Post-basho Report | Pre-basho
There's no question that the Natsu basho was the best tournament we've had in just over a year, but it could have been so much better had Asashoryu not thrown in the towel as early as day 13. The breaking point was just after Hakuho defeated Kotomitsuki on said day 13. Already down by two losses at that point, Asashoryu had to have the Sekiwake rise up and upset the Yokozuna-to-be, but it wouldn't happen. After that bout, NHK focused at length on Asashoryu sitting at ringside, and to me, for the first time that I can remember the Yokozuna looked beaten down. I mean, moments later he suffered a loss to Kaio of all rikishi, so you know something wasn't right, and I don't buy that he was injured physically. I think for the first time since being crowned Yokozuna, Asashoryu felt as if he could no longer dominate the entire field at will.
This basho marks the end of Act I in Asashoryu's career and what an act it has been. He has won an incredible 20 of the last 28 basho that included a record-setting 7 bout yusho streak, he became the first rikishi to win every basho in a calendar year, and he reached 20 yusho faster than any other rikishi in history...by a long shot. I am by no means writing the Yokozuna off, and his record-setting tear through the sport could continue, but Asashoryu is going to have to regroup and bounce back from a situation he has never been in in his storied career.
That's thanks to Hakuho for the most part, but this isn't just about Hakuho's promotion to Yokozuna. Asashoryu has suffered too many uncharacteristic losses the last two basho, and if he doesn't completely rededicate himself to his craft, his slide will continue. I have no idea what Act II of Asashoryu's career will bring, but the remaining 13 yusho are going to be harder to come by than the first twenty...twice as hard. Still, the Yokozuna can average just three yusho per year and have the record out right just after he turns 30, so the drama will be there for the next few years.
But let's focus our attention now on the yusho rikishi, newly-crowned Yokozuna Hakuho. What can I really say that we didn't say all along in our daily comments? I knew back in January that this run was coming; I just didn't know it would come quite this soon, but major props to Hakuho for his fierce concentration this basho on his sumo and nothing else. As the basho progressed, you could just see it in his sumo and read it in the press that Hakuho was not thinking about the yusho nor his pending promotion. He figured out what it takes mentally to make it to the top, and now that he's there, he's going to be a bitch to handle for years to come.
Hakuho's sumo was nearly flawless throughout the fortnight. In fact, his only real mistake was that early pull down attempt against Toyonoshima on day 9. Other than that, he was untouchable beginning at the tachi-ai where the other rikishi can no longer beat him. From the tachi-ai, Hakuho has developed a tsuppari attack that I liken to a set-up pitcher in baseball. He usually won't win the game, but he does his job so the closer can come in and seal the victory. Hakuho's shoves keep his opponents at bay and scrapping just enough that the 22 year old has learned how to pick his spots and use his speed to pounce on his opponents and secure a smothering position that the other rikishi can't overcome.
But beyond Hakuho's physical prowess, the dude has become strong mentally, and this is what pushed him over the top. Perhaps marriage at this young age and the responsibility of a newborn baby settled him down to the point where his focus became only two things: family and sumo. Whatever the case, it's working. And finally, I like Hakuho's decision to choose the Shiranuigata style for his Yokozuna dohyo-iri. If you've ever lived in Japan, you know how superstitious they can be, and a majority of Yokozuna have avoided that style like the plague because it carries with it a so-called jinx leading to a short career for the Yokozuna. I love that Hakuho is not afraid to adopt the shunned style because in his mind. I think it's a sign that he is dead-set on creating is own legacy and putting to rest the stupid curse of the shiranuigata.
I focused on Asashoryu in my opening but didn't comment on his sumo. Asashoryu's sumo seemed uninspired, but where he really blew it was at the tachi-ai. The first red flag came on day 2 against Homasho when the Yokozuna decided to try a roundhouse left fore-arm into his opponents face at the tachi-ai. The move had no effect and it left Asashoryu's feet aligned putting him in a very vulnerable position. Homasho doesn't have the experience at this point to take advantage of that, but it was the first red flag in Asashoryu's sumo that indicated he was not dialed in this basho. Against Aminishiki on day 10, his lackadaisical tachi-ai finally caught up with him, and then on day 12 against Chiyotaikai, he was beaten back as quickly as we've ever seen. Couple that with Hakuho's dominating sumo throughout, and Asashoryu was no longer number one this basho...and he knew it. As I said earlier, the Yokozuna is at a crossroads now in his career, and we'll just have to wait to see how he responds to the last couple of basho. Remember when the yaocho allegations first came out and the Yokozuna mentioned that he gets easily rattled when he's criticized or heckled? I think he's been rattled bigtime by the fact that he hasn't been able to control the last two basho, both times falling behind by as much as two losses...something that was unprecedented until now. Let's hope for a rededicated Yokozuna in Nagoya because we haven't seen one in two basho.
