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2015 Natsu Pre-basho Report

As we prepare for the 2015 Natsu basho, I really don't have any takes that have gone unsaid, and so let's start with a rundown of the general headlines leading into day 1. Unfortunately, the final week of preparations has been dominated by injury reports, both from rikishi on their way out and then from rikishi looking to make comebacks. The biggest news of course was the withdrawal of Kakuryu on Thursday, and now I'm even reading reports of Harumafuji's right elbow bothering him. Beyond the two Yokozuna, a lot of the talk has also focused on Endoh and his bid to make it back atop the dohyo despite a serious knee injury in March that called for two months of rehabilitation. Endoh declared that he would participate in the basho on Tuesday, so we'll see how wise that choice turns out to be.

Aside from the injury talk, Yokozuna Hakuho has been receiving his due diligence, and thankfully, the complaints of his not cooperating with the press have begun to die down. The selling point this basho surrounding Hakuho in the trivia hungry Japanese culture is whether or not he can become the first rikishi in history to score a seven-bout yusho streak twice in his career. With Kakuryu out and Harumafuji ailing, I don't see how Hakuho doesn't achieve that.

In my post basho report I expressed some bewilderment as to why Terunofuji wasn't getting more run after the Haru basho, especially when Ichinojo was hyped to no end after his 13-2 performance back in September. While Terunofuji has been getting a bit of attention pre-basho, it has mostly focused on his new endorsement deal with an o-cha-zuke company and not his actual sumo abilities. Talk of Ozeki promotion is sporadic at best, and I'm actually glad to see that because I want to see him earn the rank the traditional way by winning 33 bouts from the sanyaku spanning three consecutive basho.

There are no pretty stats to digest and no takes that have gone unmentioned, so let's get right to it and analyze the rikishi who will matter this basho.

With Kakuryu gone and Harumafuji complaining about his right elbow, Hakuho's yusho chances are at about 90%, and when I say 90%, I'm implying Hakuho's willingness to cooperate with another rikishi who may get hot and threaten for the yusho makes up the other 10%. That other 10% consists of Harumafuji (if he's just sandbagging here), Terunofuji, or Ichinojo. That's it. Your yusho rikishi will come from that group, and while some may be bothered by that assessment, look on the bright side...we haven't had four rikishi capable of taking the yusho in a seriously long time.

The only thing that would derail Hakuho this time around is a fluke injury, and as I've mentioned in the past, there's no one in sumo right now who can really put a strain on Hakuho's body, and so chances of serious injury are next to none. Look for the same old this basho, which is Hakuho cruising to a 14-1 finishing and gifting one strategic loss along the way.

Despite having an injured right elbow, Yokozuna Harumafuji has shown that he is able to beat several rikishi among the elite ranks with just one arm, and I'm sure he'll be just fine in May. I really love the looks of the banzuke from the Sekiwake ranks down through the M1 slot, but since Harumafuji happens to be stablemates with 2 of those 6 guys, it makes the task a bit easier. If he was all alone at this level, I'd say 9 wins or so, but not having to fight Terunofuji or Takarafuji improves his prospects to 10 wins and maybe leven as my mom would say.

The instant the banzuke was released, I immediately scanned the sanyaku and then the upper Maegashira and was quite pleased with the results. My initial reaction was that this is a strong banzuke, but I just couldn't avoid that elephant in the room, which is the current Ozeki rank. They are going to ruin what is otherwise an outstanding banzuke, especially in terms of interesting bouts all the way up to 6 PM closing time. It's really hard to get excited about a sanyaku that's as strong as it's been in years when you know what's in store from the Ozeki. As for headlines, I've read where Kotoshogiku is concerned about his right shoulder and where Goeido is looking to make a comeback (from what I ask), but what I haven't read is anything along the lines of these guys kicking ass and taking names in the keiko ring. There's just no sense in breaking these guys down. They're already broken down enough, and we'd all be better served if they fought in their true place on the banzuke, which would be around the M5 - M6 level.

A fair basho for Sekiwake Terunofuji would be 10 wins, and the reason I say that is because who else on this banzuke besides Hakuho can beat him? When you look at it in terms of who would be favored against Terunofuji, the only answer is Hakuho because his chances against Ichinojo are fiddy-fiddy. So, 10 wins would probably be a let-up on the Sekiwake's part. I liken him to Hakuho when he made his run to Ozeki and then Yokozuna just two basho later. I'm not saying that Terunofuji will do that, but I liken it to that run because it's just a given that Terunofuji is better than everyone else on the banzuke except for Hakuho. It's interesting because on the surface, my mind wants to expect Fuji the Terrible to cool off a bit, but when I analyze his likely 15 opponents, I just don't see anyone really capable of beating him other than the two aforementioned rikishi. Pencil Fuji the Terrible in for 11 - 12 wins unless he really lets up, especially against the Ozeki.

