Post-basho Roundtable Report
Often the Kyushu basho is an anti-climactic way to end the sumo year as there seems to be a higher number of rikishi withdraw, and all of the rikishi don't appear as if their hearts are into it. This year, however, I think that sumo is ending the year on a high note considering the circumstances surrounding the sport in terms of domestic popularity...or lack thereof. I normally start with the yusho rikishi, but since I gave Kotooshu a hard time in September and because he really impressed me the last four days of the tournament, I'll start with the Seki..er..uh..new Ozeki.
Coming into the basho, I was very skeptical regarding Kotooshu picking up 10 wins. My reasoning was that he really didn't show me good sumo in September. Sure, he had his moments against a couple of the Ozeki and Kyokushuzan, but who doesn't. I also wasn't impressed with the way that Kotooshu had handled the pressure in July and September when the going got tough. I didn't like the pre-basho keiko reports in Kyushu that had Kotooshu mentally worn out before the tournament even began. I thought everything was stacking up against him, and I still maintain that it was. I would classify Kotooshu's basho into two sections: the first 11 days where he got every break possible and the last 4 days where he flat out earned his Ozeki promotion. Let's look at Kotooshu's basho bout by bout:
Day 1: terrible loss to Kakizoe whose only win the first 9 days came against Kotooshu. Kotooshu looked worn out already.
Day 2: default win over Futenoh. This was his biggest break of the basho. After being razzed by Kakizoe on day 1, I think Kotooshu loses this bout to a healthy Futenoh.
Day 3: easy win over Dejima who started the basho 0-7 and looked anemic that first week.
Day 4: win over a red-hot Miyabiyama. I wasn't impressed, however, as Kotooshu used that sly side-step to his left. I felt he still looked shaky at this point and unconfident.
Day 5: win over Jokutoriki...need I say more?
Day 6: win over Komusubi Kyokutenho. Best win of the basho so far, but I thought Tenho looked about as interested as I am in Michael Jackson's next album.
Day 7: loss to Kisenosato. Kotooshu should have beaten the Kid as he's a better rikishi. More nerves?
Day 8: win over Iwakiyama who had one of his worst, uninspired basho of the year. I'm still not impressed whatsoever with Kotooshu at this point.
Day 9: win over Ama. Plain and simply kicked his ass. Great win here...his best of the tournament so far.
Day 10: loss to Tamanoshima. I was getting geeked after that day 9 win over Ama, but Kotooshu snatched defeat from the jaws of victory here. I'm still skeptical.
Day 11: win over Kokkai. Easy win over a rikishi Kotooshu shouldn't have even been facing. Big break getting Kokkai instead of Tochiazuma or Wakanosato.
Day 12: win over Hakuho. Helluva maki-kae to parlay a certain defeat into a tori-naoshi. This was the turning point.
Day 13: kicked Asashoryu's ass plain and simple. This clinched it.
Day 14: win over Chiyotaikai. Threw the Ozeki around like a rag doll although I wish he'd have landed on Chiyotaikai after the Ozeki's act the day before.
Day 15: loss to Kaio. Kaio uses that sly side-step to his right to grab the uwate. Two things are certain in sumo. A Kaio right outer and a Kotooshu left outer = win.
I thought Kotooshu got all of the breaks those first 11 days, and I can't stress how big that default win was over Futenoh. Not only did it give him an extra day to rest and gather his thoughts, but it also gave him that first big win that is so hard to get when you need 10. And then that schedule the first 11 days though no fault of his own? It was a cakewalk two thirds of the way in, but then when the going got tough, Kotooshu showed that he is worthy of the Ozeki ranks. That fight to the tie over Hakuho in their first bout was fan-didley-tastic as Ned Flanders might say, and then his defeat of Asashoryu on day 13...wow. So, Kotooshu is an Ozeki. He's immediately the best of the group although I don't consider him a true rival to Asashoryu just yet. On what day this basho was Kotooshu feeling the most pressure? Think about it. There was little pressure against Asashoryu in my opinion because he knew he was going to pick up at least one win against the Ozeki the final two days. I think Kotooshu felt the most pressure on day 1, which resulted in an ugly loss. Kisenosato, despite his record this basho, is a good rikishi. There was no shame in that loss. Tamanoshima is a savvy rikishi, who is Sekiwake material, so no shame there. And then the loss to Kaio was really out of Kotooshu's hands from the start. So call it my stubbornness to hop completely on the Kotooshu bandwagon, but I don't think the new Ozeki has proven he can handle real pressure. He faced it on day 1 and lost to a rikishi he had no business losing to this basho. To wrap up, Kotooshu will be Ozeki in January. I'm thrilled to see new blood in the ranks. Hopefully it either inspires the current Ozeki to step it up or it drives them to retirement faster because their act this whole year have been as fun as waiting for that biopsy result to come back.
Moving to Yokozuna Asashoryu, read our front page to see the new records he set. I don't want to rehash those again; we're not the Japanese press after all. As for his sumo, it was straight up bad-ass Yokozuna every day but one. Asashoryu made one mistake this basho, and that was handing Kotooshu the left uwate at the tachi-ai of their bout. Don't expect Asashoryu - Kotooshu bouts to be very pretty in the future. The Yokozuna has been beaten twice in a row in yotsu-zumo against Kotooshu. He's too smart to be burned by it again. Remember how ugly that bout was between these two in September? That's what it will be because Asashoryu will do anything from here on out to prevent Kotooshu from grabbing his belt. As for Asashoryu's sumo, what's to analyze? It was perfect save one tachi-ai. Like Kotooshu's schedule the first 11 days, Asashoryu just walked through the field due to the withdrawals and poor basho had by so many of the top rikishi. Highlights included his unbelievable survival of that classless henka attempt by Hakuho on day 1, his lifting Sheriff Miyabiyama clear off his feet, his complete dismantling of Ama, and his domination over Kotomitsuki, Kaio, and Chiyotaikai.
