Simon Siddall 

Hatsu Post-Basho Report

The Hatsu Basho was one to get the birds singing and the dogs barking. Courtesy of a Yokozuna injured by that old kotenage chestnut, the word excitement can now officially be associated with sumo once more. Make no mistake, the victory of a Japanese Ozeki means one hell of a lot in this day and age when the perceived invasion of superior foreign rikishi has been blamed by some for the sport's falling popularity (regardless of whether that is true or not). It will not matter to the average Japanese fan that Tochiazuma owes his victory as much to the misfortune of others as his own laudable prowess. Would a whole and hale Asashoryu lose three bouts in four days, one to a bemused and grateful Ama? Would he hell, is the answer you're looking for, David Hume. Still, with sellout crowds and soaring TV viewer ratings back for the moment, those who run the sumo show will not be bothered in the slightest.

Let's begin this review with the basho's top banana, Ozeki Tochiazuma, who stuck to his guns and gave a solid, tightly-controlled display of balance and power. It was not spectacular by any means but he did his job and saw off nearly all comers, falling only to the stubborn Miyabiyama. Much as with Asashoryu in recent basho, it was not the fault of Tochiazuma that the competition was so poor. He dealt with what he was given and did so impressively. As Herr Clancy pointed out in his senshuraku report, Tochiazuma had no Komusubi worthy of mention to fight (no disrespect to Tamanoshima, of course...more on that later) and only one Sekiwake in the excellent Hakuho. On top of that, two Ozeki cried off, leaving only an erratic and out-of-sorts Kotooshu for Tochiazuma to face. And most importantly, Tochiazuma's most fearsome opponent, the Yokozuna, was only a shadow of himself in the last three days. In truth, the only real competition for the winner came from future Yokozuna Hakuho, and it is worth pointing out that had the agonizingly close bout between the two on day eight gone the other way, Hakuho would have taken the yusho. Yes, there really should have been a rematch, but the judges simply gave it to the 'attacking' rikishi, and yes it was yet another example of suspicious interpretation, in this case a very costly one for the on-the-up Mongolian trooper. Conspiracies shall inevitably abound.

But we get this in every sport, this endless what-if speculation and so on. The fact is that Tochiazuma won it and Hakuho didn't help his cause by screwing up big time losing to Tochinohana in a moment of madness. So we now have a Yokozuna bid to think about in March, as well as a possible promotion to Ozeki for Hakuho. As I mentioned in my day 13 comments, Tochiazuma is now able to pull any style or technique off the shelf if and when it is required, and the only other person who can do that right now is the current Yokozuna (and Ama, of course!). This, at the very least, bodes well for his promotion. More on all of this in my Haru Basho preview.

On to the runner-up, it was great to see Hakuho rediscovering his will to win. There can be little doubt that the clearing-up of his injury had a lot to do with his mental attitude. During times of injury, it must be incredibly frustrating for talented rikishi like Hakuho, not being able to do their own sumo and falling to opponents they have no business losing to, and so after recovery the need to prove their ability must be stronger than usual. On some days Hakuho looked almost as fired up as Asashoryu is on a normal day. After a 9-6 in Kyushu and a 13-2 this time out, Hakuho can look forward to possible promotion in March but will likely need eleven wins at least. If he comes into that basho with the same attitude, make that possibly five Ozeki in May, assuming, of course, that Kaio and Chiyotaikai still 'grace' the rank. I felt that Hakuho's sumo was good enough this basho to earn a draw with Tochiazuma. That Tochinohana loss just should not have happened. It was a bout straight from Satan's very own frying pan. Sad, because a play-off between the two main entertainers would have been the icing on the cake for a great basho. I see improvement from Hakuho in all areas. I've long felt him to be more versatile than Kotooshu and it is only the injury and the fact that the mental side of his game has been lacking that has kept him below Ozeki. Now that he looks on top of those particular glitches, we can expect a successful Ozeki bid in March.

