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2008 Hatsu Basho Post-basho Report   |   Pre-basho Report
Compare and contrast this Hatsu basho to the two previous basho, and the difference Asashoryu makes to sumo is clear. Sure, Hakuho is arguably the best rikishi in the sport now, but it's ridiculous to think that sumo would be better off without Asashoryu. Take Genghis out of the mix, and all you have left is Hakuho, who would undoubtedly make an identical run to the one Asashoryu has made the last five years. At the end of the basho, the controversial Makiko Uchidate was asked her opinion of the basho, and all she could reply was, "I'm not going to say anything so that my words don't create any misconceptions." I can translate what she really meant by that: I look like the biggest fool for my comments regarding Asashoryu these past few months, and this basho was proof of that. Personally, I need to hear the names Makiko Uchidate and Mitsuru Yaku like I need to have Clancy lube up his fingers and check my prostate.

Sumo scored a huge victory this Hatsu basho. The pre-basho hype and pre-ticket sales were unprecedented for a tournament this decade thanks to the return of Asashoryu, but the rikishi made it worth everyone's while and then some in the ring. The final bout of the basho, which also determined the yusho, was the best in not only years but maybe decades. Everyone paid high attention to the sport coming in, and the two Yokozuna made sure that the focus was kept in the ring with superb sumo. I think the main comments coming from Kitanoumi Rijicho after he was elected to a fourth term also echoes a realization that the Association needs to back off and let the Khan work their magic. The commissioner stated, "we need to win back everyone's trust now, and it starts on the dohyo." The reason the Association lost the public's trust in the first place was not because of anything the rikishi did; it was the way that the Association bumbled the Tokitaizan incident from day one. Hatsu was the perfect start to winning over the fans again thanks to the two Yokozuna.

Let's analyze the rikishi now, beginning with Yokozuna Hakuho, who picked up his career sixth victory and third championship in a row establishing himself now as the one to beat. Hakuho's only real test early on was against M3 Toyonoshima who had the Yokozuna up against the ropes, but (thanks to Asashoryu's lurking) Hakuho dug in harder than he ever did the two previous basho and pulled off the win. He skated for a week thereafter displaying an impeccable tachi-ai, which was the key to his yusho. In fact, with the return of Asashoryu, Hakuho knew he had to be better, and it began with his pre-basho preparations. Prior to Kyushu, Hakuho practiced solely with two useless Juryo guys, but in January, he upped his competition, and the preparedness showed. I'm glad to see Hakuho already proclaiming that his next goal is the win four in a row. Kublai is a quiet type, and on the surface it can seem as if he doesn't care much about anything, but judging by his performance against Asashoryu, dude cares a lot.

As for Asashoryu, there's no shame in a 13-2 finish. Of the three best rikishi in the tournament, Asashoryu lost to two of them. Asashoryu's main weakness this basho was his tachi-ai. It's not so much that it was bad, it's just that the timing was off. Genghis' patented tachi-ai is the hari-zashi move where he goes for the quick slap in the face before getting an arm on the inside, but it looked to me as if his footwork was a bit off, which put him in some dangerous situations. The bout against Hakuho was determined at the tachi-ai when Asashoryu was forced into a stalemate where Hakuho's size advantage would prove the difference. Asashoryu played Hatsu as well as he could have, and he obviously earned the respect of his critics. He just came up short due to a better Yokozuna on the banzuke. Doesn't mean that Asashoryu can't overcome; he just needs to get the ring sense back.

In the Ozeki ranks, let's get Chiyotaikai out of the way first. You can't fault the Ozeki for at least trying, but dude's career is in serious trouble. Whouda ever thunk that it'd be Taikai's neck on the line in Osaka instead of Kaio? The thing that troubles me is that Chiyotaikai did absolutely nothing to rehab his elbow injury after Kyushu. That mistake could send him into retirement in 6 weeks.

Ozeki Kotomitsuki was bad this basho, but you have to remember he was coming off of gall bladder surgery in December. Let's watch his condition in March when he has no excuses, but you have to remember, this guy is in the twilight of his career. I guess you'd have to say his only good win this basho was against Asasekiryu on day 12. Other than that, he didn't beat a kachi-koshi rikishi.

