed 9 different winning techniques with nary a pull down among them. Every single win involved the belt or a throw except for his oshi-dashi stomping of Hokutoriki on day 13. Hakuho made just two mistakes the entire basho, both were pull down attempts, and both ended up costing him the yusho. The first occurred on day 7 when M3 Tochinohana did a helluva job of neutralizing Hakuho's tachi-ai. Hakuho had no offensive position from the charge, but Tochinohana didn't exactly have a hand up on his opponent either. As the two rikishi grappled for position in the ring, Hakuho went for an ill-advised pull-down that Tochinohana read and used to push the Sekiwake off of the dohyo. Hakuho wasn't on the run nor was he in trouble. He just lost his patience, and it cost him. Hopefully the kid learns. The second mistake of course came as he immediately went for the pulldown against Tochiazuma on day 8. Hakuho was actually in decent position to execute the move, but Tochiazuma is a grizzly veteran that feeds off of opponents trying to pull him down. Both rikishi ended up flying off of the dohyo at the same time, but the referee signaled in favor of Tochiazuma. You've already read my opinions regarding the politics surrounding that bout, so let me just end by saying Hakuho deserved to lose the bout because he panicked and didn't trust in his forward-moving sumo. That's the yusho right there. You go head to head with the best, leave the shenanigan sumo at home and just go out and kick his ass. I keep trying to convince myself that Hakuho was the best rikishi this basho, and that Hakuho displayed the best sumo of anyone; but no, Hakuho failed to beat Tochiazuma (ties don't count either), so he must settle for second best.

Not to worry too much, however. Tochiazuma wins this time, but Hakuho is already the better rikishi heading into March. For the record, Hakuho has 22 wins spanning two basho, so he will likely be promoted to Ozeki with an 11-4 performance in Osaka. Hakuho finds himself in the same position as a year ago. This time, however, the talk will focus on Tochiazuma's Yokozuna run, so Hakuho should be able to fly under the radar for the most part. Whether he reaches Ozeki or not, for my money Hakuho is the second best rikishi in the division right now. He showed that with his sumo. Kotooshu has yet to have a basho as good as Hakuho's performance in January. There were just too many highlights to mention here. It seemed as if a majority of his opponents ended up on their backs after being overpowered and thrown to the clay. I can't wait to see what Hakuho conjures up in March.

Let's slip down to our two 12-3 rikishi, both of whom found themselves ranked towards the bottom of the division in M11 Hokutoriki and M14 Tokitsuumi. I really bagged heavily on Hokutoriki the entire basho, and then things didn't get any better when he gave Kokkai the tachi-ai henka business on day 12, a day I happened to report on. Having cooled down now, I can declare that Hokutoriki had a good basho. A great basho doesn't include 5 pull down wins with most of those coming against tougher opponents like Tosanoumi, Kokkai, and Roho. On the bright side, Hokutoriki did have some very good wins against Kasugao and Futenoh. Hokutoriki had the kind of basho you would expect from him at this rank. He's better than M11. The biggest problem I have is that Hokutoriki gives it his all when ranked among the dross, but you watch, next basho when ranked among the jo'i he's going to fight like Boy George. Hokutoriki's 12-3 from M11 can be prorated to a 6-9 performance from say M2. No way was he going to yusho...thus the pretender tag, but all in all a good basho.

M14 Tokitsuumi had a good basho as well. Ditto everything I said about Hokutoriki except for the part of tending to quit when ranked among the jo'i. Big wins included a pretty thorough performance against Wakanosato, the aforementioned Hokutoriki, Ama, Roho, and then Kotomitsuki on senshuraku. Certainly a better resume than Hokutoriki, but then Tokitsuumi has better sumo. He should be ranked slightly higher than his ability in March, so expect a 7-8 record. Still, let's not get too ahead of ourselves. Tokitsuumi enjoys a solid basho and a well-deserved Ginosho prize.

Dropping a notch to our 11-4 rikishi, Yokozuna Asashoryu had his worst basho since Aki 2004 when he finished 9-6. The Yokozuna was clearly bothered by the muscle tear in his right bicep the last three days, so let's focus on his first 12 days. I consider the Yokozuna's condition over the first 12 days similar to what it's been for the last two years. He did skip out on a lot of keiko prior to the basho even going home for New Years, which meant he didn't return to Japan until less than a week before the basho started. That had to have taken a toll on his mental sharpness going into the tournament, and I think that's why Kokkai and Hakuho were able to dominate him so thoroughly. Asashoryu has yusho'd numerous times after skipping out on keiko and taking ill-timed trips to Mongolia, so it wasn't necessarily a red flag going into Hatsu 2006. My take is, however, that the younger rikishi are becoming less intimidated by the Yokozuna and can therefore capitalize on their size and strength advantages. In the case of this tournament, it resulted in two losses for the Yokozuna where he was beaten at the tachi-ai in both cases. I don't doubt for a second that the Asashoryu isn't going to make mental adjustments to correct this starting next basho.

