Nagoya Basho Roundtable
Despite the high drama manifest at the 2005 Nagoya basho, I can't go as far as saying that this was a great basho. It definitely was, however, the most intriguing basho of the year. The problem, of course, was so many key rikishi withdrawing, thus diluting the yusho race. I have no reason to believe that Hakuho couldn't have gone deep into the tournament, and what about Iwakiyama? Whose to say the M8 wouldn't have been in the yusho hunt had he not injured his shoulder? I think Simon aptly covered in his report how this basho tended to be dramatic for the wrong reasons, so I will get right to my analysis of the key rikishi who made an impact in Nagoya.
As usual, I'll start with the yusho rikishi, which means Yokozuna Asashoryu is first up. Despite his suffering two losses this basho, I did not think that the Yokozuna's performance was off in any way. The Yokozuna is going to lose from time to time, so just because two of his three losses this year came within days of each other in Nagoya, it makes no difference. Call me crazy, but the aspect of his sumo I enjoyed the most occurred in the two bouts he lost. First, against Kotooshu, Asashoryu was beat straight up in a classic belt fight. As both rikishi threw each other to the dirt, Asashoryu's dome touched the clay before Kotooshu's hand did, but did you notice the way Asashoryu fell? He landed straight on top of his head and somersaulted forward avoiding any injury. You can tell the fearless rikishi by their refusal to put their hands down in an effort to break their fall as they crash to the clay, but the truly brilliant rikishi can do it without coming away scarred. Can anyone forget the gruesome facial tattoos displayed by Kotonowaka and Kotooshu in recent basho as they face-planted into the clay? Asashoryu, on the other hand, came away unscathed as he used his mage to cushion the blow. That's why the top-knot is there in the first place, but I can't recall any rikishi in recent memory able to use it to land on his head as Asashoryu did on day 8. Then against Kokkai on day 11, as Asashoryu fell to the dirt while Kokkai tried to keep himself in the dohyo, the Yokozuna fully extended his body so that it was parallel with the dohyo, stretched both arms out and upwards, and arched his back to ensure that he would touch at the last possible moment. He made this adjustment in mid-air while never taking his eyes off of his opponent. It's this mental alertness in the ring that separates the Yokozuna from the rest of the field. It's almost as if he sees the action in slow motion enabling him to make these kind of adjustments. Now I've just described these adjustments for two of his losses, but it is this ability to adjust in the blink of an eye to the pace of the bout that contributes to so many Asashoryu victories. We've said it all before, and we'll say it all again.
As for Asashoryu's sumo, the Yokozuna treated us to the usual tsuri-dashi win, the nifty extra flip of his opponent during the uwate-nage win, and the outward display of emotion after a key win (Tochiazuma) and a key loss (Kokkai). I got a nice kick on senshuraku with the clenched-fist pose as he stood over the fallen Tochiazuma, his goofy grin as he collected his record-tying 47 kensho envelopes, and his acknowledgement of several people in the arena on his way out. He was far more emotional than usual with the yusho this basho, but that's going to happen when someone poses a serious threat as Kotooshu did. I'll end my comments on Asashoryu by saying it will be an upset if he doesn't capture each yusho this year.
Speaking now of Komusubi Kotooshu, he really took me--and probably everyone else--by surprise this basho. Coming into the basho, all of the talk surrounded his stablemate, Kotomitsuki, and how his keiko was progressing well, how he looked on track to threaten promotion to Ozeki, and even how he decked Kotooshu with a slap to the face during a keiko session a few days prior to the basho. So what happens? Kotooshu returns the favor with an even larger figurative slap to Kotomitsuki's face as Kotooshu will become the heya-gashira outranking Kotomitsuki for the Aki basho. As for Kotooshu's performance in Nagoya, I think we all knew that the Bulgarian was capable of this, I for one just didn't expect it so soon, especially after his horrible Komusubi debut two basho ago. If Kotooshu had actually taken the yusho, he would have shattered the record for fewest basho in the sport to yusho at 17 (Asashoryu and Takanohana currently hold it at 24). My biggest concern coming in was that Kotooshu didn't have any big wins ranked this high on the banzuke, but he took care of that over the first eight days and then some with commanding wins over Tochiazuma, Kaio, and Asashoryu. The reason this is so important is because this gives him the confidence to now stick in the sanyaku. Kotooshu's sumo this basho didn't really look any different from his previous outings: he capitalized on his length to grab the uwate and win from there. The vast improvement came between his ears because now the Sekiwake-to-be is battle tough. He's always had the body and tools to win; now he knows he can. His expectations from here on out will not be to simply maintain a sanyaku rank; rather, he'll be focused on the Ozeki rank and the yusho, and maybe not necessarily in that order. I guess if there was anything negative about his performance this basho, it came on senshuraku where Kotooshu was obviously intimidated by his yusho contender status. I don't know what he was doing in that bout against Wakanosato, but it wasn't sumo. To be fair, it's not like we haven't seen melt-downs like this before from other rikishi (coughing and sputtering "Hokutoriki"!). Despite Kotooshu's collapse, it was good to see him so upset with himself afterwards. I think those were tears in his eyes as he gave the almost silent interview to NHK. I love to see the emotion in the rikishi because it shows how much they really care. Now, where does Kotooshu go from here? I would currently place him in the same class as Hakuho. You won't be surprised to see either of them suddenly rise up and yusho or be promoted to Ozeki, but I think they both need a little more time. Still, with the mediocre Ozeki, if you had to pick any three Makuuchi rikishi to start a new stable right now, would it not be Asashoryu, Kotooshu, and Hakuho? Kotooshu received the Shukunsho for his efforts, but he probably should have received one more prize as well.
Jumping back up to the Ozeki ranks, were there really any surprises? This was status quo all the way. Chiyotaikai managed three wins before withdrawing with some kind of injury, but injuries are the last thing he should be concerned with. His sumo sucks, and he's hanging onto his Ozeki rank by a thread. I don't see how anything changes in September. Kaio did pick up his double-digit wins, but most were not the overpowering belt throws and force-outs that we were seeing a year ago. Even some of his classic kotenage throws were desperation counter attacks. This Ozeki is obviously not the same Kaio we saw at the end of last year. And Tochiazuma really had nothing to prove, so he limped home with a 9-6 record. Yes, I guess he injured one of his wheels, but even before he began hobbling, I saw no determination or inspiration in his sumo. It's probably safe to say that the next rikishi to steal the yusho away from Asashoryu won't be one of the Ozeki. What more is there to say? They all fulfilled everyone's mediocre expectations perfectly.