Let's hop back down to the Ozeki ranks and focus on Kotooshu. I'm not going to pile on the Ozeki anymore than I did in my daily comments. It seems that I always draw the day when Kotooshu brings out the bad sumo, so you know my feelings on that. But you look at his wins and only three came against kachi-koshi rikishi: Tokitenku, Chiyotaikai, and Asashoryu. The win over Asashoryu deserves an asterisk (despite Kotooshu die-hards spinning it in their own minds otherwise), and I complain about Kotooshu folding when the going gets tough, but how about Chiyotaikai? He may even be worse. What I'm trying to say is I don't see a whole lot of quality wins for the Bulgarian. For Kotooshu, it starts in his mind. You could argue that he has a better physical presence than Hakuho, but he just isn't capitalizing on it. I don't see anything new on the horizon to inspire him to change, so expect the same old in the future.
Ozeki Kaio had a good basho for his standards but definitely not great. That win over Asashoryu deserves an asterisk, and that business he pulled on senshuraku against Kotooshu was uncalled for. So let's examine the rest of his wins, and we see he has only one win over a kachi-koshi rikishi in Tokitenku. A good barometer for Kaio is the Sekiwake...two quality rikishi who had great basho, and two guys that smoked the Ozeki. Kaio continues to be a lame-duck Ozeki who is currently sticking around because the upper-Maegashira ranks (though filled with quality guys) just sucks right now. Kaio has stated before that his goal is to make it to Haru 2008, a feat that would give him 20 years as an active rikishi. He'll probably do it, but his impact on sumo is gone with the wind.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai finished with the same record as Kaio, but he had a much better basho. Sure, he was exposed by a couple of the scrubs this basho in Toyonoshima and Homasho, but his win over Asashoryu was legit and he kicked Ama's ass as usual. Still, you get down to the final days of the bahso when the yusho is on the line and the going gets tougher, and Chiyotaikai folded as usual with an oft-seen three day losing streak. Unlike Kaio, Chiyotaikai did impact this basho with his win over Asashoryu, so give the Ozeki his props for a good 10-5 showing.
In the Sekiwake ranks, Kotomitsuki had that breakout basho that we see from him about once every 2 years finishing 12-3. Couple that with his 10 wins in March, and he should be on the radar for possible Ozeki promotion pending his results in Nagoya. I guess he needs 11 wins in July, but as I stated earlier, I'm rooting against him and here's why:
-- Asashoryu lost 5 of his last six bouts. That one win came against Kotomitsuki where the Sekiwake got his ass handed to him. That wasn't Ozeki stuff. Asa lost to all four Ozeki this basho, so why couldn't Kotomitsuki put up a fight?
-- Wins against kachi-koshi rikishi this basho? Four, but really three if you consider Aminishiki lost by koshikudake, one of those dubious techniques were your opponent beats himself.
-- Kotomitsuki's records are inflated as he doesn't fight Kotooshu nor Kotoshogiku and in their place gets two lower guys ranked on the banzuke
Kotomitsuki can't control that last statement, but my point is his sumo of late hasn't been anything spectacular. Last year Miyabiyama posted 34 wins over three basho twice, yet he was denied. Kotomitsuki hasn't even come close to displaying the caliber of sumo Miyabiyama did last year. This dude is not Ozeki material, and the last thing we need is another lame duck Ozeki who CAN'T impact a basho. If I were the Association, I would make him get 12 wins at least in July.
Sekiwake Ama had a very quiet yet good basho finishing 8-7. I thought his tachi-ai henka against Kotooshu was lame, but it can be chalked up to vigilante justice. Oshu has gotta taste the medicine he dishes out to others twice a basho. Ama's best win was against Asasekiryu on senshuraku. It just really emphasized how much tougher the top of the banzuke is, so props to Ama for managing a kachi-koshi. I'm not so sure he can do it in July because the upper Maegashira/Komusubi sucked as bad as they ever have this basho.
Speaking of the Komusubi, Toyonoshima gets a pass this basho. He came so close against so many quality opponents, but with that bad leg, he just couldn't close the deal. Heal fast my man and get back up here where you belong. He's one of my favorite rikishi at the moment. The highlight of his four wins was of course his assassination of Chiyotaikai.