I want to shift gears a bit and focus on Asashoryu's moving into the top five Yokozuna all time in terms of yusho. The debate will surely rise again as to how do these Yokozuna compare and does Asashoryu's current run really hold any water due to the supposed weak competition? In my opinion, the best way to compare them is to speculate how they would have done had they traded places with former Yokozuna. Let's compare the last four great Yokozuna in the last 12 years: Akebono (11 yusho), Takanohana (22), Musashimaru (12), and Asashoryu (15). Put Asashoryu in his prime back in 1992 or '93 and remove Akebono from the field. Does Asa have 11 career yusho or more? That's a tough one, but I think Asa gets it simply because he keeps himself in better shape than Akebono. Bring Akebono in his prime up to Asashoryu's era and does he get 15 career yusho and counting. I think so. How about Takanohana? Put Asashoryu in that Futagoyama-beya with two strong Ozeki and multiple sanyaku rikishi in his stable, and I think he easily does what Takanohana did. In fact, Asa's current run and Takanohana's run from Aki 1994 until his knee injury are eerily similar. Does Takanohana dominate in the here and now as Asashoryu is doing despite no help from fellow stablemates? No doubt. How about Musashimaru? He made his run with two other Yokozuna ranked on the banzuke; however, they were constantly injured. Musashimaru also had three Ozeki in his stable at one point. Trade places with Asashoryu and does Musashimaru have 15 career yusho at this point? I say no. I think Musashimaru was the most opportunistic of the four. My conclusion is that you can't penalize Asashoryu for having weak competition around him. Put him in the place of the three Yokozuna I mentioned and he is just as dominant if not more so. As for injuries, boo hoo. Keep yourself in shape and try and get surgery performed by a respectable physician. In my opinion, Asashoryu's accomplishments are not lessened by his current weaker competition. Besides, Asashoryu plays a major role in that by beating them down physically and mentally. I give the Yokozuna his props, but how sick is it that he's dominated this long now but he isn't even halfway to Chiyonofuji and Taiho's records. It's a long haul.
In the Ozeki ranks, lets get Tochiazuma out of the way first. His day 1 domination of Tamanoshima tells me that Tochiazuma was primed to have a pretty good basho. Unfortunately, a freak fall to the clay resulting from a Miyabiyama slap-down on day 3 did the Ozeki in. God forbid we have an Ozeki on the banzuke who isn't kadoban. Tochiazuma wears the tiara and sash in January.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai's act this basho was weak. Here's his winning techniques: hiki-otoshi, hataki-komi, hataki-komi, okuri-dashi, and finally a win by oshi-dashi over Futenoh on day 7. Oh yeah, that was Futenoh's first day back after withdrawing from a leg injury; a win over the lame or blind doesn't count. Okuri-dashi, hataki-komi, and finally, a legitimate oshi-dashi win over Kisenosato on day 10. That was Ozeki pride kicking in there, and frankly, I wanted to see that pride from Chiyotaikai starting from day 1. Is that too much to ask? His final three wins? Hataki-komi, hiki-otoshi, hataki-komi. Excuse me while I pass gas just thinking about it. I have nothing positive to say about Chiyotaikai's sumo this basho. I realize that Chiyotaikai is getting up there in mileage (or kilometerage for my non-US friends), but I want to see an Ozeki fight straight or die trying.
Ozeki Kaio was quite a pleasant surprise this basho. I thought he'd really struggle to even win eight, but with the upper-Maegashira sucking at large and those withdrawals it was easy pickings for this veteran. Kaio's best wins were his day 1 win over Futenoh and his day 10 thrashing of Kotomitsuki, two rikishi I would have expected him to lose to. As for his senshuraku win over Kotooshu, I was disappointed to see him use that sly side-step at the tachi-ai to grab the uwate. Not because I don't like the move, but because I wanted to see a full-blown yotsu-zumo match that featured Kotooshu's longer limbs and youth against Kaio's strength and experience. If Kaio is healthy in the near future, I think his matchups with Kotooshu will be more epic than Kotooshu's bouts with Asashoryu for the reason I mentioned earlier. And while I'm on that sly side-step, if you Kotooshu fans thought that was dirty pool by Kaio, you're maintaining a double standard. Back to Kaio's sumo this basho, his ten wins really was a case of bad competition. Just look at Kaio's losses: Miyabiyama, a big guy difficult for Kaio to handle; Tamanoshima, another big guy with great yotsu-zumo skills; Hakuho, a big, tall rikishi with great belt skills...when he cares; and Asashoryu, no explanation necessary. Sorry Chiyotaikai fans, Kaio didn't lose to your guy. That was an uncalled false start as far as I'm concerned. So Kaio is not exactly back, but he is hanging in there. He's probably got another year left in the tank, but I'd be shocked if he does as well to even jun-yusho in 2006.
Dropping down to the Sekiwake ranks, I've already mentioned Kotooshu, so let's turn to his stablemate, Kotomitsuki. I mean, we use the term erratic to describe Kotomitsuki, but how about this? A 7-1 start followed by a 1-6 finish. How else can you describe it? Actually, if you dig a little deeper Kotomitsuki beat the rikishi in the Maegashira he faced save Kisenosato and Kokkai, and he lost to sanyaku and above. His 8-7 rank will keep him a this rank for the next tournament, but I think Kotomitsuki is a poor Sekiwake. Clancy coined it best with his Koto Hit and Mitsuki smack. I couldn't agree more...let's move on.