Our two Sekiwake ended up being non-factors this basho. The biggest shame was Hakuho coming up lame with an ankle injury after a commanding 6-1 start. As for his sumo, Hakuho reverted to that unorthodox style he displayed when he first entered the division. Rather than trying to overpower his opponents chest to chest, he eases up at the tachi-ai and forces them to make the first move; whereupon, the Sekiwake uses his quickness and strength to exploit his opponents' weaknesses. It's extremely effective but can be ugly to watch. Hakuho still hasn't figured out Wakanosato, but other than that he manhandled everyone until he came up limp after the Kyokushuzan bout on day 7. As for counterpart Kotomitsuki, how typical of a basho was this for him? He starts out 4-7 with his four wins coming against make-koshi rikishi where no one won more than 5. Then he manages to go 3-1 the final four days with impressive wins over Wakanosato and Kaio. Nobody can explain it. Kotomitsuki is simply consistently inconsistent. Every year or so, he'll have that 13-2 breakout, but other than that, it's tough to stomach his sumo because it's all over the map. It's also tough to watch when he borrows Kyokushuzan's playbook and pulls out these gimmick tachi-ai. Kotomitsuki is probably a top five rikishi...half of the time.
Rounding out the sanyaku, Komusubi Miyabiyama parlayed a decent 6-4 start into a hapless 7-8 finish. The Komusubi get a murderous week one schedule, so for Miyabiyama to be 6-4 through 10 days is very respectable, but then when he loses to Tosanoumi, Hokutoriki, and Kyokutenho the last few days, he no longer deserves the kachi-koshi. The bottom line for Miyabiyama is he's a strong rikishi, but with the wealth of new talent having risen near the top, he's no longer going to be able to be a sanyaku player. As for Miyabiyama's sumo, it was unimpressive for the most part where the heaviest guy in the division focused too much on the pull down and too little on forward sumo.
In the Maegashira ranks, M1 Kakizoe went a quiet 7-8 from a very difficult rank. With the exception of his win against Kotomitsuki (where he enjoyed a false-start-like tachi-ai), Kakizoe beat everyone ranked below him and lost to everyone ranked above him. Can't ask more from an M1 than that. As I said in my pre-basho comments regarding Kotooshu, you have to beat the sanyaku from this position to get into the sanyaku. Kakizoe comes up just short but will continue to be a nemesis to the jo'i in September. Counterpart Kyokushuzan actually had a decent basho...for him...from this rank. His win over Tochiazuma was spectacular, and don't forget, he unquestionably beat Kotooshu even the record books don't say so. Expect a good basho from the Mongolian next basho from his comfort zone known as the rank and file.
M2 Dejima is somewhat in the same class as Miyabiyama. A big guy, some good sumo, and even a former Ozeki, but he just can't keep up with the young crowd anymore. Still, he picked up some good wins over Wakanosato, Kotomitsuki, and Chiyotaikai to start things off. The most gratifying Dejima bout this basho for me was his day 13 bout against Kotoshogiku. I really like Kotoshogiku, but don't you just love it when these younger guys face some of the veterans for the first time and get completely schooled? Counterpart Wakanosato was a yusho player up until day 14, and then he was the spoiler on senshuraku. His run was no fluke as he beat all three Ozeki, Hakuho, and both Komusubi. The only weakness for the former Sekiwake and Ozeki hopeful was a weak tachi-ai in the big bouts. He was weak in the knees against Asashoryu and completely manhandled, he let Kotomitsuki have his way with a shenanigan tachi-ai that was very readable, and then he let Futenoh best him when he was so alive and well in the yusho hunt. I think this goes back to Wakanosato's days when he was up for Ozeki promotion. Just not enough mental toughness to win the big bouts. Also, Wakanosato is easily the best rikishi in the field to have never won 12 bouts in a basho, and it's not because he doesn't have the physical tools. The former Sekiwake will likely regain his highest every rank for Aki, and this is one rikishi who can add excitement to any basho when he's on. We need another good showing from him in September.
M3 Roho was disappointing this basho; there's no other way to put it. His day 1 win was set up with a masked tachi-ai henka (it looks legit when you move forward instead of back); his day 5 tachi-ai henka over then undefeated Kokkai was so deplorable that even the eunuchs were blushing; and his day 8 win was a literal walk over of Ozeki Chiyotaikai (who wisely withdrew after the loss rather than face the ass-kicking awaiting him the last days of the tournament). Roho finally put us out of our misery and withdrew on day 11. This guy has so much potential it's frightening. No, I'm not talking about his looks...I'm talking about his strength. He just wastes it with lackadaisical sumo and cheap tactics. No wonder the Japanese think us Westerners are so lazy. On one hand, I hate the trend that Roho is setting for his other European counterparts by relying too much on pull-down sumo, but on the other hand, he learned it from the homegrown boys in Japan. I guess if you can take a bright spot from this basho it'd be that Roho is going to sink deep into the Maegashira ranks for September. If I had any say in the matter, I wouldn't give him a Kantosho at the Aki basho unless he wins 13.
On the bright side of the M3 rank was Futenoh. His 9 bout win streak to end the basho after a 2-4 start didn't suck did it? Oh wait, he was robbed on day 12 in a close bout against Takamisakari where the judges gave the bout to the Robocop based solely on Takamisakari's popularity with the crowd and the fact that Takamisakari would remain in the yusho hunt drawing that much more attention to the basho. Futenoh's performance was an ass-kicker this basho. Give him that win over Sakari and saddle Kotooshu with that loss against Kyokushuzan and these two finish at 11-4. Yes, Futenoh did have two default wins the last five days, but was there any doubt he would have beaten Roho and Kaiho? Futenoh's debut splash in the Makuuchi ranks was about the size of a drop in a pond, but he's figured out that he's got to come in lower from the tachi-ai. It's made all the difference. Ask Kaio how it felt on day 2. After that day 2 bout, my thinking was "this spells the end of Kaio" not "wow, who is this Futenoh?", but after watching him fight Asashoryu, I was immediately converted. He was pulled down by Kotooshu and Miyabiyama and ripped off against Takamisakari, so that leaves two legitimate losses to Asashoryu and Tochiazuma. Not too shabby. I can't gush enough about what I saw from this guy in Nagoya. He's not scared of anyone; he's a bitch to fight at the belt; and as Simon pointed out, he's a great interview. I'd like to see this guy become the next Ozeki ahead of anyone else...IF he continues to fight as he did in Nagoya. For an M3 to have this kind of performance in his debut basho against the jo'i speaks volumes.