As for the Yokozuna's two losses over the last three days, there's nothing to worry about there. I love Ama, and he has great technique, but Ama in the prime of his career doesn't do Asashoryu that way when the Yokozuna is healthy. On the importance scale, I classify that win the same as I did Hakuho's first win over Asashoryu in Kyushu 2004. Ama's victory was a legitimate win, but he did not beat the Yokozuna at full strength. Same goes for Tochiazuma's win. That was extremely smart sumo by the Ozeki on senshuraku, but like Ama, Tochiazuma never has done Asashoryu that way and never will again if the Yokozuna is at full strength. Where does Asashoryu go from here? He's got to clear his mind from such nonsense as going 90-0 in a calendar year and refocus on the record that really counts: Taiho's 32 yusho. I see this basho as a sign that Asashoryu's domination is slipping, but that means going from 6 yusho a year to around 4. I think he takes 4 yusho per year for the next two years, and then falls to around 3 per year after that. The surrounding cast is just too good now with the young blood in Kotooshu and Hakuho, and other heavyweights like Roho, Kokkai, and Miyabiyama (don't forget Baruto) who will lurk around the jo'i for years to come. If anyone can shake off a disappointing basho it's Asashoryu, so expect nothing less than a 15-0 performance in March. No one shakes off a disappointment like Asashoryu.

Let's tidy up the Ozeki ranks. We've covered Tochiazuma, so let's focus now on the new Ozeki Kotooshu, who finished an average 10-5. How can 10-5 be just average? Look at the Bulgarian's schedule the first 12 days. Just 2 of his 10 wins came over kachi-koshi rikishi in Miyabiyama and Iwakiyama who both finished 8-7. Kotooshu's average basho was exposed over the final three days when he went a sour 0-3 against Tochiazuma, Asashoryu, and Hakuho. Sure, those are three big names, but he was dominated by all three not to mention that Asashoryu's right wing was already injured. In his losses, Kotooshu was thrown around like a white seven foot center in the NBA trying to guard Shaquille O'Neal. Kotooshu was pretty much "just there" this basho never playing a factor, and if he doesn't light a small fire under his arse in the future, he will consistently get bandied about by the heavyweights. I was disappointed in the new Ozeki's effort, and let's hope that the Japanese press ease their coverage of him prior to the Haru basho as so many other important talking points exist beyond Japan's fascination with good-looking white people.

Ozeki Kaio and Ozeki Chiyotaikai are hardly worth mentioning. Kaio was injured coming in, and that was painfully obvious as we tried to watch him earn his wins that first week. Even in victory, he wasn't quite right making his withdrawal inevitable. It was Kaio's lower back that was giving problems prior to the basho, but that's an injury you can't heal from if you're required to fight 150 kilo men every two months. I'd be surprised if Kaio was on the banzuke at year's end. Chiyotaikai wasn't injured coming in, but the Ozeki didn't look sharp either that first week as he suffered losses to Takekaze and an injured Tamanoshima early on. Chiyotaikai may survive the year because his body isn't as banged up as Kaio's is, but he will not play a factor in another yusho race. These two are our token Ozeki who are waiting to be replaced by Hakuho and any other fresh blood that comes along.

Slipping down to the sanyaku ranks, you may say that Kotomitsuki was his typical self this basho finishing up 8-7 after a decent 7-2 start, but this veteran's tournament was below average. This guy skated through the fifteen days without fighting an Ozeki, and he still managed only eight wins. Five of his seven losses were to Maegashira rikishi, which shouldn't happen to someone who occupies the Sekiwake rank for half a year straight. Kotomitsuki only beat two kachi-koshi rikishi in M2 Kokkai and M7 Kakizoe. Kotomitsuki has enough raw talent to keep himself just ahead of the elevator boys who consistently ride up and down between Komusubi and the upper Maegashira, but the gap is widening between Hit and Mitsuki and the rikishi ranked above him.