One of the biggest surprises this basho had to have been Ozeki Kaio. The surprise being he didn't need any help to pick up his 8 wins. Kaio looked good early on, but when you go back and look at his opponents, everyone one of 'em were make-koshi rikishi except for Kotomitsuki. Furthermore, ask yourself who were the truly good rikishi this basho. The two Yokozuna of course; Kisenosato was a close third; and Ama was okay. Kaio lost to all of them, which means in order for him to continue to kachi-koshi, he's gonna have to rely on the jo'i largely being down as they were this basho. He also got a weaker Kotomitsuki and didn't have to face Chiyotaikai. Kaio is not back. He had an outstanding basho considering the shape his body is in, but don't get your hopes up.

Rounding out the Ozeki, Kotooshu was his usual self, which means he was average. To his credit, he had some key wins over the likes of Ama and Kisenosato, but he's still allowing himself to get bullied by inferior rikishi. He lost to Toyonoshima, Wakanosato, and Takekaze of all rikishi. He also looked scared to me against both Yokozuna and just took a shameful dive against Hakuho in the end. Kotooshu is already a lame duck Ozeki and pretty insignificant to sumo right now.

I'm genuinely happy to see Aminishiki out of the Sekiwake ranks. He kept himself this high with evasive sumo, and it finally caught up with him in Hatsu. Sneaky's only highlight really was a nice oshi-dashi win over Kotooshu, but other than that, he stunk it up.

Wipe the slate clean on counterpart Ama as well. Ama still deserves the Sekiwake rank, but he starts over at zero in terms of Ozeki promotion. Sure, he has 19 wins the last two tournaments and could technically pick up 14 in March to reach the 33 win mark, but based on his sumo, he doesn't deserve it. In fact, his Shukunsho award didn't sit well with me this basho either. Yeah, he did beat the yusho winner, but Ama abandoned his brand of sumo early and went into obvious panic-mode mid-basho, looking to pick up the cheap wins instead of trusting his sumo. While you could probably debate his move at the tachi-ai against Dejima on day 8, the fact that his next three wins over Hakuho, Kisenosato, and Miyabiyama came with suspect tachi-ai tells you that Ama had lost his confidence. Ama was not good in Hatsu.

In the Komusubi ranks, Kotoshogiku looked good until he suffered that freak knee injury against Hakuho. Everyone was encouraged by his 6-1 start because his wins came over the likes of Kaio, Kisenosato, and Ama. The Geeku's tachi-ai henka against Tokitenku after he made his reappearance was shameful, and it totally took away from what should have been an admirable return. Kotoshogiku looked good against Asasekiryu on senshuraku, but it was too little too late. I honestly think that Kotoshogiku was as disappointed in himself afterwards for that henka as I was of him, so I expect him to regroup for Haru and flirt with double digit wins again.

Nothin' to say about counterpart Dejima who simply stunk. His return to the sanyaku was news indeed, but how come he sucked so bad this basho against mostly the same competition he faced in Kyushu?

Dropping down to the Maegashira ranks, Kisenosato was third best this basho. Sumo desperately needs guys like the Kid and the Geeku to maintain this solid sumo from the jo'i. Kisenosato's best win, of course, was against Asashoryu, and even though the bout was ugly and the win easy, it was the fact that Kisenosato wasn't intimidated that made it so good. The Kid also smote his share of Ozeki, got burned by a cheap tachi-ai from Ama, and suffered a bad loss to Kyokutenho. Some bad breaks kept the Kid from 12-3, but that win alone over Asashoryu should have his confidence brewing in Haru. He'll be key to that basho in terms of generating excitement outside the Yokozuna rank. Counterpart Tokitenku settled down in his sumo and avoided the cheap tachi-ai for the most part only to be rewarded with a 6-9 showing. That's the problem with cheap sumo...you can't just kick the habit and hope to be the rikishi you once were. The M4 rank should be the perfect place for Tokitenku to regain his confidence in sound sumo.

M2 Toyonoshima was a disappointment. Reason was he beat three Ozeki yet couldn't beat most of his lesser opponents. He escaped from a loss against Goeido on senshuraku that should have put Toyonoshima at a more appropriate 5-10. I shouldn't be hard on the guy considering his size, but he'll be right back where he's comfortable in Osaka...namely the M4 rank where he'll avoid most of the heavy hitters yet get the Sadogatake boys. He beat both of their Ozeki in January. Counterpart Miyabiyama shouldn't be surprised with his 7-8 finish. The dude keeps any of his opponents honest, but he is losing to the speed and youth this high up.