Dropping down to M6, I said in my pre-basho comments that if Kokkai doesn't win 10 from this rank, he'll never make the sanyaku. I said that, of course, under the assumption that he was just out of reach of the jo'i. With all the injuries, however, Kokkai fought nearly the same schedule as an M1 would fight with bouts against Asashoryu, Kotomitsuki, Kotooshu, Kaio, and Tochiazuma. Since three of his losses came from that group and more importantly since two of his wins were against Asashoryu and Kotomitsuki, I'd say that Kokkai's 9-6 this basho can be pro-rated to about an 11-4 performance in a normal basho for an M6 rikishi. Translation: the Georgian is worthy of the sanyaku. Kokkai shot out to a brilliant 6-1 start highlighted by his crushing tachi-ai. He was dealt a low blow by Roho on day 5 or it would have been 7-0 the way both rikishi were fighting. By the way, I heard prior to the basho that Kokkai and Roho actually attend church together. I'd like to hear the chapel talk between those two after Nagoya. Kokkai cooled down in a hurry during week two when he filled the vacancies left by Chiyotaikai, Hakuho, and Roho, but he was the first guy to score a kinboshi this year with the win over Asashoryu. That bout against Asashoryu is the perfect example of where Kokkai excels and where he sucks. It is no coincidence that when he delivered his tsuppari tachi-ai, he won a majority of his bouts. He crushed Asashoryu back to the tawara from the tachi-ai, but for some inexplicable reason, he decided it was better to take his chances by retreating the entire length of the dohyo instead of going for the oshi-dashi kill and sending Asashoryu into the first row. When Kokkai is on, he can manipulate even Asashoryu; but when he abandons ship for the pull down, he's as useless as my aim when trying to urinate in a moving shinkansen (bullet train) that suddenly brakes. By the way, was anyone surprised that Kokkai just clobbered Takamisakari on senshuraku with about ten kensho and the Kantosho cash prize awaiting the winner?
In the M8 ranks, Ama suffered his first make-koshi in the division going 6-9. This is not a huge surprise considering his size. He's fun to watch, but he's going to be another Aminishiki and Tokitsuumi in their primes. For the record, the highest rank ever attained by one of these two rikishi is M1. Counterpart Iwakiyama shot out to a 6-0 start to no one's surprise as he's ranked about 6 or 7 notches lower than he should be. Just the fact that he was injured and sat out four days yet still managed a 9-6 record illustrates this point. His only two losses were against quality rikishi in Futenoh and Kotoshogiku. Let's hold off on our praise for Iwakiyama's sumo until he's ranked back where he belongs. I will praise him for coming back after withdrawing, however. With 6 wins in the bag, he would have fallen to M11 or so in September if he wouldn't have come back. He would have been guaranteed a 13-2 record or so from that rank, but he chose to come back and get the kachi-koshi thus guaranteeing his rise up the ranks for the Aki basho where the competition will be significantly stiffer and a kachi-koshi will probably be a challenge.
Not a lot of comments regarding M9 Kotoshogiku (8-7). Only that I think he's another Futenoh, and I can't wait for him to rise up to the jo'i. I love his speed and tenacity. He's one that I don't think will be intimidated near the top of the banzuke.
M11 Takamisakari's 10-5 record was a bit inflated when considering his default win over Iwakiyama and gift against Futenoh. Against his two other tough opponents, Kotooshu and Kokkai, he was completely drubbed. Still, I love his fighting spirit, and I love to see him turn the tables at the tawara after completely giving up any position at the tachi-ai. Yes, he's got his circus antics, but he backs that up with pretty good sumo. And who doesn't love a Takamisakari interview? Absolutely priceless.
M12 Tokitenku secured his third straight Makuuchi kachi-koshi going 9-6. I'm seeing a bit of toughness from this guy that didn't exist when he first entered the division. Like Kotoshogiku, I want to see what he can do higher up the banzuke.
Slipping to M14, there was no question as to who had the better debut from our rookie rikishi. Tamaasuka's 9-6 mark was highlighted with sound sumo that included a good tachi-ai, good belt skills, and even a little pushing ability when needed. All but one of his losses were at the hands of kachi-koshi rikishi, and there wasn't a single bout where you just said, "that was ugly." Contrast that with counterpart Hakurozan. If you saw nothing but shadow figures fighting on the dohyo, you could not tell the difference between Hakurozan and Roho (George can verify this). If I didn't know better, I'd think that those two were even brothers. I can only describe Hakurozan's sumo as frustrating to watch. You know he's got the power and the ability, but he's just like his o-nii-chan in that he's too passive. I don't see how anything is going to change. And that cowardly tachi-ai henka on senshuraku to pick up his kachi-koshi...against Kotonowaka? Go ahead start parking your rig in the handicap places as well. It's just as insulting.
Okay, enough of the Makuuchi ranks. I happened to be in Japan for this basho, which means that I was able to catch a glimpse here and there of the lower ranks, particular the guys in Makushita. Of course I singled out Baruto (another lug from East Europe...Estonia to be exact) and noted that the guy is damn strong; however, on senshuraku with a 5-1 record and paired against M11 Yotsukasa in one of those bouts where a win will seal your promotion to Juryo, what does Baruto do? He goes for the freakin' pull down and gets schooled. I didn't think he deserved promotion to Juryo after that, but the Association did give it to him anyway. I suppose they gave him credit for naming himself after San Francisco's trolley system, but who knows? The point is Roho, Hakurozan, Kokkai, and Baruto are all birds of the same feather. They are all oxen who have worlds of potential but will waste a lot of it in my opinion with passive sumo and too many pull-downs. Expect Baruto to join the Makuuchi ranks early next year, but my hopes are not high at this point.