I was disappointed in both Komusubi this basho simply because these are two former Sekiwake who should have been able to handle the onslaught of that first week. Here's the first week diet for both rikishi: the Yokozuna, four Ozeki, and both Sekiwake. What, no kitchen sink? Then, as if these two hadn't been through enough already, the Sumo Association paired them against each other on day 8. Kyokutenho won that contest but did little else. Needless to say Kyokutenho had zero wins over kachi-koshi rikishi in his 4-11 performance. His indifference this basho was inexcusable, and 95% of the word "disappointment" I used in the first sentence is attributed to this Mongo..I mean Japanese dude. Tamanoshima receives a healthy dose of mercy because he fought almost the entire way with a mummified right arm. To see him shake off a 1-7 start to finish 7-8 was admirable, and who wasn't rooting for him on senshuraku when he was 7-7? Unlike Kyokutenho, Tamanoshima did have some good wins that included his pummeling of Chiyotaikai that forced the Ozeki to withdraw and then wins over Kokkai and Miyabiyama. Tamanoshima will thankfully only drop one notch on the banzuke because we need quality Maegashira rikishi to make things interesting in March.

In the Maegashira ranks, Miyabiyama did all you can ask of an M1 in finishing 8-7 especially considering the scalps from three Ozeki, one Sekiwake, and one Komusubi he has stuffed in his akeni. The Sheriff's basho was of course highlighted by his win over Tochiazuma on day 9 where Miyabiyama showed just how lethal his tsuppari attack is. I won't go into depth here because I've beaten the equation [ ( tsuppari x 0 ) = terminated ] like a dead horse. Great basho for Miyabiyama, and he is actually one of my favorite rikishi when he fights as he did in January. See you in the sanyaku for March much to Kokkai's chagrin. Counterpart M1 Tokitenku had a decent basho even if he finished 5-10. Did anyone really expect him to perform better than this? I thought he looked intimidated in January, and I was a bit disappointed that we didn't see the same fighting spirit in him that we saw last year in Kyushu. Tekitenku has not occupied this rank for the last time, so don't fret Tenku fans.

The M2's played a key role this basho in guaging the rikishi who were really contenders and not just pretenders. Roho started the festivities by kicking Kotooshu's ass, and then Kokkai one-upped him by laying the wood to the Yokozuna on day 2. Roho had the better basho of the two, but I was really disappointed in his act after he secured kachi-koshi on day 11. The soon-to-be Komusubi had trophies of Kotooshu, Kotomitsuki, Kaio, Chiyotaikai, and Miyabiyama on his mantle, but then goes just 1-3 losing to Tokitsuumi, Aminishiki, and Hokutoriki. I don't care what Tokitsuumi and Hokutoriki's final records were; Roho is the superior rikishi and should beat them. I think it boils down to desire, and I haven't seen a whole lot of it from Roho. He's gotten this far on brute strength and talent, but he needs to light a fire under his butt if he ever wants to challenge for the Ozeki ranks. I don't see it happening. Kokkai's equally as strong as Roho, but he lacks the coordination of his Eastern European compatriot. How does a guy who smothers Asashoryu and two other Ozeki lose to Kasuganishiki, Iwakiyama, and Hokutoriki? He gets pulled down. Granted, he could do nothing against Hokutoriki's cheap shot, but Kokkai loses too many costly bouts to lower-ranked rikishi who take advantage of his suspect balance and footing. Kokkai should head the Maegashira ranks in March, and I'd love to see him pull off one more kachi-koshi.

No real comments on our M3's who both finished an expected 4-11. One aspect of Takekaze's sumo that I really admired this basho was no tachi-ai henka. Down lower in the ranks, he resorts to all kinds of shenanigans, but I really admired how he respected this rank on the banzuke by giving everyone a fair fight. And hey, two wins over Ozeki and a win over a Komusubi is something to be proud about. Great effort, and I never thought I'd hear myself say that about him. Tochinohana shows flashes of brilliance, but he is too inconsistent to keep himself ranked among the jo'i. He always seems to pull off some surprising wins (he's 3-1 lifetime against Kaio for example), but he's just too unpolished to consistently fight on this level. On day 7, he did a pretty good job of dismantling Hakuho, but we see that same efficient sumo about 5 times a basho.