If Kotomitsuki doesn't deserve his Sekiwake rank, then Kyokutenho certainly doesn't deserve his sanyaku paycheck. Thanks very much for that tachi-ai henka to pick up a cheap win on senshuraku. Go ahead and drill all that decay out of my teeth and funnel it directly into my nose. I'd rather take whiffs of that than Kyokutenho's sumo. He did display solid sumo against Chiyotaikai and Kisenosato, but his other wins were over Kakizoe (by disqualification...shoulda pulled that coif harder in my opinion), Dejima, Hokutoriki, Iwakiyama, Futenoh (the lame don't count here either), and Kotomitsuki (tachi-ai henka). Kyokutenho's yotsu-zumo is a joy to watch when this guy cares, but he doesn't care enough anymore to even try and make an impact. How old is Oshima-oyakata already? Isn't Kyokutenho the one being groomed to take over the stable when that happens? I'm just tired of seeing Kyokutenho not care. This guy can coast and still sit in the sanyaku he's that good. Unfortunately, we barely saw that in Kyushu.
Komusubi Hakuho should have his bikini line waxed for that henka he pulled against Asashoryu on day 1 (is it me, or does that seem like a LONG time ago?). Still, the 20 year old did go 3-0 against the Ozeki, he beat Kotomitsuki, Kyokutenho, and then suffered that near miss against Kotooshu. That ain't too shabby in itself, but like Kyokutenho, Hakuho's got to care a little more. I really think Hakuho could be on par with Kotooshu and maybe better if he put his mind to it. Hakuho's sumo was good this basho but not great. I liken Hakuho to a south-paw in boxing. His unorthodox style can be a bit tough for his opponents to handle, but he's got to use that more to advantage, not just to skate by. The final two bouts for Hakuho are exactly what I mean. That day 14 loss to Dejima was inexcusable. Sure Dejima was on a run, but c'mon...Dejima? A guy that beats up half the sanyaku and is better than the three Ozeki on the banzuke for Kyushu has to beat Dejima. His losing that bout shows his frequent lapses in concentration. Now look at that bout against Tokitenku on senshuraku. Hakuho is the better rikishi, but I think Tokitenku wanted that bout more...at first. When the patriotic pride kicked in, Hakuho really dug in his heels and just refused to lose that bout. Tokitenku had a great basho, but at his best he still can't beat Hakuho. Dig in your heels son and you will soar in this sport.
Dropping down to the Maegashira ranks, I'm really high on M1 Tamanoshima. You may say so what to that 8-7 record, but he was fighting a schedule as if he was ranked in the sanyaku. Furthermore, four of those losses were by pull down. These aren't Tosanoumi pull-down losses where Tama's head his too low as he charges, these are losses by rikishi who don't want to deal with Tamanoshima's sharp sumo. Kotomitsuki, Chiyotaikai, Miyabiyama, and Roho all pulled him down rather than deal with him straight up. That tells me all four of those guys think Tamanoshima is better than them. I think so too. Tamanoshima is a great yotsu-zumo guy, but he's also tough to put away when you have him on the ropes. Remember that bout against Kotooshu? That shows you just how tough this guy is. That was no fluke. His come-from-behind win over Ama by ushiro-motare didn't suck either. Wins over both Komusubi, one soon to be Ozeki, and one other Ozeki is a fine basho. I say bump Tamanoshima up to that vacant Komusubi slot for January. He deserves it more than Miyabiyama.
I don't expect M1 Hokutoriki to win more than three of four bouts from this rank, and I could even live with his two wins if he actually cared to show up. The fact is Hokutoriki peeled off the mawashi and bent over more times this basho than Richard Simmons. He did manage a good push-out of Aminishiki's neck on day 3 and what..er..uh..huh..a hobbling Futenoh? Okay, I guess he gives a damn there since Futenoh is hobbling. But that's it. It's a joke.
It really doesn't make much sense to focus too much on M2 Futenoh. Just to recap, he was thrown off the dohyo awkwardly by Kaio on day 1 spraining his ankle. Futenoh withdrew but did sack up and returned to the action on day 7. He managed to go 3-6 the second half of the basho, but that's as much as you could expect from him. He still bested Hokutoriki, though, and Futenoh actually sat out five days. Futenoh is a future sanyaku mainstay. I can't wait for him to heal up and be right back up here. It will happen soon.
M2 Kakizoe had a hard luck basho. Like him or not, this guy does bring it every day. He did have that big win against Kotooshu on day 1 as well. Kakizoe is a feisty, likable dude. He's just too small to really impact a basho. His 4-11 is respectable. He made a majority of his bouts close, and that was tough luck against Kyokutenho on day 5. Zoe had him beat. I'm satisfied as usual with Kakizoe's sumo this basho.
M3 Dejima showed flashes the second half of the basho, but he's running on fumes. He's no longer a factor in the Makuuchi division, but he did have some surprising wins against the likes of Kisenosato, Tokitenku, Kotoshogiku, and Hakuho. Counterpart Wakanosato withdrew from the basho before it began and will find himself in unfamiliar territory at the bottom of the division.
M4 Miyabiyama had his best basho of the year in my opinion. The reason was simple. He never abandoned the tsuppari attack. You'd think that the fattest guy in the division would be a belt fighter, but this guy's shoves pack a huge punch, and when he uses them, it's very hard for his opponents to grab his belt. Miyabiyama had his way with half of the sanyaku bullying them around. There's no way that he ever gets a sniff of his former Ozeki rank, but I like the guy when he sticks to what else...the lumbering tsuppari. He deserved the Kantosho. Counterpart Iwakiyama had a horrible basho. 7-8 yes, but a 2-8 start? It looked to me that Iwakiyama didn't give a damn for most of the basho. He's been underachieving most of this year.