They are high, however, on a Makushita rikishi who was jilted of promotion to Juryo when they put Baruto in instead. I'm talking about a guy named Hochiyama, who fights out of the Sakaigawa-beya. He went 6-1 ranked at MS E9 and lost in the bout for the MS yusho to former Makuuchi rikishi Nakao. He's also the guy who handed Baruto his only Makushita loss this basho. Simon and I were working extremely hard on the afternoon of day 3...by that I mean we were sitting on our arses watching the sumo telecast. We were talking about something when Hochiyama fought, and I remember immediately stopping our conversation and just staring at this guy's performance. We both took note of his name, and I watched him when I could the remainder of the basho. The guy is the closest thing to a Japanese Asashoryu that I've seen. Now this isn't some hopeless stab in the dark for anyone whose Japanese to rise up and show a little potential in the dohyo...he's the real deal in my opinion. Remember the name: Hochiyama. He should be ranked MS 1 for the Aki basho. If I had to choose the next Japanese Yokozuna hopeful, it's him.
See you all in September.
for Asashoryu Bouts
With the drama stemming from yesterday's fiasco in determining the winner of the Asashoryu - Kokkai matchup, I simply can't contain myself without opening up my big trap to comment. You'll never hear what I'm about to say on NHK, the BS2 broadcast in English, or any other media outlet in Japan, so allow me to shed some light on the hypocritical organization known as the Sumo Association. We all saw what happened yesterday between the Yokozuna and Kokkai, and we all have our opinions as to whether or not Asashoryu hit the dirt before Kokkai's body was "dead" as they say across the tawara and beyond the dohyo itself, and that matter can be debated until eternity without either side proving their point. The argument is not with whom won the bout; the problem lies in the blatant inconsistency of the judging, and the fact that the Sumo Association does not have the balls to stand up for its Yokozuna because he is a foreigner.
Backing up two days, if you hadn't fallen asleep by the time you read the 5th and 6th paragraphs of my day 10 comments, you'll remember I commented on two bouts that mirrored the Asashoryu - Kokkai matchup. The first bout involved Miyabiyama and Roho where Miyabi's flab hitting the dirt and Roho's left heel stepping out occurred at about the same time. It was so close a mono-ii was called to determine the winner. After watching the slow motion replay, I personally felt that Roho got jobbed and that a rematch was in order, but I had absolutely no problem with the judges giving the win to Miyabiyama as he was the attacking rikishi. This judgment followed on the heels of the previous bout between Kotooshu and Kyokushuzan where Shu backed up at the tachi-ai and pulled Kotooshu to the dirt before stepping out himself. This one was laughable because not only was a mono-ii not called, but this wasn't even close. Kotooshu's right hand clearly hit the dirt while Shu was standing on top of the tawara. Kyokushuzan won the bout, but Kotooshu was declared the winner. Once again, I commented that I was fine with the judgment because the attacking rikishi was awarded the win and the judging was consistent.
Back up to day 6 in the bout between Miyabiyama and Hakuho. Clancy (who will be wrapping things up on senshuraku for us) and I were in Kobe watching the bouts when Hakuho launched Miyabiyama into the first row. Clancy immediately stood up and said "Miyabiyama won the bout. You watch when they show the replay...Hakuho's left foot steps out before Miyabiyama hits the deck. Even after a few beers I could see it." I thought Clancy was crazy--not that I don't think he's crazy even now--but sure enough, the replay clearly showed that Hakuho's left foot stepped out before Miyabiyama hit the ground. No mono-ii was called, and Hakuho was awarded the victory. Once again, no problem as the attacking rikishi was awarded the victory. Clancy and I began debating as to what constitutes a rikishi being "tai ga shinde iru" or dead in the air. Since the dohyo is elevated well off the ground, is it fair to give the retreating rikishi the benefit of landing a half meter below the dohyo's fighting surface? I don't know, and it's impossible to come to a conclusion. The point is as long as the judging is consistent, there shouldn't be any problems.
Well, consistency and precedent go out the window when Asashoryu is involved, and the point that galls me the most is the Association's failure to protect their Yokozuna. In yesterday's bout at the point where Asashoryu's stomach touches the tawara, Kokkai's body is beyond the tawara and one foot is below the fighting surface of the dohyo. If the dohyo isn't elevated, Kokkai steps out before the Yokozuna hits the ground. The referee emphatically pointed towards the direction of the Yokozuna and the NHK announcer calling the bouts also declared the Yokozuna the winner without hesitation. A mono-ii was called--and definitely justified--because you really could go either way in determining the winner depending on your interpretation of the rules. The longer the mono-ii went on and the louder the Nagoya fans clapped, you just knew something was up. Sure enough, when the head judge announced that a decision had been made, he said that Kokkai's foot (on the tawara) was still in bounds, and that Kokkai was the winner. Asashoryu was furious as well he should have been. He kicked at a zabuton in disgust on the hanamichi as he exited and afterwards he boldly declared, "there should have been at least a rematch." Damn straight there should have been at least a rematch.
Now you may think that I'm just an Asashoryu homer, but how can one watch the Kotooshu - Kyokushuzan bout and then the Asashoryu - Kokkai matchup and not see the blatant inconsistency? Furthermore, whatever happened to protecting the Yokozuna? Not sure what I mean by that? Visit www.banzuke.com and watch the day 2 bout of the 2003 Hatsu basho between Miyabiyama and Yokozuna Takanohana. Takanohana was just a few days before retirement and the Association was doing everything possible to keep him around including robbing Miyabiyama of possibly the best win of his career. It sucked that Miyabiyama had to lose that bout, but you could see the Association working. They were protecting their Yokozuna, and it was something that they always did during Takanohana's career. Now they did go too far in handing him the win against Miyabiyama back then, and I still remember Kenji calling them out in his comments for that day, but Takanohana deserved the respect and benefit of the doubt he enjoyed throughout his career. He earned it. He was a Yokozuna. So to see the Association now turn their back on their current Yokozuna--because he is not Japanese and doesn't intend on becoming a Japanese citizen--pisses me off to no end.
Simply stated, the Association knew that interest in the waning days of the Nagoya basho would be much higher if three rikishi were tied for the lead and four rikishi one loss behind instead of the Yokozuna out in front by himself. Well, I guess they got their wish. Last night, sumo was the lead story on NHK's News 10 sports broadcast when before sumo was taking a back seat to some washed up Japanese soccer...er...uh...football player signing on with a J2 team (whatever the hell that all means). On one hand you read the crap published by the Association regarding the sacredness of the Yokozuna rank, and then on the other hand the Association turns right around and has their Yokozuna peel off his mawashi and grab his ankles. If I had it my way, I'd take that bow thingy that Ohga twirls around at the end of the Makuuchi bouts and do some probing of my own with the judging committee.