It looked as if the last place Hakurozan wanted to be this basho was ranked at M4. He exhibited no effort against the heavy-hitters, and coming in, I thought he may be able to do some damage. I didn't expect a kachi-koshi, but I expected him to force his opponents to at least break a sweat during their bouts. Hakurozan had a brutal schedule and basically fought everyone that the sanyaku on up fight, but it seemed to me he was all too happy to lose quickly and get the hell out of there. Takekaze's 4-11 and Hakurozan's 4-11 are night and day. Counterpart Asasekiryu gave a good effort, but there's a reason that Asashoryu has abandoned his fellow stablemate AND countryman. He just can't cut it among the jo'i, so of what use is he to practice against? Cruel, I know, but a reality. I appreciated Asasekiryu's effort, but he simply doesn't have enough muscle to complement his technique. Compare him to Ama. Seki's bigger, but he doesn't hit as hard as Ama does. I'm going to avoid the s-word that rhymes with loft, but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it's safe to say it's a duck.

Has M5 Iwakiyama's career plateaued? I'd say so. One year ago Mount Iwaki was frequenting the sanyaku fighting the same rikishi he fought this basho. When you look at his opponents, I'd say his 8-7 effort was worthy. One of the best bouts of the basho technique-wise was Iwakiyama's uchi-muso victory over Tokitenku on day 4. Not too often you see a fat guy pull of uchi-muso against a Mongolian. I still like Iwakiyama, and I maintain that he should think tsuppari first, but he's getting nudged lower in the banzuke by the younger, stronger, (dare I say foreign) rikishi. Counterpart Kasuganishiki's 4-11 showed why this guy rarely makes appearances in the division. The talent and the body are there; I just don't see any knack for sumo. Did anybody remember his 4-3 start that included wins over Ama, Kokkai, and Miyabiyama? No. That's because his 0-8 finish ruined it.

I think M6 Ama made a good statement this basho posting a solid 9-6 record even after facing the Yokozuna, an Ozeki, and a Sekiwake. He went 2-1 over those three, and while his win over Asashoryu probably needs an asterisk, it was far more than Kotooshu could do. What has impressed me the most is Ama's tachi-ai. Despite the small frame, he is just rocketing into his opponents and setting himself up offensively to where his technique can take over. Yori-kiri wins over Kisenosato, Takamisakari, and Roho is no small feat when your Ama's size. He was a pleasure to watch this basho, and I'm starting to change my mind over previous statements that "he'll never grace the sanyaku." I think he can do it this year. counterpart Dejima eeked out a nice kachi-koshi when his pride kicked in allowing for a 6-2 finish. No real standout wins as he didn't face too many standout rikishi. He still does have a yusho to his credit and the rank of Ozeki on his resume.

M7 Aminishiki had a similar basho to Ama although the quality of opponents dropped off slightly. I think 9-6 from this rank is as good as it gets for Aminishiki. Counterpart Kakizoe rushed out to a 6-1 start, but that can be attributed to lesser quality opponents. He limped home with a 2-6 mark in week two once the Association began pairing him with hot rikishi this basho. Still, Kakizoe is a fun rikishi to watch and should remain a thorn in the side of the jo'i for years to come although I think he's just too small to sit in the sanyaku again.

M8 Futenoh needed a 4-0 finish to make his record look respectable at 9-6. It seems that beating Asashoryu on day 1 of the Aki basho has only led to a decline in his sumo. Futenoh has had a bad ankle the last two basho, and I hope that's the cause for his spinning his wheels of late, but he should probably rethink his tachi-ai strategy of going for the left arm on the inside. He gives away too many right outer grips to his opponents, and it leaves him standing too upright. How can a guy as strong as Futenoh lose in a belt fight to the likes of Kyokushuzan and Takamisakari? He gives up the uwate and gets burned. With the high number of rikishi suffering make-koshi in the first five ranks of the Maegashira, Futenoh should find himself in the jo'i for March.

Like Futenoh, Kisenosato also sputtered this basho after showing flashes of brilliance the last two basho. The Kid did manage an 8-7 record, and there's no need for panic. Look at some of his losses: Takamisakari, Kotoshogiku, Kakizoe, and Ama. Those are all solid rikishi. Then you have a hataki-komi loss to Kyokushuzan...nothing you can do about that tachi-ai henka. It was the losses to Wakatoba and Yoshikaze that still expose this kid's youth. I think Kisenosato is just fine and will make a permanent addition to the jo'i in the years to come.

M10 Takamisakari's 7-8 mark was a bit of a surprise this basho considering his rank. Then when you consider the inadvertent step-out by Kyokushuzan and the default win over Tochisakae, it could have been even worse. The Sumo Association had better hope he can hang on for another year or two. It'd probably take another Yokozuna and some dangerous Ozeki to replace the fan interest Takamisakari generates.