Komusubi Kotoshogiku blew it again. How does a Komusubi exempt from fighting one Ozeki and one Sekiwake start out 3-3 and then make-koshi? He loses to rikishi who he should beat a majority of the time. Kokkai? Takekaze? And then that bout on senshuraku against Dejima. Kotoshogiku was clearly intimidated. Dude, I don't care how hot Dejima was, he was ranked at M10. Losing to him his fine, but changing up your style to something weak because you don't have confidence in yourself is a trait best left to your stablemates. The Geeku has disappointed big time for two basho in a row. Back to the drawing board.
Dropping down to the Maegashira ranks, Homasho had a disappointing basho. His 1-6 start was expected considering his rank, but after a fantastic 4-0 stretch from day 8 to day 11 that included scalps of Chiyotaikai and Ama, Homasho couldn't muster a win the rest of the way against opponents ranked lower than him. If you want to grace the sanyaku, you gotta beat the guys below you. The best thing to take from this is experience. Homasho will be just fine.
Counterpart Tokitenku did kachi-koshi, but 6 of his eight wins were by pull downs. And it gets worse. Don't think I haven't forgotten about his awful tachi-ai henka against Ama resulting in an un-deserved uwate-dashi-nage win. His big win over Kotomitsuki was legit, but I just had the image of a guy retreating and resorting to pull sumo in order to secure his eight. I wasn't impressed at all, in fact, Tokitenku's middle name was "Chump" this basho.
M2 Kokkai going 3-12 that included a default win over Kakizoe? Ouch. Paging Oitekaze-oyakta: it's called coaching. Kokkai looked awful in nearly every bout seemingly unable to couple a good tachi-ai with good sumo. This was Lindsay Lohan ugly. Counterpart Tamanoshima actually did well to go 6-9 considering his body is in the shape of an American-made car after 6 years. His highlight of course was the win over Kotooshu on day 4.
M3 Kakizoe was retirement bad this basho. After an 0-11 start, you have no choice but to withdraw as a former Komusubi. The best anyone could come up with was that Kakizoe had his knee scoped in mid-April. Not good enough. You'll remember that this guy is recently married and his missus is a former rikishi herself who rides Kakizoe's ass when he does bad sumo. I would love to a be the fly on the wall in the Kakizoe household in between basho. Any guess on who's wearing the pants?
Counterpart Kisenosato is falling to pieces this year. 6-9 with nary a win coming against a kachi-koshi rikishi? Kisenosato's gotta get his head screwed back on straight because sumo needs him. Japan needs him. Not a good time for the so-called Japanese hopes (Kotoshogiku, Kisenosato, Homasho, Tochiohzan) all sucking this basho.
M4 Aminishiki was the single highlight this basho of the rikishi ranked M1 thru M6. This guy can get wily at times and resort to cheap tachi-ai for the cheap wins, but you've gotta hand it to him this basho. All losses except one were to kachi-koshi rikishi, and then that win over Asashoryu on day 10 speaks for itself. You cannot afford to overlook Aminishiki, and let's hope he's completely healthy form the Komusubi rank in July.
Counterpart Tochiohzan struggled mightily this basho, and that 6-9 finish looks better than it actually was. The youngster looked intimidated to me this whole basho, but fighting among the jo'i as a 20 year-old will do that to you. Tochiohzan knew what his problem was (bad footwork), so look for him to hit the keiko ring hard come July and be right back up among the jo'i where he belongs. His experience this basho will be invaluable.
How about M5 Takekaze this basho going 8-7 that included four wins over kachi-koshi rikishi including a fantastic performance against Kotooshu for a win, and a domination of upstart Ryuo on senshuraku. This was great stuff from Takekaze throughout, and I've really enjoyed his confident sumo these last few basho. You could just see it this tourney against Kotooshu. Last basho, Takekaze nearly had him, so this basho he made sure he finished off the deal against the Ozeki. Too bad he couldn't wipe any of that confidence off on Kotooshu, but if that were really possible, it wouldn't be fair to the looks of Roho's opponents.
Let's move down to the mid-Maegashira ranks...a section of the banzuke that really provided some excitement this basho where the jo'i could not. M7 Takamisakari looked great this basho taking out such stalwarts as Miyabiyama, Aminishiki, and Futenoh...oh yeah, and Hokutoriki on senshuraku! The Cop looked a step faster to me this basho. It seemed as if his tachi-ai has improved and he is actually on the offensive from the start. If Takamisakari keeps this kind of sumo up, he will reach Komusubi again...something I never thought possible. Counterpart Wakanosato did finish 10-5, but that was thanks to a 6-0 finish against mostly scrub competition. For those of you who remember his perennial Sekiwake days, what were his signature moves? Sukuinage, shitate-nage, and yorikiri from the moro-zashi position. Here's a list of his winning techniques this basho: oshi-dashi (1), tsuki-otoshi (2), hataki-komi (4), okuri-dashi (2), and uwate-nage (1). See the difference? He will be burned at the stake with that kind of sumo next basho among the jo'i.