The bias against Asashoryu by the Sumo Association is blatant...and despicable. Shame on them for failing to protect the rikishi who holds the rank that is talked about in their inner circles with such respect. I did not want Asashoryu to win that bout yesterday. I hinted in my day 10 comments that I thought Kokkai could give him trouble with a good tachi-ai, and I was ecstatic by the first half of Kokkai's performance. However, when precedent is broken and the result is disrespect towards a Yokozuna by the very association that supposedly esteems his rank, the hypocrisy of it all infuriates me. Just compare the position of Kyokushuzan when Kotooshu's hand hit the dirt on day 10 with Kokkai's position when Asashoryu's stomach hit the tawara. It is not even close, so why is Kyokushuzan declared the loser of his bout and Kokkai declared the winner of his? The Association is partial.
Go Asashoryu. Return the favor and rip back the respect you deserve. Force the Sumo Association to increase popularity in their sport by actually providing quality matches with determined rikishi instead of heading down the professional wrestling route and making decisions that will be most popular with the native fans.
Kenji is vacationing with his parents and is taking this week off from reporting, but he sent me this blurb to post regarding the bout:
The sumo kyokai themselves have invented the phrase "tai ga tonderu" and use it as a criteria for judging that the outgoing rikishi is out even though technically no part of his body is touching the ground. So even though what Simon says in his day 11 comments is true (that Sho actually touched first), the kyokai historically have employed this criteria of "tonderu", or "shinderu" as Mike sometimes says, to judge that the rikishi being pushed out is "out" even though he's still technically "in". I personally don't agree with this criteria, but since the kyokai has invented it and employs it, I expect them to be consistent with it. Mike has pointed out two bouts this basho (both day 10) where they employed it, but yet when Asashoryu is the guy doing the pushing, the rule mysteriously doesn't apply. Asashoryu has now lost three times in 2005, two of which were phantom losses via rulings from the shinpan not using their own criteria. This is not sour grapes, folks. I have seen sumo enough to know that this is blatant inconsistency. This is fact, not fiction. I will however, conclude with an opinion. The sumo kyokai is simply trying to appease the fans, who love to see Asashoryu lose. If Asashoryu continues to dominate, the seats will continue to be empty. Therefore the kyokai will do everything in its power to make the basho more competitive. Asashoryu is like Lance Armstrong right now. If he is to win, he's got to do it all my himself because he'll surely get no backing from the two-faced black robes surrounding the dohyo (not that Armstrong's Discovery cycling team is two-faced, but they surely aren't doing their jobs).
Simon is not vacationing, unfortunately, so he is happy to add his own two cents to this lively debate:
I just felt I should add my own words to Mike and Kenjifs comments about the controversial Asashoryu-Kokkai bout yesterday. I know everyone will have different opinions about what happened and I think it is fitting that a website like Sumotalk should publish the conflicting views of its own contributors, so as to reflect the views of the sumo fan community as a whole.
In my original report I commented only on the bout itself, and I
stand by what I said about the winner – it was Kokkai; the replays showed this
to be true. The rules as I
understand them are that the rikishi should step down outside the tawara in
order to be declared the loser. As
far as I am aware (and I am going to check this with the Kyokai before I write
This, of course, is not the issue. I know Kenji agrees that Kokkai won technically, and that Mike feels this is not a relevant point. I agree with both of them here. The issue is indeed one of consistency. I wonft re-hash the points about Kyokushuzan and Kotooshu, or Miyabiyama and Roho. Mike explained all this perfectly and he is absolutely spot on about the custom of the attacking rikishi being given the benefit of the doubt. However, where I differ is that this is far too woolly a criterion on which to base the decision of who won or lost. Benefit of the doubt! That is a subjective argument, and, happily for the Kyokai, open to abuse, particularly when they are desperate to stem leaking fans due to a perceived (wrongly, in my opinion) overpowering dominance of a foreign and not particularly likeable (from the Japanese point of view) Yokozuna. That Asashoryu has been singled out for etreatmentf from the shinpan is a matter open to serious debate. The facts speak for themselves. He has been on the wrong end of close calls quite a few times, but, digressing slightly, how many other rikishi have also been treated unfairly in this way in the long history of the sport? I would like any of our historically knowledgeable readers to write in to me and let me know. I will include their comments in my post-basho report. Anyway, I am not as convinced as Mike and Kenji that Asashoryu is being singled out, although I am not saying he definitely isnft either. Like all econspiracy theoriesf (I hate the loaded nature of that term, by the way, being a bit of a econspiracy theoristf on other issues myself), it would be difficult to prove.
The point I want to make - yes, I am finally getting there – is that the video judge should be used fairly in all bouts. All this egive the attacker the benefit of the doubtf bullshit should be dumped because it can so easily become egive the attacker the benefit of the doubt unless itfs a dominant foreign Yokozuna we donft like, and create mass high dudgeon on a certain websitef! A video judge can instantly review a close match and send a little bleep to the head shinpanfs earpiece. That way the viewer can see exactly what the judge is seeing. In other words, the attacker should not necessarily be given the benefit of the doubt if he touches down first. Harsh but fair, because consistency is the key here. I donft like saying this because I hate to see defensive rikishi sneaking wins in this fashion, but they need to clear up these rules or the Kyokai can rightly be accused of being full of crap whenever debacles like yesterday happen.
What I donft understand about the so-called video judge is this: where the hell was he when Kotooshu clearly touched the ground first against Kyokushuzan? And yet they will happily use the judge to reverse the gyojifs decision against their own Yokozuna in a match so close that I had to watch the replay several times myself to come to a definite conclusion. If theyfre going to use a video judge, he should be used in any and every bout. If theyfre sometimes not going to use one, how do they define when they need one or not? Going from the current custom of giving the attacker the benefit of the doubt, the Yokozuna deserved at least a torinaoshi in a bout this close.
In other words - and donft worry, Ifm going to shut up now – I just want to make my position crystal clear. I agree with Mike and Kenji on the inconsistency of the Kyokai; I cautiously accept the possibility of Asashoryu being singled out; I think that a precise definition of shinitai is required, one that is beyond dispute; also, a precise definition of winning and losing is required, one dispensing with the idea of generally going with the attacking rikishi (it hurts me to write this one, but it is necessary); and finally, I think the video judge should play a constant and casting role in the bout decision process.