M11 Kyokushuzan's...act...is kind of wearing thin. I hesitate to use the word sumo because my memories of him this basho are of clowning around for the audience and throwing in a few tachi-ai henka in bad taste. 7-8 is a poor performance for Shu this low on the banzuke.

M12 Kasugao had a very good basho jumping out to a 7-2 start. Had Kyokushuzan not given him the henka bidness on day 1, he would have been 8-1. I read in an English newspaper published in Korea an interview of Kasugao where the Korean stated he will reach Ozeki next year and then Yokozuna the year after that. Uh, probably not, but I think Kasugao can reach the sanyaku at least once. Give Kasugao an uwate, and he can beat anyone on the banzuke. The problem is he needs to come up with a more offensive tachi-ai that gives him the position to do so. Counterpart Toyozakura keeps himself in the division for one more basho at least with a 7-8 mark. The younger Zakura's sumo is too one-dimensional for him to be a Makuuchi mainstay.

M13 Yoshikaze was schooled in his first basho in Makuuchi. The only reason I mention this 5-10 rikishi is because it was his Makuuchi debut. It couldn't have gone much worse. If they had a booby prize for technical demerit, Yoshikaze is the winner. He was felled by eight different kimarite in his 10 losses. You name it, Yoshikaze probably lost in that way. What that says is Yoshikaze had too many weaknesses exposed. The majority of his losses were by something-taoshi, which suggests a lack of lower body strength and poor footwork. For someone as small as Yoshikaze is, he needs that lower body stability to succeed in the Makuuchi division. Not all is lost, however, as the rookie did have some impressive wins over the likes of Takamisakari (yori-kiri), Kitazakura (yori-kiri), and Kisenosato (oshi-dashi). Let Yoshikaze hone his craft among the junior varsity another basho and give him another shot. I think he can eventually succeed in this division to the tune of an M3 rank or so.

M14 Tosanoumi can offer encouragement to Yoshikaze as the long-time Makuuchi veteran will find himself in the Juryo ranks come March. Say it isn't so. An 0-5 finish sealed the deal leaving my man at 5-10. There's no surprise that six of his losses were by pull downs. Tosanoumi has lost that step that keeps his opponents honest. We may be saying goodbye to the veteran soon. I don't think the youth and speed in the Juryo ranks will bode well for Tosanoumi.

M16 Wakanosato had an average basho from the bottom of the division. I'm not too worried about the former Sekiwake's 10-5 record. You look at his losses and they were all to quality rikishi who secured kachi-koshi themselves. Whenever a rikishi comes off of a major injury, you can't expect him to be an image of his former self over night. Give Wakanosato one more basho to make it to the jo'i, and then things should really get interesting as all of the heavyweights jockey for position high in the ranks.

And last but not least is M17 Kitazakura who demanded the spotlight with an 8-2 start that kept his name on the leaderboard for a few days that second week. I actually enjoyed watching Kitazakura run with the momentum he generated with his fast start, and is it me, or does this guy look like Takamisakari 40 kilos heavier? He's got the dohyo antics and those beady eyes shifting around during his interviews. Kitazakura's a big boy, so give him an uwate, and he spells trouble.

Looking ahead to Haru, we've got plenty of storylines already to keep things interesting. Having a Japanese rikishi up for Yokozuna promotion will be a boon to the press coverage, there's Hakuho's Ozeki run, and then most people should be interested to see how Asashoryu reacts to his let-down in January. I don't think this basho was a one hit wonder for 2006. The way the banzuke has and will be shaping up will demand that 2006 be a great year for sumo.

2006 Hatsu Basho Pre-basho Report
If we could only bump Futenoh, Kisenosato, and Wakanosato back up to the Makuuchi jo'i ranks then the Hatsu 2006 banzuke couldn't get any tougher. However, since injuries and inexperience will always be a part of sumo, we'll have to settle for punching bags like Takekaze and Asasekiryu in their place. My initial reaction to the new banzuke was how in the hell did Kasuganishiki rise from M15 to M5 with a 9-6 record? However, after a little more probing and scratching, the realization of the foreign invasion into sumo really hit home. After 5:05 PM Japan time during the hon-basho, a sumo bout that doesn't feature a foreign rikishi will be in the minority. So while the Japanese fans will continue to drift away from the sport, they have to realize that it's the fault of the greedy oyakata who know they can find better talent abroad than they can at home. But that's talk for another time and place...let's focus our attention on the banzuke in preparation of the 2006 Hatsu basho.