M12 Asasekiryu was good finishing 12-3, but who really cares? A former Komusubi has gotta do that higher on the banzuke. Asasekiryu's sumo was impressive, however, with four of his wins coming against opponents who scored double-digit wins themselves. Add to that wins over three 9-6 rikishi in Aminishiki, Miyabiyama, and Takamisakari, and Asasekiryu was tops of the junior varsity in my opinion. The key of course was getting the uwate early and often. Problem is...are we going to see this kind of sumo next basho where Sexy may even be ranked at Komusubi? We'll talk then.
Continuing on, I thought M9 Roho had a good basho. After his 0-2 start, we were thinking what the hell is this? But you look at his five losses, and four of those are to double-digit winners and the other was to Miyabiyama. So on one hand he was good, but on the other hand, he couldn't beat Miyabiyama, Wakanosato, Futenoh, Ryuo, and Asasekiryu. Those are all quality rikishi, but Roho has more potential than any of those five. Therein lies the problem. Roho is not giving it his full effort. I don't know what's happening in the Otake-beya keiko ring, but I know it ain't sumo basics. Next basho with Roho among the jo'i will tell us exactly where this guy stands.
Counterpart Miyabiyama did finish an impressive 9-6, but the lumbering tsuppari attack was completely non-existent. Hopefully that was ring rust on account of the Sheriff withdrawing last basho after suffering a hamstring injury because you look at ranks Komusubi down through the rest of the banzuke and you'd be hard pressed to find me a better rikishi than Miyabiyama. Let's hope he has another run in him.
M10 Dejima was fantastic this basho finishing 12-3, but once again, you have a former Ozeki and a former yusho winner here, so we've got to see this same kind of performance higher up the ranks. Funny thing is it's possible. Remember in January when Dejima pasted Asashoryu and Hakuho in the span of three days? If Dejima can continue to implement the tachi-ai he used this basho, and if his opponents will forget to henka him as they did in May, then this dude can make some noise higher up. Expect him to be promoted to no lower than the M2 ranks for July.
Let's move down to M12 and talk about Makuuchi rookie Satoyama. This guy was so overwhelmed the first week that I can't believe he finished 7-8. Let's break his basho down, though, and that finish is more understandable. Four of his first five opponents all won in double-digits. The lone win was against Otsukasa, so that's really par for the course. His 6-2 finish showed me something especially after that demoralizing start. His two losses down the stretch were to Wakanosato, a veteran if there ever was one, and Tochinohana, a large guy that was just too much for Satoyama to handle. One thing that really stood out to me this basho was Satoyama's inability to even come close against the big dudes, and I'm not talking about guys with game, rather guys with lotsa girth...Tochinonada, Kasugao, Roho, Tochinohana, Rosie O'Donnell, etc. Satoyama has to figure out a way to attack these large dudes or he will always struggle in this division. Let's see what he can do in July when he'll have a much weaker banzuke with the likes of Futenoh, Roho, Miyabiyama, and Dejima higher up in the ranks.
I thought M13 Futenoh's performance really resembled Chiyotaikai this basho. Of course, the styles are completely different, but against the weak dudes (how's Satoyama, Hochiyama, Ushiomaru, Kasuganishiki, Iwakiyama, and Tochinohana for you first six opponents?) Futenoh just cleaned up. Against the tougher guys like Roho, Miyabiyama, Dejima, Takamisakari, Asasekiryu, and Ryuo he only went 2-4. Futenoh is not back. He just used his talent to beat the rikishi he should have coupled with some great yori-kiri wins over Roho and Dejima. Expect a similar performance in July as he should keep himself just out of the jo'i and be surrounded by all the M1-M5 this basho.
Let's conclude with our other Makuuchi rookie, M14 Ryuo. I have every reason to root for this guy, but I was shocked he managed 10 wins in the division. On top of that, he beat guys like Roho, Futenoh, and Takamisakari. Ryuo's style is as ugly as it gets (okay, there's also Otsukasa) as he abandons his tsuppari attack at the first sign of trouble and commits himself on the pull/slap down. The angel in me has hope because it worked pretty well this basho, but the devil in me says I just don't see how he can fool these guys for very long. The one thing Ryuo does have working for him is fighting spirit. That and he comes from the same stable as Hakuho, so he will learn how to attack the larger, yotsu-zumo guys every basho in the keiko ring. Confidence alone can work wonders for these rikishi, and I think Ryuo's confidence has to be soaring right now. Hakuho should take him under his wing as well unlike the way Asashoryu has spurned his fellow Mongolian stablemate, Asasekiryu. Hey, you all know my history with this guy, and I'll ride the bandwagon for as long as I can.