I really like Myogiryu to the West. Not because I think he can keep himself here consistently, but because he's such a hard worker. His sumo challenges the other fellas and makes them bring their A-game. Myogiryu can absolutely win eight this basho, and I expect him to hover right around that mark. If the banzuke were truly balanced, Ichinojo would be the West Sekiwake, so let's predict 7 wins for Myogiryu in another well-fought basho.

We haven't had Komusubi this powerful and legitimate in years. Then, when you couple great Komusubi with sweet Sekiwake, it's a formula for a good basho. Tochiohzan leads the way in the West, and with one less Yokozuna to deal with, chances are great he scores kachi-koshi. Tochiohzan is by far the best belt fighter among the Japanese rikishi, and that will allow him to dominate the dudes ranked lower than him. I look for a 3-4 start and an eventual 9-6 finish.

To the West is Ichinojo who seems to have been hampered by strange ailments like his bout with herpes and problems with his eyes. The dude is still rather green to professional sumo when you think about it, and so these minor distractions result in mediocre basho. Ichinojo is also good for one sacrificial loss against an Ozeki, and so I think the fact that he is not 100% will result in 9 or 10 wins. I think he takes over the West Sekiwake slot, but he won't shine quite yet.

As much as the sanyaku gives me a stiffie this basho, I'm equally excited about the M1 rank with Takarafuji and Tochinoshin. I'd be surprised if Takarafuji was able to break into the sanyaku just because it's so solid this basho, but he won't have to fight Harumafuji or Terunofuji, so eight wins is possible. He should have seven wins heading into the final weekend, and the key will be three wins or so in the first week.

As for Tochinoshin, let's hope he puts forth full effort this basho because with his size, he can give everyone fits high in the ranks. After Tochinoshin's resurgence from the Makushita ranks, he's seemed to have cooled off the last coupla basho in terms of going all out, and with such a lackadaisical approach, he can't flirt with kachi-koshi on this banzuke. Let's hope he comes out hard, but I think he'll go through the motions similar to what Aoiyama's done of late and finish with a 6-9 record.

The elite rikishi stop with Tochinoshin, but the best of the next tier are right there with M2's Toyonoshima and M2 Aminishiki, and the M3's in Sadanoumi and Osunaarashi. I don't see any of these four really making a dent in things and pulling off what would be surprise kachi-koshi, but at least none of them are going to just roll over and let the elite rikishi have their way. The Japanese threesome are seasoned enough at this level that I think each of them will finish with around six wins while Osunaarashi is a wild card. If the Ejyptian fights as he did leading into the Haru basho, he'll simply get his ass kicked in May. If you were to define the kid's sumo prior to March, you would describe a kachi-age tachi-ai with the right arm and then a reliance on brute strength to survive from there. But remember...something clicked in Osunaarashi mid-way through the Haru basho where he resorted to an extremely effective tachi-ai where he used a moro-te approach at his opponent's throat from the initial charge. If he remembers that tachi-ai, I think the dude could win seven...maybe eight, but if he goes back to that kachi-age nonsense that doesn't set anything else up, he's as doomed as doom can be.

With all of the talent up high, we really start to scrape the barrel as soon as the M4 rank. We do have a sleeper at M6 in Aoiyama, but I just don't see a double-digit winner coming from the Maegashira ranks. Aoiyama's got the best shot, and then there's Kaisei down at M11, but we're really balanced from top to bottom here, so look for everyone struggling to pick up eight wins...which when you think about it is how things should be.

Gagamaru is compelling at the M6 rank only because it's been awhile since he's been this high. This is also my favorite rank among the Maegashira because from here is where you usually have that rikishi who gets on a run. I don't expect it from the two furreners there in May, but it will be interesting to watch them. I think chances are good that both finish with eight.

Endoh finds himself at M9, but it's clear he is not healthy. You'll remember he got off to that hot start in Osaka only to suffer a serious knee injury against Shohozan late in week 1. Elvis returned to the practice dohyo just a few days ago, but he's in no shape to battle sekitori. I get why he's fighting because he still garners so much attention, but it's going to be ugly for him. I'd be surprised if he gets more than four wins, but remember, that's about all he needs to stay in the division for July.

After Endoh, there isn't another single compelling rikishi among the rank and file. For the third basho in a row, we don't have any newcomers to the division, and then it's been seven basho now since we've had a Japanese newbie break through. I'm pretty sure we'll yawn our way through the first 80 minutes of the broadcast each day, but the final 40 will more than make up for it. Watch for no more than four maybe five rikishi two win in double digits in what should be a very good basho if it wasn't for the dog and pony show in the Ozeki ranks.

Here are my predictions in what should be a low scoring basho:

Yusho: Hakuho (14-1)
Ginosho: Terunofuji
Shukunsho: none
Kantosho: none


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