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2013 Hatsu Pre-basho ReportHelmut Newton sumo.
Welcome to twenty thirteen and my new mug shot! We're going to kick the year off with a basho that already carries multiple intriguing storylines including Harumafuji's ability to bounce back from his ugly 9-6 showing in Kyushu; Baruto's ability to overcome a broken down body and somehow win ten bouts restoring his Ozeki status; and Goeido's ability to successfully assume the baton from Kisenosato and become the Japanese media's next domestic "hope." But before we get into the specifics regarding the rikishi, let me address one aspect of the Kyushu basho that I found fascinating since we never really got a chance to wrap up Kyushu or the year twenty twelve for that matter.

As part of the overall administration of Sumotalk, I enjoy monitoring statistics regarding the web site's traffic like hits per day, number of pages accessed, etc. and then analyze the data similarly to the way I'd break down a sumo bout trying to figure out why things are trending the way they are. As part of this process, I will run a report at the end of each month for my favorite statistic, the number of unique readers we had for that month, and I was quite stunned to find that the 2012 Kyushu basho was our most popular month ever eclipsing our previous record by about one thousand unique readers. It really got me thinking "why?" because there really wasn't any big news during the basho, and the yusho race was about as exciting as a Japanese election. I'm going to share a chart below that goes back four years and shows the number of unique readers that Sumotalk tallied each month during hon-basho because I think the data is fascinating when you break it all down.

First, the 2012 Kyushu basho was our most popular ever putting us over 15K unique readers per month for the first time. The previous best was the 2012 Haru basho where Baruto was up for Yokozuna promotion and we crossed the 14K threshold for the first time then. I presume that we had a high influx of readers from Estonia that accounted for the record month last year in Haru, and the downward trend after Haru was expected since the number of disappointed Estonian fans meant less hits for the site.

Similar movement occurred after Asashoryu's retirement as well. You can see a definite upward trend leading up to the 2010 Hatsu basho and then a peak at the Haru basho that year, the two tournaments sandwiching the controversial Yokozuna's retirement, and then it's no surprise that a steady downtrend occurred during Hakuho's historic run where he won 63 bouts in a row and took seven consecutive yusho. Throw in a few scandals to disinterest even more fans, and you can see why we never got over 12K unique readers from the 2010 Nagoya basho through the end of 2011. And while I don't have the Sumo Association/NHK statistics regarding ticket sales and television ratings, I'm pretty sure that they mirror the Sumotalk graphs from 2009 to 2011.

Then all of a sudden, Sumotalk surges back up across the 12K mark for the 2012 Hatsu basho finishing with 13.7K unique readers only to be outdone the next basho with 14.2K readers. As I mentioned previously, part of that surge can likely be explained by Baruto's yusho and run to Yokozuna, but three of the four basho after that were off the charts as well when Baruto was doing nothing capped by the recent Kyushu basho where we set a new record well above 15K. Nagoya 2012 is explained by Nagoya being our worst month historically and the Olympics (the World Cup kills us as well), but taking 2012 as a whole, Sumotalk experienced a surprising surge, so I have to ask myself, what was so exciting in sumo to warrant this increase in popularity?

I'm positive that the Sumo Association and NHK did not see a similar spike or else it would have been reported in the media, so what was Sumotalk doing in 2012 that caused so many readers to consistently tune in even though the sumo itself was extremely subpar? Furthermore, what was going on in Kyushu causing us to draw traffic from 15 thousand different users creating a jump in unique readers of 1,500 compared to the previous basho? I don't know the definitive answer to that, and it will be extremely interesting to watch the trends in 2013, but I believe the reason that our numbers were so good this past year is because our analysis was correct. I didn't enjoy beating a dead horse basho after basho in 2012, but I suspect that a majority of sumo fans who watched sumo this year detected the tomfoolery going on in the ring and wanted confirmation from Sumotalk that helped explain the inexplicable.

Prior to the hon-basho, we as contributors don't establish an agenda of how we'll cover the bouts nor do I ever give directions to any of the other fellas as to what to say. Everything is spontaneous and a direct result of what we witness in the ring and what I can read between the lines from the Japanese media. I don't know what direction Sumotalk will take in 2013 because it's entirely up to the Sumo Association and their agenda, but I can already tell you that Goeido is being set up as Japan's "next" for better or worse. Expect Hakuho to keep the playing field level again in 2013 and expect Sumotalk to provide the most accurate sumo coverage available in the English language.

