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2014 Hatsu Pre-basho Report

During the long New Year holiday in Japan, the television networks tweak their lineups and produce all sorts of year-end/new-year specials. And in this case, the term "special" means that the quality of the programming still sucks, only now all of the celebrities are wearing kimono. Anyway, in the midst of this trash heap (not to imply that American television doesn't suck as well), I did come across a segment of pure gold on one of the sports shows broadcast by NHK. It was another one of these year-end specials where they focused on the popular sports in Japan and then brought in a single commentator to talk about each sport. When it was sumo's turn, they conducted an interview with former Yokozuna Kitanofuji, and along with Mainoumi, those two are hands down the best sumo commentators in the Japanese language. Both of the dudes are very smart and articulate, but what really sets them apart is that they're both retired from the Association, and so they don't necessarily need to always toe the party line. Now, during an obviously thrown bout, they're not going to come out as I would and say "ah, that was horrible acting on so and so's part," but they will criticize rikishi more easily when it is warranted, and this separates these two from anyone else.

Anyway, as part of Kitanofuji's segment, he was asked the question, "which rikishi disappointed you in 2013?" and as he noisily sucked air into both corners of his mouth as Japanese men do when they're supposedly deep in thought, I already knew the first word out of his mouth: Goeido. The former Yokozuna criticized Goeido for his evasive sumo, and when asked if he had any advice for the Ozeki wannabe, he suggested that he study tape on Chiyonofuji and copy the Wolf's style where he focused on grabbing the frontal belt grip from the tachi-ai and then wrenched his opponents upright and into position where he could then dismantle them. Like Chiyonofuji, Goeido is undersized, but he does have potential, and so it was interesting to hear Kitanofuji's comments on the matter.

I guess I'm getting ahead of myself, though, because after mentioning Goeido as a disappointing rikishi, he also quickly rattled off Kisenosato, Tochiohzan, and Okinoumi as well. If you read between the lines of that answer, you can readily see that the only thing the Japanese public cares about in regards to sumo are the Japanese rikishi. In my opinion, Kotooshu was the most disappointing rikishi of 2013. I could also argue that Harumafuji had a disappointing year because a Yokozuna should not consistently finish below 12 wins, and Harumafuji went 9, 11, 10, and 10 from Haru to Aki. Then you have Kakuryu who averaged a 9-6 record for all of 2013 including two 8-7 finishes, and those are numbers extremely disappointing for an Ozeki. So in a sport where rank is everything and the Yokozuna and Ozeki ranks are so highly esteemed, why no mention by Kitanofuji of any foreign rikishi? I mean, what the hell do Tochiohzan and Okinoumi have to do with anything?

In reality, they don't, but it's a picture into the mindset of how the Japanese people perceive sumo and what they truly care about. In short, it's all about the Japanese rikishi, and Goeido was disappointing because he didn't reach Ozeki; Kisenosato was disappointing because he couldn't yusho or reach Yokozuna; Tochiohzan was disappointing because he failed to capture the yusho back in Natsu 2012 and didn't threaten once in 2013; and Okinoumi is disappointing because he's got a great sumo body with the looks to boot but doesn't work hard in the dohyo. During the interview, they never once talked about the possibility of Hakuho capturing 32 career yusho opting to focus on Kisenosato's yusho chances for Hatsu, Goeido's chances for Ozeki, and the addition of Endoh into the lineup.

The reason I'm starting off with this is because I think things have come to a boiling point where a Japanese rikishi just has to have a breakthrough whether it's taking the yusho or Kisenosato's being promoted to Yokozuna. Exactly two years ago, I remember commenting on how I was starting to see signs (literal signs being held up at the venue) encouraging Kisenosato to reach for the Yokozuna rank, and he was barely an Ozeki at the time. I also stated my fears that rikishi would start deferring to him in order to help him win a yusho or be promoted to Yokozuna, and I don't think I was too far off especially considering what transpired at the Natsu basho just four months later. You can read my speculation then by clicking this link.  Start on the third paragraph just after the pictures of the woman shaking Hakuho's hand with pantyhose pulled over her head and the group of oyakata in black t-shirts with sekitori-kun.