And finally, while I'm on the subject of the Miyagino boys, let's hear it for Kumagatani-oyakata. If you're new to sumo, Kumagatani-oyakata took over the floundering Miyagino-beya nearly two decades ago when the then stable master died with no one to succeed him. Borrowing the Miyagino-oyakata name, Kumagatani slowly built a stable up that produced a Juryo guy in the mid-nineties named Wakahayato. Later on in the nineties, he produced Kobo, a current Juryo guy who has spent several years in the Makuuchi division. You look at Kobo and his lack of size and you wonder how in the hell he can stick around, but chalk it up to Kumagatani. Then, in the early nineties, Kumagatani looked West to Mongolia, first bringing in Ryuo and then Hakuho. You know the rest of the story. A guy who never rose higher than M13 has now produced a Yokozuna and another potential exciting Makuuchi guy in Ryuo. Let me be the first to say it couldn't have happened to a better guy. There was a day when I had connections in Fukuoka and the means to visit any stable I wanted mingling with the rikishi and the oyakata, and from everyone that I've ever met and observed, Kumagatani-oyakata is thee man. He's such a humble guy--a trait you just don't find among the oyakata--who deserves everything he has gotten unlike that wife-beating jackass who currently holds the Miyagino name and is gravy-training off of Kumagatani's success. Everyone close to the sport, however, knows that the reason the Miyagino-beya is thriving today is because of Kumagatani. God bless ya my man and congratulations on raising a Yokozuna!
That's it for this basho. As is usually the case, I'll be in Japan for the Nagoya basho and will probably even be able to make it to Nagoya for a day or two of the tournament, so if there are any talkers in Nagoya who know where the stables are and are up for some loiterin' let me know cuz I know nothing about the city other than you have some of the hottest geisha around.
Talk about major distractions leading up to the basho. We've had Tochiazuma's retirement, Kyokutenho's gaffe behind the wheel, and accusations of rough keiko from the Khan dominating headlines, which means the real keiko reports that we rely on to get a good feel on what's up with everyone else just aren't there. So why don't we start with the aforementioned headlines? First, Tochiazuma. The dude was a great Ozeki up until a few years ago. And, yeah, I know he took the yusho 9 basho ago, but there were too many kyujo before and after that to put Tochiazuma anywhere near his prime then. If Asashoryu had arrived in a different era, Tochiazuma would have become a Yokozuna...along with Kaio and Chiyotaikai. That trio would have collaborated to ensure it. But such is life where timing and stable affiliation are critical in terms of promotion unless you've got what it takes to reach dai-Yokozuna status. My favorite Tochiazuma moment came in the 2002 Hatsu basho when the new Ozeki took on then Sekiwake Asashoryu, who was a bruiser back then with a vicious tsuppari attack. Asashoryu set the pace of the bout by attacking Tochiazuma's face with relentless tsuppari. The Ozeki countered with punches of his own in what mirrored a spectacular prize fight. After being forced to stop the bout because of Tochiazuma's bleeding from his nose, the bulldog finally worked his way on the inside of Asashoryu and forced him out setting up his first career yusho. There were some solid moments in Tochiazuma's career, but it's no doubt time to go. Time to get some young blood higher up in the ranks by clearing these Ozeki out.
Next up is Kyokutenho's car accident. Stupid is as stupid does, and Tenho's stupidity earns him a trip back down to Juryo, a division where he will not dominate. Sure, we'll likely see him in Makuuchi again, but he's going to be surprised by the younger, quicker rikishi in the Junior Varsity. And memo to Oshima-oyakata, Kyokutenho's stablemaster. Perhaps if you spent as much time yapping at your rikishi who are masters at playing the "stick in Makuuchi and earn the paycheck" game as you do complaining about rough keiko by Hakuho or lazy Ozeki at exhibition tourney practice sessions, you just might be able to produce an exciting rikishi.
