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2014 Nagoya Post-basho Report

As I got up the Monday morning after the basho and scanned the headlines and pictures from the wires, 75% of the attention was placed on Goeido and his securing promotion to Ozeki. Nearly 25% was devoted to Hakuho and his accomplishment of reaching the 30 career yusho mark, and then there was a single story each on Harumafuji and Kotoshogiku. Since the Japanese media considered Goeido and his promotion to Ozeki the biggest story coming out of Nagoya, let's start there and talk about promotion to Ozeki in general.

When someone begins taking interest in sumo, one of the first facts they learn is that in order to be promoted to Ozeki, a rikishi should garner 33 wins over three consecutive basho. From the beginning, the number 33 has been an unwritten rule and mostly acts as a guideline when making the decision to promote or to wait. If we go back and look at Ozeki promotions from the last 15 years, it looks like this:

During that time frame, there were also two rikishi who actually surpassed the 33 win mark yet were denied promotion. Those two cases are as follows:

Miyabiyama :  2006 Aki  :  34 wins
Kotomitsuki  :  2002 Haru  :  34 wins + yusho

If we compare the two cases highlighted in red above where rikishi failed to hit the 33 win mark with the two cases where rikishi who surpassed the 33 win mark were denied, we notice that all four cases involve Japanese rikishi. And regardless of the reasons for acceptance/denial in the four cases, we can clearly state that consideration for promotion to Ozeki regarding those four was completely subjective. So my question to the readers is: subjective to what?

Why would Kisenosato and Goeido be granted Ozeki status for a lesser achievement while Kotomitsuki and Miyabiyama were denied for a greater achievement?

I suppose there is not a single answer to that question, but it mostly has to do with balance on the banzuke. For the 2002 Haru basho (when Kotomitsuki was denied), there were four Ozeki already on the charts--all of them Japanese, and then there were two Yokozuna, one a foreigner and one a Japanese rikishi meaning that 83% of the elite ranks were occupied by Japanese rikishi. I suppose they denied Kotomitsuki because he was still relatively young, his yusho basho came from the M2 rank and not the sanyaku, and they felt that there wasn't a need for another Ozeki.

For the 2006 Aki basho when Miyabiyama was denied, there were five Ozeki (three Japanese rikishi vs. two foreigners) and one Yokozuna, Asashoryu. The balance of elite rikishi had now shifted to 50% Japanese rikishi - 50% foreign rikishi, and by the mid-aughties, the power shift in favor of the foreign rikishi was already evident. My guess as to why the Association denied Miyabiyama at this time was because he was in the twilight of his career, and it was evident that Kotomitsuki (ranked Sekiwake at the time) was showing sure signs of becoming the next Ozeki anyway.

If you fast forward to the 2011 Nagoya basho, the power had completely shifted among the elite ranks to where foreign rikishi now occupied 83% of the Yokozuna/Ozeki ranks with lonely Kaio on two bad wheels comprising the last bastion of Japanese rikishi with honor on the banzuke. Kaio had been getting serious help the previous basho (that's plural) just to kachi-koshi, but by the time Nagoya rolled around, he was clearly done retiring after a 3-8 start. That meant that for the 2011 Aki basho, the sweep was complete as 100% of the elite ranks were occupied by foreign rikishi.

The Association could see the decline of Kaio coming early on in 2011, and that's when Takanohana started touting the next generation of Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku as Ozeki candidates before those two yayhoos had even done anything. Fortunately, by the time we finished the Aki basho of that year, Kotoshogiku had scraped together 33 wins over the last three basho (including two gifts from Hakuho during that stretch), and he was promoted to Ozeki for the 2011 Kyushu basho. Kisenosato was one basho behind, and even though he only had 32 wins over three basho without a yusho, they promoted him anyway to increase the percentage of Japanese rikishi who occupied the elite ranks of the banzuke.

After Kisenosato's promotion, the attention next shifted immediately to Goeido who was fortunately going home to Osaka for the 2012 Haru basho where he went? You guessed it, 12-3!! Goeido was unable to sustain that momentum, however, and sputtered for the next two years while the Japanese media continued to buoy him up and tout him as the next Ozeki candidate. Finally, at the 2014 Haru basho, Goeido regained his former glory by finishing 12-3 again, but as he demonstrated the two previous years, he was unable to ride that momentum starting out at the 2014 Natsu basho 4-4 and needing serious help down the stretch including an absolute gift from Hakuho to finish 8-7.

Many readers wondered what the sense of Hakuho's losing to Goeido was at the Natsu basho, and some just won't believe that yaocho is taking place if it doesn't result in the yusho for the rikishi receiving the benefit, but it's worth repeating my take on the importance of the Hakuho - Goeido matchup in Natsu because the scenario that I described in my Natsu post-basho report was the exact scenario that played out in Nagoya:

That win over Hakuho was huge politically because if he loses that bout, he suffers make-koshi, and many on the surface would say, "Okay, he can easily recover in Nagoya," and while that's true, it would have completely negated his 12-3 jun-yusho performance in Osaka in March. I know, we're all thinking, "He went 12-3 in March?" The reason you don't remember is because it was along the lines of Kisenosato's 13-2 this basho, but the point is...securing kachi-koshi here in May means he now has 20 wins the last two basho.

Kisenosato was promoted to Ozeki with just 32 wins, so all Goeido needs now is 12 wins again in Nagoya to be worthy of promotion, and it wouldn't surprise me if they seriously considered him at just 11-4. It's a stretch, I know, but he's still in the conversation (i.e. headlines) at this point. If he goes 7-8, his results in Osaka are all for naught, so now you can see just how big that gift from Hakuho was.

With the coming 2014 Aki basho, the balance among the elite ranks between foreigners and Japanese rikishi has now been restored to 50-50. Unfortunately, it's obvious that a shift back towards the Japanese rikishi dominating is NOT occurring, so how do you go from 100% domination among the elite ranks in favor of foreign rikishi to a 50-50 clip in the span of a few years? You already know my take on that question if you've read my reports the last three years, so I won't rehash it here, but I would ask anyone who considers themselves knowledgeable about sumo to formulate their own answer to my question. And while you're at it, think to yourself about the answer to a question I posed in my day 9 comments where I presented numbers shown on NHK that compare Hakuho to the two rikishi he's chasing down for the all-time yusho lead in Taiho and Chiyonofuji. The numbers alone produced by NHK show that Hakuho is far and away superior than those two rikishi, but is that really the case? I already gave my explanation for the numbers in my day 9 report, but the underlying question I have is how can one watch sumo and view such numbers and such trends and not critically think about the reasons behind them?

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