M3 Goeido finished exactly where I expected him to. There's notta thing wrong with 5-10 in your first basho ranked among the jo'i. His win over Kotomitsuki on day 3 was a thing of beauty. The way he forced the action and stood the Ozeki upright before forcing him out showed superb technical ability in the ring. I'm still excited about the kid as I was from his first basho. I think part of the reason these kids get their asses kicked the first time out is because they're in awe of their opponents and almost out of a respect for them they let up ever so slightly thinking that they don't have any business beating them. Goeido makes his triumphant return to his hometown Osaka in March, and I expect him to be fantastic from the M6 rank or so. Counterpart Tochinonada falls largely into the same class as Miyabiyama. He can keep anyone honest if he can grab a hold of 'em, but he gets bested by the faster rikishi up here who keep him away from his coveted style.

M4 Wakanosato did as well as he could from this rank. His two biggest wins were of course over Kotooshu and Baruto on consecutive days no less, but like Kaio, the former Sekiwake has lost a step...or two. He also falls into that veteran category with Miyabiyama and Tochinonada where he can give anyone fits if he gets his favored moro-zashi grip but is too slow to consistently get that position. Counterpart Asasekiryu was great this basho I thought, and I attribute it largely to his increased practice against Asashoryu prior to the basho. I've said it before that Asashoryu should take Seki under his wing more and buoy him up to run more interference for Genghis among the jo'i. Seki's best win was over Ama on day 14 when he executed that perfect ashi-tori move, but what really made it a good basho for him is he beat all of the rikishi he was 'posed to beat. I enjoyed watching Sexy this basho.

M5 Roho couldn't string two wins together until days 11 and 12, and he of course did it with a run of tachi-ai henka that gave him four wins in a row, but the sumo gods were out in full force this basho and ensured that the Russian would be defied by Takamisakari on senshuraku...even after going for a fifth straight henka. I put most of the blame for Roho's act squarely on the shoulders of his stable master, Otake-oyakata. The former Takatoriki never met a henka he didn't like, and as I've said before, Roho's sumo went downhill the day Taiho turned 65 and was forced to retire as an oyakata. Counterpart Tamakasuga fought a good fight and actually managed to pick up 4 wins against the likes of Roho, Dejima, and Tochinonada.

According to an email I received from an Estonian fan, Baruto proclaimed himself to be in great condition a few days before the basho started, but that obviously wasn't the case when the action started. The biggest concern for those in the Baruto camp should be the number of bouts he lost straight up or when he had an uwate. Yorikiri loss to Hokutoriki, oshi-dashi loss to Takekaze, yorikiri to Wakanosato, yorikiri to Kokkai, utchari to Kakuryu and shitate-hineri to Tochinonada. It's disturbing IF Baruto isn't injured. I maintain that his left knee was hurt, but if it wasn't, this basho is an indication that Baruto will fall by the wayside along with the other Eastern European rikishi. As with Roho, I put the blame for Baruto's current condition on Onoe-oyakata. He has to ensure that the Estonian works out in between basho and gets sufficient keiko opponents. Kumagatani-oyakata has frequently stated that he and Hakuho would welcome Baruto for practice. Take them up on the offer now. Counterpart Hokutoriki really got screwed this basho as he was henka'd three straight days into a make-koshi. It's for the better though. We don't need Hokutoriki up among the jo'i where he will undoubtedly hand out the wins to a the tune of a 2-13 record. Be happy with the 7-8 and comfier position on the banzuke this spring.

Takekaze used a 5-0 finish that included some impressive wins over Kotooshu and Kotoshogiku on consecutive days to post a 12-3 overall mark. In fact, those last five wins were all over kachi-koshi rikishi, which shows just how potent this guy can be. Takekaze was overshadowed by Kakuryu and Kyokutenho in the class of faux yusho contenders because of his 7-3 start, so he was largely overlooked this basho, but let's hope he comes with this same fire next basho when he could conceivably be ranked as Komusubi. A 12-3 from Takekaze at this level is not something to rave about anymore. I'm almost pained to look west and find Homasho check in at a measly 4-11. The problem with Homasho the last few basho is he has become timid. He has been an underdog his whole Makuuchi career due to his size, but it used to be that he'd put his head down and charge forward at all costs....a strategy that often produced favorable results, but lately he's been entirely passive from the tachi-ai, and he's getting his ass kicked as a result. There's just nothing positive to say about Homasho's sumo in Hatsu starting with his first "win" over Hokutoriki by tsuki-hiza.

