Natsu Basho Roundtable
The quality of sumo this basho was way below average, and much of the blame for that falls solely on the Ozeki. It was a far cry from Kaio and Chiyotaikai's 13-0 starts in March and even Musoyama's solid first week in Osaka. As I glance down the banzuke in search of rikishi who really performed well this basho, I can probably count them all on one hand. Even Asashoryu toned it down a bit looking vulnerable for the first time this year. I dare say this would have been the worst basho since last year's Nagoya basho if it hadn't of been for a darkhorse named Hokutoriki. His recent Natsu basho run provided some drama to this sport that we haven't seen since the likes of Takatoriki and Kotonishiki. The difference between Hokutoriki's run and the Maegashira rikishi who have vied for the yusho in the past is Hokutoriki absolutely cleaned house against the Yokozuna and Ozeki in week one. Most Maegashira rikishi who have a shot at the yusho jump out to big leads by beating down the scrubs in the lower ranks only to be paired with the big boys for a few days in week two, but Hokutoriki was different. His run was not a fluke. It was a fantastic display of sumo from a rikishi who stuck to his game up until the final day.
Let's start with the Maegashira 1, who came out of nowhere to dominate this basho for 14 days. Prior to the basho, I actually thought Hokutoriki had a shot of reaching kachi-koshi. I only thought he'd win seven, but with the way the sanyaku and Maegashira rikishi have been so inconsistent lately, I thought "he's got a chance." You could describe Hokutoriki's performance for 13 of the 15 days as such: smash-mouth tachi-ai where he grabs the early nodowa and uses it to drive his opponent back and out in two seconds keying off of perfect de-ashi. I've always thought of Hokutoriki as a poor man's Chiyotaikai, but if he can maintain the same mental toughness and confidence he did during the Natsu basho, he could surpass Chiyotaikai. Now whether or not that will happen in the next few months is jumping the gun a bit. I completely agree with Kenji in that you only have to look at Kotomitsuki and Asasekiryu this year to see just how hard it is to maintain such momentum. If Hokutoriki can maintain this pace, how fresh would it be to have such an unexpected rikishi become a presence in the upper echelon of the division? Sumo could use such a feel-good story right now, especially if the rikishi is native Japanese. Hokutoriki should find himself ranked as Sekiwake for the upcoming Nagoya basho, but I'd be surprised to see him win more than nine. The main reason is that everyone will be gunning for him from day 1. When Kaio lost to Hokutoriki on day 1 of this basho, I thought, "that's a horrible loss." But looking back now, it wasn't. No one can take this guy lightly from now on, and that may disable him from making another surprise run. Nevertheless, huge props to Hokutoriki for making a legitimate charge and giving this basho so much drama down to the very end.
Yokozuna Asashoryu, who was in a foul mood for most of week two after losing control of his own destiny, did what he had to do as Yokozuna, and that was continue to win and keep himself in position to take the yusho. Yes, he needed help from a rikishi ranked at Maegashira 16 on senshuraku, but credit Asashoryu for pouncing on the opportunity when it finally came his way. Nothing much more to say regarding the Yokozuna although this was the first time he's had to come from behind to win the yusho. If you look at his two losses this basho, you can see that this guy has no margin for error because of his smaller than average stature. We see Chiyotaikai get away with failed pull-down attempts all the time, but Asashoryu got burned against Hokutoriki. We also see guys survive failed nage throws all the time, but if Asashoryu's opponent has an uwate on his belt, and Asashoryu fails on a throw attempt, it's over. This is one aspect that makes Asashoryu's 35 bout win steak so impressive. He has to perform nearly perfect sumo day in and day out, so to see him do that 43 out of 45 times this year is impressive. I suspect this isn't the last time that he will put 30 or so wins together in a row. He defines the term Yokozuna in the ring. Out of the ring, I think he's got a little bit more work to do. I didn't like how at his morning-after press conference he made such a big deal of "paying a de-geiko visit to Hokutoriki's stable prior to the Nagoya basho." I love the fact that this is a priority on his list; what makes him so great is that he always improves upon his weaknesses. What I don't care for is the boastful manner in which he declares it to the press as if it's a joke. We already know that you'll be looking for a piece of anyone who beats you. Don't belittle your fellow rikishi by implying that you can bully anybody you want anytime you want to because of your rank. Oh well, as long as he keeps pissing of Uchdate Makiko of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council I can't complain.
Moving to the Ozeki ranks, all three of our active Ozeki exhibited pathetic performances this basho. A year ago, I thought that either Kaio or Chiyotaikai had an excellent shot at becoming Yokozuna, but not anymore. These guys barely care. Six losses for Chiyotaikai with such weak competition and promotion to Yokozuna on the line? Ok, Asashoryu will probably beat you everyone time, and so will Kaio. But then who is there after that that should give you problems? Wakanosato maybe, and Hokutoriki took everyone by surprise this basho, but shouldn't you come out a little more inspired with so much on the line? And the same goes for Kaio. What's his excuse for losing five bouts? Maybe I'm being a little harsh, but Chiyotaikai and Kaio simply didn't care this basho when they had every reason in the world to do their best. And don't even get me started on Musoyama. Nine losses?!? It's not fair that Tochiazuma should lose his rank to a serious injury while Musoyama keeps his rank by winning eight bouts every other basho. We need some fresh blood in the Ozeki ranks. Kaio and Chiyotaikai can stay because they continually post double-digit wins, but the likes of Kokkai, Kotooshu, Hagiwara, and a few others can't climb the ranks fast enough.
In the Sekiwake ranks, no surprises here. Wakanosato was his usual stay-in-the-yusho-picture-for-week-one-and-finish-poorly-at-9-6. Kyokutenho stunk yet again needing to go 4-2 over his last six bouts just to post a 6-9 record. I don't see any determination from these two rikishi to step it up a notch and make a serious push for Ozeki.
In the Komusubi ranks, Kotomitsuki had a quiet 9-6 performance. This is right about where he should be every basho although his two tachi-ai henka in week two when he needed that eighth win were below average. His counterpart Miyabiyama was laughable. Proclaiming yourself as Asashoryu's "rensho stopper" and then posting a 3-12 mark? I'm with Kenji on this one: go back to the lime-green suit!
In the Maegashira ranks, M1 Tochinonada gave us exactly zero memorable moments going 5-10. M2 Asasekiryu's record over the last two basho is 16-14 and that includes 13 wins in March. Asasekiryu is the most inconsistent rikishi in the division by far. I guess his performance last basho was a fluke. This guy is a mid-Maegashira rikishi at best. No wonder Asashoryu has to visit other stables to get sufficient practice before tournaments. He must bang his head against the teppo pole when he sees Asasekiryu, Toki, and Asanowaka at morning keiko. Seki's counterpart M2 Kakizoe could never get on track this basho limping to a 6-9 finish. His only two bout winning streak was against Kaio and Chiyotaikai. Go figure. I guess that shows just how indifferent Kaio and Chiyotaikai were this basho more than anything.
Our M3s Shimotori and Dejima both underachieved with 7-8 records. I must say Shimotori's 8 bout losing streak mid-basho was impressive. And Dejima? All you have to know is that he is a member of the Musashigawa-beya whose Makuuchi rikishi went a combined 26-49 this basho. When they declared themselves as "rensho stoppers" prior to the basho, were they talking about stopping Asashoryu's winning streak or their own collective inability to put two wins (rensho) together in a row?
At M4 both Tokitsuumi and Takamisakari had their moments but neither could pull out eight wins. Tokitsuumi jumped off to a 5-0 start but only won two more the rest of the way to finish 7-8. Fighting the Yokozuna/Ozeki/sanyaku will do that to you. The same goes for Takamisakari, who of late has to struggle to kachi-koshi from the mid-Maegashira ranks.
At M5 veteran Kotonowaka nutted up to win four of his last five bouts to secure an excellent 8-7 mark for him at this point of his career. This guy can still beat anyone of you let him get an uwate. The problem is the younger rikishi are able to counter Mr. Ippun's attack with superior speed. And how about Tamanoshima? He was a pulll-down loss (at the hands of Kotomitsuki) away from joining Asashoryu and Hokutoriki on senshuraku in a playoff. Tamanoshima posted his best record ever at 12-3 with solid technique mixing up oshi-zumo and yotsu-zumo along the way, but the big question is can he do it next basho from the sanyaku. We've seen M5s in Asasekiryu and Kotomitsuki have great basho in the past only to struggle when boosted up the banzuke a few notches. Tamanoshima, while deserving the Technical Merit Prize, really needs to prove himself in the sanyaku.
Ditto for M6 Iwakiyama, who was solid going 10-5. His size alone guarantees him a few wins in the mid-Maegashira ranks, but I really want to see him break out when ranked among the jo'i.
Our M7s both turned in excellent performances. Kokkai who finished 10-5 is finally learning how to win the big matches. He pounded Musoyama for the biggest win of his career and posted double-digit victories to guarantee himself a rank among the jo'i for July. Don't expect a Hokutoriki-like run from this Georgian, but he should slowly and surely work his way up to the sanyaku and higher. Now let's turn to Kyokushuzan. He's taken more crap on this site from us than anyone--mainly because Asasnowaka is always too low on the charts to notice. But this pioneer Mongolian had his best basho in years. Among his nine wins, exactly zero were by the pull-down method. I love to see this kind of sumo from him, and he certainly took his peers by surprise with his oshi-attack and surprising strength at the belt. Keep it going because it's much harder to beat you when you charge forward instead of back-pedal from the start. I don't think another kachi-koshi is out of the question for him in July higher up the ranks; just stick to the forward attack.
M8 Takekaze posted an excellent 9-6 record this basho with his biggest win coming against Tamanoshima. The only problem is this will push him higher up the ranks where his lack of height will pose a huge disadvantage for him. M9 Kotoryu posted double-digit wins, but like Iwakiyama and Tamanoshima, I want to see this veteran do it higher up the banzuke. Compatriot Tosanoumi suffered yet another make-koshi at M9. Say it isn't so, but this guy may finally be on the way out. His lack of stability in his lower body has seemed to have finally caught up with him.
At M10 Harunoyama and Toki are at the mercy of the banzuke committee as their identical 4-11 marks will put them right on the border of demotion. Harunoyama is one of those rikishi that will probably ride the elevator between Juryo and Makuuchi for the next two years. He's a relative newcomer to the division, but he's been in the sport eleven years or so. Toki seems to have lost any drive. He's going to go down into that category of "waste-of-an-ideal-sumo-body."