On that note, let's start with Yokozuna Hakuho who is the keystone to sumo right now singlehandedly dictating the outcome of each basho. I can't say for sure to what extent Hakuho is being given direction from the Sumo Association through his stable master or what he is doing of his own volition, but there isn't a rikishi on the banzuke who could legitimately beat Hakuho once every ten bouts. Once every twenty? Maybe. But not once every ten. Hakuho has not been injured the last several years, and he hasn't had any bad days. I can also say that Hakuho does not make unintentional mistakes atop the dohyo. Everything he does is calculated, and if you refer back to the graph I published above, look what was happening when Hakuho was fighting at full strength.

The Sumo Association surely realized that while Hakuho's dominating run was special, it was killing the sport's popularity fast because it was a Mongolian running away with things and not a Japanese rikishi. They took measures to stop the bleeding starting from the 2011 Nagoya basho that resulted in an undeserved Harumafuji yusho and two undeserved Ozeki runs for Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato. The statistics only back up my assertion that Hakuho has been purposefully lowering the bar for two years now at the direction of the Sumo Association in order to create a semblance of parity in sumo. That sorta gives Japanese rikishi a chance now although none of them are good enough to rise up and take advantage of the new order in the same way that Harumafuji, Baruto, and even Kakuryu have all done. It's just a reality and something we will have to deal with until Hakuho retires, and if I had to make a prediction, he'll be allowed to get yusho #30 and no more. So in 2013 it will once again be Hakuho determining the outcome of basho similarly to the pattern we saw in 2012. As for the Hatsu basho, he's certainly good enough to go 15-0 but will alas likely keep things close at 13-2, marks that should be good enough for his second consecutive yusho.

Across the aisle is Yokozuna Harumafuji, and I suppose I will never get used to typing the words "Yokozuna" and "Harumafuji' in succession because he is not a Yokozuna according to my expectations the same way that Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku, for example, are not true Ozeki in my view. If you've only watched sumo for a few years, then all of this is normal for you, but if you're going on over two decades now, what we are observing in the ring is not normal. As a result, it was easy for me to point out in my Kyushu pre-basho report my concerns regarding Harumafuji's promotion. Dude earned it on paper, but we learned with Wakanohana III that there is such a thing as a bad Yokozuna, and I'm afraid we've got one more on our hands in Harumafuji. I don't doubt that HowDo still has a few more yusho in him, but he doesn't consistently have yusho-worthy sumo in him, and so was it really a surprise that he finished last basho 9-6? It shouldn't have been.

Hakuho's already done him a big-time favor, and the tournament hasn't even started. Prior to each hon-basho in Tokyo, all Makuuchi rikishi are invited and expected to attend a general keiko session in front of the watchful if not useless eyes of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council. Sometimes the session is open to the public and held in the main arena, and sometimes it's held in the main practice facility at the Ryogoku Kokugikan as was the case a few days ago. This was the first time in three years that two Yokozuna attended, and so it was natural for both guys to end the practice sparring in some sanban-geiko (repeated bouts between two rikishi). The two Mongolians finished a convenient 5-5, and I never thought I'd see the day when I was breaking down yaocho in keiko. It is, though, a clear example of how Hakuho controls everything, and it's a harbinger that the chief Yokozuna has his countryman's back and will allow him to yusho at least once in 2013. Harumafuji has taken quite a beating in the press since his promotion, but things are setting up nicely for him this basho to restore his good name somewhat. I see HowDo winning 12 in Hatsu.

Before we get to the Ozeki, let's discuss the most compelling figure outside of the Yokozuna, Sekiwake Goeido. Unless you read the Japanese sports dailies on your own, you'll just have to trust me when I say the exact same spin that was given to Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato prior to their Ozeki runs is now being focused on Goeido. Pre-basho keiko reports always start with the Yokozuna, but then it's interesting to see who the media is interested in beyond them. Clearly it's Goeido, and the reason is not because the Father has put himself in this position; rather, he's been hyped into this position. A perfect example is his 5-0 performance against the Ozeki in Kyushu. Normally when a guy beats all five Ozeki, he really stands out. But Goeido didn't really stand out in Kyushu, at least with his sumo. Yeah, he did start out 8-0 on paper, but I question the legitimacy of some of those bouts. I clearly called yaocho in his bout against Takekaze on day 5, and then look how I described Kakuryu's tachi-ai on day one against Goeido: "Against a rikishi he should beat nine times out of ten, Kakuryu left his feet aligned as he monkeyed around with a quick pull attempt up high."