M5 Kisenosato has really come around of late, and I know, he only went 5-10 with a freebie thrown in there...well two because he also beat Hokutoriki, but look who he did beat: Tamanoshima, Kotooshu, and Kotomitsuki. He pounded Kotooshu, and he bullied Kotomitsuki with a beautiful yori-taoshi win. The most important thing for Kisenosato is not the wins right now, but the experience fighting all of the big names, and he fought 'em all. Essentially, he received the same opponents that the sanyaku on up received. The Association will surely take this into consideration when they demote him for January. I say no less than M8. I like Kisenosato's heart; I like the way that he showed up on multiple days to the Sadogatake-beya for keiko; and I like the fact that he thinks he belongs among the jo'i. He does. He's 19 and just starting. Counterpart M5 Ama? How can you really expect more than a 7-8 mark from him? The best example were his bouts against Asashoryu and Kotooshu. Not really even close. Yeah, I know those are one and two in the sport right now, and Ama has brilliant technique, but it's still an example of how he'll get bullied around by the heavyhitters. Still, who doesn't love to see him fight?
Ditto for M6 Aminishiki who is similar in stature to Ama and who also finished 7-8. I really need to see counterpart Kokkai win in double digits from here if I'm going to even consider him as a future sanyaku player. He actually was paired against both Sekiwake and did beat down Kotomitsuki pretty good, but I want Kokkai to win with the tsuppari only or die trying. His 9-6 mark will move him into striking distance of the sanyaku, but what's going to change in the Georgian to get him over the hump? I think there are just too many rikishi now who know how to frustrate Kokkai's attack and grab his belt. We'll see.
M7 Kotoshogiku was a bust this basho, which is a shame because he was fighting in front of his hometown fans. I really expected him to do well prior to the basho because of all the quality opponents who came calling at the Sadogatake-beya for pre-basho keiko, but what do you know? I was actually wrong about something. Kotoshogiku just never could get on a roll managing to win two bouts only once...against Kakizoe and Hokutoriki. Better luck next time. I thoroughly enjoyed counterpart Tokitenku's sumo this basho. His wins by uchi-gake and suso-harai greatly contributed to his wining the Ginosho, but it was deserved in my opinion because Tokitenku discovered his brand of sumo--the tsuppari attack-- and stuck to it the whole way. He did have a lot of pull down wins, but they weren't of the cheap variety. They were set up by his relentless attack. His biggest win was over Miyabiyama, which isn't horrible, but Tokitenku should get a pretty rude awakening next basho when he fights all of the studs in the barn. I think he's capable of stealing one or two from the sanyaku/Ozeki ranks in January, but more than that, stick to that fast, tsuppari attack. Great basho for Tokitenku and one of my favorites to watch this tournament.
M8 Roho had a very quiet 10-5 basho. Why? Because he's under ranked in the mid-Maegashira. Praising Roho for a 10-5 mark will be like praising Wakanosato for a similar rank next basho. Let's wait and see how he does once again among the jo'i. I was sorry to see counterpart M8 Toyonoshima just fall short of his kachi-koshi at 7-8. He's built similarly to Takekaze, but unlike Takekaze, Toyonoshima abandons the shenanigans for belt sumo. I admire that.
M9 Takamisakari was sitting pretty...well the dude's not pretty, but he was 7-3 after 10 days. So to see him go 0-5 during the shubansen and actually make-koshi was a huge disappointment. I still maintain that he is at a huge disadvantage because all of his opponents can increase their salary for the month by about 25% with a win over him. Nothing new to comment on regarding the Robocop's sumo. This was average stuff. M9 Takekaze actually started out fairly well with some good push out wins, but after a 1-5 run mid-basho, he opted for the easy pull down wins to go to 9-6.
I don't wish ill will on anyone, but I'm genuinely glad to see M10 Kyokushuzan make-koshi from this rank. Has he reached the point where he can no longer clown his way in the division? I hope so. I like Shu's sumo when he tries. Counterpart Takanowaka withdrew after a measly 1-10 start. I doubt he was really injured. This was one of those, "aw screw it...see you in Juryo" withdrawals.
M11 Tosanoumi barely keeps himself in the division in January going 5-10 from the this rank. Frankly, I pay about as much attention to the lower Maegashira ranks as I do to Japanese television dramas, so I have nothing constructive to say. Counterpart Kotonowaka retired on day 13 in order to take over the Sadogatake-beya and wasn't exactly sent out with a bang. It was time though. He couldn't bend those knees anymore, and he was resorting to tactics about a third of the time to pick up the cheap win. Simon said it best on day 13, so I'll leave it at that.
Picking and choosing now, I'm genuinely pleased to see Hakurozan go 10-5 because I want to see what he can do higher up the ranks. This is a tangent, but with the declining attendance at the hon-basho, the Sumo Association should really try and capitalize on the rising popularity of the sport overseas in countries like Mongolia and Bulgaria. Maybe they have for Mongolia, but from the emails we've received from Bulgarian fans, the press, etc. they should strike up some sort of TV rights deal...maybe they have, and I don't know about it. The point is, Russia is another possible hotbed if HakuRohozan can get their collective act together.