The majority of the headlines are focusing on our new Ozeki, Kotooshu, so I'll start with him. With Kotooshu's recent success, the demands for his time have been incessant. In fact, since Kyushu Kotooshu didn't have a single day off from keiko, interviews, television appearances, etc. until December 30th. The new Ozeki has indicated that he is tired, and of course there have been plenty of distractions to take his mind off of sumo; however, this situation is identical to the one prior to the Kyushu basho, and Kotooshu did just fine in November. So does he repeat his 11-4 mark? I don't think so, and not because of the distractions and possible pre-basho fatigue. Rather, the upper half of the banzuke is far tougher than it was in November. I posed the question in my opening as to how in the hell Kasuganishiki could jump 10 slots in the ranks with a 9-6 record. The answer is the upper half of the Maegashira ranks sucked so bad in November that they were all demoted forcing the Association to dig all the way down to M15 to find a worthy candidate for M5. This basho is different, however. I think there are two pushovers for Kotooshu in Takekaze and Asasekiryu, but other than that, he's got a fight on his hands every day. Still, I see Kotooshu coming through with a 10-5 mark. Despite what Kotooshu or anyone else might say, I don't think Kotooshu makes a real push for the yusho until he gets used to the Ozeki ranks. Besides, the new Ozeki was a judge for the 56th Annual Kohaku Utagassen on New Years eve, a nearly five hour television event featuring Japan's musical stars that is so tired it'd suck the life out of anyone.

Skipping back up to the Yokozuna ranks, there really is nothing new to report about Asashoryu. He was reported to be winded at the general practice session held in front of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, but we've heard that before. He is also heading back to Mongolia for the New Year and will supposedly miss a healthy dose of keiko, but the Yokozuna is a rikishi who can just show up and win. This strong banzuke favors Asashoryu because the losses should be spread out more evenly among the jo'i. There won't be anyone who can waltz through the first ten days or so padding his record and suddenly finding himself in the yusho hunt heading into the final days. Barring an injury, I don't see how Asashoryu doesn't take the yusho and extend his current record to 8 straight. The Yokozuna stated after Kyushu that his goal for 2006 was to go 90-0. Uh, okay. I don't see that zensho focus from the Yokozuna prior to this basho, so 15-0 would be a mild surprise. I say 14-1.

Bumping back down to the Ozeki ranks, the only reason Chiyotaikai is sitting in the prestigious East slot is because of a tachi-ai henka pulled against fellow Ozeki Kaio in Kyushu. Damn, Chiyotaikai's starting to piss me off already and the basho hasn't even started. Unless the Ozeki decides to side step a majority of his opponents, he's going to get worked this basho like a sweatshop employee sewing clothes for Walmart. In straight up sumo, I say Chiyotaikai goes 6-9 and finds a reason to limp. If he's up to his back pedaling and pirouetting he may be able to muster 8 wins. At any rate, get out the ugly stick when referring to Chiyotaikai's sumo.

Ozeki Kaio had a decent basho in November but has suddenly come up with lower back pain prior to Hatsu. It's strange because he has performed no sumo since his senshruaku bout in Kyushu. How does he suddenly come up lame by sitting around for 6 weeks? What's he been doing, deadlifting Rosie O'Donnell during the break? Kaio's lower back giving him problems despite performing zero sumo is not a good sign. So far the Ozeki has been confident regarding his ability to perform in January, but I'm expecting little from him this tournament. Tochiazuma can go ahead and pass the kadoban baton to Kaio before this basho even starts.

Rounding out the Ozeki ranks, Tochiazuma is coming off of some sort of phantom injury. That may sound harsh, but after his bout with Miyabiyama on day 3, I didn't see him get up slowly, limp down the hanamichi, or be wheeled off in that pre-WWII wheelchair the Association uses to cart off injured rikishi. Tochiazuma always seems to do well with his back against the wall, so I expect him to come out with some fire this basho. I'd get my ass in gear too if it meant an extra six grand per paycheck. Tochiazuma's sumo has been so passive the last two years or so. The Ozeki seems content to neutralize his opponent's tachi-ai and almost lean forward with his head inviting a pulldown attempt that he can take advantage of. I'd describe Tochiazuma's tactics of late as boring, but then he'd probably use the same word in describing my comments. 9 wins this basho with plenty of yawns.