Jumping further down the ranks, M16 Hakuho had a successful Makuuchi debut at 12-3 although I wouldn't call his performance overpowering. Talk about an unpredictable rikishi regarding style, but remember, he's only 19. It's far too early to make any kind of judgment on this guy, but when you're mentioned in the same sentence as Takanohana (regarding youngest rikishi to fight in Makuuchi), you're probably going to go far in the sport. So far I love everything about this guy except for his habit to dink around at the tachi-ai and side-step his opponents. So far his style is very similar to Mongolian counterparts Asasekiryu and Kyokutenho, but I think what separates him for these two is his strength and toughness. Hakuho seems to have no fear whatsoever, and while I can't exactly call Seki and Tenho fraidy-cats, they are often quite passive in the ring. Hakuho should continue his swift climb up the ranks. He's going to be the number one guy you hate to face simply because you don't know how he's going to hit you from the tachi-ai, and he has the speed, strength, and technique to back it up.
Looking at the Juryo division, four names stick out from the others. M10 Tokitenku, who won the Juryo yusho at 12-3 in only his second basho in the division, is yet another Mongolian who has made a record climb up the ranks. He didn't lose his first bout until he reached the Makushita ranks. He'll be right on the border regarding promotion to Makuuchi for July, but watch out for yet another Mongolian. Counterpart M10 Kotooshu posted an outstanding 10-5 record in his Juryo debut. He'll likely repeat the performance in July and be cast among the Makuuchi rank-and-file come September. I can't wait. M12 Hagiwara finished 9-6 in his Juryo debut, and while he may not climb into the Makuuchi division as fast as Koto-oshu, he will definitely make an impact once there. Remember, he's only 17. Then there's M13 Toyonoshima--the shortest sekitori out of the lot. No matter. He powered his way to an 11-4 debut in the division. This guy charges low (as you can imagine), latches onto his opponent's belt, and just powers them out of the ring. He's also got a nasty shitate-nage in his arsenal to mix up his attack. I think he's right there with Tokitenku, Kotooshu, and Hagiwara regarding the newcomers to watch in the next year.
In conclusion, this was an exciting basho due to Hokutoriki's brilliant run, but take that away, and the overall sumo left a lot to be desired. Going into Nagoya, perhaps the biggest storyline will be Ozeki..er..uh..Sekiwake Tochiazuma's quest to regain his Ozeki rank with 10 wins. You also have Asashoryu returning to the machi that booed him last time around. There's no doubt that the Yokozuna remembers the disaster of the Nagoya basho last year. And then we'll see if Hokutoriki is a one-hit wonder. But still, the most exciting aspect to me are the young guys in the Juryo ranks ready to break into the Makuuchi scene.
Normally, Kenji and I wait for our basho roundtable reports before we comment on the senshuraku bouts, but the drama leading up to the conclusion of this tournament was so intense that I can't resist not commenting on the events that took place resulting in Asashoryu's yusho.
First, it slipped my mind that the senshuraku bouts always start earlier than usual, so when I tuned into NHK's live broadcast, Asashoryu and Chiyotaikai were performing their pre-bout rituals. I had no idea that Hokutoriki had been defeated until the commentators mentioned that Hakuho had used a tachia-ai henka to defeat the Maegashira. The news literally made me sick to my stomach. Everyone knows how much Kenji and I detest this maneuver, especially when it directly effects the yusho. However, since NHK did not replay the bout until this morning, I reserved my judgment on the matter until I could watch a replay of the Hakuho - Hokutoriki matchup.
Moving to the day's action, the biggest match of the day was obviously the M16 Hakuho vs. M1 Hokutoriki bout where Hokutoriki could clinch the yusho outright with a victory. As the two rikishi approached the starting lines, Hakuho took his own sweet time before he put both fists to the dirt. The delay tactic drew Hokutoriki into two false starts, and I believe this unnerved Hokutoriki, who must have already been under immense pressure coming into the bout. While I generally don't like to see a rikishi lollygag at the starting lines, I must say that Hakuho has balls of stone to be able to screw with his opponent's mind while standing on the biggest stage of his career. You'll remember that Hakuho showed Asashoryu up as a Juryo rikishi last month, so whatever is going on inside of Hakuho's melon I don't know, but he has ice running through those veins of his. The third attempt at a tachi-ai was a charm as Hokutoriki charged towards Hakuho with both hands extended near his opponent's upper chest. Hakuho quickly stepped to his left pulling Hokutoriki down by the arm nearly as quickly as the bout had begun.
Was Hakuho's tachi-ai a henka? Yeah, I guess so, but was it any worse than the henka move Kotomitsuki tried against Hokutoriki on day 12? No way. You'll remember that Hokutoriki read that move with precision and knocked Kotomitsui out of the ring in a second. The difference in the two bouts was not his opponents' tachi-ai--which were identical--but it was Hokutoriki's tachi-ai. Against Kotomitsuki, Hokutoriki went for the neck with the right hand, which he got despite his opponent's side step. Against Hakuho, Hokutoriki looked less sure of himself as he extended both arms in an attempt to shove Hakuho from the beginning. If you are Hakuho, and you've watched Hokutoriki every bout this basho come straight at his opponents with one or both arms extended, you have two choices: stand directly in his path and see if you yourself can withstand the hand(s) to the throat, or evade that first tsuppari and use it against him. Hakuho chose the latter and was successful. Did Hakuho overwhelm or overpower his opponent with textbook sumo? No. Did he outsmart his opponent? Yes in every sense. Someone in Hokutoriki's camp has to remind him of Hakuho's style. Hakuho was all over the map with his tachi-ai this basho. Sometimes he came straight at his opponent, sometimes he evaded a half-step this way or that, and sometimes he cheapened himself with an all out tachi-ai henka. In short, the unpredictable Hakuho posed the worst match up possible for a rikishi of Hokutoriki's style, but Hokutoriki had to be prepared for anything and he wasn't.
At this point, there was absolutely no question as to how the yusho would turn out. In the final bout of the day, Chiyotaikai seemed to forget that he is a tsuppari expert, and just gave a hands-to-his-side kamikaze charge right into the Yokozuna. Asashoryu grabbed the quick morozashi position and had Taikai out in a flash setting up that which he coveted most, a rematch with Hokutoriki.
NHK rotated back and forth between both dressing rooms before the playoff bout. Hokutoriki was seen practicing his effective right hand to the neck tachi-ai on his poor tsukebito whose neck is probably thinner than mine (if he still has one at this point). Asashoryu was practicing his trademark hari-zashi tachi-ai where he comes with the harite to his opponent's face with one hand followed by an inside position (sashi) with his other hand. As the two re-entered the dohyo for their playoff, it was evident that Asashoryu was going to get what he wanted. In the playoff bout, Hokutoriki attempted an ill-advised tachi-ai henka to his right (his first of the basho), which the Yokozuna read with perfection as he easily forced the Maegashira out to capture the yusho. NHK followed Asashoryu back into the dressing room where he high-fived who else, but Hakuho as he passed by. Hopefully, Asashoryu gave Hakuho that stack of 40 envelopes containing 30,000 yen each from his earlier bout with Chiyotaikai.
Do I think that there was some sort of conspiracy going on where Asashoryu asked Hakuho (a fellow countryman but not stable mate) to give Hokutoriki a tachi-ai henka? No. But I also think that it was completely unnecessary for Asashoryu to say anything to Hakuho. Hakuho knew the implications if he won today, and he resorted to the tactic that he thought would give him the best chance. Do I like the fact that Hokutoriki's outstanding run ended at the hands of a tachi-ai henka? No, but Hokutoriki has to win that match regardless of what his opponent did. Once again, the henka was no worse than that of Kotomitsuki's on day 12. The difference is the pressure finally got to Hokutoriki on the final day, especially after his opponent baited him into two false starts.
I know a lot of people don't like how the basho ended, but you have to remember that we're dealing with a dai-yokozuna here. The difference between a dai-yokozuna (great Yokozuna) and a normal Yokozuna is that the great ones find a way to yusho regardless of the circumstances. It's something that we'll all have to live with while Asashoryu continues this historic run.
Stay tuned as both Kenji and I will be posting our basho roundtable reports in the next few days where we will comment on most of the rikishi and the basho itself.
It's taken 14 days to do it, but we've narrowed this race down to two horses. One of the horses has come out of oblivion to take sole command of the basho while the other horse can only sit back and seethe knowing he can't do thing one about it. Anybody who watched the final bout today--where Asashoryu took out his frustrations on Ozeki Kaio--and who isn't completely fired up going into senshuraku does not have a pulse. Speaking of "watching" the bouts, let me send out a memo to NHK. It's okay to pre-empt or interrupt the sumo broadcast for breaking news, but it's NOT okay when you show us the same 30 seconds worth of video footage over and over and over again for more than an hour. How many times do I need to see that North Korean "general's" bad hair? I'm tuning in patiently waiting for the Hokutoriki-Takekaze match up, and all I see is the same photograph of some skinny ex-US army deserter and his two daughters. And no, I don't need to see close-ups of their malnourished faces twenty times. The dead-horse was beaten into a pulp last night at the expense of sumo fans everywhere. But I digress.
The biggest match coming into the day by far was the M1 Hokutoriki vs. M8 Takekaze match-up. When first seeing who Hokutoriki's day 14 opponent would be, my reaction was "Takekaze"? But then who else is there for him to fight. He's squared up with all of heavy-weights and all of the rikishi on the leaderboard and smoked all but one. Once again, today was no different for our sole leader. He drove hard into Takekaze at the tachi-ai and drove him straight back and out of the ring. The only difference today is that Hokutoriki used both hands today instead of just the right hand to the neck. This run has been incredible, and it would be a shame if it got derailed tomorrow. Hokutoriki faces M16 Hakuho on senshuraku who can best be described as a stick of dynamite. Remember, Hakuho was the guy who humiliated Asashoryu in April by first trying to bounce him off of the clay with a tsuri-otoshi move during a keiko session and then picking him clean off of his feet and dumping the Yokozuna off the dohyo. The then Juryo rikishi can gain Asashoryu's forgiveness tomorrow if he can manage to defeat Hokutoriki. I don't think Hakuho needs to try and grab Hokutoriki's belt to win. His style and speed are such that he may be able to out quick Hokutoriki, but the bottom line is Hokutoriki is on a roll and has to be the favorite.
