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2016 Hatsu Pre-basho Report

The reason I even start with all of this is because I no longer take the banzuke at face value. I mean, what use is it to break down my expectations for Goeido? He has no moves or style to breakdown, and I know we're going to see him in the same old situation: desperately needing help by day 12. Then there's Hakuho, the ultimate storyteller. There's no point in breaking down his sumo either. He's the greatest badass to have ever graced the dohyo, but he will not be fighting 100% the full 15 days, so what's the point? What I will do is talk about some of the trends I'm seeing in the headlines and then the two new rikishi in the division because I think we've got a couple of good ones here.

Headlines regarding Hakuho are that his left elbow is bothering him. I read a story where Mainoumi made it a point to watch Hakuho's keiko, and he came away commenting, "I just didn't see any ambition." All of the outlets have jumped on the story, and so everyone is making a big deal now out of Hakuho's left elbow. Hakuho himself estimated that he's about 50% coming out of pre-basho keiko, so we'll see what happens. The Yokozuna of course did not really suffer an elbow injury, and he could wipe out the rest of the field even at 50%, but the Japanese fans are being fed the notion that the Yokozuna is vulnerable.

As for Harumafuji, there have been two main headlines dominating his pre-basho: 1) he supposedly has this slick, new gold kesho mawashi, and 2) he spent some time in the hospital recently for cellulitis. I thought cellulitis was that condition that makes Hillary Clinton wear those long jackets and pantsuits to cover up her robust thighs, but it turns out that it's a skin infection that causes the body to turn red and swell up. The point is that when it comes to news about Harumafuji, they're talking about his new mawashi and what's wrong with him physically.

Headlines surrounding Yokozuna Kakuryu have been few and far between, but he and Hakuho did visit the Tokitsukaze-beya for de-geiko although I read of no reports that had them facing off against each other. The headlines touting Kakuryu's self described situation simply read, "I'm feeling loose." Wow, how exciting!

With the headlines downplaying the three Yokozuna, you can imagine what they're saying about Kisenosato! The Ozeki is of course in prime position to capture his first yusho, and the media is making a point of it to illustrate how well he's doing in keiko. Kotoshogiku also looks good, and then I almost shat myself when I read Goeido's declaration of, "First things first, I want to win in double digits." Double digits?? How about picking up that ever so elusive win #8 first? The dude has never won in double digits as an Ozeki, so it's comical to see that headline of Goeido saying he needs to first focus on double digits when he's never done it in his career at this rank. I wish I could live that obliviously to reality.

Kane asked me a few days ago what my expectations were for the basho, and so I told him what I was seeing in the headlines is that the Mongolians look vulnerable, and the Japanese Ozeki look great. And that's how they're selling tickets. Create the illusion that we're just on the brink of something great from the Japanese rikishi and throw in a few upsets for good measure.

The one Ozeki I haven't talked about yet is Terunofuji, and reports from his camp are bleak as well. The Ozeki revealed that he's got a 20% tear in his left meniscus presumably from using that knee to overcompensate for the right ACL sprain he suffered needlessly against Kisenosato in September. Quotes from Terunofuji having him saying something along the lines of, "I need to use this year to get healthy."

There's been little talk of the Sekiwake since the release of the banzuke, but I expect Tochiohzan to plod along and pick up nine wins. You'd think that he'd be the prime guy to try and push to the first Japanese yusho in a decade, but the dude cannot handle pressure. I was also thinking awhile back that I'll bet Tochiohzan has weak hands when it comes to his grip. You had guys like Kaio and Akinoshima who had literal death grips back in the day, and it showed in the way they were able to fight at the belt, but Tochiohzan shies away from the mawashi choosing to fight from moro-zashi.

The MonsterDrink's fizz has got to be going stale soon. I actually think his recent success is due to his choosing not to lose to the Ozeki the majority of bouts. Then, if one of the Mongolians gives him a win (which they have been wont to do of late), he has a nice cushion that has resulted in his climb to Sekiwake. Just after the Kyushu basho, the sumo caravan made a trip to Yoshikaze's hometown in Oita Prefecture, Saiki, and the event sold out completely. I'm telling you, the Sumo Association is marketing everything possible in order to excite the fans into purchasing tickets. Well, everything possible besides legitimate, good sumo. While I like the recent spunk shown by Yoshikaze of late, he's not a sanyaku mainstay, so I expect him to fall short of kachi-koshi this basho.

On one hand, I'd say watch for some life outta Komusubi Ikioi heading into his hometown of Osaka in March, but I can't get too stiff over his prospects because I think the priority will be the Ozeki first. Let's see how he chooses to fight against them. It wouldn't surprise me to see him supplant Yoshikaze as Sekiwake with the sumos heading to Osaka in two months, but we'll just have to see how high of a priority the Ozeki are. Ikioi's counterpart, Tochinoshin, will play his usual role of bowing to the weaker Ozeki and then flirting with kachi-koshi in the end.