I've gotta comment on M14 Tochinohana, who picked up a deserved Kantosho with an 11-4 mark. This was one rikishi who I kept my eye on the whole tournament. I was very impressed with what looked like to me was his dominance of the rank and file. Three of his losses were by pull-down, and other than that, only the Robocop was able to force him out straight up. Was it me or did Tochinohana look bigger this basho than he has in the past? I don't mean fatter, but taller. He just seemed like a presence this low on the banzuke, and of course we need to see him follow this up higher up the ranks, but I think he has another great basho in January.
And finally I'll end with the gentle giant, M17 Tochinonada who has to be demoted to Juryo after consecutive 7-8 marks from the bottom rung of the division. The problem is the guys this low in the ranks don't get any run whatsoever, so I have no idea if Tochinonada is still injured, or whether or not his time has come. What bothered me the most this basho was the high number of yotsu-zumo losses, especially to the rank and file. If you can get Tochinonada on the run and pull him down that 's one thing, but the number of yori-kiri, yori-taoshi, and losses where he was thrown is another. I hope he is still dinged up because he's a rikishi who has very recently been able to make an impact high up the ranks.
So, it's another year in the books. That was a fast year of sumo. It doesn't seem like too long ago that Kaio was up for Yokozuna promotion and Hakuho was touted as the next big thing. Since I'm in a giving mood, my Christmas present to all of you will be another year-in-review report that I'll post about a week before the next banzuke summing up the best and worst of 2005. Until then...
2004 Year in Review
At Sumotalk, we like to provide at least two pre-basho reports prior to each tournament, one that is posted just after the release of the banzuke that focuses on the new rankings and one a few days prior to the basho that takes into account all of the keiko (practice) reports. In my three years of doing this, I can't quite remember a basho where we've had so many reports prior to the festivities. I think most of the media is focusing on the wrong rikishi this tournament, but since my ducks are properly lined in a row, I will start at the top.
Yokozuna Asashoryu is in vintage form prior to this basho. He stirred up the usual controversy a few weeks ago by traveling alone to several exhibition tournament venues (the rikishi are required to take a chartered bus together), and then he announced he was going to Sadogatake-beya for keiko on Monday but was a no-show leaving the media and at least one prominent oyakata out in the cold. Then, shortly after arriving in Fukuoka, he made it a point to single out a possible rival during pre-basho keiko by visiting Kotooshu's stable on successive days and thrashing the Ozeki-hopeful to the point of refusing Kotooshu a single victory and administering a tsuri-otoshi along the way. Asashoryu is already in that mindset that makes him a champion and spells doom for the rest of the field. All reports from his keiko sessions have him dominating the competition, but what's new? In a keiko session with the Ajigawa-beya, Asashoryu won all 25 of his bouts. Ajigawa-oyakata proclaimed during the session, "the Yokozuna isn't even going all out." I just get the sense that Asashoryu is more focused prior to this basho than he has been for the last few tournaments. Furthermore, I look at the banzuke from the Ozeki ranks down to the M6 position and say to myself, who is going to beat him this basho? You have the Ozeki underachieving so much it hurts, Kotooshu is under pressure, Kotomitsuki is so erratic, Kyokutenho doesn't care, and Wakanosato will be a non-factor IF he decides to participate. Who does that leave? Hakuho and Futenoh are the best shots at handing the Yokozuna a loss, but I don't see it happening. I'm going to say 15-0 for the Yokozuna as he puts a stamp on this basho and writes a few new entries into the record books.
I'll only focus on the Ozeki now out of respect for their ranks, and not because I think they'll make an impact in Kyushu (they won't). Tochiazuma sits in the prestigious East slot, which means...well, it means nothing for this trio. Tochiazuma has definitely been the most reliable of the Ozeki in 2005, but that's not saying much. As a group through the first five tournaments this year, an Ozeki hasn't even finished in the jun-yusho (runner-up) position. Okay stat geeks, go find me another calendar year where an Ozeki has not only failed to yusho but didn't even jun-yusho. It's embarrassing. Getting back to Tochiazuma, if you're fairly new to sumo, the Tochiazuma of the last couple of years can be summed up as a rikishi with a helluva lot of talent who doesn't use it unless his back is against the wall. The problem there is if you're an Ozeki with your back against the wall (ie, you've lost a majority bouts at the last tournament) it means your sumo sucks. Watch for Tochiazuma to lead with his head from the tachi-ai, frustrate a lot of opponents as he wins, and then suffer a few bonehead losses to make him a non-factor during week 2 when it counts. 10 wins.
And that's high praise considering what I have for our next Ozeki, Chiyotaikai. Through five tournaments, Yokozuna Asashoryu has 70 wins this year. One of the records he's trying to break this basho is most wins in a calendar year, which stands at 82 as set by Kitanoumi. By comparison, how many wins does Chiyotaikai have this year? A paltry 37. Chiyotaikai has alternated from a kachi-koshi tournament to a make-koshi tournament going back to the 2004 Aki basho, which means he is kadoban every other tournament. It also means he's conveniently keeping himself in the Ozeki ranks, so he can continue to pull a paycheck. What else could it be? He certainly doesn't care about his sumo anymore. For a brief moment last basho, I actually thought Chiyotaikai looked legit. He had a fantastic opportunity to play a factor in the yusho race last basho as he faced Asashoryu and Kotooshu the final two days, but the Ozeki ended up giving up an easy belt group to both opponents and just walking back and out. Look for an uninspired Chiyotaikai to manage 7 wins in Kyushu.