Slipping down to the Sekiwake ranks, we've got two rikishi with so much potential they are perhaps second only to Asashoryu in raw ability and power. The problem is neither of these two seem to realize their potential. Both have shown flashes, one has actually taken the yusho, and the other was being hyped by members of the Sumo Association a year ago not as a future Ozeki but a Yokozuna. Of course I'm talking about Kotomitsuki and Hakuho. Kotomitsuki has peaked and is actually on the decline of his career despite his ability to impact at least one basho per year. I won't even venture to guess how many wins he posts. He started last basho 7-1 only to manage an 8-7 finish. Has Hakuho also peaked even though the kid is only 20? He may have. He hasn't shown much since his Ozeki run that began in Kyushu 2004. Hakuho appears to me to be content on picking up his nine wins per basho. Injury is the only thing that can knock him from this rank, so it's a shame that he lacks that fire to make another push for Ozeki. Uh, nine wins again?

Komusubi Kyokutenho can be summed up as a rikishi who lollygags for seven legitimate wins and then resorts to a tachi-ai henka to pick up his eighth. There's no way that attitude allows him to kachi-koshi this basho. The upper Maegashira is too tough for this Mongolian-turned-Japanese to breeze his way to a kachi-koshi. 6-9. Komusubi Tamanoshima on the other hand is a rikishi to keep your eye on. He's a legitimate Sekiwake when he's completely healthy, so watch out Kotomitsuki and Hakuho. Tamanoshima is equally adept at oshi-zumo and fighting at the belt, and even his bad habit of going for the pull-down to soon will probably burn the likes of Roho, Kokkai, and Hakurozan. Tamanoshima goes 8-7.

Miyabiyama leads the Maegashira pack sitting in the M1 East slot. This former Ozeki had a fabulous basho in November and deserved his Kantosho. I see Miyabiyama maintaining this same intensity and hovering around the eight win mark. The fattest guy in the division's success relies solely on his lumbering tsuppari. It's his choice. And speaking of tsuppari, counterpart Tokitenku showed me a lot last basho by sticking to a nice thrusting attack that propelled him to 10 wins. Tokitenku's shoves aren't powerful enough to finish his opponents off in mere seconds as Chiyotaikai did in his prime, but it sets the Mongolian up to gain prime offensive position on the inside of his opponent. I don't see Tokitenku winning eight simply because this is his first time this high on the banzuke, and unlike Hakuho, he doesn't have the pure strength and size to muster a kachi-koshi. Still, I see him picking up some surprising victories on his way to six wins.

How about that M2 rank occupied by Roho and Kokkai? Both of these Eastern Europeans have been here before and both have come so close to a kachi-koshi from this rank. Roho has been the better rikishi in the division because he's the more coordinated of the two, and I expect him to mount a better charge for the sanyaku than Kokkai. Don't forget though, Kokkai has an outstanding record against the Ozeki, so don't put it past the Georgian to shave some big scalps in January. On one hand, I'm excited these two are in this rank because the Yokozuna/Ozeki/Sanyaku will have to handle them, but on the other hand, I'm more excited because this is the rank where I want to see someone muscle his way into the sanyaku, not with an 11-4 mark from the M6 range.

M3 Takekaze is going to take over where Hokutoriki left off last basho. Three wins maybe? This is Asanowaka the second only he doesn't fight as if his fingers are all glued together. I'm really excited to see what Tochinohana can do...again from this high in the banzuke. If you began watching sumo less than five years ago, then you wouldn't remember a much younger Tochinohana shooting up to Komusubi at the end of 2000. Kenji and I were both quite high on this kid before he fell of the face of the earth (translation: the Makushita division), but a serious knee injury will do that to you as Hayateumi can attest. Tochinohana looked so confident to me last basho. He seemed bigger than the last time he was here, and I think he can have a decent basho to the tune of seven wins or so. I'm very excited to watch him again.

M4 Hakurozan finds himself at his highest rank ever and lucky for him, he will probably have to fight all of the Ozeki and the Yokozuna. Hakurozan is capable of beating these guys...just not this basho. Do you really think Chiyotaikai is going to allow Hakurozan to grab his belt? Inexperience at this position on the banzuke will only allow for five or six wins, but the jo'i rikishi better be careful not to allow Hakurozan a firm uwate or he will surprise them. Counterpart Asasekiryu should not surprise anyone. Asashoryu's stablemate has excelled in the past lower in the ranks, but once promoted up to the jo'i, he's always been a disappointment. Asashoryu spends more time tutoring Ama--a rikishi not in his stable--than he does Asasekiryu. That should tell you something.

M5 Iwakiyama has been disappointing for several basho now. You would think that at M5, this former Komusubi would be in striking position, but I haven't seen much desire from Mount Iwaki for awhile. I say seven wins because Iwakiyama has all but abandoned his tsuppari attack, which is key to his consistent winning. Counterpart Kasuganishiki is just out of reach of facing the entire jo'i, but this guy has already peaked in my opinion. He's been away from this level of sumo for a couple years, so I think he gets worked pretty heavily to the tune of only 4 wins.