I know that all of us here at Sumotalk would welcome your emails slagging us all about our outlandish views. Please feel free to write to us on this subject. Everyonefs views are welcome, no matter how hostile they are to our own. Use this address:
Thanks for readingcsee you tomorrow.
Nagoya Basho Pre-basho
Normally at Sumotalk we like to post two pre-basho reports--one just after the release of the banzuke that focuses on the new rankings and the other a few days before the basho that comments on the pre-basho keiko sessions. Unfortunately, keiko reports this basho have been so few and far between that I may as well have posted this a week ago. The reason for the dearth of keiko news is another story grabbing all of the sumo headlines: the ongoing feud between the Hanada brothers, Wakanohana III and Takanohana, since their father died.
The trouble began when both brothers felt that they should each be the official mourner for the family at the viewing and funeral (Futagoyama-oyakata was divorced when he died). This duty usually falls upon the eldest brother (Wakanohana), but Takanohana felt that since he inherited his father's stable and since his father died an active member of the Sumo Association that he [Takanohana] should be the official representative. Takanohana eventually backed down, but as soon as Futagoyama-oyakata was dead and buried..er..uh..burned, a new problem arose: who would inherit their father's assets, in particular the deed to the Futagoyama-oyakata name which is worth hundreds of millions of yen. Once again Wakanohana used the "eldest brother" card while Takanohana maintained that he was the rightful heir as he stayed in the Sumo Association and inherited the Futagoyama stable from his father. I am barely scratching the surface here, but for weeks the two brothers sniped at each other in the press and threatened lawsuits. And the most incredible aspect of it all to me was the usually reserved Takanohana all but admitting on national television that he threw the yusho playoff bout between him and Wakanohana at the 1995 Kyushu basho. For a dai-Yokozuna and highly-esteemed member of the Sumo Association to admit that a bout was thrown would normally create an uproar, but since everyone knew the bout was thrown anyway the reaction from the public was "tell us something we don't know like who Futagoyama-oyakata's mystery girlfriend was."
Anyway, since this will be the biggest sumo story of the year despite Asashoryu becoming the first rikishi to win each basho in a calendar year, I'll give you my comments on this whole mess. This is the typical story of the prodigal son found in the Bible's New Testament. Even if you're not a Christian, you should know the story: well-to-do father has two sons, one of the sons decides to leave the family nest, dye his hair brown, and become a so called "talent" in the Japanese entertainment world. When he fails outside of the only world he knows and the world that made him who he was--the sumo world in this case--he comes back trying to milk what he can out of his rich father. The Bible version has the father accepting the lost son back into the fold, but the real version here is that the father is dead, and the other brother who inherited the father's possessions hates the older brother for various reasons that I won't get into here.
The point is that Wakanohana (Hanada Masaru) has been wrong from day one. We're not talking about a wealthy business man who struck it rich in the cell phone industry, and how his two sons handle the father's inheritance when he dies. In that case, the eldest brother has every right. But in that crazy little world of sumo where it's acceptable to torture someone lower than you, kick him on the ribs, strike him multiple times with a bamboo sword, etc. and not get arrested, things are different. The father-son relationship was severed when the two teenage boys entered the stable. There's a certain code of abeyance and respect, especially when it comes to one's superiors. Wakanohana abandoned the sumo world--and his father in a sense--for the so called greener pastures of unfunny Japanese variety shows. For him to come back after his father's death and actually stake a claim to his assets like the Futagoyama-oyakata stock is asinine. And then yesterday in a stunning turn of events, it's made public that Wakanohana was told by his father when he left the Sumo Association that whoever assumed responsibility of the Futagoyama-beya would inherit all of his [Futagoyama-oyakata's] assets as well. So Wakanohana was cut off by his father, and he knew this all along; yet, he only reveals it now a month after his father's death? After the family has been dragged through the dirt? Wakanohana looks like the biggest horse's arse and everything that comes out of it right now. I have no idea what he was doing during the month of June. Thanks for tainting your father's grand legacy and steering the public's perception of sumo down the wrong path. We should be talking about Asashoryu's greatness or the homecoming of Kotomitsuki after a 13-2 performance in May or the first foreign-born brothers to fight in the Makuuchi division at the same time, but instead we're talking about courtrooms, brotherly hate, and greed. Thanks for nothing Masaru. Get out of our site and go mingle with that dude in high heels, Wada Akiko, on Japanese TV so I can change the channel as soon as I see both of you.
Okay, now that that's off my chest, let's focus on what should be talked about...the upcoming Nagoya basho.
I will start with Yokozuna Asashoryu, who up until a few days ago was in the press begging for someone to come practice with him. When the other sekitori in his stable are Asasekiryu, Toki, and Senshuyama, can you blame him? Asashoryu finally got the likes of Kotomitsuki and Roho to come practice with him, and judging by the post-keiko comments from those two, it's apparent that Asashoryu is in top shape. Both Kotomitsuki and Roho were basically speechless only offering the words "tsuyoi desu ne." In other words, he's going to dominate yet again and everyone knows it. It's a scenario that we've seen prior to the basho before. No one wants a piece of Asashoryu, and this mentality will collectively carry over once the basho begins. Did Asa even break a sweat in May? He was 12-0 and hadn't even been challenged when he took care of Hakuho, Chiyotaikai, and Tochiazuma with a total of 6 tsuppari or so to emphatically take the zensho yusho. I don't see how or by whom he can be challenged this basho. Chalk up another 15-0 performance. I can't help but to go back to that Asashoryu - Tochiazuma bout in March. If Asa had been awarded that victory, he'd be riding a 45 bout winning streak into this tournament with the chance to make it 60. Incredible.