And finally there's Ozeki Kaio, who may be making his swan song this basho in front of the hometown fans. Unlike Tochiazuma and Chiyotaikai, Kaio has a decent excuse for his non-impact on the sport this year: his age. Kaio has genuinely been injured twice this year; once earlier in the year when he threw out his back, and once just prior to the Aki basho when he tore the hamstring muscle in his right leg. Kaio has not physically been whole since one year ago when at the 2004 Kyushu basho, he blew his chance of promotion to Yokozuna when he went for an ill-advised pull-down against Miyabiyama suffering his fatal third loss. That loss was mental. Kaio's troubles this year have been physical. Initial keiko reports regarding Kaio so far have been extremely positive, but the strain on the body in the practice ring, and the actual strain during the tournament are night and day. If Kaio can manage to avoid tweaking an already existing injury, he struggles for eight wins. Sumo has missed the presence of the rikishi who managed to wrest the lone yusho away from Asashoryu in the last two years.
Okay, let's turn to Sekiwake Kotooshu, an Ozeki-hopeful this basho and the darling of the Japanese press. By way of review, the unwritten rule is that a rikishi secures promotion to the Ozeki rank by winning 33 bouts over three basho while ranked in the sanyaku. Kotooshu's situation this basho, however, is exactly the reason why the rule is unwritten. Following the 33 win rule, logic would dictate that Kotooshu only needs eight wins in Kyushu to secure promotion because he's posted 25 wins the last two tournaments. The problem is only about 3/5 of those wins were quality. If you think this is just my sour grapes opinion because I was so critical of Kotooshu's sumo last basho, consider this. Has anybody noticed that the Director of the Sumo Association, Kitanoumi-oyakata, has yet to announce a meyasu, or target number of wins that Kotooshu needs to secure the promotion? Whether a rikishi is up for promotion to Yokozuna or Ozeki, the Association and/or the Yokozuna Deliberation Council will always set a number of wins that they expect the rikishi to achieve in order to advance his rank. I've read in various reports where the press seems to think that 10 wins will get the job done. It's possible, but not if Kotooshu displays the kind of sumo he did last basho. I think the Association is reluctant to announce a number of wins needed because it's not quantity in Kotooshu's case, rather it's quality. And frankly, barring about 4 days last basho, the quality of Kotooshu's sumo in September resembled an electronic device purchased at the dollar store (or hyaku-en shop if you're in Japan).
I don't think Kotooshu gets the promotion this basho. We all know that physically Kotooshu is perhaps second only to Asashoryu. He's so athletic, he's a Houdini when his back is against the tawara, and he takes full advantage of having the longest limbs in the sport. But when the rank of Ozeki and Yokozuna are on the line, it's the mental strength that counts, and I think that mentally Kotooshu is a mess right now. First, the last two basho when Kotooshu's name was among the leaderboard, he folded faster than those male adult origami geeks when it counted. And that was only a handful of bouts. The pressure this basho started with the release of the banzuke and the media circus that has followed the Bulgarian. Have we forgotten so fast what happened to Hakuho earlier this year? His run was a lot more impressive than Kotooshu's run has been; yet, when the pressure was on, he couldn't handle it. Wakanosato was also up for Ozeki promotion in January, but the perennial Sekiwake up to that point bowed out meekly with 6 wins. I go back to the 1994 Kyushu basho when my favorite rikishi then, Musoyama, was coming off of a spectacular 13-2 performance in September from the Sekiwake rank. True to form, the Japanese media managed to overlook Musoyama's Ozeki run and actually speculated when he would become a Yokozuna. I vividly remember my man starting out 0-4 that basho and only scraping together 7 wins. His Ozeki promotion would have to wait for 6 more years. Don't fall for the Japanese media's hype. Kotooshu is not performing sumo at the level of an Ozeki...well okay, maybe at the level of the current Ozeki, but you know what I mean. That's not to say that he isn't capable of doing so. We all know that Kotooshu is a future Ozeki and probably a future Yokozuna. The point I want to stress is that securing promotion to Ozeki on up is more about mental strength than physical strength, and Kotooshu hasn't showed me a drop of mental toughness the last two basho.
Here's what I see happening in Kyushu for Kotooshu. The kid knows in his mind that he's got to perform Ozeki-like sumo from the start. The problem is it wasn't Ozeki-like sumo that got him to this point. I'm not claiming Jedi mind powers here, but I sense there will be a confusion in Kotooshu as he approaches his bouts. He knows he has to fight like an Ozeki, yet he's wired himself of late to just settle for the easy win with a sly side-step at the tachi-ai or retreating sumo. Add to this confusion the point that the Sekiwake is already tired. Last week when Asashoryu was paying Kotooshu visits, Kotooshu's only comments after the practice session were, "I'm tired." and "I just want to be alone." Even this week where Kotooshu has dominated his keiko sessions for the most part, his post practice comment is still, "I'm so tired." Sadogatake-oyakata is ragging on his prodigy reminding him that the basho hasn't even started yet, so he shouldn't be tired. The truth is, however, that the constant hounding by the media and the mental strain of accepting the task at hand is wearing Kotooshu out mentally before the tournament has even started. I cannot wait for new blood to occupy the Ozeki ranks, and there's no question that Kotooshu is a future Ozeki. I just don't see it happening this basho. I say the kid is an emotional wreck as he manages 8 wins.
Kotooshu's stablemate and counterpart in the Sekiwake ranks is Kotomitsuki. I look for Kotomitsuki to have a pretty good basho for a couple of reasons. First, he's enjoying top-notch competition in the practice ring this basho. Asashoryu, Kisenosato, Roho, Kokkai, and his own Kotooshu are ample competition in preparing for a basho. Second, there's absolutely no pressure on him. The focus lies solely on the shoulders of his stable mate. And third, Kotomitsuki is a pretty savvy veteran. He's very erratic, but I think he cruises to nine wins this basho as the circus brings down Kotooshu.