Which leads me to the rough keiko by Asashoryu and Hakuho. I'm of the opinion that Asashoryu probably overdid things a bit when practicing against Toyonoshima, but I think it has gotten way overblown. Problem is we're only hearing one side of the story...that of the Japanese press. Asashoryu is a bully no doubt, but we're talking about a martial art for hellsakes where it's perfectly legal to slap your opponent in the melon, pick him up and slam him to the dirt, and shove him clear off a dirt mound into the spectators sitting 2/3 of a meter below. Asashoryu and Hakuho are not taking rough keiko to new heights. They had to learn it from someone. Sumo is a rough sport where hazing and bullying are the norm, and while I don't condone unnecessary actions--especially in the keiko ring--that lead to injury, this has become too overblown. And another thing, is it too much to ask the Japanese press to stop making a big deal about the rikishi stirring things up being foreigners? What do you expect? They're the best you've got right now. Back while I was still popping zits and trying to grow a blonde pube mustache in junior high school, a Japanese Yokozuna named Futahaguro was quite the bully getting thrown out of the sport altogether after slugging the kami-san (the stable master's wife) during a rampage. Futahaguro was famous for his bullying ways, especially towards the younger rikishi causing them to flee the stable in terror. Then you have a guy named Wajima, a great Yokozuna with double-digit yusho, who was fine during his career, but who was booted from the Association after accruing gambling debts that he eventually tried to pay off by taking out a loan using his oyakata stock--something strictly forbidden in sumo. The rikishi kicking ass are the ones most scrutinized, so when they have foreign blood running through their veins, the press will blow it out of larger proportion than necessary. The way Asashoryu handles his opponents reminds me of Chiyonofuji. Same style...same roughness...same mindset of humiliating your opponent. Once again, I don't condone extra curricular activity outside of the rope, especially when it leads to injury, but the Japanese press needs to chill out just a bit. How about some keiko reports fellas?
So, with not much to work from, I may as well just copy and paste things I've said in the past. Let's start with Yokozuna Asashoryu, who's been hard to gauge prior to this basho. The Yokozuna has been solid, but he isn't exactly picking the strongest of opponents. Asashoryu was also having knee problems during the exhibition season, so I'm not sure how sharp he's gonna be. It doesn't really matter, but I'm quite sure he's not 15-0 sharp. There's just been too many distractions for him to enter the basho on a mission in my opinion. I say he finishes 13-2.
So does Asashoryu yusho? It's so hard to say because I don't think Asashoryu and Hakuho view each other as rivals; rather, I sense some teamwork going on between them. Is it me, or has it seemed that we haven't seen a really good straight up match between these two for a year now? Asashoryu is saying the right things like, "I'm going to be the devil once we step into the ring," but I haven't seen that fired up Yokozuna when he's faced Hakuho in a long time. My gut feeling says he wants Hakuho to become Yokozuna, and so he will consider letting up ever so slightly if it comes to that. I don't want that to be true. I'd love an Akebono-Takanohana sort of rivalry to brew here where we are treated to nothing but epic matches every basho, but I just haven't seen a precedent of that from the two Khan. As much as I hate to say it, I'm predicting another strange finish to this basho with Asashoryu and Hakuho both ending up with three losses between them.
As for Hakuho's sumo, I expect it to be solid once again. I suspected another run from the Ozeki back in January, and he didn't disappoint in March. I love how the Ozeki has added that tsuppari attack to the early part of his bouts. I think he comes out more polished and ready to take the leap to Yokozuna. As I mentioned, I expect a 13-2 performance or thereabouts, but I'll give the yusho to Asashoryu. As much as me--and Asashoryu in my opinion--would love to see Hakuho secure promotion, I don't think Asa wants to ditch two consecutive yusho being so close to catching and surpassing Takanohana and Kitanoumi.
I read one brief keiko report regarding Ozeki Kotooshu that had him doing well in a visit to Roho's stable, but with Roho on the steep decline, it's hard to read anything from it. Roho is far from the younger, quicker, hungrier rikishi near the top of the ranks, so I think Kotooshu still underachieves. And yes, 10-5 is underachieving for Kotooshu. This guy should be near 11 and 12 wins every basho.
Ozeki Chiyotaikai and Ozeki Kaio can be lumped in the same category. Great Ozeki...Yokozuna if the timing or stable had been right...but too far over the hill to have any sort of impact on a basho. During the exhibition season, Chiyotaikai was ailing to the point that he couldn't even perform morning keiko, so that doesn't bode well for the pup. Kaio's lower back has seemed just fine in recent months, but he hasn't lost just half a step, he's lost a stride. 15 wins between the two. And remember, Chiyotaikai is tied with Takanohana I for most basho ranked at Ozeki (50). Another make-koshi sends him down to Sekiwake, but he'll retire before he fights alongside of Kotomitsuki. What are you rooting for?
Speaking of Kotomitsuki, you'd have to rank him now among the top four rikishi in the sport behind Asa, Hakuho, and Kotooshu. And as great as that may sound at first glance, what it really explains is just how wide the gap between the two Mongolians and everyone else has grown. Pencil in Mitsuki for his usual 9 wins.