M8 Kakuryu was nails this basho taking his education received among the jo'i the last few tournaments and parlaying it into a brilliant run from the middle of the ranks. His utchari win over Baruto on day 9 was the highlight of his tournament and an indicator of just how good this rikishi is going to be. 10 of the Kak's 11 wins were by different kimari-te, and none of 'em were cheap. He showed great defense in his wins over Baruto and Futenoh yet was able to dictate the pace in most of his bouts. Kakuryu is your next Ama, and thanks to the Kak's size, he may even be better. Counterpart Toyohibiki just cannot get anything going in this division. His only win over a kachi-koshi rikishi was against Kakizoe, and his 6-9 finish was due largely to his lack of speed...which goes back to his tachi-ai of course. When you carry as much pus on your frame as Miyabiyama, in order to win you've got to dominate from the tachi-ai. The longer this goes on the more the rikishi are going to figure out how to exploit it; more so than they are now. Fix it bro.

Kokkai produced a quiet 9-6 this basho, and is it me or has this guy changed up his style to yotsu-zumo? Kokkai only had two oshi-dashi wins compared to five yori wins. Kokkai's rank in the middle of the charts and his three bout losing streak mid-basho kept the Georgian out of the spotlight, but I'm happy to see him trying to stay in the division with legitimate sumo. Counterpart Wakakirin was exposed this basho to the tune of 4-11. Dude's not a good Makuuchi rikishi.

Wakanoho had about the worst five days to start the basho as we've ever seen, but the Russian settled down nicely after getting burned by Iwakiyama on day 5 with that ridiculous tachi-ai where he jumps straight up. Wakanoho is not as good a rikishi as Baruto, and look how Baruto is struggling in the upper half of the division. The Ho will find himself around M5 next basho, but he's in for a rude awakening. His sumo is too unpolished. Kyokutenho's 10-5 was predictable. The Chauffeur always does this down low in the ranks, but he's guaranteed to suck next basho in the upper Maegashira. Thing is...Tenho rose up and manhandled Kisenosato on day 13, so he has the ability, but he's obviously content milking the Association for all he can by keeping himself low in the ranks and out of harm's way.

We're now getting to the territory where most of the rikishi this low don't even matter. M12 Futenoh at 8-7 can't wait for Homasho to get down here next basho. After an 8-2 start, Fruitenoh finished 0-5 when paired against kachi-koshi rikishi.

M13 Tamanoshima makes his Makuuchi exit official with a 3-12 showing. Expect his retirement announcement sometime this year as I don't think he can even handle the Juryo ranks in this condition.

Takamisakari scraped by with an 8-7 after surviving that Roho henka on senshuraku, but he's still a 5-10 record away from Juryo.

Tochiohzan finally managed a second kachi-koshi in the division, but it took him 14 days to get it. Like Toyohibiki, I'm afraid these two rikishi were way over-hyped after their debuts in the division. Too bad.

And finally, Makuuchi rookie, Ichihara, had an average debut in the division. The Itch looked promising after the first five days, but did he run out of gas in a hurry or what? After his 4-1 start, Ichihara would not beat another kachi-koshi rikishi the rest of the way. The good news is that after Iwakiyama's 9-6 from the M13 rank, it guarantees us four Hutts in the division for Osaka (Miyabiyama and Toyohibiki are the others). I know that the Hutts will never catch up to the current number of foreign rikishi in the division, but it's refreshing to see their numbers ever since the wookies (Buyuzan, Wakanoyama) retired.

Hatsu is in the bag; the former Tokitsukaze-oyakata is finally behind bars; and Tokitaizan's father is not backing down...as he shouldn't. We couldn't have asked for a better start to the year, so we'll see you all in two weeks when the Haru basho banzuke is released.