M6 is the perfect rank for Ama at this point in his career. Any higher, and kachi-koshi is just too difficult. All of the great undersized rikishi--Mainoumi, Kyokudozan, Tomonohana--would occasionally rise up higher and even grace the sanyaku, but not for more than one basho. Look for him to pick up his eight wins. Counterpart Dejima will continue is gradual slide in my opinion. He's too easy to beat now with evasive tactics. Six or seven wins for this former Ozeki and yusho winner.

Ditto my comments regarding Ama when talking about M7 Aminishiki. Counterpart Kakizoe should be able to do a bit of damage down this low. I see him picking up nine wins as too many rikishi will underestimate him and get burned by his quickness at the tachi-ai.

M8 Jumonji finds himself back in the middle of the division where he probably belongs. Still, the only time I've seen any effort out of him for the last three basho or so was in Kyushu where it was kachi-koshi or get demoted to Juryo. Seven wins. It's no secret how highly I think of counterpart Futenoh. I think this kid is so good and has so much potential that he will join Kotooshu and Hakuho on that tier of rikishi just below Asashoryu. If Futenoh is completely healthy this basho, I say double digit wins. Once Kaio retires, Futenoh moves into the slot as my favorite rikishi.

Kisenosato headlines the M9 rank. What a shame that he couldn't have pulled out a few more wins in Kyushu to keep him among the jo'i for this tournament. I go limp when I see Takekaze and Asasekiryu so high and Futenoh and Kisenosato out of reach of the heavyweights. I look for Kisenosato to post nine wins and be back in the mix for Haru. His confidence is beyond his age; this kid wavers in front of no one. Opening act at M9 is Toyonoshima who is at the perfect rank on the banzuke for his career, which means he finishes with seven or eight wins.

M10 Takamisakari should pull out his eight wins from this low in the ranks. I still maintain that he is at a disadvantage because rikishi target him more than any other because they can pocket a 250,000 yen or so with a win over him. If the Sumo Association could actually afford to give the winner of every bout 100,000 yen, the quality of sumo would increase tenfold. Of course, so would the tachi-ai henka, so scratch that lame idea. Counterpart Kotoshogiku was in a major funk in Kyushu. Too many distractions fighting in his home town? With Kotooshu, Kotomitsuki, and any other rikishi who comes for degeiko as sparring partners, shame on Kotoshogiku if he can't make it to the sanyaku. I see this youngster coming around in January and reestablishing himself as one of the young ones to watch. Nine wins.

Hokutoriki and Kyokushuzan occupy the M11 ranks. Let me just go out on a limb and say that when these two meet (probably on day 1) there will be zero kensho marched around the ring. In fact, if there is a sponsor banner for this bout, the next time I'm in Tokyo I'll let you all know and the first round is on me.

I'm going to hop down to M13 where Yoshikaze makes his Makuuchi debut. Yoshikaze has surged up the ranks the past year highlighted by his jump through the Juryo ranks in just two basho. Yoshikaze is a fast rikishi who is as balanced of a fighter as you'll ever see. He's good at the belt, and he's smart enough to know when to use the tsuppari. I expect a great basho from this newcomer. Nine wins and some flirting for a Kantosho.

And finally, let's skip down to M16 where former Ozeki candidate Wakanosato resides after suffering a freak injury in a rematch with Hakuho in September that should have never been. Damn judges. I've read zero keiko reports on Wakanosato, so I know nothing of his condition heading into the Hatsu basho. However, I love the M16 rank. Doesn't it seem like it's from this rank where a majority of Maegashira rikishi impact a basho? Kisenosato had his say in September from this rank, and Hakuho greatly impacted the yusho in Natsu 2004 from this same rank. If Wakanosato is 100% heading into the Hatsu basho, look for yet another 12-3 performance from this rank that will likely impact the yusho race. Should be interesting.

See you all again on day 2. Simon will chime in with a pre-basho report of his own before Kenji leads off on day 1. We've also added a new contributor this basho who will hopefully maintain the same (low) standards we are famous for. If the banzuke is any indication of basho quality, Hatsu 2006 should be great. Here are my predictions:

Yusho: Asashoryu (14-1; loses to Hakuho)
Shukunsho: Hakuho
Kantosho: Wakanosato; Yoshikaze
Ginosho: Futenoh





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