I guess what I'm describing here is the ways in which his opponents are blowing their bouts against Goeido, not the way in which Goeido is just kicking their assess. See the difference? Sumo is so easily manipulated, and it can be subtle enough that the general public consciously doesn't detect it. This current pattern of "hype" with Goeido is the exact pattern we saw with Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato, so expect similar results in the end. Still, it was Goeido about whom I said five or six years ago, "If Japan produces a Yokozuna in the next 10 years, his name will be Goeido." Thank the gods for the word IF, but regardless, the dude does have legitimate game. He's been hampered by injuries over the years, and he's not strong mentally, but he definitely has the tools to make an assisted Ozeki run, so don't be surprised if he's promoted to the rank in the first half of twenty thirteen.

And I don't want it to sound as if I'm piling on the guy because if Goeido would just trust his sumo, fight from the inside, and stop all of the pull nonsense, he could be a legitimate Ozeki. Two of our current Ozeki are breaking down physically, one of them couldn't take a yusho if you handed it to him on a platter, Kotooshu is Kotooshu, and I've already illustrated that Kakuryu knows how to behave. It's all set up perfectly for Goeido not just to be handed promotion but to go out and earn his promotion. I want to see him earn it because I know he's capable on his own. Depending on how he does in January, the Sumo Association could pull the trigger as early as this basho, but let's just see how it plays out. I see Goeido winning 10 or 11 again this month setting up a Haru basho where he can clinch promotion officially causing sumo fans everywhere to rejoice and be gay.

In the Ozeki ranks, Baruto and Kotoshogiku are in deep trouble. Okay, Baruto isn't an Ozeki anymore but you know what I mean. Both dudes skipped out on the general keiko session, and the only time rikishi do that is when they're injured. Kotoshogiku has been broken down the last couple of basho and was given his 8-7 in Kyushu the same way they'd always let Kaio kachi-koshi in the end. When that starts happening consistently, retirement isn't far behind. Regardless, Kotoshogiku is just deadwood now in the Ozeki ranks. As for Baruto, he can regain the rank with 10 wins, but I don't see how he's going to do it unless he's truly sandbagging his knee injuries. The Estonian skipped out on the general keiko session as mentioned earlier, and most of his sekitori keiko prior to the basho has been against Juryo rikishi, Tenkaiho. We should know by day 2 how Baruto is going to fare, but I don't expect him to win those 10. I think he's injured to the point where he may hang the mawashi up before the year is through.

I have no new insight to offer about the remaining Ozeki: Kisenosato, Kakuryu, and Kotooshu. Kisenosato will continue to be propped up as necessary, Kakuryu will continue to be a team player, and Kotooshu will continue to not impact a hon-basho.

We've already covered the Sekiwake in Goeido and Baruto, so let's move to the Komusubi. Tochiohzan commands the East slot, but precedent has shown that he is useless from the sanyaku. I don't know what it is that makes these guys look good from the M2 rank and then suck from the sanyaku unless they're buying their sanyaku berths, but Tochiohzan has never thrived from this rank. Normally I would say he wouldn't do it this basho either, but this is a pretty battered jo'i. There are a lot of injuries going around, and there's really nobody to fear besides Hakuho. I'll predict that Tochiohzan falls short with 6 maybe 7 wins, but a kachi-koshi won't surprise me. Counterpart Shohozan has earned his promotion with feisty sumo, and I expect the same to continue from Special Dark in January. Dude's right on the border of a sanyaku regular, but once again, I think this banzuke sets up well for these guys with other heavyweights like Gagamaru and Aoiyama just out of reach. Give Shohozan and Tochiohzan fifteen wins between them.