Pre-basho Report
No one should be amazed that since his return from Mongolia, 95% of any media coverage regarding sumo has involved Asashoryu. In fact, I read an article in the Sports Hochi newspaper just yesterday that said TBS Radio is going to revive coverage of sumo with the Hatsu basho for the first time in nearly eight years. Coverage will be limited to the final two bouts of the day, which is a good start, but TBS's decision was obviously based on the return of Asashoryu. I have been a staunch defender of the Yokozuna through the years because I understand how vital he is to the success of the sport. That importance is being manifest even now, yet you still have the usual faction that will stalk the Yokozuna hoping to catch any act that could be considered a misstep so that they can exaggerate it and blow it up in the press. And then there's those promoting the anti-Asashoryu agenda like Makiko Uchidate, who is just taking her hate of Asashoryu to ridiculous and even childish lengths. After the Soken general keiko session, Master Uchidate refused to mention Asashoryu by name and then sarcastically stated that "she was only interested in the active rikishi" hinting that Asashoryu should be retired in her mind. Ooh, the silent treatment. That's gotta sting. Look wench, start using your Jedi powers to chase down Count Dooku and Darth Siddius and stop trying to tear down the rikishi who is carrying the sport just because he is Mongolian

And then you have the eternal bitterman, Yaku the Grouch, who recently criticized Asashoryu because during a keiko session he demanded that a cameraman back up by using the word "sagare!", or back the hell up. The Grouch suggested that Asashoryu should have used the more polite term of "toushite itadakemasuka?", which is an extremely polite form that you would use on a superior who ranks just under God, the emperor, or Clancy Kelly and can be translated as "excuse me, but would you kindly let me pass?". You have the best rikishi in the world in a heated keiko session where he's practicing a violent, demanding sport, and you have some nerd wearing a fishing vest with a camera too close to the action, and you want Asashoryu to act as if he's in the company of royalty? The Grouch is just another perfect example of those who hate Asashoryu and give the most inane takes to try and justify their stance. I know a lot of you are sick of my defending Asashoryu, but as long as Frank Oz keeps sending out these puppets to try and defame all that Asashoryu is and has accomplished, I will continue to counter their takes and point out how frivolous they really are.

Before I get too carried away, let's analyze the rikishi on the banzuke starting with the usual East Yokozuna slot currently occupied by Hakuho. The buzz word surrounding Hakuho the last year has been "tori-koboshi", which in sumo-speak means "losing carelessly to inferior rikishi." That will be the key to this entire basho. Even though all indications point to Asashoryu beating Hakuho on senshuraku, I think Hakuho is still the favorite to take the yusho. Call me crazy, but there's something in sumo called "sumo-no-kan", or ring sense, and despite how good Asashoryu has looked since his return, he's gotta get back the ring sense, something that can only occur during the pressure of a hon-basho. Getting back to Hakuho, I think he's entering the basho on the right note, namely, he's coming off of two days of keiko against the Sadogatake-beya Ozeki. The first day he went 5-4 against Kotomitsuki and 7-4 against Kotooshu. I haven't read of any results from the second day, but the reports made it sound as if Hakuho was better...or should I say more prepared? I think facing the tough Kotomitsuki was the perfect wake-up call for the Yokozuna just prior to the basho. If Hakuho is smart, he will approach his first 14 opponents with the same intensity that he approached keiko on the second day with the Ozeki. If Hakuho can start out 5-0 avoiding that early tori-koboshi, I see him riding the momentum to a 14-1 yusho.

As for Asashoryu, he has handled his return to Japan perfectly. And why wouldn't he? Despite what some of you want to believe and how some of the media try to paint it (here I go again), Asashoryu is an ambassador for sumo and not only a great rikishi, but a great human being. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the picture at right. That's Asashoryu there at the head of the bunny hop leading the scrub rikishi of the Sakaigawa-beya in the group suri-ashi practice around the ring. The Yokozuna also did push ups with the kids and shiko exercises...not only leading them but doing them alongside of everyone. After kicking Goeido and Toyohibiki's asses for 25 bouts straight, he then took the time to coach them on what they were doing wrong. Every member of the stable who had comments reported in the press afterwards was nothing but complimentary and thankful for the Yokozuna's visit. I realize that Asashoryu was there partly to size up the new Makuuchi rikishi, especially Goeido, but his actions went beyond what I've ever seen from any other Yokozuna. The reason I'm making a big deal about it is because I've never seen a Yokozuna do that before (I have been to multiple morning keiko sessions where a Yokozuna showed up). And it isn't just the Sakaigawa-beya. The reason the former Sadogatake-oyakata loved Asashoryu so much is because he respected his actions as a Yokozuna. Asashoryu was always welcome for de-geiko at the Sadogatake-beya because the oyakata showed the Mongolian respect and received that same respect in return. He didn't bear a grudge because Asashoryu kicked Kotomitsuki's ass around, and he wasn't bitter because of Asashoryu's accomplishments. He got it. I get it. And a lot of you get it too, but there's a ton of you who don't get it. You let the spinsters in the press make up your mind for you, and you buy into the labels created like "problematic". Hell, Chiyonofuji was more "problematic" than Asashoryu, but everyone including the press was afraid of the dude. They still are; that's why you'll never see a call go against Chiyotaikai.  Look, I'm not asking anyone to root for Asashoryu; I just bring all of this up to illustrate why I am so staunchly defensive of Asashoryu and his character.

