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2013 Kyushu Pre-basho Report

For a basho that's lacked a whole lot of substantive keiko reports, I've been quite fascinated with the headlines leading up to the tournament, and for a country like Japan where the citizens simply do not question authority or what's reported in the mainstream media, it's interesting to read the funnies and watch the news to see the spin that is being put on the basho in order to prep the fans. And when I say that things are being spun here and there, I don't mean that it's forecasting yaocho in the ring. It's simply a method to keep the fans intrigued in sumo despite the presence of a Yokozuna so dominant that actual yusho races are becoming a thing of the past.

As a result, let's focus on what the media is talking about first and then get to the individual rikishi second. If we prioritize the order of our discussion by who is geting the most ink then we must start with Endoh, who has yet to complete an entire basho in Makuuchi, who has a hairline fracture in his left ankle, who won't fight a single practice bout leading up to the basho against a sekitori, and who is ranked at M7! In my two plus decades of watching sumo, I have never seen such scrutiny focused on a single rikishi who hasn't proven anything yet in the division, and I already outlined the reasons why Endoh is the center of attention in my Aki post basho report, so I won't rehash any of that here. Rather, let's focus on the prospects that face Endoh at the Kyushu basho.

First, Endoh likely won't complete the basho and is merely hanging around to give the fans something to gawk at. In the three sports I follow intently in Japan (male figure skating, sumo, and baseball...in that order), the media will always choose a darling and then focus on that individual the entire season and literally make him a star even though he hasn't proven anything at the professional level yet. In baseball this year it was Shohei Otani, a dude who gained fame by becoming the first pitcher ever to clock 160 km/h with his fastball at the annual summer high school baseball tournament (often referred to as Koshien). Otani was drafted by the Nippon Ham Fighters, and it was impossible to watch a pre-season baseball report or a newscast during the year that didn't mention Otani.

The year before was a pitcher named Yuki Saitoh whose claim to fame was wiping the sweat off of his face with a handkerchief while pitching in the high school tournament. Saitoh, who was also drafted by the Ham Fighters, was intensely scurtinized and hyped the same as Otani, but he never did pan out during his rookie year due to arm injuries. I still remember watching a newscast where Saito threw one inning of his scheduled start and then was promptly replaced for the second inning. So why even start the kid if his arm is injured? It was a home game, and it was announced ahead of time that Saito would be the starter, and in Japan, you can't say he's going to start the game, sell tickets on that premise, and then not let the fans see him. So injury and all, they marched him out for that one inning in order to provide the obligatory "fan service."

So how does this apply to Endoh? He is the obvious darling of sumo right now and will be for the next few years unless someone can supplant him, and so the media will incessantly hype him even if he's not fit to participate in a basho, which I presume is the case for Kyushu. Having these daily reports on Endoh doing absolutely nothing is a means of providing "fan service" and keeping the Fukuoka'ns intrigue up until the start of the basho. Endoh is also staying in the practice area until the end of the session despite his oyakta telling him he can leave because the fans are there to watch him. Worst case scenario was that Endoh would announce his official withdraw on Friday morning before they announced the pairings for the first two days, but it looks as if he will at least give it a shot.

M7 right now is essentially the same as M13 the way these rikishi keep going up and down the ladder, and so I guess it's worth a shot for Endoh to see what he can do. In his current condition, I don't see Endoh winning more than three bouts legitimately, but who knows? It wouldn't even suprise me if he was sandbagging this injury and came out red hot at the touranment building upon the legend the media has already begun creating for him. I've noticed in a lot of reports that Endoh is now being prefaced with the nickname, "kaibutsu," which means monster or beast, the same term that was used for Baruto when he first arrived on the scene. Endoh has done nothing to earn that monikor nor does he have the stature, but it doesn't matter when you're the media's darling.

I also had to laugh at a news report that covered Hakuho speaking at a symposium a few days ago. The moderator asked him if there was any rikishi whom he feared. Hakuho flat out said no, and so the reporter next asked if there were any potential rikishi who could put a scare into Hakuho. The Yokozuna knew what they were fishing for and complied saying Endoh, and so they (Daily Sports, 11/5) twisted that statement in order to create the headline, "Hakuho named future rival, Endoh!" with a couple of pull quotes that say "He's on the rise" and "I'll be waiting for him." Good grief. I really like Endoh, and I think he's actually worth the hype, but it's been interesting to see the media carry on about this guy for doing absolutely nothing prior to Kyushu. As for his prospects at the Kyushu basho, I don't see how he impacts the tournament other than keeping the headlines churning.

Let's next shift our focus to the lone Makuuchi rookie, Osunaarashi, who has generated considerable headlines due to his record-setting pace in reaching the Makuuchi division. The Egyptian only required 10 total basho to reach this point besting other well-known furreners like Asashoryu, Kotooshu, and Baruto. Normally, when a guy establishes a record like this in terms of speed, he's virtually a shoe-in for the Ozeki rank, but these days, it's simply easier for guys to rise up quickly through the banzuke. The lack of talent and potential we see in the Makuuchi division is just a microcosm of the entire banzuke, and so it's a lot easier for guys like Osunaarashi to best rikishi like Asashoryu and Baruto in the record books even though I don't think he's anywhere near where those two were when they entered the division. I guess the best way to illustrate this take is to point out the all-time record holder for quickest rise to Makuuchi ever requiring just nine basho: Jokoryu! Jokoryu may one day be able to grace the Komusubi rank, but he's certainly not striking the fear of the gods into anyone presently, and when was the last time you saw the Japaense media hyping him? The bottom line is that the metrics surrounding sumo wrestling have changed to where the banzuke is weaker than I can describe, the gap between foreign rikishi and Japanese rikishi is widening if anything, and the only way to establish a yusho race is to manufacture one.

Now, I don't mean to pile all of this on Osunaarashi because I really like the guy after getting to know him. My exposure to him previous to this basho were the Juryo bouts of his NHK would show of him during breaks in the Makuuchi action, and from watching him fight, it was evident that he still had a few things to work on. What I really like about this dude, though, is he admitted as much in his press conferences. He actually came out and said of his promotion to Makuuchi, "In all honesty, I wasn't that excited because I think it happened too fast." On this bazuke? No, it wasn't too fast. On a banzuke 10 - 15 years ago? He'd still be in the Makushita division and he knows it. He also pointed out to the media his two biggest flaws in his sumo: he fights too upright and he goes for the pull too often. Finally, he correctly pointed out that he is relying on his strength and speed to win bouts instead of sound sumo. Reading all of those comments early on was so refreshing because I can't recall a single rikishi who was so correct in his self analysis about everything. This dude seems extremely acute, so let's see if that can translate to sound sumo in this divison.

What I would like to see from Osunaarashi (besides a shikona that's easier to type in English) is more stability in the pace of his bouts. I'm placing two pictures of a dohyo below with red arrows showing the flow of the action. The dohyo on the left represents the typical flow of a bout that involves an elite rikishi. The one on the right represents a typical Osunaarashi bout.


The closer the rookie's sumo gets to resembling the graphic on the left, the higher up the ranks he will rise. As for the basho at hand, I expect him to win around 10 bouts. Speed is huge in this division, and then when you couple it with raw power, it's a pretty lethal combination at the M15 rank. Based on the content of Osunaarashi's sumo as seen in Juryo from time to time, I wasn't as excited about his entry into the Makuuchi division, but now that I know more about him and his mental make-up, I'm really looking forward to watching what he can do.

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