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2014 Kyushu  Pre-basho Report

The biggest number coming out of the Aki basho was the 26.8% rating that NHK's general channel recorded during the final moments of senshuraku. The entire broadcast on the final day pulled an average viewership of 21.7% which is phenomenal when you consider that after the yusho has been determined, half of the viewers change the channel completely ignoring the awards ceremony that makes up the final 20 - 30 minutes of the day. Before the big Endoh boom, NHK hadn't been able to get any of those numbers out of the high teens, and so whoever has orchestrated this recent PR campaign has done a brilliant job.

On a dime, the Sumo Association through the help of the media has switched the focus on sumo from Endoh over to Ichinojo in a single basho, and it's one of the most phenomenal things that I've ever seen. Beyond the television numbers I mentioned from the Aki basho, the general buzz that I'm getting from the Japanese people in general whom I associate with nearly every day is now all about Ichinojo. Even if you look at the wires and the news stories and images available, Ichinojo is getting as much coverage as all of the other rikishi combined including Hakuho. I mean, what are the two biggest stories heading into the basho? Ichinojo's recent bout of herpes and Hakuho's pending 32nd career yusho...in that order! Okay, maybe Ichinojo really suffered from a bout of shingles that had him hospitalized for a spell during the Aki exhibitions, but how is a form of herpes a bigger story than a rikishi on the brink of achieving the career all-time yusho mark?

It's really quite amazing how all of the attention suddenly shifted from Endoh over to Ichinojo in a single basho, but I think with Ichinojo, the Sumo Association and media have a story that they can glom onto and ride all the way through Ichinojo's rise to the Ozeki rank and likely subsequent promotion to Yokozuna. With Endoh...and even the three Japanese Ozeki, the hype surrounding these rikishi was entirely forced. Sure, Kotoshogiku, Kisenosato, and now Goeido were actually promoted to Ozeki, but it wasn't due to the content of their sumo, and now that they are fighting from the rank, they can't maintain the standard of an Ozeki. Endoh has been an even more frustrating story for the Association and media because he was set up as this and that but has done nothing except get his ass kicked for the last four basho. Sure, it would be absolutely insane if Ichinojo was Japanese, but he has a compelling enough story that can be marketed, and with the Mongolith, they know he's a rikishi who can actually live up to all of the hype, and so far, the Japanese public is buying into it hook, line, and sinker.

For guys like Kakuryu and Harumafuji, their debut tournaments in the division were not memorable. Everyone knows Harumafuji now because he stood out as an undersized rikishi who was able to reach the Ozeki rank and ultimately yusho, but there are people who still don't know who Kakuryu is. It didn't help that the two were Mongolian, especially in an age where you had Asashoryu and Hakuho dominating with little to look forward to from the Japanese rikishi, but still, there were no immediate storylines with Harumafuji and Kakuryu. With Ichinojo it's different. First, the guy was serving as an assistant high school coach in Japan just prior to entering the Association, and that's something that can be marketed to the trivia-hungry Japanese. Second, Ichinojo went 13-2 in his debut basho that included wins over multiple Ozeki and a Yokozuna, and despite the content of his sumo in those wins, it's all about how the media spins it, and so far no one is really questioning his penchant for the tachi-ai henka in big bouts. Third, in Ichinojo you have a literal monolith in the division, which is why Clancy's nickname was so spot on. The Japanese people see Ichinojo in all his girth, and they immediately have someone who they can recognize and who they can follow up the banzuke.

The media attempted to spin Endoh as such a rikishi in a similar manner whether it was hoping he'd surpass Musoyama at the Haru basho as fastest kin-boshi ever or the fastest rise to the sanyaku from a Makushita tsuke-dashi debut status, but it's become obvious that Endoh will not meet the expectations put on him, and so just like that the new project for the media has become Ichinojo. Yes, Ichinojo is a foreigner, but there's plenty there that the media can hype about him in order to maintain this current wave of popularity, and don't forget that day 10 feel-good piece on Takamiyama during the Aki basho where NHK reviewed the history of foreign rikishi in sumo. I expect more such pieces to follow during the Kyushu basho broadcasts to enforce the notion that it's not all bad to celebrate the achievements of foreign rikishi. And hell, if you've got a class act on the cusp of setting the all-time yusho record, you may as well milk that one as well.

With that said, let's turn our attention to the rikishi who will be competing in Fukuoka, and I'll start off with the biggest story, Ichinojo. I knew he'd vault up the ranks and threaten the sanyaku after his 13-2 performance from the M10 rank in September, but even I was surprised to see him ranked at Sekiwake this basho. By requiring only five basho in the sport to reach the rank, he smashes the former record of seven for fewest basho to reach Sekiwake from a Makushita tsuke-dashi debut status. It's one thing to tie former greats and maybe one-up them by a basho, but beating this record by two full basho? You just don't see that happen, and so you must ask yourself 'why did it happen in this case?' The content of Ichinojo's sumo at Aki was not great. Yeah, he had some big wins over an Ozeki and a Yokozuna, but he used a tachi-ai henka to obtain them. He was also mostly defensive minded, and you can't really blame him because he kept on winning. The point is that Ichinojo's sumo was not great. Yes, the dude did stand out, but he didn't stand out for his brilliant sumo. So why then was he able to vault all the way to Sekiwake in just five basho? My take coincides with what I've been saying for several years now in that the banzuke is just plain awful. Had Ichinojo entered sumo a decade ago, he would not be ranked Sekiwake after five basho in the sport. It doesn't discount the impact that he should make in the coming years, but I attribute his rise more to weak surroundings than I do to pure ability.