As for Asashoryu's performance in Hatsu, I expect it to be lights out, but as I mentioned earlier, I'm worried about him regaining his ring sense back quickly enough to keep Hakuho from his third consecutive yusho. Asashoryu has worked harder than he ever has prior to a basho when ranked as Yokozuna, so his physical condition should be perfect. His desire is there also, but the hon-basho are completely different from the keiko ring. My prediction is that Asashoryu will be great, but I'm afraid that if he suffers an early loss that he'll try and push things, or he may let the media get under his skin resulting in the Yokozuna losing his cool. I will say that Asashoryu finishes at 13-2 and is the runner-up to Hakuho.

Let's move on to the Ozeki ranks where Chiyotaikai leads the way...well, according to the banzuke. I don't care about Kokonoe-oyakata's magical potion or treatment for Chiyo's elbow, if the joint is as bad as it sounded at the end of November and December, it's going to be a long basho for the Pup. Chiyotaikai refrained from any keiko at the Soken general keiko session, and he's only practiced against non-sekitori rikishi that I've seen, so he's in big trouble with the current banzuke unless he is sand-bagging his injuries a la Tochiazuma. Without a right paw to thrust with, the Ozeki will be forced to don the skirt and skip around the ring in hopes of gaining his 8 wins. I don't see him winning more than that.

I was initially worried that Ozeki Kotomitsuki's surgery in between basho was going to hamper him, but since he's the one who instigated the keiko with Hakuho, and since he's the one who battled the Yokozuna to a 4-5 record, then it's safe to say that Kotomitsuki will be ready to go. As the best Ozeki on the banzuke by far, I expect a third place finish (among the jo'i rikishi) with 11 wins. The two Yokozuna are going to be great; but Kyushu proved that we need the Ozeki to make the basho really interesting.

Ozeki Kaio has actually been practicing with sekitori rikishi prior to Hatsu, and he even went undefeated in this bouts at the Soken session, which means...absolutely nothing. The youth and competition will be too fast and too strong for the veteran, who I don't think will last the 15 days.

From all indications, Ozeki Kotooshu is back in fighting form. He went 4-7 against Hakuho a couple days ago, which are great marks for him, and his knee problems haven't been mentioned once during the pre-basho festivities. So Kotooshu fans, you shouldn't have to worry about his knee, but that doesn't mean there isn't another part of the body you don't need to worry about, namely his noggin'. I don't think Kotooshu is going to really feel the pressure to win eight bouts early on because he's got the tools to kachi-koshi, but I am worried about his competition. I look at the M3 ranks on up to Sekiwake and everyone of those rikishi have about a 50% chance to beat the Ozeki except for Miyabiyama (too slow) and Goeido (inexperienced). Those aren't great odds. Then when you consider how Kotooshu presses when he falls early, we could be in for some ugly sumo here. I expect the Bulgarian to stave off demotion with 9 or 10 wins, but I think he's going to abandon a solid sumo attack early in lieu of keeping his rank with evasive sumo.

Sekiwake Aminishiki is overrated on this banzuke in my opinion. He has kept his rank mostly due to a surge against weak competition at the beginning of Aki and the absence of Asashoryu. I see the Ajigaw..er..uh..Isegahama veteran scraping out just six ugly wins. The banzuke's too tough this basho, Asa's back, and the upper Maegashira ranks are as solid as you could hope for.

Counterpart Ama is back where he rightfully belongs, and unlike Aminishiki, I see Ama impacting his third basho in a row. His confidence is just so high right now, and he can translate that into speed sumo that should give him the upperhand against two-thirds of his opponents. I'm glad to see that Ozeki talk didn't surface prior to the basho because 13-2 is unreasonable to expect, but I do see Ama establishing himself as the number four guy in the sport (behind you know whos and Kotomitsuki) in 2008. Double-digit wins again.