One loss behind Hokutoriki is Yokozuna Asashoryu who simply put is pissed to no end. He is the king, the yusho belongs to him as far as he's concerned, and he can't stand the fact that a Maegashira rikishi is on the verge of taking it from him. What probably galls him further is that two careless mistakes will cost him this basho when previously he would have been able to recover. Today, Asashoryu actually put himself into a dangerous position against Kaio (9-5) at first trying to force the fight to the belt, but you could just see the determination in his body language today that he would not lose. The two grappled a bit never really gaining a grip on each other's belts and never really dominating with tsuppari, but Asashoryu willed his way inside of Kaio's upright body and unleashed a mammoth sukuinage throw on the Ozeki followed by an exaggerated pump of his arm celebrating the kill. After the bout in the locker room, the press surrounded the Yokozuna as his chon-mage was being re-coiffed, but every question from the media was answered with closed eyes, and deep scowl, and nothing but silence. Love him or hate him, you have to respect the Yokozuna's sheer intensity. Kyokutenho proved this basho that Asashoryu's body is not what has propelled him to this position. It's his kill or be killed attitude, and I absolutely love it. Asashoryu can only hope for help from fellow countryman Hakuho tomorrow. I think it's a given that Chiyotaikai will wilt tomorrow as he faces the Yokozuna, so it's all up to Hakuho.
Two behind the leader but officially eliminated from the yusho today by virtue of Hokutoriki's win, M5 Tamanoshima schooled Sekiwake Wakanosato in a good yotsu-zumo match. Tama was the one able to secure the uwate, and he used that to force out Wakanosato (8-6) and move to 11-3. I still can't get Kotomitsuki's act yesterday out of my mind. That was pure punk-ass sumo. It's one thing to resort to cheap tactics when you need desperation wins, but don't do it to a rikishi who is still in the yusho hunt. Tamanoshima may be out of the yusho race thanks to Asanomitsuki, but he has had an outstanding basho and is worthy of the Ginosho. There's no reason why he can't do this next basho from the sanyaku.
M16 Hakuho pushed out M7 Kyokushuzan today to move his record to 11-3. I didn't see the bout, but suffice it to say that Hakuho will probably get the kantosho. Kyokushuzan falls to 8-6, but while I'm addressing him, let me say that I have been really proud of his sumo this basho. For some reason, Kyokushuzan has actually decided to fight while moving straight forward this basho. Even better, he's winning. I don't know why this guy has wasted so many years with his shenanigans when he's still clearly able to fight straight up in this division. I really liked Kyokushuzan when he first came up, and he was very hospitable towards me when I visited the Oshima stable a few years back, but his sumo the last few years has been horrible. I'd love nothing more for him than to take this new attitude into next basho. Hakuho was officially eliminated from the yusho race by Hokutoriki's win today, but he's still has a hand in the outcome.
M7 Kokkai was the only three-loss rikishi coming in who didn't win today. Once again, I didn't see the bout, but for the second basho in a row, the Georgian has been unable to figure out M12 Kaiho (9-5). Still, Kokkai has his double digit wins this basho, which guarantee him a slot in the upper Maegashira for July. That Asashoryu-Kokkai matchup we've been waiting for will happen then.
Touching on the few bouts that were broadcast by NHK on day 14, Ozeki Chiyotaikai bullied Musoyama out of the ring to hand him his eighth loss. Pathetic. This was strictly oshi-zumo from both parties, but it seemed to me that Musoyama came out not caring. Then mid-bout, he suddenly realized he already had seven losses and couldn't afford to lose today. He turned up his effort, but it was too little too late as Chiyotaikai pushed him out with relative ease. Musoyama falls to 6-8 while Taikai improves to 9-5.
Sekiwake Kyokutenho (8-6) made short work of M6 Buyuzan (4-10), but he still will fall from his rank in July. How far he falls will be determined tomorrow as he faces counterpart Wakanosato. And finally, Komusubi Kotomitsuki bulldozed M4 Tokitsuumi out in seconds to secure his kachi-koshi and Komusubi rank for July.
Tomorrow should be outstanding. A Hokutoriki win or an Asashoryu loss automatically gives Hokutoriki the yusho. A Hokutoriki loss and an Asashoryu win means the two would be tied at 13-2 and would have to face off in a playoff bout. Anything can happen. Also fighting at 7-7 for that coveted kachi-koshi are M5 Kotonowaka and M15 Futenoh (wasn't he ranked 7-1 at one point?) and M4 Tokitsuumi (at one point 5-0) will square off against M11 Aminishiki. Dejima must also topple M3 Shimotori (6-8) to pick up his eight win.
The quality of sumo this basho definitely hasn't equaled the first two basho of this year, but with three days left, the Natsu basho is still completely up for grabs. After yesterday's unbelievable shake-up among the best of the best, things settled down a bit today in regards to the rikishi with a legitimate shot to take the yusho. Let's start with our leader, M1 Hokutoriki, who faced a formidable opponent in Komusubi Kotomitsuki. Coming in, I expected Kotomitsuki to give Hokutoriki a run for his money today, but apparently Kotomitsuki had some trickery on his mind as he moved a half a step to his right from the tachi-ai in an attempt to change up Hokutoriki's charge. He was promptly rewarded with that vicious right paw to the neck that Hokutoriki has been executing flawlessly this basho save his day 8 loss to Wakanosato. Hokutoriki had Kotomitsuki pushed out of the ring in two seconds maybe. This bout was a perfect example of a rikishi who is drubbing the rest of the field by sticking to his strengths and a rikishi in a slump who's getting cute with his sumo in an attempt to reach the eight-win mark. Hokutoriki keeps sole command of first place at 11-1 while Kotomitsuki falls to 6-6. Tomorrow, it's the same story for Hokutoriki: keep your opponent away from your belt and you win. He'll face a stiff test in M6 Iwakiyama, who's having an outstanding basho himself. We'll see if Hokutoriki's right hand to the neck will budge the mammoth Iwakiyama. Upon Musashimaru's retirement, Iwakiyama officially took over as the leader of the neck-wider-than-your-head club.
Coming into the day one loss behind Hokutoriki was Yokozuna Asashoryu and M5 Tamanoshima. Asashoryu faced Sekiwake Wakanosato, someone who can give the Yokozuna fits if he grabs his belt. Asashoryu made sure that that would not happen a second day in a row by lunging out of his tachi-ai and going straight for Waka's neck ala Hokutoriki. Like Hokutoriki's attacks this basho, Asa had Wakanosato (8-4) thrust out of the ring in a flash never letting the Sekiwake touch his belt (did I just compare Asashoryu's sumo to Hokutoriki??). Asashoryu looked sharp coming off of that costly loss to Kyokutenho yesterday. Asa's final three opponents will be the three Ozeki beginning with Musoyama tomorrow, but I honestly think that with the way the Ozeki are performing this basho, Asa (10-2) will have an easier time with his last three opponents than Hokutoriki will with his.
Standing alongside the Yokozuna is M5 Tamanoshima, who scored a huge victory over Ozeki Kaio today, essentially knocking Kaio out of the yusho race. When Kaio doesn't come out of his tachi-ai firing off tsuppari, he keeps his hands close to his body waiting for his opponent to hit him before trying to get one of his arms deep inside of his opponent. Today, Tamanoshima simply handcuffed Kaio from the tachi-ai never letting the Ozeki get either arm on the inside where he could stop his opponent's momentum. It was an easy force out win for Tamanoshima who is on a roll at 10-2; Kaio falls to 8-4.
Coming into the day with just three losses, M7 Kokkai whipped Ozeki Musoyama to pick up the biggest win of his young career. If you didn't know any of the rikishi's ranks, and all of the bouts took place in random order, judging from these two rikishi this basho, you would probably think that Kokkai would have the advantage. But place him in the penultimate bout of the day against an Ozeki for the first time, and you could reason that Kokkai's nerves would get the best of him as they do almost every other rikishi. Not so today. Kokkai pushed Musoyama back from the tachi-ai with a two-handed thrust followed up by an identical two-handed thrust that drove Musoyama back to within a step of the tawara. As Kokkai geared up for the third onslaught, Musoyama all but backed himself out of the ring as he's done several times this basho causing Kokkai to let up a bit on the final push out. Musoyama of all rikishi should know that it's not over until one of the rikishi is squarely out of the ring. How many times has Musoyama had is opponents halfway out of the ring only to whiff on his final push? Musoyama gave up prematurely today, which resulted in his 6-6 record. With Asashoryu up tomorrow, looks like a make-koshi here. As for Kokkai he keeps himself within a stone's throw of the yusho, he improves to 9-3 and looks to at least win in double-digits for the first time in the Makuuchi division.
M6 Iwakiyama squared off with M13 Kinkaiyama, two rikishi coming in with 8-3 records. Iwakiyama has the bigger body and the better technique; two factors that helped him win today with relative ease. Hokutoriki's run this basho is spectacular considering all of the rikishi he's beaten. Kinkaiyama's excellent start was due in large part to the scrubs he worked over early on. Iwakiyama (9-4) can make a statement and greatly increase his slim yusho hopes with a win over Hokutoriki tomorrow. Kinkaiyama falls to a very decent 8-4.
M16 Hakuho was too fast and too slippery for M8 Takekaze today. The two rikishi met straight on at the tachi-ai, but Hakuho quickly evaded to his right causing Takekaze to lose his balance and stumble forward. Hakuho immediately assumed the man-love position and instead of pushing Takekaze out, he lifted him off of his feet and threw him out for a nice touch. Hakuho is still in the race at 9-3 while Takekaze misses out on his kachi-koshi standing at 7-5.
To sum up the basho leaders, Hokutoriki stands alone at 11-1; Asashoryu and Tamanoshima are 10-2; and Kokkai, Iwakiyama, and Hakuho all stand at 9-3.
In other bouts of interest, Ozeki Chiyotaikai toyed with Sekiwake Kyokutenho delivering a few tsuppari to the Mongolian and then pulling him down to the side. Chiyo secures kachi-koshi with the win at 8-4 while Kyokutenho (4-8) suffers a make-koshi yet again as Sekiwake stinking just one day after shining against the Yokozuna. And finally, M4 Takamisakari (5-7) kept his slim kachi-koshi hopes alive by beating himself up prior to the match in his own corner and then latching on to Komusubi Miyabiyama's (2-10) belt in the ring winning by force out.
It should be an exciting last three days. Tomorrow's Iwakiyama-Hokutoriki match up has to the be the most anticipated.
As we enter the Shubansen, or final five days, we are slowly whittling down the leader board. After day 10, we have six rikishi either tied for the lead, or one loss off. Let's get right to the action beginning with the leaders.
Asashoryu has seemed a bit vulnerable this basho after having his 35 bout winning streak snapped at the hands of Hokutoriki. Compounding the vulnerability was the back injury the Yokozuna sustained in his bout with Takamisakari on day 7. Asa responded on days 8 and 9 with some quick dismantling of his opponents with powerful pushes, but he had yet to be tested in a full-blown yotsu-zumo contest. Today he would get that test as he faced Komusubi Kotomitsuki in what was the best bout of the tournament so far in my opinion.