Normally I would say that he's going to get his ass kicked this high on the banzuke with no experience, but just look around and tell me whose going to beat him? The three Yokozuna will best him in a straight up fight, but after that, I think Ichinojo's gotta be the favorite. I can just picture the elders in the Association reworking that banzuke the Wednesday morning after the Aki basho when they got to the West Sekiwake slot. "Okay, let's move onto the West Sekiwake slot...who we got?" After a lot of grumbling and sucking in air through their mouths as if deep in thought, there was really no other choice, especially if you wanted to generate headlines and excitement. I think Ichinojo deserves the Sekiwake rank; but that's only because there's no one else to fill the void, not because of outstanding performance in the ring. In predicting number of wins, I keep waffling back and forth between "he's gonna get his ass kicked" to "exactly who is going to kick his ass?" Chalk up three losses from the Yokozuna, and then three other losses by guys who figure out how to get to the side of him and out-quick him. It should be noted that Ichinojo spent a few days in Osaka having his back worked on, but when your sumo style is largely stand-there-like-a-blob, I don't see that really affecting his outcome. 9-6.

Let's move back up to the top where Hakuho is primed to stand alongside Taiho in the record books at 32 career yusho. The Yokozuna has won the Kyushu basho six straight times, and there's really no one else who can wrest the cup from his grip even if he does penalize himself with two losses. I don't think the jun-yusho rikishi finishes better than 12-3, so get a head start engraving the "Haku" kanji on the cup now if you please. As has been the case for multiple basho now, it's senseless trying to analyze Hakuho's sumo. He has easily lapped the field and that counts the other two Yokozuna, so it's all a matter of what Hakuho decides to do. I expect the same results that we've seen most of the year: Hakuho just going through the motions while the banzuke around him slowly cannibalizes itself in the loss column. Let's give Hakuho a 13-2 record in the end since Goeido's definitely got his number leaving room for one other loss along the way.

Before we move onto the other rikishi, it's crazy just how little hype Hakuho has been getting this basho. To be fair, I'd say he's getting 33% of the ink while Ichinojo is getting close to 60% leaving a few token stories here and there for the other rikishi. Still, if you look back at that huge decline in fan interest and ticket sales, it all came about during Hakuho's record run of 63 consecutive wins. Hakuho's running roughshod through the sport cannot be marketed successfully, and so he's never really been the focal point the last three years as the Association has concentrated on marketing other rikishi. And when I say marketed in terms of Japanese rikishi, I'm implying that the wishes of the Sumo Association have also translated to wins in the ring when they weren't exactly deserved.

After Ichinojo and Hakuho, I guess you'd have to say the next biggest story is Endoh, who checks in at the M8 slot after another horrible basho in September. I was thinking in between basho about how a guy who looked so good early on has fallen so far, and I recalled exactly one year ago when Endoh suffered that hairline fracture in his ankle prior to the Kyushu basho. He ultimately decided to enter the Kyushu basho without having faced a single Makuuchi rikishi in keiko, but he performed miserably then and relied on a ton of thrown bouts to make his record look respectable, but dude hasn't been the same guy since then. I think his fall has been due to that untimely ankle injury and the mental strain of trying to live up to the hype that was placed on him the last year. To see Endoh go from like 80% of the total media coverage prior to Aki down to a few token articles here and there prior to Kyushu is quite fascinating to me. It's further evidence that Endoh was not being hyped for his actual sumo accomplishments; rather, he was a guy that could sell tickets and drive up ratings (for whatever reason) until the next golden goose came along. Let's hope that the spotlight's shift to the Mongolith breathes new life into Endoh. As for one of the articles I did read, he did not do any de-geiko prior to Kyushu, so don't expect him to really make a blip on the radar this basho. Seven wins.

Moving back up to the Yokozuna ranks, I have nothing new to say about Kakuryu, so expect him to lackadaisically plod along to his usual 11 wins. As for Harumafuji, there was speculation that he would sit out Kyushu as well after suffering that fracture to the orbital bone in his eye, but the Yokozuna is adamant that he's going to participate, and I actually wouldn't be surprised to see him take the jun-yusho with 11 or 12 wins. When a Yokozuna is coming off of a make-koshi, there's a pride factor in place that should cause him to re-establish himself. If Hakuho fails to yusho in Kyushu, it will be Harumafuji holding that pink fish upside down at the end.

In the Ozeki ranks, there is just nothing to get excited about...er...other than Goeido's domination of Hakuho. I think a good barometer for the Ozeki will be Ichinojo. Normally, a guy that speeds up the ranks like this will be put in his place by the Ozeki. Last basho, Ichinojo faced two Ozeki and while he henka'd Kotoshogiku, he just laid the wood to Goeido. That bout wasn't even close, and it was one of the few bouts Ichinojo fought where he actually pressed the action and won straightforward in a linear fashion. I'll be really interested to see how the Ozeki handle Ichinojo, and my guess is that Itchy and Scratchy is the favorite in all three matchups. For the sake of storylines, if one of the Ozeki does get hot, expect it to be Kotoshogiku, who hails from a small town just south of Fukuoka proper. When the dust settles in Kyushu, I see a collective 27 wins from this bunch of yayhoos.

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