Counterpart Ama may find himself in a different situation this basho ranked at Sekiwake. The competition won't change, but the order in which he fights them probably will. The Komusubi and upper Maegashira rikishi get slaughtered in that first week as they must face all the high-ranking rikishi, but the Sekiwake usually don't have it tough until week two. Thus, it's imperative that Ama dominates those ranked beneath him early on. With the Mongolian having outperformed Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku of late, and with his nemesis Tochiazuma gone, I say he'll win 8 and keep his prestigious rank.
In the Komusubi ranks, Toyonoshima's injury is a huge disappointment. Of all the rikishi last basho, I enjoyed watching Toyonoshima the most and was elated when he was promoted to Komusubi for Natsu. I read a headline this morning where Toyonoshima said he will be rearing to go come day 1. I like the attitude, but I think the lack of keiko and the thoughts in the back of his mind that his ankle could go at any time will hamper him from a good basho. Sadly, 5 wins, but I'm looking forward to this guy for the years to come.
Kotoshogiku does not deserve his Komusubi ranking this basho. He was allowed to fall ever so gently last basho after his horrific start when the Association gave him softies towards the end instead of opponents a Sekiwake should never be allowed to avoid. It was a disgrace, especially when you had Homasho waiting in the wings. Watch for the Geeku to shine, however. He seems to be a trademark three good basho one bad basho guy. He's due. I'll give him 9 wins.
M1 Homasho is probably my favorite rikishi on the banzuke right now. There isn't anything not to like about him. This is exactly how Tosanoumi was in the mid-90's when he broke into the division although their styles are a bit different. They're both blue collar, they'll give you a straight up fight every time, and they respect the sport more than anyone. And as successful as Tosanoumi was in his career, I think Homasho can best Tosanoumi (highest rank was Sekiwake) just because his sumo is better grounded. The biggest compliment Homasho has received of late came from Asashoryu, who probably let Homasho win in their first practice bout before destroying in the next six. Still, Asa praised the kid and said he's just a step away. Case in point are his last two bouts against Kotooshu. Homasho had no business beating the Bulgarian when you look at their size difference, but sheer determination got the job done both times. Like Asashoryu, I don't think Homasho is destined for greatness just yet, but he has our attention. 8 wins.
Fellow M1 Tokitenku is big enough and good enough now to become a perennial Sekiwake. I see the Mongolian using his build to post 8-9 wins.
It's good to see M2 Kokkai back up among the jo'i. He enjoyed a fantastic basho in Haru, and he's got the goods to climb back into the sanyaku. The Georgian has got to remember his tsuppari attack and he'll do fine. If he can manage a coupla Ozeki scalps, he should kachi-koshi. I don't see counterpart Tamanoshima having any impact on the basho.
M3 Kakizoe finds himself on the fringe of the jo'i, but he won't be able to handle it as he did two years ago. This former Komusubi graced the sanyaku with the likes of Takamisakari, Iwakiyama, and Toki, so you can see now that the quality of the jo'i is much better. He'd do well to score 5 wins. Counterpart Kisenosato has been extremely quiet the last three basho, and the problem is his M3 schedule will be equal to that of a Komusubi. The Kid's gotta win eight this basho, and I think he does. He should have the experience advantage over those near him on the banzuke. Let's hope.
Normally the M4 slot is the perfect place to make that jump to the sanyaku with a good basho as you sit just out of reach of the jo'i; however, with Tochiazuma still on the banzuke, the East M4 slot now becomes the lowest position that will face the Yokozuna. I don't think Aminishiki is up to the task, but I will give him seven wins. Counterpart Tochiohzan will be the rikishi to watch this basho outside of Hakuho and his quest. Asashoryu's kohai is in the perfect place on the banzuke, but after an incredible start in Haru, I thought he seemed nervous those last few days. Of course the competition was better as he faced Roho and then Kotomitsuki, but he looked too timid to me then, and I think his current place on the banzuke will bring out more nerves. There's no question this guy should grace the sanyaku before the year's end, but for only his second basho in the division, I think he gets cold feet. Having said that, I'll give him 7 wins. If Toyonoshima withdraws early, he'll likely get the Yokozuna not to mention the three Sadogatake boys. His work is cut out for him.
I really underestimated M5 Takekaze last basho as he fought from the M4 slot. I thought he had no chance at that rank, but damned if he didn't pull out seven wins. He won me over with his heart, so I will be looking forward to see what he can do at Natsu. I'll give him eight wins if he comes out with the same fire he displayed in March. Counterpart Kakuryu should get worked this basho. There are just too many good, experienced rikishi surrounding him on the banzuke for him to work his evasive magic. Six wins.