Speaking of confidence, I don't think Komusubi Kotoshogiku has the same confidence level he did a year ago. He's looked great in some bouts but tentative in others, so I think he struggles to kachi-kosh in Hatsu. In fact, due to the return of Asashoryu and the extra loss it will bring, I only see the Geeku winning 7 in January.

My expectations for counterpart Dejima are even lower. There's going to be a buzz in the Kokugikan the entire two weeks due to the return of Asashoryu, and I think it's going to create some tense moments for the rikishi. The younger guys should adapt, but I think the action's gonna be too high-paced for Dejima and his wobbly legs to keep up with. I say he's lucky to get 6 wins.

I love Kisenosato in the M1 slot simply because there are plenty of other rikishi who overshadow the Kid these days. He looked great in Kyushu, and all it will take in my opinion are a few early wins (a tall task considering his competition) to restore the Kid's confidence in himself. I have a hunch he gets 8, which would be stellar considering his rank.

Since it's a New Year, I'm going to wipe the slate clean and say I'm glad to see Tokitenku at M1. Not because of the outright cheap sumo he's shown for a few basho now, but because he has the body and the ability to really make an impact among the jo'i. I kind of suspected that Tokitenku's actions the last couple of tournaments were his way of expressing his disappointment at the disrespect shown towards Asashoryu. I thought he greased those three Ozeki at Kyushu in three consecutive days to hand a fellow countryman the yusho, but now with all of the distractions out of the way, I'm hoping for a straight-up performance. I'll say he gets 8 wins as well.

M2 Toyonoshima is definitely one of the rikishi on my watch list this basho. He has fully recovered from his ankle injury suffered last May, and the handful of great wins he's scored the last couple of basho will keep his confidence high. I expect some early upsets and a kachi-koshi from Toyonoshima.

Counterpart Miyabiyama has looked so slow the last year, that I don't think he'll be able to keep up with his counterparts. I'd love to see a patient tsuppari attack from the Sheriff this time around where he stays in the middle of the ring and makes his opponents come to him, but I just think he comes up short in Hatsu. 6 wins.

M3 Goeido will likely get worked this basho as much potential as the kid has, but that's fine. This basho he just needs the experience of fighting all of the top rikishi and weathering a week 1 storm from the jo'i. If he can manage a week 1 record of 2-5, it will have been a success. I hope I'm pleasantly surprised this basho, but I think Goeido is more intent on learning sumo at this rank this basho than he is on winning. I'll say 5 wins, but I can't wait to see him battle the two Yokozuna and the Ozeki.

M4 Wakanosato will have little impact this basho even though he is in the darkhorse M4 rank. He's got some beef below him in Roho and Bart, and all of the rikishi above him are better than him. I say the former Sekiwake snoozes his way to just 5 wins. Counterpart Asasekiryu could be a wild card at this rank. No, he's not going to win in double-digits, but he will face the Sadogatake boys and probably a few other other top guys, which means he can run some interference for Asashoryu. Speaking of Asashoryu, he also showed Seki some rare love prior to the basho, so Asasekiryu should be well-practiced. I'll give him seven wins.

I love M5 Roho at this rank; at least I think I do. Like Tokitenku, I'm wiping the slate clean and assuming that Roho will turn over a new leaf this year. Roho can handle any of the Maegashira rikishi straight up except Baruto, and he could be a thorn in the side of the Sadogatake rikishi if the Association pairs them that low. I see Roho finagling his usual kachi-koshi. Counterpart Tamakasuga is the first rikishi who doesn't belong anywhere near his rank, and it will show. Three wins is being generous.

I don't even need to say watch out for M6 Baruto. He's low enough that he should avoid any of the jo'i rikishi until his yusho contending status warrants it in week 2. I mentioned that Kotomitsuki should finish third among the jo'i rikishi (behind the two Yokozuna of course), but it's Baruto who has the best shot of posing a challenge to the two Yokozuna. It's slight at best. Hell, Baruto still hasn't fought from the sanyaku, and he will never seriously threaten for the yusho until he spends some consistent time in that neighborhood, but he will be on the leaderboard again. I expect 11 wins and at least one contest against a Yokozuna. Counterpart Hokutoriki is a bit over-ranked here, and I'll shat my pants (more than I normally do) if he wins more than five.