Both rikishi came with a quick harite at the tachi-ai followed up by simultaneous right uwate grips on each others belts. Hooked up in the gappuri yotsu position (both with right uwate grips and left shitate grips), Asashoryu pressed first trying to topple his opponent with a quick uwate-nage, but Kotomitsuki held on and actually tried to counter the move with a throw of his own. The Yokozuna survived the counter attack leaving both rikishi at a statemate in the center of the ring. After catching their breath, Kotomitsuki attempted an ill-advised make-kae where for some reason, he released his shitate grip in an attempt to gain double uwate grips (which would have given the Yokozuna the lethal morozashi position). Asashoryu quickly seized the opportunity, and with his opponent now dangerously exposed, he wasted no time in securing a left grip on the back of Kotomitsuki's belt and a right grip on the front, which he used to pick Kotomitsuki up off of his feet and bounce him on the clay with that dreaded tsuri-otoshi move. I guess any worries over Asashoryu's back condition were eased after today's match. I watched closely as the Yokozuna (9-1) exited the dohyo and walked back up the hanamichi. He didn't seem to be favoring any part of his body, so I'm assuming he's at least 90% healthy, which means he's well enough to yusho. The yusho is his to lose. Kotomitsuki falls to 5-5, but still has an excellent shot at keeping his sanyaku status.
M1 Hokutoriki looked to receive a stiff challenge today pitted against M7 Kokkai, who was only one loss off the lead himself coming in. From the tachi-ai, Kokkai managed to get his right hand at Hokutoriki's throat, but before he could drive his opponent back, Hokutoriki somehow managed a right hand of his own to Kokkai's throat and immediately drove him back and out of the ring making it look easy. The difference here was simply de-ashi. Kokkai (7-3) seems to want to deliver two handed pushes that cause him to sort of hop as he drives his opponents back. Hokutoriki's technique, however, has been impeccable this basho; thus the outcome of today's match. Hokutoriki jumps to 9-1 alongside Asashoryu and keeps on rolling. Tomorrow he faces a stiff test against yotsu-zumo specialist Kinkaiyama, who is one of the leaders this basho as well. Once again, the key for Hokutoriki in that bout will be keeping Kinkaiyama away from his belt. If Kinkaiyama can secure a belt grip, he hands Hokutoriki loss number two.
Getting back to Kokkai, the Georgian needs to find a way to win the big bout. In his debut basho in January, he was 8-5 heading into the last three days where he came up just short against Kotomitsuki (who finished 13-2), Kakizoe (11-4) and Shimotori (11-4). Then in March, he stormed out to a 7-1 record only to go 1-6 the rest of the way barely nabbing his kachi-koshi with a close win against Kotonowaka. This basho, we saw that same 7-1 start, but when matched up against two basho leaders (Kinkaiyama and Hokutoriki) with kachi-koshi on the line, Kokkai wilted. He'll get his chance at an early kachi-koshi tomorrow against rookie Hakuho, but he needs to respond big in the bouts where something is on the line. So far, he has failed to do so.
Ozeki Kaio entered the day one behind Asashoryu and Hokutoriki with M3 Shimotori standing in his way. The Ozeki quickly managed a morozashi grip from the tachi-ai and had Shimotori forced out in seconds. Excellent sumo for Kaio who still controls his own destiny. If Kaio ran the table and took the yusho with a 13-2 mark, it would be interesting to see how the Yokozuna Deliberation Council responded. Up next his Wakanosato, which should provide for a solid yotsu-zumo contest.
M13 Kinkaiyama, who entered the day with just one loss, met his match today in M5 Tamanoshima. Talk about two rikishi with nearly identical builds and identical styles. Tamanoshima, who has more experience and success in the division, prevailed with relative ease in this yotsu-zumo clash despite giving up an early right uwate to his opponent. Both rikishi's records now stand at 8-2. Kinkaiyama could go from tied for the lead to essentially out of the yusho picture if he falls to Hokutoriki's tsuppari attack tomorrow.
M16 Hakuho still keeps himself one back of the lead after easily dispatching M9 Tosanoumi. Hakuho hit Tosa straight up but then dodged the next charge with lightening speed causing Tosanoumi to face plant himself into the clay. Yeah, it was another pull down win for Hakuho, but I have no problem with today's bout, especially when Tosanoumi's style practically invites the hikiwaza. As long as Hakuho hits his opponent straight up as he did today, I'm fine with it. Tomorrow's bout with Kokkai should be a battle.
On off the lead coming in today was the semi-resurgent Sekiwake Wakanosato, who could keep himself close to the leaders and knock Chiyotaikai off the map with a win. Chiyo drove Wakanosato back to the edge of the ring from the tachi-ai, but Wakanosato held on and managed to hook up with the Ozeki in the hidari-yotsu position. The two rikishi then grappled for two minutes with Wakanosato desperately trying to grab Chiyo's belt, but the Ozeki kept him away and when Wakanosato made a charge to push Chiyotaikai out, Chiyo dodged the charge and pulled Wakanosato down for the win. This was a huge win for Chiyotaikai and a costly loss for Wakanosato. Both rikishi stand at 7-3, but I think they're already out of the yusho race. Wakanosato wins this bout if his arms were three centimeters longer--he was that close to grabbing Chiyo's belt.
Rounding out the Ozeki ranks, Musoyama completely manhandled M5 Kotonowaka (4-6) by driving into him hard at the tachi-ai knocking Mr. Ippun off balance. Musoyama easily finished his opponent off by pulling him over to move his record to 6-4. Too little too late however.
Briefly touching on other bouts of interest, Sekiwake Kyokutenho picked up his third win by out-muscling M1 Tochinonada in a good yotsu-zumo contest. Both rikishi stand at just 3-7. And M2 Asasekiryu, who has immensely cooled off after his performance in March, managed to pick up just his second win by executing a brilliant uchi-kake (inside leg trip) move against the hapless Miyabiyama, who brings up the rear in the win department at just 1-9.
At the end of this day, those still in the hunt are Asashoryu, and Hokutoriki with one loss; and Kaio, Kinkaiyama, Tamanoshima, and Hakuho one behind the leaders with two losses. Obviously, the two names that stick out are Asashoryu and Kaio. I know it's fun to speculate on whether one of the scrubs can actually rise up and take the yusho, but as far as I'm concerned, we're down to a two horse race, and with one of those horses one loss behind Asashoryu (Kaio), he is barely hanging on.
Occasionally, a Maegashira rikishi will make a superb run to capture the Makuuchi yusho, but if you look back at the last few rikishi to do it (Kotonishiki twice and Takatoriki), you can see that both of these guys were Makuuchi veterans with prior sanyaku experience when they did it. Among, the four young guys still in the hunt, only one has been in the sanyaku for one basho, and that result was a definitive make-koshi for Tamanoshima. Hokutoriki has secured his place in the sanyaku for next basho, but I think the pressure will get to him over the final week.
First off, let me thank the group of Princeton U. students who took over for Kenji yesterday; their write-up was very entertaining. I think everyone can agree that it's always nice to read some fresh input. Former guest columnist Todd Lambert takes the reigns tomorrow, so stay tuned for continued daily coverage of the basho. In the future, if anyone would like to take a stab at reporting on the day's bouts, send us an email and we'll arrange it. Now onto the action: we're halfway through the tournament, which means that NHK will begin focusing on the leaderboard. With nine rikishi within one loss at the top after today's bouts, we should be in for an entertaining second week regardless of the quality of the sumo.
Starting at the top, all eyes were focused on the undefeated surprise leader through seven days, M1 Hokutoriki and his matchup with Sekiwake
Wakanosato. Through the first week, not a single one of Hokutoriki's opponents had been able to even touch his mawashi let alone grab it, so you
knew that this would be the key in today's bout. Wakanosato thrives at the belt, so the pace of the match would be determined on the Sekiwake's
ability to get inside. From the tachi-ai, Wakanosato grabbed a quick left shitate on Hokutoriki's belt and immediately forced the bout to yotsu-zumo. Hokutoriki hooked up with a shitate of his own, but it was evident that the M1 was not comfortable with his position. Wakanosato patiently wrenched his opponent back little by little and easily forced him out of the ring to hand Hokutoriki his first loss. The difference in this bout was of course the tachi-ai. Hokutoriki did not go for Wakanosato's throat as he had done to his previous opponents. He seemed content to let Wakanosato grab his belt from the beginning, and it cost him. You frequently hear the rikishi refer to "jibun no sumo," a phrase that is roughly translated as "my preferred style of sumo." Rikishi will always state in an interview that their goal is to of course kachi-koshi and also perform "jibun no sumo." Hokutoriki's sumo is strictly oshi-zumo, so it baffles me that he gave up today on the bread and butter that boosted him to sole possession of the lead. It will be interesting to see how he responds to the loss, but I don't think that three or four more losses is out of the question. As for Wakanosato, he's got a nifty six bout winning streak of his own going. When you look at the nine rikishi within one loss of the lead, Asashoryu and Kaio stand out of course, but if there's a darkhorse in the group, it's Wakanosato. Both Hokutoriki and Wakanosato share a piece of the lead at 7-1.
The other big story going into today was the condition of Yokozuna Asashoryu, who came up limping after his bout with Takamisakari yesterday as a result of a back injury. The injury was diagnosed as some sort of para-spinal contusion (whatever that means), but the doctors on hand after the bout felt that the Yokozuna could continue. Asashoryu apparently received a massage last night and this morning on his back, and he looked to be walking normally today as he entered the dohyo to face M4 Tokitsuumi. From the tachi-ai, Tokitsuumi seemed to move a bit to his right in order to grab the quick uwate, but the Yokozuna was right on top of him and delivered a two-handed shove to Tokitsuumi's (5-3) upper chest area that knocked him to the dirt. Talk about "just what the doctor ordered." A one-second bout after coming up gimpy the day before. Asashoryu looked fine today, but we still can't gauge his condition until he gets hooked up in a tough yotsu-zumo struggle. With the victory, Asashoryu also shares a piece of the lead at 7-1, but that may change quickly in week two when he faces some heavyweights in Kotomitsuki, Wakanosato, and Kaio, not to mention Kotonowaka tomorrow.
In the Ozeki ranks, Kaio absolutely dominated Miyabiyama with his trademark uwatenage throw. From the tachi-ai, both rikishi came out pushing, but it appeared that Miyabiyama whiffed on a pull down attempt leaving him standing completely upright. Kaio seized the opportunity and grabbed a deep uwate, which he used the forcefully throw the mammoth Miyabiyama down to the dirt. At 6-2, Kaio is very much still in the yusho hunt while Miyabiyama (1-7) is cursed with the sanyaku jinx.