Like my suspicions back then, I just get the sense that something has to give soon because it's clear from Kitanofuji's comments that Japan only cares about the success of the domestic rikishi, and I sense the Sumo Association feels pressure to deliver something. Endoh is going to cure a lot of ails and don't forget m'gal, Chiyotairyu, but those guys are still so young and a few years out of being able to carry the sport, so in the meantime, we need something soon from Kisenosato, Goeido, Tochiohzan, or Okinoumi (breathe deep sigh now).

As we move to the rikishi this basho, let's first start with Yokozuna Harumafuji, who announced his withdrawal two days before the basho would begin. I actually wrote my introduction before I learned that Harumafuji was even rumored to withdraw, and I think his kyujo falls in line with what I was thinking. Phantom injuries are nothing new in sumo, and Harumafuji withdrawing after a tournament in which he took the yusho is due to a phantom injury. I read the newspapers like a hawk, and not once did I ever hear mention of Harumafuji injuring his ankle at an exhibition or during keiko. Sure, now that's he withdrawn, there's the token speculation of when/how it happened, but it's my opinion that Harumafuji is sitting this one out in order to remove a hurdle from Kisenosato's Yokozuna run and even a sweet basho for Goeido. Yokozuna Asashoryu supposedly had a bad elbow that caused him to conveniently withdraw form a few tournaments, but that was another phantom injury where no one could pinpoint how he actually hurt it. I read one headline after Harumafuji officially announced his withdrawal that the Yokozuna would have to be in a cast. Give me a break. Just the day before he performed a dohyo-iri at the Meiji Shrine, and if I'm not mistaken, a Yokozuna dohyo-iri requires the rikishi to put all of his weight on a single foot/ankle as he performs as high of a shiko as possible. Cast shmast. There's something behind this injury beyond an actual injury.

With Harumafuji gone, that leaves Hakuho to carry the Yokozuna duties, and it will be very interesting to see how he approaches this tournament. If I had to guess, I think he's going to drop a bout in week 1 and then adjust his style in week 2 depending on the yusho race. If a rikishi can keep up with him or even get ahead of him--particularly a Japanese rikishi, then I expect Hakuho to do what he admitted to reporters after falling to Kisenosato in Kyushu: "I let up" (yudan shita). Hakuho could have his tsuke-bito wrap his left hand tightly in a fold of his mawashi, and he'd still go 15-0 against this field, so there's no use really predicting his record. I think he's going to read the situation at hand and do what he's done the last few years, and if I had to give a number of wins, I'd say 13...at least make Kisenosato earn it.

As for Ozeki Kisenosato, I don't think it's as much a matter of how he performs as much as it is his opponents thinking to themselves, "do I really wanna be the guy that hands him a loss?" I don't expect Kisenosato's opponents to go all out, so if the Ozeki actually did go all out himself, he'd look pretty good. About a week ago, Hakuho showed up at a keiko session unannounced and called the Ozeki into the ring where he kicked his ass soundly and then let him win the 1 of their 10 bouts. The keiko ring is one place where Hakuho can truly flex his muscles and not invite disinterest in the sport, and I think that little keiko session was more for the headlines than anything. I guess what I'm trying to say is I don't expect most of Kisenosato's bouts to be contests where both rikishi are going at it balls to the wall, but I hope I'm wrong. As for his prospects in reaching the Yokozuna rank, on his own, he has zero chance. With a little bit of cooperation, it could happen. I see the Kid finishing with 12 or 13 wins and coming up just short.

I spoke earlier of Kakuryu being a so-called disappointing rikishi in 2013, but that's by choice, not by ability. Look for the Kak to fly under the radar yet again and finish with 9 wins

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