The M6 rank is stale with Tokitsuumi and Kasugao, but there's color one notch below with Takamisakari and Wakanosato. Takamisakari will be his usual self jumping out to a good start before faltering in week 2. With Roho and Miyabiyama lurking just below, it won't be enough to push the Cop to 8 wins. Sorry bro. Wakanosato, on the other hand, should have just enough left in the tank to pull out a kachi-koshi. He will be an interesting rikishi to watch. Those new to sumo in the last year or year and a half may not know this, but Wakanosato was just shy of Ozeki promotion on numerous occasions. Injuries proved his downfall, so we'll see if he can regain the sanyaku. I don't think he can.
Watch out for M8 Kyokutenho who should...oh yeah. Damn.
Look at the M9 rank with Roho and Miyabiyama. If Roho pulls his weight down here, this is going to be a dynamite rank. I think Miyabiyama has fully recovered from his hamstring injury that forced him to withdraw last basho after a great start, and I see him finishing with 11 wins, but what kind of mindset will Roho be in? We'll find out by the third day. This Russian NEEDS to be back up among the jo'i with all of his potential...and youth. He's been around for, what, four years now, but his body hasn't seen that much wear and tear due to his lazy sumo. Step it up Roho and make me proud. Nine wins.
Is that M10 Dejima the same dude who pulverized Asashoryu and Hakuho on consecutive days in January? Along with the M9's, Dejima should provide some interest in the lower ranks. Nine wins.
Let's skip down to M12 Satoyama, one of our Makuuchi rookies. I love this kid. No, not like Michael Jackson...more like a sumo fan who appreciates a rikishi who brings it despite his light weight. I haven't seen much of Satoyama since I don't get the Juryo feed here in the states, but his two bouts last basho in Makuuchi were enough for me to see that he has great upside. I think his opponents will vastly underestimate him this basho because of his stature, but they'll learn quickly. Satoyama focuses his attack into his opponents torso, and his surprising strength can move these bigger guys around. He comes from the same stable as Baruto, so how's that for a sparring partner? I'm as excited about Satoyama as I am Homasho and Tochiohzan. I say 9 - 10 wins.
M14 will seem a boring rank to most, but I will be watching it intently as two dudes I touted on our eye-in-sumo page (what, we have such a page?). Ryuo, who occupies the East, is a guy I've been following since Kyushu 2000 when I happened to be in Fukuoka on business just prior to the Kyushu basho. I visited the Miyagino-beya for morning keiko and Kumagatani-oyakata (the former stable master and current Hakuho mentor) invited me to sit ringside with him as he just gushed over his new recruit. With his hair in an afro, I watched a skinny Mongolian focus on the mae-mitsu (frontal belt grip) as he battled his older opponents. I've watched Ryuo's progress over the years, and he's turned from a skinny belt guy to a fat tsuppari guy. It's all good though. I don't think Ryuo is going to have an impact in the division, but he's someone who can hang around the sport's highest division for the next couple of years. If any of his opponents are reading this, grab Ryuo's belt and you've beat him. I'll give the first-timer eight wins in his debut, though.
Counterpart Hochiyama is a guy I was extremely high on when I first spotted him in the Makushita division, but he's turning out to be a Futenoh. The potential is there...trust me, but he may turn out to a headcase like Futenoh. I hope not because Hochiyama is a quick, well-rounded rikishi. Focus on his tachi-ai. Some rikishi are just fine with a stalemate or even tachi-ai, but Hochiyama isn't. He's gotta dominate that initial charge or he's in trouble again. I'll say seven wins.
At M15, newly-engaged Ushiomaru will look to keep himself in the division so he can bring home that extra caish to his bride to be. Just hand the money over and don't ask questions...the marriage should go smoothly. Counterpart Iwakiyama is on the brink. He's just too big and slow anymore to handle these younger rikishi. Look for him to keep Kyokutenho company in the Juryo ranks come July.
And finally, look who's back...M16 Hokutoriki. This former Sekiwake and yusho runner-up (from the M1 rank!) has enough tricks in the bag to fool his way to a kachi-koshi.
With Asashoryu and Hakuho worlds apart from the rest of the competition, they are the only yusho contenders. I'll say 27 wins between them with Asashoryu taking home the cup this time, but don't look for an epic battle between these two on senshuraku...unless of course they come into the day tied. Then it should be great. Here are my predictions:
Yusho: Asashoryu (14-1)