Ozeki Musoyama used brute strength and a nice armbar hold to set up a push-out of M1 Tochinonada. Musoyama kept Tochinonada from grabbing any sort of belt hold with some effective tsuppari, and once the Ozeki had Tochinonada's arm locked up, it was easy pickings. You look at Musoyama's wins this basho and ask yourself how can this guy only be 4-4? The Princeton gang in yesterday's report brought up an excellent point in that the going for Musoyama is only going to get tougher in week two. Maybe that's why he gave a damn today against a formidable opponent in Tochinonada (3-5).
Ozeki Chiyotaikai didn't exactly bulldoze through Komusubi Kotomitsuki, but he dictated the pace of the bout which resulted in his eventual win. Both rkishi bounced off of each other at the tachi-ai, but Chiyo kept his opponent off balance with his powerful tsuppari. As the two grappled in the ring, Chiyo actually attempted a pull-down, but luckily Kotomitsuki wasn't directly in front of him. Kotomitsuki (4-4) never could get into a rythmn as the Ozeki hooked his arm underneath Kotomitsuki's arm and slapped him down by the shoulder. It wasn't pretty, but it was acceptable sumo for
Chiyotaikai who moves to 5-3.
I will only mention Sekiwake Kyokutenho today because of his rank; otherwise, he just stinks this basho. Today M2 Kakizoe (4-4) quickly secured a morozashi position from the tachi-ai and easily pushed out the Mongolian. No effort this basho whatsoever from Kyokutenho (2-6).
Down in the Maegashira ranks where many of this basho's leaders are fighting, 13 Kinkaiyama gave up the quick uwate to M11 Hayateumi (4-4) but quickly worked his way into the gappuri yotsu position where each rikishi has one uwate and one shitate grip. From there, the larger Kinkaiyama used his bulk to prevail and force out Hayateumi moving his record to 7-1.
M15 Futenoh found himself paired with M9 Tosanoumi. Tosanoumi seemed to take charge with his trademark tsuppari, but he couldn't quite finish Futenoh off as the younger rikishi evaded well around the perimeter of the ring. After about eight seconds of action, one of the yobidashi must have spilled his bag of marbles onto the dohyo because without much of a push at all, Tosanoumi (4-4) suddenly lost his footing and took a dive to the dirt. Hardly an impressive win for Futenoh (7-1) but he remains tied at the top. Was this bout a changing of the guard of sorts with one rikishi on his way up and the other on his way out?
M7 Kokkai rounds out the Maegashira rikishi standing at 7-1 after he easily disposed of M10 Toki (1-7). Kokkai is too tall for Toki to work his now defunct magic; the result was an easy victory for Kokkai who has held true to form by starting off quickly. The big question is whether or not Kokkai will take his usual week two nose dive. Tomorrow will be telling as Kokkai faces co-leader Kinkaiyama. Oshi-zumo wins it for the Georgian while yotsu-zumo will spell his doom.
Touching on the other Maegashira who are one off the lead at 6-2, M16 Hakuho scored another pull down win over M10 Harunoyama (3-5) by tightrope walking a third of the dohyo's circumference as he dragged his larger opponent down. Though a pull down win, it was well earned, and Hakuho's balance was quite impressive. I'd like to see the rookie focus more by hitting his opponents straight on and driving them back with solid footwork (because I know he can do it) rather then this pull down nonsense.
M5 Tamanoshima, perhaps the most overlooked rikishi who looks solid this basho, hit M9 Kotoryu (3-5) hard at the tachi-ai and then took advantage of his opponent's head being lower than it should by pulling on the back of his mawashi to set up an easy push-out and up his record to 6-2.
At the end of eight days, here's how the leaderboard shapes up:
7-1 rikishi include Asashoryu, Wakanosato, Hokutoriki, Kokkai, Kinkaiyama and Futenoh.
6-2 rikishi consist of Kaio, Tamanoshima, and Hakuho.
Asashoryu has to be the favorite, but that could quickly change depending on the condition of his back. If Asashoryu's health fails him, then the yusho is between Kaio and Wakanosato. I know we'd all like to see some newcomer surprise everyone, but it won't happen. Hokutoriki showed today just how hard it is for a young rikishi to stay mentally focused for fifteen days. As the Association begins to pair these leaders and co-leaders over the second week, the cream will rise to the top.
Well, we're six days into the festivities and things are pretty much shaping up the way we thought they would, right? Let's see, both Chiyotaikai and Kaio have already squandered any chance of Yokozuna promotion, and Hokutoriki and Kinkaiyama sit atop the leaderboard at 6-0; yep, just as I suspected. On a more serious note, it seems as if this basho has been turned upside down with Hokutoriki's upset of Asashoryu today, but I think this is a natural reaction when such an epic win steak comes to an end. After the emotional dust settles, the reality is that Hokutoriki is not going to run the table, and Asashoryu is going to take the yusho.
Let's get right to the action. Of course today's bout between Asashoryu and Hokutoriki was the most aniticipated. Not only was Sho working on a historic win streak, but Hokutoriki himself was undefeated coming in having pounded all three Ozeki along the way. Leading up to the bout, NHK showed several clips of Hokutoriki's keiko session that morning at the Hakkaku-beya. What I saw was a Hokutoriki who was drenched in sweat and working as hard as ever despite the fact that the biggest bout of his career would be that evening. Did I think Hokutoriki had a chance after seeing those clips? No, but it showed me that this guy cares and is working his butt off. It's no coincidence that he is riding such a big wave while the likes of Kaio and Chiyotaikai are floundering.
Getting to the bout itself, Asashoryu could not have asked for a better tachi-ai. He completely avoided Hokutoriki's tsuppari and actually got the best of the Maegashira pushing him back a few steps with a right nodowa. For some reason however, he attempted a pull down move with his left hand that would cost him. Hokutoriki said in an interview afterward that he was just trying to move forward the whole time, so he must have peed himself when the Yokozuna suddenly gave him an opening. Hokutoriki seized the opportunity by grasping the Yokozuna's neck with his right hand and giving him a ride across the dohyo throwing him down into a heap in the corner. It was Asashoryu's ONLY mistake in 36 bouts, but he paid the price. Hokutoriki, who moves to 6-0 with the upset, continues to roll. You can just see the confidence flowing through this guy's veins. As exciting as this run is, the only problem now is that Hokutoriki has a big target on his chest. With the rest of the field gunning for him, I don't see how he doesn't suffer two or three losses down the road on his way to a Shukunsho and Kantosho.
As for Asashoryu's loss, it needs to be put in the proper perspective. The win steak is only a statistic. It has nothing to do with Asashoryu's salary, his rank, or his worthiness to yusho. Asashoryu is still far and away the favorite to win this and the three remaining tournaments this year. He is still one loss ahead of Kaio and two losses ahead of Chiyotaikai, who reeks of kyujo this basho. Does anyone think that any rikishi besides these three can actually yusho? Nobody needs to tell Asashoryu that he made a mistake, and nobody needs to tell him that everything's okay. He knows what he has to do, and he will regroup. My only concern for the Yokozuna is that he will try and rush things. It's often overlooked that Asashoryu is smaller than the average Makuuchi rikishi, so if he starts pressing the action and becoming careless, things could get away from him. Nonetheless, Asashoryu has been here before where he loses to a Maegashira rikishi during the first week only to dominate week two and take the yusho. Yes, the streak is over, but the dominance will continue. Tomorrow he has Takamisakri to take out his frustrations on.
Speaking of Takamisakari, he was completely bulldozed out of the ring by Ozeki Musoyama. At the tachi-ai, Sakari attempted a vintage Takanonami move where he tries to wrap an arm over the top of his opponent to grab the back of the belt, but the Ozeki just drove his shoulder into Takamisakri's chest and threw him up and out of the ring similar to a bull bucking a helpless victim with his horns. I still don't know why Musoyama cares one day and not the next, but today he looked good moving to 3-3. Sakari falls to 2-4.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai and Asashoryu must have planned their strategies together this morning because they both lost in the same way. Chiyo was unable to push his opponent Kakizoe back from the tachi-ai, so he panicked and went for--you guessed it--the pull down. Kakizoe was right on top of the move and easily forced the Ozeki out of the ring for an embarassing loss to the Ozeki. Both rikishi stand at 3-3. Get ready for one of those phantom injuries to occur to Chiyotaikai because he looks as if he's given up this basho. Another horrible loss at the hands of a failed pull-down.
Speaking of giving up, does Dejima even care anymore? He actually had a good yotsu position from the tachi-ai against Ozeki Kaio today, but then just stood there waiting for Kaio to regroup, grab an uwate, and force him out. Kaio regains some respect with the win to move to 4-2 while Dejima stinks at 1-5.
As long as we're talking about passive sumo, Sekiwake Kyokutenho showed how it's done by quickly grabbing an uwate from the tachi-ai against Komusubi and then doing nothing. He just stood in the ring like a bump on a log as Kotomitsuki jockeyed his way inside grabbing a right shitate, which he used to hurl the Mongolian over. Kotomitsuki pulls to 3-3 while Tenho will be drinking tonight with Dejima in celebration of their 1-5 starts.
Look who has quietly worked his way to a 5-1 record. Sekiwake Wakanosato overpowered Komusubi Miyabiyama today with some hard pushing to extend his winning streak to 4. After a bad loss to to Tochinonada on day 2, Wakanosato has quietly worked his way within one loss of the lead. Technically, he's actually tied for the lead with Asashoryu at 5-1. With Kaio and Chiyotaikai off of their games, Wakanosato has an excellent chance to make a serious run here. He's also a bad matchup for Asashoryu, so let's hope this Sekiwake makes a run.
Jumping down to the Maegashira ranks, we had 4 rikishi coming into the day unbeaten at 5-0: Futenho, Kinkaiyama, Tokitsuumi, and Hokutoriki. In the first Makuuchi bout of the day M15 Futenoh was pitted against rookie M16 Hakuho. Hakuho gave his opponent absolutely no chance by jumping to the side at the tachi-ai causing Futenoh to stumble forward. Futenho did keep his balance but Hakuho was on him in a flash to force him out. What was that, Hakuho? I'll tell you what, it was the ugliest win I've seen so far this basho. I think even Asanowaka was embarrassed to have been outdone. Thanks for ruining Futenoh's steak with punk-ass sumo. Just as Hakuho was becoming my favorite rikishi, he resorts to this to try and stop a two bout losing streak. Hakuho actually tried a pull down earlier in the basho, but got burned for one of his losses. Nut up and fight everyone straight up. Hakuho moves to 4-2 with the "win."