Slipping down to the Ozeki ranks, Tochiazuma sits in the prestigious East slot for the first time in a year and a half. Tochiazuma has been the most consistent Ozeki this year by far, but he's still lacked that punch required to even semi-threaten the Yokozuna. From the keiko reports, Tochiazuma is not bothered by any injuries, and he looks to be in fine form. We know he's got the ability. The key with this Ozeki is between his ears. From day 1 if he comes out with that bulldog tenacity that he mysteriously only displays when his back is against the wall, he can realistically challenge Asashoryu for the yusho. I don't see that happening because he hasn't showed this hunger in the past. He's the top Ozeki dog, and he's posted double-digit wins in each basho this year. I see him coasting to 11 wins or so and providing that "too-little too-late" charge at the end.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai staved off demotion last basho with a quick 10-1 start, but we could see by the content of his sumo that that record was highly inflated. The law of averages caught up with the Ozeki as he finished 0-4, but give Chiyotaikai credit: he beat whom he had to beat last basho regardless of how he did it. I have not read any keiko reports regarding the Ozeki and have no idea what condition he is in. But this much I can tell you, he's started to slide a la Musoyama at the end of that former Ozeki's career. Chiyotaikai lacks confidence in his tsuppari attack, and he only won with it once last basho against Kaiho. His lower body is non-existent, and that's the key to the tsuppari attack. The Ozeki struggles again to win eight.
And speaking of struggling Ozeki, say it isn't so, but Kaio may be at the end of his active fighting career rope. Unlike Musoyama or even Chiyotaikai now, Kaio is still as strong as they come, but it seems he can no longer exert himself at full strength over the course of 15 days. It's a shame too because I still think head to head Kaio can beat Asashroyu at least five out of 10 times. I know exactly what Kaio is going through. I'm just a few years older than the Ozeki, but it seems that every time I try and fully exert myself playing sports, those old injuries creep back up on me...the tweaked lower back, the groin pull, the tennis elbow. I can only imagine if I had to fight 150 kilo-plus guys on a rock hard dohyo raised half a meter off of the ground. I hope to see Kaio make it the full 15 days, and if he is free from any nagging injuries, he can go 13-2, but we'll just have to see once the basho begins. I have not read any keiko reports from the Kaio camp, so I can't comment on his condition. My fingers are crossed though.
Dropping down to the Sekiwake ranks, Hakuho maintains the East slot yet again. Like 90% of the rikishi in the division, I have not read any keiko reports regarding him, so it's hard to comment on his current condition, etc. Let's just hope for the Hakuho we saw last year in Kyushu and this year in January. That was the Hakuho who didn't go into a 4-day funk losing to the likes of Kakizoe. At the first of this year, not only were we blabbering about it, but even members of the Sumo Association were on record stating that Hakuho would likely be challenging the Yokozuna rank before the year was through. His potential is undeniable, but the last two basho we've seen huge mental lapses from the kid in week one, so I guess it's obvious that if he can go 7-1 through the first 8 days, he's a threat to yusho. I'd liken Hakuho at this point to Tochiazuma. Fantastic when his back is against the wall, but underachieving when all is well. Hakuho needs to get that grizzly bear mentality back that he first displayed when he entered the division and mauled his way to double-digit wins regardless of his rank.
Counterpart Kotomitsuki has set himself up to be the perfect Cinderella story this basho. He's riding high after a 13-2 performance, and now he's coming home to Nagoya where the hometown fans will attempt to provide that home-dohyo advantage similar to the Kyushu fans and Kaio. I like the fact that Kotomitsuki has visited the Takasago-beya multiple times to practice with Asashoryu, but I don't like the fact that I can already read between the lines that the Yokozuona has beaten him down mentally. I don't think double-digit wins for Mitsuki is out of the question. He's posted spectacular keiko results against the rest of the field, but I think he's already resigned himself to the fact that he can't overcome Asashoryu. Still, if you were to take the entire Makuuchi division, are there two rikishi more worthy to fill the Sekiwake slots than Hakuho and Kotomitsuki? I think not. I have high expectations for the Sekiwake ranks this basho, and they have the best chance of anyone to throw a wrench into Asashoryu's yusho plans.
I wish there were a fresh face or two in the Komusubi ranks, but we'll have to settle for Kotooshu and Miyabiyama. Kotooshu has been here once before, but he got his ass kicked. I think it's mental. He's faced all of the jo'i before, and he's scored some big wins, but the problem is you have to get the big wins ranked in the sanyaku, not from the upper Maegashira. The good news for Kotooshu is he's been here before and the spotlight will no longer be shining on him. The bad news--if you can call it that--is that the Komusubi has yet to really post that big win in the division. He crushes the Maegashira rikishi as he should, but against the cream of the crop, he tends to get pushed around. I see him only mustering 7 wins in Nagoya. Counterpart Miyabiyama has proven himself worthy of the sanyaku over the last year or so. It's easy to pile on this guy and to criticize him and even dislike him, but he has made a respectable rebound since falling from the Ozeki ranks. Without the help from his fellow stablemates, he won't reach Ozeki again, but he does still display some good power that will give a lot of the jo'i fits. The key to his success as we have repeatedly slobbered before is to use his tsuppari and avoid the belt. I do see the veteran attaining kachi-koshi this basho and forcing Hakuho and Kotomitsuki to do the same to keep him out of the Sekiwake ranks for September.
You know it's a depressing upper Maegashira when you see Kakizoe and Kyokushuzan in the M1 slots. No disrespect to either of those rikishi, but you're telling me that's the best the Makuuchi can do? I see Kakizoe hovering around the seven-win mark surprising a heavy-hitter here and there, but his size and lack of strength will keep him from the sanyaku. As for Kyokushuzan, we all know what's coming, so let's just move one.
The upper Maegashira looks a little bit brighter in the M2 slot with Dejima and Wakanosato, but both of these rikishi have peaked in my opinion and are on the gradual descent to retirement. The Degyptian as Clancy calls him is just that...too mummified to really make an impact against the jo'i. He reminds me a lot of Konishiki at this stage in his career. You remember when Konishiki fell from the Ozeki ranks, he was good enough to hang around for a few years and pick up the big win here or there, but he just didn't have that oomph to make it through 15 days in spectacular fashion anymore. I see Dejima limping down the hana-michi a lot this basho to the tune of a make-koshi. You'd think that Wakanosato is low enough on the banzuke now that he would have that break-out basho propelling him back to the sanyaku, but I'll liken him to Chiyotaikai: he no longer has the confidence in his own ability to establish himself as one of the best and as a yusho contender. It's a shame too because unlike Chiyotaikai, I think Wakanosato is still young and fresh enough to regain his perennial Sekiwake status. It wouldn't surprise me to see Wakanosato fall further down the banzuke before waking up and resurging his way back to the sanyaku, but the way he hangs his head after his losses of late has me concerned. Eight wins for the former Ozeki hopeful.