M7 Takekaze is in the perfect slot for his ability on the banzuke. The problem is, though, that the banzuke is so top-heavy this time around that he cannot win his eight. Six is more reasonable. This will be a critical basho for counterpart Homasho. Was last basho an aberration due to a dinged up left arm or has Homasho lost his magic? If Homasho is healthy and he struggles this basho, he's your next Futenoh. Let's all pray for nine wins. I think he gets it.

M8 Kakuryu has fallen out of the jo'i for the first time in three basho, but I'm convinced the experience he gained up there is going to help him in Hatsu. Like Homasho, I expect him to quick his way to at least 9 wins. Counterpart Toyohibiki will be another interesting rikishi to watch like Homasho. I had such high hopes for him after his first basho, but he has got to learn to close the deal. I don't see him getting past that seven win hump...again.

It will be all M9 Kokkai can do to kachi-koshi from this rank. He's just a guy that doesn't really seem to have a knack for sumo, but I'll still give him his eight. He genuinely tries to do the right things in the ring. Counterpart Wakakirin will find that his shenanigan sumo won't produce the same dividends 5 or 6 notches up the banzuke. I think he's lucky to win six this time around.

Same goes for M10 Wakanoho. The young Russian will surely win more than six, but the shenanigans won't work as well from this slot either. The difference between Wakanoho and Wakakirin is of course one has the perfect sumo body and the other doesn't. Will Wakanoho benefit from his size? It's up to him. I see him winning nine or so. Counterpart Kyokutenho should do well as he's back into his comfort zone. Fine by me. I'm tired of rikishi who give up when ranked M3 or higher, and though we haven't had a lot of those performances the last half of 2007, Tenho was one exception.

No comments on M11 Kakizoe. He can't rise higher than M10 anymore. Counterpart Kasugao can...and should...but the Korean suffers from the same mental issues as Kotooshu. I expect Kasugao to kachi-koshi, but he's never proven that he can do anything from 6 notches up.

M12 Futenoh has proven before that he can make some noise high up in the ranks, but he hasn't done it in two years. Don't expect anything for the rest of his career. Eight wins perhaps. Counterpart Tosanoumi may be heading to Juryo in March. I don't think his body can keep with the quality rikishi in Makuuchi right now.

M13 Iwakiyama rejoins the division after having just tied the knot in December. Like Tosanoumi, I think the speed of the rikishi in Makuuchi are going to contribute to his undoing. I see 6 or 7 wins, but look on the bright side, if this guy can get some, anybody can. Counterpart Tamanoshima should kachi-koshi now that he's down among the dregs, but who cares?

I love Takamisakari in the M14 slot and think he will flirt with double digits. His oft-overlooked sumo is too good not to succeed against the Juryo north guys.

I'm afraid that M15 Tochiohzan has dreams of Fruitenoh at night. After such a stunning debut, Oh has been a headcase. I'm encouraged by the lack of quality rikishi below the M11 rank, so I think Tochiohzan breaks his spell with a 10-5 performance.

And finally, our lone Makuuchi newcomer, Ichihara, makes his debut after a seldom-seen one basho stint in Juryo. The former college prodigy has yet to make-koshi, and his hair is not yet long enough to tie in a top-knot. Estimates have it growing just long enough in week 1, but there are only two reasons I would be talking about a dude's hair: either 1) I'm gay, or 2) I haven't seen enough of this guy's sumo to comment on anything. I know there has been a lot of speculation and high hopes for Ichihara, but let's just see how the first few days play out. I'll have a good sense of things by day 2. My initial guess is that Ichihara's gonna have trouble with quicker rikishi. Fortunately, you look at the guys close to him, and the only fast guys are the puny guys like Yoshikaze and Kaiho. He can overcome those types with ease, so I'm optimistic for a good start. I'll give the rookie nine wins, but I'm still skeptical about him higher in the ranks.

So that wraps up another pre-basho report. You can just feel the anticipation in the air for this basho, and it's simply for one reason: the return of the king. As I've said before, you don't have to root for Asashoryu, but you do have to appreciate all that he brings to the sport. We also have a healthy Hakuho, two fantastic Sadogatake Ozeki, Ama, and a number of upstarts among the jo'i, so I expect the best basho we've had in nearly two years.

My predictions are as follows:

Yusho: Hakuho (14-1)
Shukunsho: Ama (with two Yokozuna now...one of them has got to lose)
Kantosho: Ichihara
Ginosho: none

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