M13 Kinkaiyama latched onto the front of M10 Toki's belt with both hands from the tachi-ai and easly forced Mr. Lambchops (1-5) out of the ring. Kinkaiyama keeps pace with Hokutoriki for the lead at 6-0 (that's a sentence I thought I would never type in my life). And M4 Tokitsuumi finally fell from the unbeaten ranks as he was bullied by M7 Kokkai. Kokkai had his way from the start forcing Tokitsuumi back with his double tsuppari. Tokitsuumi tried a last gasp pull down at ring's edge, but the momentum was too far in Kokkai's favor to have any effect. Both rikishi stand at 5-1. Is this Kokkai's breakout basho? We've seen 7-1 starts from him before only to be followed up by 5-6 bout losing streaks.
Finally, deserving some love is M5 Tamanoshima who had his way with M8 Tochisakae (3-3) to move to 5-1.
Today was a very revealing day this basho, but before I comment on the day's bouts, let me mention Takanonami who just recently retired. Takanonami was one of those rikishi who was blessed with the ideal sumo body, but failed to fully capitalize on it. Now, winning the Makuuchi yusho twice is no small accomplishment, but Takanonami could have done so much more if his heart was into it basho in and basho out. I'll best remember Nami as being a great ally to Takanohana back in the ex-Yokozuna's prime. I remember several times when Takanohana needed help from his stable mate to hand the likes of Akebono or Musashimaru a costly senshuraku loss, and seemingly every time Nami came through in the clutch. I was never a fan of Takanonami because I never felt like he was giving it his all, but I am sad to see him go as he did make an impact on the sport in the mid to late nineties.
Now onto the day's action where all eyes were of course focused on Asashoryu's winning streak and several undefeateds doing battle with each other. It's almost have if we have two separate basho going on simultaneously: on one hand we have Asashoryu and his consecutive win steak, and on the other hand we have everyone else. I guess I'll get Asashoryu out of the way first. Today he was pitted against M3 Dejima (uh, oh...another Musashigawa rensho-stopper!), who has not looked good for two or three straight basho. Normally, Dejima would be a handful, but lately? Not a chance. Dejima actually came at the Yokozuna full boar hitting the Yokozuna straight on with the impact actually halting Asashoryu's forward progression, but the all or nothing tachi-ai left Dejima's feet lined up together leaving him dangerously off balance and exposed for the pull down that swiftly followed. This was business as usual for Asashoryu whose tachi-ai is very impressive this basho and whose instant reads of his opponent's movements mid-bout are equally as sharp. Nothing but praise for the little big guy who keeps on rolling. My favorite aspect of Asashoryu's sumo this basho is not his actual performance in the ring, but his defiance of YDC member Makiko Uchidate who made that stink prior to the basho about Asashoryu grabbing his kensho envelopes with his left hand instead of the proper right hand. Sumo rikishi are a superstitious lot, so don't expect Asa to mend his ways until he loses. Up next tomorrow is Shimotori who is off to an excellent start this basho. Back in March, Asashoryu gave Shimotori the tsuri-otoshi bounce twice during a keiko session, so let's see if Shimotori has some pay back on his mind.
Today's most anticipated bout in the non-Asashoryu basho was the penultimate bout, which featured Ozeki Chiyotaikai and M1 Hokutoriki, both of whom were undefeated. Two of Hokutoriki's wins coming in were over Ozeki, but one of those Ozeki was Musoyama (enough said), and the the other was Kaio on day one, where you weren't quite sure if Kaio just had a bad day. This bout would essentially prove whether or not Hokutoriki was for real. Hokutoriki came hard at the tachi-ai with a morote to Chiyo's throat that drove the Ozeki back to the brink. Hokutoriki showed excellent de-ashi as he followed the Ozeki back and never let him out of his sights. Chiyotaikai jumped to his right in an attempt to evade the charge, but Hokutoriki was on him like a bulldog pulling the unbalanced Ozeki over. Wow. I guess it's safe to say that Hokutoriki's act this basho is not a fluke. He's now made both Chiyotaikai and Kaio look really bad. Hokutoriki is clearly not the rikishi that Chiyotaikai or Kaio is...yet, but his mental strength this basho is incredible and is the key factor in his run so far. He's taking it to his opponents instead of just trying to survive. Nice 4-0 start against some heavy competition.
Ozeki Kaio is back to his winning ways as he overpowered M1 Tochinonada at the tachi-ai--something that's not easy to do. The last two basho, Kaio has actually been charging forward at the tachi-ai instead of holding back and absorbing the crash from his opponent. Today, Kaio knocked Tochinonada completely upright leaving Nada's feet lined up together. Similar to Asashoryu's move against Dejima today, Kaio pulled the unstable Nada down and out for the win. This was a very good win over an opponent that had given Kaio trouble in the past. Kaio ups his record to 3-1 while Nada falls to 1-3.
Ozeki Musoyama is no longer an enigma. When his back is against the wall, he digs down deep and fights his hardest as he did today against Komusubi Kotomitsuki. Musoyama couldn't afford a loss today or that would put him at 1-3, so he came hard at the tachi-ai and used some effective tsuppari to keep Kotomitsuki from getting a good grip on his belt. Kotomitsuki never could get into a solid position as the two rikishi grappled, and Musoyama eventually pulled him down dangerously coming close to stepping out in the process himself. A judges conference and review of the bout confirmed that Musoyama did indeed win, but this bout was too close for comfort. I guess it was a good win for the Ozeki over a tough opponent, but his whole attitude towards the sport is lousy. Both rikishi stand at 2-2.
In my favorite bout today, M2 Asasekiryu squared off with Sekiwake Kyokutenho. As Kenji pointed out, Seki is no longer being pushed back from the tachi-ai. Today was no exception as Seki grabbed a firm uwate from the initial charge. After a brief pause, Seki attempted an uwate-nage throw, but Kyokutenho somehow kept his feet under him. This was a critical point in the bout because Asasekiryu had gained the distinct advantage from the tachi-ai and had just unleashed a powerful throw that failed to finish off his opponent. Seki could have either become discouraged and turned into a defensive mode, or he could have continued to press the action using the advantage gained at the tachi-ai. Seki chose the latter and persisted on eventually forcing Kyokutenho out of the ring after a good yotsu-zumo contest. Asasekiryu only improves to 1-3, but this was a telling bout for the youngster. Seki will still have to work hard to win his eight, but the three Ozeki and one Sekiwake are already out of his way. Tenho falls to 1-3.
Sekiwake Wakanosato looked very good today aginst M3 Shimotori. I saw shades of Asashoryu in his performance as he came aggressively at the tachi-ai securing the morozashi grip. Wakanosato quickly forced Shimotori to the edge of the ring and out. It was as if he had a plan coming in, and he executed that plan to perfection. Coming into the bout, Shimotori was 3-0 and looking very good, but Wakanosato never let him get anything going. It was an excellent performance by Wakanosato who needs to show this kind of desire everyday. He improves to 3-1.
In the Maegashira ranks, M4 Tokitsuumi continued is red hot start by bullying the much larger Komusubi Miyabiyama in a chikara-zumo bout. Tokitsuumi grabbed an uwate from the tachi-ai and never let go; he stays perfect at 4-0 while Miyabiyama has yet to win at 0-4. Also remaining perfect at 4-0 in the Hiramaku was M13 Kinkaiyama who used a smothering tachi-ai and solid belt grips to overpower M16 Hakuho in a bout of undefeateds. This was over in seconds, and I wonder if Hakuho took his opponent lightly. We'll see how the 19-year old responds tomorrow after suffering his first Makuuchi loss. M15 Futenoh is finally breaking out of his shell as he bullied M16 Takanowaka into submission keeping himself spotless at 4-0. Former Sekiwake Takanowaka is struggling mightily at just 1-3.
M9 Tosanoumi's lower body seems to be much more stable this basho, thush contributing to his good 3-1 start. He is joined by M5 Tamanoshima who made short work of M6 Buyuzan (04); M6 Iwakiyama who pulverized M5 Kotonowaka (1-3) with a quick belt throw; M7 Kokkai who pummeled M8 Tochisakae (2-2) before pulling him down; and M9 Kotoryu who just bulldozed right through M10 Toki (1-3).
What a contrast between the start of this basho and the Haru basho in March. This basho is still sputtering to get out of first gear, and it's due in large part to the mediocrity of the Ozeki and Sanyaku ranks. Asashoryu, who is in a class by himself, continues to display impeccable sumo, but he needs help from the supporting cast if this thing is going to stay exciting. Case in point: the biggest story so far (besides Asa's winning streak) is Hokutoriki. Let's get down to the day's action.
Asashoryu remained perfect for the 32nd time easily downing Kakizoe. Kakizoe seemed to bounce off the Yokozuna from the tachi-ai and quickly darted to his left, but Asashoryu kept his opponent in front of him the entire time and slapped him down at the first opportunity. This was not a fabulous display of sumo from the Yokozuna in the visual sense, but he stuck to the basics, which so many rikishi seem to forget, thus affording him the easy win. How about Asashoryu's tachi-ai over the first two days? Usually, the Yokozuna is content to let his opponent make the move from the initial charge, but for the second day in a row, Asashoryu exhibited an offensive tachi-ai giving him complete control over the pace of the bout. Is it too soon to concede the yusho to Asashoryu (2-0) after only two days? I don't think so. And, how foolish does the Musashigawa-beya look right now? Rensho (win streak) stoppers? How does a combined 0-4 for Miyabiyama and Kakizoe taste?
In the Ozeki ranks, Kaio atoned for his horrible day 1 loss defeating Kotomitsuki after a nice recovery from a slight side-step by the Komusubi. Hopefully, Kaio's loss to Hokutoriki yesterday served as a wake up call for this Yokozuna candidate. It's still too early to tell with Kaio (1-1), but I was impressed how he seemed to easily defeat Kotomitsuki (1-1) today after being forced to fight defensively.
Ozeki Musoyama was lackluster today after he let Hokutoriki literally push him around. Kenji said it best in his comments yesterday that a newcomer would have a hard time being able to tell who was the Ozeki in the bout. Musoyama (1-1) was his usual passive self as he let Hokutoriki dictate the bout with an effective right otsuke. It's amazing what a little confidence can do for Hokutoriki. It reminds me of Toki's brief run to the sanyaku last year. Toki didn't have a lot of skill (and still doesn't), but he had an air of confidence about him that helped him to slap around several Ozeki earning a Komusubi berth. Ranked at M1, Hokutoriki (2-0) is only 6 wins away from the sanyaku and he's already got two Ozeki out of the way.