Headlining the M3 rank is Roho, someone I'm sure we'd all rather see in the Komusubi ranks. I love the fact that Roho is practicing with Asashoryu despite that incident between the two at the Soken practice session in May. Roho complained of a sore neck last basho, and that may account for his 7-8 showing, but when I look at his performance in May, I don't see any big wins. In fact, isn't this what we've said about him along along? Like Kotooshu, he destroys the rank and file but just can't seem to pick up the big win. He suffered a 5 bout losing streak falling to the likes of Asashoryu, Hakuho, and Chiyotaikai. When he starts picking up a few of those wins is when he'll finally reach the sanyaku. At M3, I expect the Russian to win at least nine. The newest face high on the banzuke belongs to Roho's M3 counterpart, Futenoh, who makes the huge jump after an 11-4 record in May. When Futenoh first entered the division, I expected him to be here a lot sooner. I don't think physically that he will be overmatched, but I think mentally, he's going to get weak in the knees and suffer a makekoshi. It will be fun to see how he does against the big boys, but in Futenoh's case, getting rid of the butterflies this basho will be most important. As for his sumo, I think Futenoh attacks in such a way that his center of gravity is too high. He's great at the belt and has great strength, but he tends to leave himself in bad position from the tachi-ai.
Two former Sekiwake occupy the M4 slots in Tosanoumi and Tamanoshima. Though Tosanoumi is near the end of his career, you look at the other rikishi in the upper Maegashira and say Tosanoumi should kachi-koshi. I think he will. His tachi-ai is solid as ever, and it seems that the blue collar man's lower body has been much more stable this year. It will be a pleasure as always to watch his sumo this basho. Counterpart Tamanoshima is right where he wants to be on the banzuke. A cracked rib last basho was excuse enough for his fall from the M1 ranks, but this is the rank where Tamanoshima always does his damage. Tamanoshima is such a well-balanced rikishi who I think fights better at the belt but also has a very effective tsuppari attack. His downside is that nasty habit of going for the pull-down technique too early in the bout. Trust me, one of us will point this out during the basho. Still, Tama wins at least nine, and he'll need 12 wins if he wants the Kantosho.
Hokutoriki and Kyokutenho fill out the M5 slots. Neither has impacted a basho since May 2004, and I don't see that happening now. Kyokutenho has been coasting for about a year now. Now that he has Japanese citizenship, all he needs is to hoard the yen to purchase a share of oyakata stock.
Our two M6 guys should probably trade places with Kakizoe and Kyokushuzan for the M1 rank. Kokkai fills the East slot after the worst basho of his sumo career in May. If he doesn't win ten this basho, then I'll be the first in line to say that I over-hyped him when he first entered the division. From the M6 position, you're guaranteed nothing but rank and filers. For Kokkai not to be able to bully his way to double-digit wins means that he will never do better than the Komusubi rank I'm afraid. Counterpart Tochinonada has quietly slipped down the ranks a bit himself. Like Kokkai, he should win at least 10 from this position as well. Maybe it's saying something that Tochinonada has never been ranked higher than Komusubi for a few years. There's a helluva lot of size and talent that is under-used.
Kotonowaka comes in at M7, but he's shown too many tachi-ai henka of late to pick up three wins or so per basho. I think a rikishi should retire when he can no longer succeed at the kind of sumo he performed throughout his career. Counterpart Asasekiryu hasn't made a blip on the sumo radar since March 2004. I don't expect that to change this basho.
M8 should be a compelling rank with Ama and Iwakiyama. Ama is a joy to watch just because of his (lack of) size and brilliant technique. He went 8-7 from the M9 position last basho. Expect the same competition and the same result. He should creep up near the jo'i by the end of the year when we'll really see what he's made of. Shame on Iwakiyama for falling this low on the banzuke. Fat and out of shape is what he's looked like the last two tournaments. Okay, he can't do anything about the fat, but he can work a little harder prior to this basho so he can at least keep his feet under himself. Like Tamanoshima, he's ranked too low on the banzuke to get a sniff of the Kantosho unless he posts at least 12 wins. Expect a very good basho from Iwakiyama.
As I scan the lower of half of the Maegashira ranks, M9 Kotoshogiku stands out as this is his highest rank ever. Eight wins are very doable for this newcomer. How can anyone skip M11 Takamisakari? He's getting dangerously low in the ranks for the Sumo Association's own good. If I were directing the committee that comes up with pairings for the daily bouts, I'd make sure that the majority of Takamisakari's opponents were ranked lower than him. Sadly, his pre-bout antics are probably the biggest draw in sumo right now.
Skipping down to the M14 ranks we find our two Makuuchi newcomers, Tamaasuka and Hakurozan. I have seen very little of Tamaasuka to fake..er..uh..make any sort of comments. I have watched Hakurozan for some time now. When his older brother, Roho, first became a sekitori, I remember reports of people saying that he had a little brother who was even stronger than he. I watched Hakurozan with great anticipation when he first made the Juryo ranks, but never really saw impact sumo. What I did see was someone that fights exactly like his older brother. Strong? Yes. But too passive to really strike fear in his opponents. I think Hakurozan will mirror his brother's accomplishments in the division. Both will be around for a very long time, and both will make the sanyaku. Whether or not they rise to Ozeki or higher is up to them. What I mean by that statement is rikishi like Kakizoe, Kaiho, and even Tosanoumi give it their all every bout, but they just don't have the size/tools to become great. Roho and Hakurozan do...as do Hakuho, Kotomitsuki, and Wakanosato to name a few more. I really think it's up to those rikishi to strengthen themselves mentally in order to make a serious Ozeki charge. Expect 8 or 9 wins from Hakurozan and a gradual climb up the ranks.
The first three basho of the year lacked any excitement. Not because Asashoryu's dominance is boring, but because the surrounding cast is doing nothing. When Takanohana was dominating like this, there were plenty of rikishi around who were exciting to watch and always threatened the former Yokozuna. Akebono, Musashimaru, Wakanohana, Takanonami, Akinoshima, Musoyama, and Kaio were no slouches. Now, however, who is adding excitement to the basho? It says a lot that the biggest cheers heard during a given day are when Takamisakari pummels himself before his bout. The key to this basho being watchable lies with Kaio's health, and Tochiazuma and Hakuho's determination. Let's hope for the best.
Yusho: Asashoryu (15-0)