Let's move on to the Yokozuna. Asashoryu did not look his best at all, even before the injury, and yet he recovered well after that day two loss to Kokkai. It is my firm belief that an uninjured Asashoryu would have taken the basho to a 13-2 play-off with Tochiazuma, and he would have won. His injury made him human again and that is the end of that. I don't want to take anything away from Tochiazuma's achievement but Asashoryu really is a special case. One thing is for sure, he now knows that the sanyaku boys have smelled blood, Mongolian blood, to be precise, and they think he is beatable. I think we can rely on Asashoryu to work hard at his rehabilitation and, depending on how serious the injury is (and I think it is worse than he has said, judging by his performances in the last three days), we should see him back crushing skulls in his own inimitable fashion. As a Yokozuna, of course, Asashoryu has the luxury of electing to take a basho off to recover completely in time for May. I don't see him doing that – it isn't his style – but the option is there. I only hope he has now learned that you can't just smeg off to Mongolia and climb mountains and call that pre-basho training. There are serious rivals coming through to challenge him and I don't think we will see him match his seven-yusho streak again in his career. He is not past his peak by any means but decent competition is finally emerging. Let's face the last couple of years, he has had no one to fight. This means that we are in for some close yusho races in the foreseeable future. Yippee.

The Ozeki Kotooshu who came out to play this basho was an erratic little soul. I suspect he is regretting all those TV appearances and commercials over Christmas and New Year. He was clearly tired in the first week and only a seven-day winning streak from the sixth day enabled him to sneak the ten wins which are regarded as the minimum for an Ozeki. Hopefully the media glare will move away from him a little as the attention shifts to Tochiazuma and, to a lesser extent, Hakuho. You can be sure that the ever-dependable muppets in the media will turn Tochiazuma's Yokozuna bid into a circus. Kotooshu will no doubt be over the moon with that. For this reason, I see him coming back strongly in March. The mental side is huge for Kotooshu and I don't think he has been very comfortable with all the attention, although he has handled it admirably. Lesser men would have been kicking sycophantic TV presenters around the studio. I for one consider murder (justifiable homicide, I call it) every time I switch on the television these days. Ahem, anyway, I was struck once again this basho by just how big an advantage his enormous arms (and strength) give him. Against lesser foes he can even overcome morozashi with relative ease (as he did against Takekaze on day 2). That is a bloody handy skill. When you add that to the sound of curtains drawing shut every time he gets his favoured left-hand outside grip, he really should be unbeatable. In all the bouts he lost this basho, he was prevented from getting that particular grip. His rivals know this and will come into future bouts with that in mind. Kotooshu would therefore do well to practice winning scrappy bouts, as well as brushing up on tsuppari. Really, with his power, he should be winning some of his bouts by oshidashi. He has only won using that technique four times in his last sixty bouts, and he did not use it at all in Hatsu. I would like to see him broaden his options a little. He may need to if he wants to make Yokozuna. One little point to remember, though: Asashoryu's record as a shin-Ozeki? 10-5 - exactly the same as Kotooshu. In other words, there is nothing to worry about.

I'll briefly mention the crocked Ozeki duo, Kaio and Chiyotaikai. I initially thought when they pulled out that it was the death knell for a decent basho but I reckon that, in fact, their withdrawal was one of the good things to happen in Hatsu. It gave some of the young hotshots (namely Hakuho and Ama) a chance to shine and we got an exciting basho as a result. They will both obviously be kadoban in March and will therefore need eight wins to keep their ranks, and they will no doubt accomplish this yet again. Hopefully, however, they will do the decent thing and begin to consider retirement. Much as I admire their accomplishments in the past, it is pretty bleeding obvious that both of them are past their sell-by date. Does Kaio really believe he will make Yokozuna? Does Chiyotaikai? I think that once they both accept that they've reached the highest rank they're ever going to reach, and that their finest days are long behind them, they might consider passing the reins over to younger hands. One might argue that they will fall from the rank when they are not good enough to keep it but I disagree with this. The Ozeki rank is difficult to reach but far too easy to keep. Two make-koshi on the run is pretty unlikely for an Ozeki even when past his prime. They should definitely raise the bar to nine wins. Consider this: if nine wins had been the required number of wins to keep the Ozeki rank instead of eight, while all the other relevant rules remained the same, Chiyotaikai would have been demoted to Sekiwake for the 2005 Hatsu basho, where he went 8-7 and would have failed to regain his rank. He would now be somewhere around the top of Maegashira. That is frankly where he belongs. Kaio would still be an Ozeki under this system, and I think that is still where he belongs, although not for much longer if his injuries keep up. Nothing is perfect, however, and under this hypothetical system, Tochiazuma would have been demoted (due to injury) for the 2003 Hatsu Basho. Clearly for this system to work, a re-introduction of something like the kosho (public injury) system for Ozeki would be necessary. Well, this is all just idle speculation and food for thought, and I would welcome any emails from our readers detailing their views on the subject. Bear in mind that it would certainly have prevented Musoyama hanging on for anywhere near as long as he did, which would have been a good thing in my book. Back to the present, I think most would agree that Chiyotaikai has been hanging on to his rank by the skin of his teeth for quite long enough, thank you very much. Kaio? Well, let's just wait and see.