In the most anticipated bout of the day, Ozeki Chiyotaikai and M2 Asasekiryu did not disappoint picking right up where they left off in their bout last basho. Today's bout was much shorter and included no blows to the face, but it was the same frantic shoving match with Asasekiryu desperately trying to grab Chiyo's belt as the Ozeki flailed away with his tsuppari. Seki never did grasp the belt and was pushed out by the Ozeki after a 20 second struggle. Thankfully, Chiyotaikai won today moving forward, but it wasn't easy. These two rikishi seem to be developing a rivalry where the sumo basics are thrown out the door in favor of a free-for-all brawl. Chiyotaikai (2-0) looked good today, but you can expect a few more poor days of sumo in the future. Asasekiryu (0-2) is finding out just how tough it is to post a good record ranked this high up.
Sekiwake Kyokutenho picked up his first win today by using his superior speed and a fist full of hair to defeat Dejima. Ten-ho grabbed Dejima's belt from the tachi-ai with one hand and used the other to pull down at the back of M3's neck. It looked to me that the Sekiwake grabbed a whole lot more hair than he did neck, nevertheless, he spun the much slower Dejima around and around before finally pulling him down. It's an important win for Kyokutenho (1-1) who looks to kachi-koshi from the Sekiwake rank for the first time. As for Dejima (0-2) and the Musashigawa-beya...let's see...a combined 1-9 to start the basho. Way to run your mouth.
Sekiwake Wakanosato slipped up early again this basho failing to finish off M1 Tochinonada after grabbing a solid right uwate from the tachi-ai. Wakanosato actually pressed the action and tried to drive Nada out of the ring, but the M1 held on and parlayed a good defensive effort at ring's edge into a powerful left uwate of his own. With Wakanosato having expended his energy on his first force-out attempt, Nada (1-1) used his size to turn the tables and pick up his first win. Wakanosato (1-1) looks mired in mediocrity.
In the Maegashira ranks, M3 Shimotori (2-0) is off to a fantastic start withstanding Komusubi Miyabiyama's (0-2) initial charge and fighting back with some powerful shoves of his own to earn the push-out victory. Shimotori looks as good as any of the Maegashira rikishi right now. M4 Takamisakari picked up his first win by pulling down Buyuzan. Buyuzan (0-2) sort of lunged into Takamisakri at the tachi-ai with no solid footing allowing the Robocop (1-1) to easily pull him down to the delight of the crowd. Takamisakari's counterpart M4 Tokitsuumi is also off to a solid 2-0 start after out-muscling Iwakiyama (1-1) with a solid moro-zashi grip from the tachi-ai used to set up a scoop throw.
M5 Tamanoshima is off to a good start picking up his second win over upstart M7 Kokkai. Tamanoshima used perfect timing and some solid de-ashi to take advantage of Kokkai's raw sumo. Kokkai actually drove Tama (2-0) back from the tachi-ai with his long-armed thrusts, but the difference was in the footing. Tamanoshima's stance allowed him to withstand the blows, whereas Kokkai's lack of footing and balance left him vulnerable. Kokkai (1-1) needs to learn to take things nice and easy in his offensive attacks. It was nice to see Tamanoshima's counterpart M5 Kotonowaka (1-1) completely outclass M7 Kyokushuzan (0-2) by not worrying about a belt grip and just thrusting the Mongolian back little by little.
Sliding down the ranks, does M13 Takanonami's sumo look sickly or what? Absolutely no effort. Today he let M12 Jumonji (1-1) push him around up until the last few steps where Takanonami (0-2) just gave up and backed up out of the ring on his own. Jumonji charged low and hard, which is usually just asking for one of Takanonami's patented meat-hook-over-the-top belt grips, but the former Ozeki hardly attempted to do anything for the second day in a row. Takanohana's blood must be boiling at the lack of effort shown by his only sekitori. I'd be surprised if Takanonami is still on the banzuke come September.
Rounding out the Makuuchi comments, M16 Hakuho remained perfect in the division by failing to fall for "veteran" M14 Asanowaka's shenanigans. Hakuho focused on sharp thrusts to Asanowaka's (0-2) neck and head area instead of an all out forward attack that only invites a pull-down. And finally, in the Juryo ranks, Hagiwara (1-1) defeated Koto-oshu (1-1) with a solid yori-taoshi effort fueled by good speed and solid de-ashi. Both rikishi hooked up at the belt from the tachi-ai, but Hagiwara refused to allow Koto-oshu to gain solid footing by driving forward with his legs and forcing the Bulgarian to fight defensively. Hagiwara controlled the pace of the bout by constantly keeping his feet moving forward; a lot of Makuuchi rikishi could use a lesson in footwork from this youngster.
It was only four short weeks from the conclusion of the Haru basho to the release of the Natsu basho banzuke, but with a growing number of newcomers giving the sport a boost in popularity, the hon-basho can't come soon enough. Personally, I'm going to be more interested in the Juryo division and lower Makuuchi division this basho than I am the Makuuchi jo'i. Why? Barring an injury, Asashoryu will pick up his third consecutive yusho. We are in Tokyo after all, and the only topic of speculation regarding the Yokozuna is not can he win again, but can he put together another perfect record in doing so? The real point of interest lies in who's going to be the next rikishi to rise up and challenge the Yokozuna, and since I'm convinced such a rikishi doesn't exist from the Maegashira 6 rank on up, I'll be focusing on the lower-ranked sekitori.
Since we're on the topic of Asashoryu, let's start with him. Pre-basho keiko reports have been mentioning a nagging cold bothering the Yokozuna, and he cited this as a reason for an uninspired performance at the Soken keiko where the top sekitori practice in front of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council and other sumo authority figures. To this I say big deal. Has there ever been a basho in recent memory where Asashoryu hasn't been bothered by a cold? It simply doesn't matter. Regardless of his pre-basho keiko results, Asashoryu's mindset will be fine-tuned come day 1, and as I look at the banzuke and who he will end up fighting this tournament, I can't pinpoint a single rikishi who I think will stop his 30 bout win streak.
Reports have revealed the Yokozuna participating in a lot more de-keiko (practicing outside of your own stable) prior to this basho. The reason given is the lack of sekitori coming to Takasago-beya to bump chests with the Yokozuna. Do you think? Why would anyone want to get his ass kicked by taking on Asashoryu bout after bout on his own turf? Takamisakari was actually naive enough to try it for a few basho, but a shoulder injury at the hands of the Yokozuna a few basho back caused him to mend his ways. Asashoryu is leaving his own stable to practice with other rikishi for several reasons. 1. Look at the sekitori in his own stable. Toki? Asanowaka? Sure he has Asasekiryu to practice with, but since he will never face Seki in an actual tournament, it suits the Yokozuna better to practice against actual opponents. Furthermore, he usually takes Seki with him when he participates in de-geiko. 2. He wants to intimidate the other rikishi, and intimidate them he does. Asashoryu's hon-basho performance begins well before day 1. He knows that he is in a league by himself, and he's always ready to drive this point home during pre-basho keiko sessions. His latest victim was Futenoh, a sophomore Makuuchi rikishi who only went 7-8 last basho, but a rikishi who entered the sport last year out of college to considerable hype. Asashoryu executed the tsuriotoshi move against Futenoh in a recent practice session reminding the youngster of his place. And finally, 3. He wants to scout the next generation. During the jungyo tours last month, several reports surfaced about Asashoryu practicing with new Juryo rikishi Koto-oshu and Hagiwara. A Yokozuna usually never gives a Juryo rikishi the time of day unless he's in his own stable, but Asashoryu knows fully well who his future competition will be. Several days ago, Asashoryu received the news at 9 AM that several stables were gathering at the Miyagino-beya for a multi-stable keiko session. He hopped in a taxi and joined the keiko session, which included future up-and-comers Kokkai and Hakuho. Though I did not read any reports of the Yokozuna facing these two, I don't think it was a coincidence that he was so anxious to practice in the same dojo as these two. To sum up the Yokozuna this basho, I honestly don't see how he'll lose to anyone.
Dropping down to the Ozeki, I'll start with Tochiazuma, who looks as if he will not participate in the Natsu basho, which would result in a second make-koshi and demotion from the Ozeki rank. Tochiazuma was dinged up going into the Haru basho in March, and he suffered a fall in his day 3 bout causing his left shoulder to fracture in three places. Keiko reports have indicated that Tochiazuma has only been practicing the last few days, however, that's only been against Makushita rikishi, and I guarantee you that those Makushita rikishi could have easily defeated the Ozeki had they wanted to. Tochiazuma has said himself that he cannot perform any counter attacks nor use his left arm. That eerily sounds like Musashimaru last year in Nagoya, and we all remember what happened when Maru decided to fight then (sorry for reminding you all of that ugly scene). On one hand, I can see where Tochiazuma would want to give it his all and somehow try and capture eight wins, but after a few days of "sparring" with the Makushita rikishi in his own stable, it sounds as if Tochiazuma will make the right decision and withdraw. Yes, this will drop him down to Sekiwake for July, but he can still regain his Ozeki rank with 10 wins in Nagoya. Which is more likely at this point? Eight wins this basho with one arm, or ten wins in Nagoya after two more months of rest? Sit this one out big guy and make a run for it in July.
Tochiazuma's condition raises the debate regarding the abolishment of the kosho system. Opponents say that the kosho system should have remained in place because it's absence will only make rikishi enter a tournament even though they are not healthy enough to do so, thus worsening their condition. This is the dilemma Tochiazuma now faces. Three basho ago, Tochiazuma could have sat this tournament out with no penalty, so is it fair to make an Ozeki lose his special rank due to a serious injury beyond his control? If you're going to have special requirements in order for a rikishi to gain promotion to Ozeki (33 wins over three basho), then I'll listen to the argument that it's not fair to have no safety net in the case of a serious injury. However, it's not as if the rikishi is banned from the rank for life. Someone who deserves to fight as an Ozeki should have no problem re-attaining the rank after he has healed himself. If Tochiazuma cannot consistently string together double-digit wins over three basho (when was the last time he did it?), then he doesn't deserve special consideration to keep his rank. Up until the abolishment of the kosho system, it was so hard for a rikishi to be demoted from Ozeki, so I like the absence of the safety net. Make the Ozeki maintain their ranks and not just earn them once in their career.