The M1 rank is as weak as we've seen in a while with Aminishiki maintaining the top spot and Shohozan checking in to the West. Good night, that rank is going to get destroyed this basho.

I like the M2 rank better with Takarafuji and Aoiyama, but I think these two guys are pawns being used to give the more elite rikishi some cheap wins. Kachi-koshi from either of these two would not surprise me, but I think there are a few higher priorities.

Do you know what's really wrong with sumo of late...and I'm talking besides the fake stuff? The Makuuchi division is as stale as three-week old bread. There's hardly any youth among the jo'i. Terunofuji is 24 and M3 Ichinojo is 22, but it feels as if these two potential superstars have been reined in, and if you take them out of the equation, the next youngest rikishi in the jo'i are 28. Three dudes are 28, five dudes are 29, and six dudes are in their 30's including Aminishiki at 37. Even Yoshikaze at Sekiwake. Sure, he's a new Sekiwake, but he's 33!! You cannot generate legitimate excitement in sumo without youth, and while there are some great, young foreign rikishi around, they're being held back so the gap between the foreigners and the Japanese rikishi isn't so obvious. I'd love to see Ichinojo fight all out, but it likely won't happen so as to not tip the balance of power even more towards the Mongolians.

Osunaarashi would have been compelling at M5 if he was healthy. I didn't read any reports pre-basho concerning his condition, and then when they announced the bouts for the first two days, he's not even scheduled, so the Ejyptian should be kyujo for the full 15 days. Too bad; he was really growing on me.

Our M8's, Myogiryu and Takayasu, should do sufficient damage down at that level. I see both guys winning in double digits and shooting back up to the jo'i for March.

Don't lose hope on M10 Mitakeumi. The Japanese media has this terrible habit of overhyping new Japanese dudes out of desperation, but give them time to get settled in the division. Terunofuji's climb was methodical at first, so let's see what Mitakeumi can do with a little more time. A guy that doesn't need more time is M11 Endoh, but once again, when you can't market top-notch sumo, you gotta keep a guy like Endoh around. I wonder what percentage of ticket sales can be attributed to the simple fact that Endoh is just there?? I'd say it's around 15 - 20%. To Endoh's west is Amuuru, a guy who looked a bit lost higher up in Kyushu. The Russian should re-establish himself this low again and score kachi-koshi.

Let's close with our two rookies, M12 Shodai and M16 Kagayaki. Shodai has been receiving a bit of run because he's reached the division in just 11 basho, a mark that puts him in a tie for 3rd place all time, but that number is a bit deceiving because 1) the banzuke isn't as good as it used to be, and 2) Shodai made his run after a college career. When guys like Asashoryu, Tochiazuma, and Kotooshu make similar runs without college, it means something. Still, I don't want to dump on this guy's achievement because I think he has potential. Having said that, I want him to have a methodic debut. I'd like to see him win eight, but I'm hoping he doesn't start out something like 6-1 and then get the media going gaga over him.

What scares me is the Endoh effect. The Japanese media is so desperate to identify Japan's next that they immediately jump on a newbie who shows promise and then over hype him to his detriment. I loved what I saw out of Endoh in the Juryo ranks, and then he got off to that fast start in his debut, but I think that his opponents felt an obligation to start easing up a against him. I know Kyokutenho did that first basho, and so with guys letting up and then of course Endoh's broken foot, he was never the same. I just don't want to see that with Shodai. A nice slow start where guys don't feel obligated to go mukiryoku is the best thing that can happen to this rookie.

As for Kagayaki, he's another guy worth looking at. Unlike Shodai, he took a bit more time to reach this level, but unlike Shodai, he didn't have the experience of a college career. At 21, this kid still has tons of potential. Out of junior high school, he was already taller than Hakuho and nearly as heavy, so if he's got some athleticism to him, he could be a solid, solid rikishi. My favorite story pre-basho surrounded Kagayaki.  It turns out the his stable master (Akinoshima) sent him off to be a tsuke-bito for none other than Wakanosato!!  Even though they weren't stablemates, Akinoshima felt like the kid could learn from a legend, and when Kagayaki learned that he was finally promoted to the Makuuchi division, the first dude he called was Don Sato to give him the good news.  Kagayaki said he was nervous as hell working for the Don, but Wakanosato never got mad at the kid, even when he screwed up.  You couldn't have a better mentor than Wakanosato, so let's hope his toughness and overall likeability transfer over to Kagayaki.  Like Shodai, let's hope for a methodical start that resembles a Terunofuji rather than a hot start the ultimately hindered Endoh.

Alright, it's kind of a different pre-basho report than I'm used to, but I just don't have any new takes regarding the usual rikishi and the sumo. I don't expect anything different than what we saw in 2015 although it would not surprise me in the least to see a Japanese rikishi finally take the yusho. With the Mongolians all "vulnerable," anything can happen, but I wouldn't bet on it. Here are my predictions for the basho:

Yusho: Kakuryu 13-2
Shukunsho: Yoshikaze
Ginosho: Myogiryu
Kantosho: Shodai

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