Aminishiki heads up the Maegashira rank and filers, and he's as strong'a rikishi as those ranks can boast. I actually like Shneaky better than the two Komusubi, so I expect him to take over one of their ranks for Haru. Give him 8-9 wins. Myogiryu is a precarious pick this basho as he's battling a sprained right ankle. When you're as small as this guy, even a minor injury like an ankle sprain can hamper you, so don't expect him to open up a can of whoopass on everyone. I was a little bit troubled by his fall last basho as well. If you'll remember, for most of 2012 he occupied the Sekiwake rank legitimately and even invited talk of future Ozeki promotion. But then in Kyushu it just all fell apart, and the way it happened made me wonder just how legitimate his run to Sekiwake was. We'll just have to see how he does the first few basho of the year, but it's hard for me to predict what he'll do due to his injury and curious run last year. A wildcard for sure, I'd expect him to win 7 or 8.

The M2 rank provides an interesting illustration of just how strong (or not) the current Makuuchi division is. In the East is Toyonoshima, an undersized rikishi who was actually a sanyaku regular towards the end of 2011 and early 2012. The fact that he was able to have that kind of success suggests the lack of opposition. And how can I ever forget that freak Demon Kogure Kakka last year during the new year's broadcast slotting Toyonoshima in as an Ozeki on his ideal banzuke? It's just an example of someone who buys into all the hype. As for Kyokutenho, dude will turn 39 this year and he's ranked among sumo's jo'i!! For these two guys to be this high and actually have a decent shot at kachi-koshi tells you that Hakuho could so go 90-0 in a calendar year if he really wanted to.

Just out of reach of the jo'i you have M4's Gagamaru and Aran, M5 Homasho, and M6's Tochinoshin and Aoiyama who pack a whopping punch in the middle of the pack. Expect a sansho from that group, and I wouldn't be surprised to see one of these guys post 11 or 12 wins and regain a sanyaku post.

Mixed right in the middle of that group is M5 Ikioi who enjoys the highest ranks of his career. I guess I shouldn't use "Ikioi" and "enjoy" in the same sentence this basho because he's gonna get his ass handed to him.

I like seeing Takayasu and Masunoyama sharing the M7 rank. These are the first two rikishi born in the Heisei era, and they're both also half Filipino. Thanks to their fathers being Japanese, they are counted among the ranks of the Japanese rikishi, but regardless, they both have interesting stories. For example, Takayasu spent a lot of his earlier days growing up in the Philippines where he actually had to work to help support the family. Masunoyama also sends money back to his mother each basho, and his brother is actually a member of the Association as a hair stylist. They're two guys who come from humble circumstances, the kind of situation nearly 90% of sumo rikishi came from in past decades when sumo was really good. Anyway, these two should both make the sanyaku one day, and they're two guys for whom I'm always rooting.

Chiyotairyu checks in at M8 and this guy actually has the potential to be the best Japanese rikishi on the board if he's not already. I know his rank doesn't bear that out right now, but he's still relatively new to professional sumo. Let's see if the Wolf can work his magic and produce another Ozeki. Chiyotairyu would actually be legit if he made it, and there's huge potential here.

Okinoumi is a sleeper from the M10 position. With the bottom of the banzuke so weak, there's no reason why he shouldn't win 10.

And let's conclude with our two M15's in Tochinowaka and Kotoyuki. Remember Tochinowaka...the guy who threw a few Ozeki around and actually threw Hakuho off balance with a scoop throw last year? I really never did read what was wrong with him, but after a stellar rise up the charts, he disintegrated as fast as a Japanese pop star once she becomes legal. Dude appears to be back, however, after shredding the Juryo ranks in Kyushu. Let's hope so because next to Chiyotairyu, I think this guy has as much potential as any of the youngsters. If only his father wasn't Korean...

Across the aisle is our lone rookie in Kotoyuki, a rikishi whom I haven't seen fight yet. I like the fact that he's just 21, but I'm a little bit nervous that he hails from the Sadogatake-beya. When the stable was led by the former Yokozuna Kotozakura known as the Boar in his time, the stable constantly produced kick-ass rikishi who managed the Ozeki rank and a fair share of yusho. Now that the stable is run by the former Kotonowaka also coincidentally known as the Bore in his time, the stable has produced about as much testosterone as you'd find on a high school drill team. Allow me to save comment on Kotoyuki until I can see him fight a few days in the top division.

Okay, that was a little bit long-winded but since I failed to wrap up Kyushu and failed to write a year-end report, you could say I had a bit on my mind. Here are my predictions for the Hatsu basho:

Yusho - Hakuho (13-2)
Shukunsho - Goeido
Kantosho - Aoiyama
Ginosho - Goeido






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