I really like both of our Komusubi. I don't like the indifferent attitude exhibited by Kyokutenho, but I've always admired his sumo when he cared about it. I look for Kyokutenho to score some wins over the top rikishi, but I also expect him to coast for the most part and struggle to even kachi-koshi. I've all but given up on Kyokutenho establishing some authority in the Makuuchi ranks, and I think he has given up too. It's a shame; this guy is so good, but it's hardly ever manifested because he's just dialing in his performances. Counterpart Hakuho, on the other hand, is a rikishi I think we should keep our eyes on this basho, even to the tune of a jun-yusho performance. There's no pressure on the 20 year old; his ankle injury has completely healed; and I think he's ready to reassert himself as the number two guy in the sport. A year ago Hakuho was literally toying with his opponents as a cat would play with a trapped mouse before killing it. The pressure of an Ozeki promotion in March and an ankle injury in July have kept him out of the limelight for most of the year, but I look for Hakuho to re-establish some dominance with 12 wins.
In the Maegashira ranks, I'm extremely excited about the East M1 Tamanoshima. Tamanoshima suffered a muscle tear in the rib cage area several basho ago, and it's been a slow journey back to complete health, but he's there now in my opinion, and I expect him to score a few upset wins against the rikishi ranked ahead of him. Before his injury, Tamanoshima was a legitimate Sekiwake, and I think he's still got what it takes to get back up to that rank. The only downside to his sumo right now is that I think when he was recovering from that rib injury that he compromised his sumo a bit by going for pull downs and retreat tactics too soon in his bouts. It's a habit that's damn hard to shake, and I think this will determine whether or not Tamanoshima scores a kachi-koshi this basho. Three failed pull-down attempts equals a make-koshi; it's up to him. Counterpart at M1 is none other than Hokutoriki. I expect this former Sekiwake to get worked like the lone female employee in an office full of Japanese men. Three wins for this former yusho contender.
If you haven't figured it out by now, I am higher on M2 Futenoh right now than I am for any other rikishi except maybe Hakuho. After kicking Asashoryu's ass on day 1 in September, Futenoh stumbled the rest of the way aided by a handful of tachi-ai henka against him. He was the new Komusubi last basho, and he just couldn't get any rhythm going during the Aki basho. Still, only getting dropped two notches in the ranks after a 5-10 showing is a huge sign of respect from the Association. I think Futenoh is going to face a tough tough week one schedule that will take him out of the spotlight early on, but I expect nine wins from this potential superstar. Right now, Futenoh is the last guy on the banzuke who you want to get into a yotsu-zumo fight with. This prodigy needs to ensure that he doesn't give too much away at the tachi-ai (meaning don't charge too high). If he can do that, I see at least nine wins this basho and a return to the sanyaku. I look for his M2 counterpart, Kakizoe, to struggle this basho scoring six wins with his only win against a rikishi ranked higher than him coming against Hokutoriki.
Our M3's would have been fantastic two or three years ago, but for this basho Wakanosato and Dejima should not play a factor...other than doling out wins to the jo'i. It just doesn't sound as if Wakanosato has recovered from that knee injury that forced him to withdraw in September. He is performing keiko, but it's the kind of practice where you wink at his opponent and whisper "don't let him get hurt." I'm basing this off of reports I've read and not actually having seen Wakanosato in the practice ring. If he does enter the tournament, I'll give a better assessment in my day 3 report. Counterpart Dejima is just too bandaged and worn out to make an impact anymore. Six wins for this former Ozeki and yusho winner.
Our M4's are both probably a little too fat for their own good, but watch out for this rank. Miyabiyama, who wallows in the East slot mire, is a former Ozeki himself, but unlike the Degyptian, he's still got some gas left in the tank. His counterpart is Iwakiyama who should finally be able to concentrate on sumo now that the Star Wars saga is over, and he's not playing the stunt double for Jabba the Hutt. In all seriousness, you have two huge rikishi here who are very hard to beat when they come out firing their tsuppari from the tachi-ai. Both get into trouble when they settle for the early belt contest, and both have been underachieving all year long. Remember Miyabiyama's run at the end of last year where he was ranked as Sekiwake for something like three straight basho? Iwakiyama is a former Komusubi himself, so both of these guys can bring it. The M4 slot is usually one of my favorite to watch on the banzuke because the rikishi here are just out of reach of having to fight all of the heavyweights. I expect kachi-koshi from both of these rikishi at worst.
The M5 rank is extremely compelling this basho as both rikishi are still young and both are ranked as high as they've ever been. Kisenosato entered the division as an 18 year old to significant hype, but he always seemed to struggle finishing his opponents off. I think he may be over that now. I love the kid's attitude going into this basho. He's showing up around town for de-geiko as if he's someone to be reckoned with. Maybe he is. The right attitude can take one along way in this sport. He's showed up to Sadogatake-beya multiple times to bump chests with Kotooshu, and there are even reports of a bitter rivalry brewing between the two. That would be so healthy for a sport that has lacked any sort of rivalry since Akebono retired. Kisenosato's technique is brilliant for someone this young, and I think he's already mentally tougher than the Bulgarian. Kisenosato had no business beating Kotooshu last basho from the M16 rank, but he did thanks to his refusal to be flustered on the big stage. I expect no more than nine wins from Kisenosato, but I also see him establishing his presence this high up the ranks with a kachi-koshi. Kisenosato is truly a rikishi to watch this basho. Counterpart Ama is an exciting rikishi to watch because he's skinnier than a stray dog which forces him to rely on some pretty amazing technique. The upside to Ama is that Yokozuna Asashoryu likes the kid and has taken him under his wing despite the two being from different stables. Frequent keiko with the Yokozuna can only help a rikishi as long as he isn't intimidated. Since there's only a limited number of wins to go around this high, I think Ama comes up short this basho. Makekoshi for the Mongolian with 6 wins.