Two Ozeki who constantly maintain their ranks are Chiyotaikai and Kaio, both of whom posted 13-2 records in March to qualify themselves as Yokozuna candidates pending their performances in May. It has happened in the past 20 years where a rikishi has been promoted to Yokozuna without even winning a tournament. Onokuni achieved the rank with just 25 wins over two basho (13-2, 12-3 marks). And while a 12-3 record will not get it done for either Kaio or Chiyotaikai this tournament, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council has stipulated that a 14-1 record will probably be good enough. In short, both of these rikishi control their own destiny. Even if Asashoryu is perfect going 15-0, one of these two can still receive the promotion by beating everyone else. I think it would be good for the sport to have one of these two promoted, and I'm hoping for a repeat performance of last basho where both of these guys started out 13-0. There's no reason why they can't do it again. If you look at the division as a whole, Asashoryu is of course top dog; a step behind him is Chiyotaikai and Kaio; and then way behind those three is everyone else.
As for pre-basho keiko reports concerning these two, the word is that they look a bit winded and out of shape. Kitanoumi Rijicho sharply criticized Chiyotaikai and Kaio during the jungyo tours for failing to show up for keiko in front of the local fans for several days. It also sounds as if Kaio's lower back may be bothering him, but this is normal for a rikishi of his age. Just assume that both have some minor nagging injuries here and there, but both will be ready by day 1. I expect at least 12 wins from both of these rikishi in May.
Rounding out the Ozeki ranks is Musoyama. I've not read any reports regarding keiko at the Musashigawa-beya. I'm just going to assume that Musoyama will be his good 'ol self meaning eight losses is not out of the question. God forbid Musoyama going into July without kadoban status.
Dropping down to the sanyaku, nobody really stands out as the "one to watch." I don't see any of these rikishi impacting this basho although three of the four have been able to impact a basho in the past. Sekiwake Wakanosato has seemed to have lost something the last few basho. Instead of his usual double-digit performances, he's lately been struggling to even win eight. He his really mired in mediocrity right now, which only separates him further back from the big three. Sekiwake Kyokutenho finds himself at this rank for the third time in his career. His previous two outings ranked this high were disastrous, so lets just hope he forgets where he's ranked and comes out with another 10-5 mark. He did this last basho fighting the exact same rikishi he'll fight in May; the only difference being he was ranked M2 instead of Sekiwake. Perhaps it's something he needs to work out in his head.
Miyabiyama finds himself ranked at Komusubi for May, which is fitting for the fine performance he exhibited in March. This former Ozeki seems to lack the "bullying" attitude that helped propel him up to Ozeki after only a year in the division, but he's still a rikishi to reckon with. He may give Asashoryu as much trouble as anyone this basho, and eight wins is definitely doable. Fellow Komusubi Kotomitsuki finds himself hanging onto a sanyaku rank despite a dismal performance in March as a Sekiwake. I have no idea what to say about this guy. Some basho he shows up and looks unbeatable; but other times he shows up and stinks.
M1 Tochinonada is exactly where he should be on the banzuke. He is blessed with a great sumo body and he supplements that with good yotsu-zumo skills. A lack of speed is what keeps him from truly being one of the best, but I think he has as good of shot at ending Asashoryu's winning streak as any other rikishi. M1 counterpart Hokutoriki finds himself ranked at the top of the Maegashira yet again. Normally, I would say that he is overmatched this high up, but with Tochiazuma probably out, Musoyama his usual self, and an underachieving sanyaku, I think Hokutoriki can actually win eight this basho although I expect him to come up just short at seven wins.
M2 will be an exciting rank to watch with Asasekiryu in the East and Kakizoe in the West. Asasekiryu is of course coming off a 13-2 performance in March, which has vaulted him to his highest ever position in the ranks. Seki is still a mystery of sorts to me. Regardless of where he's ranked on the banzuke, he has hot and cold basho. He's been ranked as high as M4 twice. Once he managed a 7-8 record, but the next time around he only won 3 bouts. Then down at M12 for two consecutive basho, he went 7-8 the first time and followed that with his spectacular 13-2 run. There's still some inconsistency in his sumo, so it's too early to say that he has arrived, but how can anyone forget that bout with Chiyotaikai last basho? That effort alone makes me believe that Asasekiryu has a legitimate run at the sanyaku in him; however, I still think he struggles this basho barely pulling out eight wins. Kakizoe is fresh off a stint at Komusubi where he only managed six wins. I think Kakizoe is going to join that illustrious group who can't seem to kachi-koshi in the sanyaku, but have no problem doing so in the upper-Maegashira. I think Kakizoe can win nine this basho.
At M3 we have two former sanyaku rikishi in Shimotori and Dejima. I expect Shimotori to have a good basho and make another push for the sanyaku. Dejima? He's like Kotomitsuki: all the potential in the world when he shows up, but you just don't know how he's going to perform. When Dejima is on, he can beat Asashoryu straight up without the win being considered an upset, but when he's off he gets pushed around by the likes of Tochisakae. We'll have to wait and see with him.
At M4 we have Tokitsuumi, who is at the perfect rank for his size and ability; he should hover around the eight-win mark. His counterpart is Takamisakari who still has a big question mark over his head. This will be a telling basho for Sakari because he's lost that luster in his sumo that used to be overshadowed by his quirky antics outside of the ring. Ranked at M4, Sakari will probably be exempt from fighting every sanyaku and higher rikishi, which could help him to pad his record and regain his confidence.
At M5 we have two former sanyaku rikishi in the relative newcomer Tamanoshima and the grizzly veteran, Kotonowaka. Tamanoshima has made little noise since his rise to the sanyaku, so let's focus on Kotonowaka, who finds himself near the top of Maegashira after a severe knee injury. I think Kotonowaka easily wins eight this basho. In looking at the entire Maegashira ranks, I'd say Kotonowaka is one of the top three rikishi. Yes, he's old, but his ideal sumo body and ippun style make him a pain in the ass for anyone. I hope the Association pairs him with Asashoryu this basho; Kotonowaka beat him twice last year.
At M6 is Iwakiyama, who like Tamanoshima, has faded after his sanyaku stint. His counterpart Buyuzan will likely struggle this high up in the ranks. Eight wins for him would be a great accomplishment.
At M7 is Kokkai and Kyokushuzan. Kyokushuzan's gimmicks should work just fine here in the mid-Maegashira, so expect nothing less than eight wins and a ride back to the top of the rank. Kokkai will be fighting in his third basho in the Makuuchi division, and I think most of us are waiting for him to have that break out basho. I skimmed a keiko report that mentioned Kokkai's lower back bothering him, but the report said his performance was still solid. I don't know that Kokkai has yet to be completely healthy this year. In December, he sprained his knee severely and ended up fighting with a leg bandage that would put Dejima to shame, but he still had an excellent Makuuchi debut. A losing streak in week two in March kind of let the air out of his balloon, but I think Kokkai just needs a little time. His style is such that mild lower back pain should not hinder him too much. I expect him to kachi-koshi again this basho as he should fight mostly rikishi who he's seen before.
Former Sekiwake Tosanoumi drops down to M9 after two horrible basho in a row. Is this the end for Mr. Blue Collar? I sure hope not. He needs to kachi-koshi this basho or he may as well join Takanonami on that bus ride into the sunset. Makuuchi Sophomore Harunoyama comes in at M10 after a fine 9-6 debut in the division in March. Harunoyama's sheer size should help him stick around the division for awhile, but I need to see more of him. His counterpart at M10 is Toki, who has been floundering of late. Lately, Toki's sumo has been completely defensive-minded, and when your bread and butter is the pull down, you don't want to be the one retreating. Toki may have lost his luster.
Keep an eye on Aminishiki at M11, who should win in double digits. The cellar dwellers of the division can't compete with his sensational technique. Has anybody noticed that former Ozeki Takanonami has slipped to M13? Didn't think so.
It's do or die for M15 Futenoh. Usually, a rikishi doesn't get a second chance after suffering a make-koshi in his Makuuchi debut, but a late charge in March kept Futenoh from slipping back down to Juryo as he salvaged a 7-8 record. I still think this relative newcomer to professional sumo has a future in him, but he sure isn't making the kind of impact that other college-grads do like Kakizoe.
M16 is a compelling rank with Makuuchi newcomer Hakuho and former Sekiwake Takanowaka. Let's get Takanowaka out of the way first, so we can get to the goodies. I don't recall anyone falling as far and as fast as Takanowaka has from the Sekiwake ranks. A year ago March he was a Sekiwake, and now he is floundering in Juryo occasionally showing up in the Makuuchi division. I simply haven't seen enough of his sumo in the last year to make a judgment, but perhaps he simply hasn't recovered from that knee injury that caused him to drop so far. His counterpart, Hakuho, has stormed onto the scene, not so much because of his Juryo yusho in March, but because of his humiliating Asashoryu during a keiko session in April.
First, his performance in March. I was able to see all of his bouts, and this guy brings the goods. He's tall like Kyokutenho (and Mongolian like Kyokutenho), but he appears to have a little bit more meat on his bones. His technique is also solid as nails. He used seven different techniques in his twelve wins to capture the Juryo yusho that included six throws, two force outs, and four wins by pushing technique. In other words, this guy is diverse. I am so excited to watch him in the Makuuchi division, but forget about the aforementioned praise of his sumo; let's focus on a bout he had with Asashoryu during some Jungyo keiko. The two rikishi hooked up in the ring, and Hakuho was able to get deep inside of the Yokozuna grabbing his belt. Instead of trying to force the Yokozuna out, he lifted him off of his feet and attempted the tsuri-otoshi move that we see Asashoryu execute so much. Asa was able to withstand the attempt, but after his feet touched the ground, Hakuho lifted him clear off of his feet again and walked him to the edge of the ring where he dumped him out. Talk about balls of stone! Anyone who can turn the tables on Asashoryu, especially when fighting as a Juryo rikishi, will fast become my favorite rikishi. It also doesn't hurt that he's fighting out of my favorite stable, the Miyagino-beya. To sum up Hakuho's sumo from what I've seen, he favors the quick tsuppari from the tachi-ai and uses that to gauge his opponent's attack. Hakuho shows excellent patience, and has a knack for gaining a favorable belt position. He did make some mistakes last March that cost him some losses, but one thing that really stood out is the way he completely finished off the rikishi who were struggling. I can't wait.
Though it will be difficult to see their bouts live for most of us, keep your eyes on Juryo rikishi Koto-oshu and Hagiwara. These two will inevitably command the spotlight in the upper division in the next year or two. The future is looking bright for sumo.
As for my predictions, of course I think Asashoryu is going to take the yusho, so instead of mentioning that, I'll take a guess on who will stop his winning streak this basho:
Beats Asa for the Shukunsho: Kotonowaka