Aminishiki comes in at M6 having actually fallen in the ranks despite his victory over Asashoryu in September. The fact that he beat Asashoryu head to head shows you that Aminishiki is a technical wizard, but his lack of size has always hampered him from rising to the sanyaku. I'd love to see another run this late in his career, and perhaps he can do it now that he's fully recovered from his knee injury. Counterpart Kokkai is right back where he was in July when he beat Asashoryu. I stated then that Kokkai must win in double digits from this low in the rankings if he ever wishes to hold a sanyaku rank. The statement still stands this basho. Kokkai's problem of late is that he's abandoning his tsuppari attack too quickly in the bout. The problem there is he doesn't have anything else to fall back on as he's not a good belt fighter. My take is fire off those thrusts even if you lose. It'd also help if he faced Takamisakari everyday. For some reason (I think it's the money from the kensho), Kokkai fights like a caged bull against the Robocop. If he'd channel that ferocity into every bout, he'd be close to unstoppable.
M7 Kotoshogiku is a very bright spot for the Sadogatake stable and a rikishi who is currently being overshadowed by the attention focused on Kotooshu. Just as I mentioned with Kotomitsuki, when everyone comes to visit Kotooshu for keiko, Kotoshogiku benefits by being in the same stable because he gets to practice with the top rikishi. He was denied the chance at a kachi-koshi last basho when Ama side-stepped him at the tachi-ai on the tourney's final day, but along with great speed and good technique, Kotoshogiku is a Fukuoka native, so I expect that extra energy from the partial crowd to propel the Geeku to around 9 wins.
In the M8 ranks we have the underachieving Roho and the fiery Toyonoshima. Earlier in the year, Roho was perched high in the rankings falling just short of a sanyaku berth time after time. So it stands to reason that he'd tear it up when ranked this low, but it's been just the opposite. He's been mediocre at best relying on his sheer power to pull out enough wins for the kachi-koshi. Someone or something has got to light a fire under this guy's arse because he is just coasting right now and wasting a lot of potential. Toyonoshima is one of my favorite rikishi in the sekitori ranks. He's undersized but doesn't use this as an excuse like M9 Takekaze to side-step people a third of the time to pick up the cheap wins. I liken Toyonoshima to Kakizoe... a dangerous guy if he can get the morozashi grip or a deep belt grip on his opponent, but just too small to make a constant impact.
M10 Kyokushuzan is right where he likes it. He's low enough on the ranks to where his shenanigans and monkeyshines should work to the tune of double digit wins. The wins are dirty, but if you like playing online sumo games, Shu's probably a pretty safe pick.
Two veterans fill the M11 slots in Tosanoumi and Kotonowaka. Both rikishi are fighting off retirement although Kotonowaka's leash is much shorter. Slipping down a notch, something tells me that M12 Asasekiryu is going to have a good basho. He's had some good starts of late only to suffer freak injuries that have forced him to withdrawal. If healthy, I expect at least 9 wins, especially this low in the ranks.
M13 Hakurozan is wallowing in mediocrity at the moment. Like his brother Roho, he seems content to just slap his way to wins here and there keeping himself safely in the division. Let's hope this approach doesn't rub off on fellow Eastern European Baruto (from Estonia), who you're guaranteed to hear more about in January. And the only reason why I mention Hakurozan's counterpart Ishide is because he changed his shikona (fighting name) to...drum roll please...Shunketsu. Shunketsu? What kind of name is that? Replace the 'n' with another 'k' to make Shukketsu (bleed profusely) and I'm on board, but Shunketsu? Look, if you were born as Frank Carlton Serafino Ferrano, and you took a Greyhound bus from Idaho of all places to Los Angeles in the late 70's to start one of the baddest rock 'n roll bands of all time, go ahead and change your name to Nikki Sixx. But Shunketsu (the name means horse masterpiece) from Ishide? I guess I shouldn't dwell on it too much. Ishi...I mean...Shunketsu's Makuuchi career will be a galloping memory faster than he can say evanescence.
I'm scraping the barrel here now...M14 Tochinohana is the former Komusubi you've never heard about. He returns to the division after a lengthy stint in the Makushita and Juryo ranks. For some inexplicable reason, he's one of those former sanyaku guys who showed great potential but just dropped off the face of the earth for no reason in a matter of a few basho. Maybe Chiyotenzan can make some sense of it.
M15 Kasuganishiki makes his first return to the division since March. He has a great sumo body with long arms but has never been able to parlay that into a decent Makuuchi career...but hey, he at least got mentioned on Sumotalk! The oohs and ahs you'll hear just after 4:30 pm during the basho will come from the crowd slobbering on themselves over the extremely high leg kick of M16 Katayama. I'd trade that for good sumo any day. I really like Katayama's counterpart Kasugao, our only Korean sekitori who can be a bulldog at the belt, but who never consistently executes the kind of tachi-ai that lets him get a good grip.
And finally, the Association made the correct move in keeping M17 Tochinonada in the division despite suffering a make-koshi from this same rank in September (save the emails geeks...I know he was in the East last basho and now he's in the West). When this guy gets healthy again after doing the splits in Nagoya and tearing something that I don't even want to think about, he's going to break out to the tune of 12 wins from this spot on the ranks.
Okay, if you're still awake, you've got more time on your hands than I thought. Here are my predictions for the Kyushu basho:
Yusho: Asashoryu (15-0)