Going down to the Sekiwake who didn't perform, I don't need to repeat the assertion that Kotomitsuki is just about the most frustrating rikishi ever. Blessed with undeniable and abundant natural ability, he should have made Ozeki long ago. I just shake my head in bemusement every basho as one day he murders someone with ease and then on the next he fights like a toothbrush. He looked great beating inferior rikishi mid-basho in Hatsu and even looked up for a yusho challenge at 7-2 on the ninth day. Cue then the usual mind-boggling change of attitude and there we have it: 1-5 in the last six days. Yes, two of those were losses to Hakuho and Asashoryu (before he got injured), but he also lost to Ama, Tokitsuumi and Iwakiyama. One of them, maybe I can see it, but all three? Not for a man of his ability. I just can't work him out.

The highlight of the Komusubi ranks was obviously the gallant second week charge of Tamanoshima, who almost managed a fairy-tale kachi-koshi after being 1-7 on nakabi, despite having a serious injury. Forced by his frankly imbecilic oyakata to fight on with pain-killing injections, he won more than a few hearts in sumo fandom. Yes, it's all good stuff, the stuff of legends, but his oyakata should not be gambling with Tama-chan's career like this. It could have caused irreparable damage. We still don't know if it hasn't. Only time will tell. Other Komusubi Kyokutenho put on a highly average display but that infamous first week schedule that the Komusubi always get (where they meet all the top lads one after another) took a devastating toll on the Mongolian, as he lost the first seven days straight. He restored a little respectability to win four out of the final eight days but this performance simply showed that the senshuraku henka he pulled to keep his rank in Kyushu was the only way he could think of to stay in sanyaku. Kyokutenho has certainly had his moments in his time and there is no denying his ability on the belt but he really just does not have the flair, power and hunger to cut it up in sanyaku anymore. Avaunt ye!

Mike did a great job of going through the Maegashira ranks with a fine toothcomb so I will just pick out the ones who stood out for me one way or another. As we endlessly say on this site, M1 Miyabiyama's success depends on his using tsuppari. If he wants another special prize in his career, I would get someone to explain this to him rather forcibly, because when he goes for the belt, or someone grabs his, he looks like any other useless fat knacker. However, when he dictates the bout, especially when he comes up with moro-te from the tachiai, he can whip the pink bottom of just about anyone. In the case of this basho, Tochiazuma's only loss came courtesy of this kind of sumo, and it was one of the best bouts I have seen from Miyabiyama in a long time. I've never liked Miyabiyama, mainly due to his ungainliness and propensity for henka, but he has been growing on me of late. Keep up the good work at Komusubi east in March, Sheriff. Other M1 Tokitenku looked way out of his depth but five wins at this rank is nothing to be ashamed of when his lack of experience at the very top is taken into account. Sadly, he grabbed no major scalps this time around but don't be surprised to see him back up in the jo'i again this year.

At the rank of beauty, M2, our two models Roho and Kokkai did not disappoint with some overpowering wins and, of course, some daft losses. Roho really pissed me off trying to pull Tochiazuma down on day 4 after looking imperious in the first three days. When will he bloody well learn that he can win without all that bull? Still, a fine 9-6 record will be enough for him to scrape into sanyaku for the first time at Komusubi west next basho. Kokkai will be proud of a gritty (if erratic) performance that included wins over Asashoryu, Kaio and Kotooshu. It's a blistering shame he couldn't keep up the good work against less stellar opponents. Unfortunately for Kokkai, his attack is just too one-dimensional to make him a sanyaku mainstay. He'll be worked out soon.

I'll give M4 Hakurozan the benefit of the doubt and blame a performance as bereft of passion as any other I've seen on the injury that was reported on pre-basho. But if you're going to compete for fifteen days, Hakurozan, why not show us some evidence that there is something going on between the old ears? I mean, you might lose and everything but at least show a little fire and go out with a bang. In most bouts this basho, Hakurozan was nonchalant in defeat, putting up token resistance only. A real shame because this lad, like his bigger, badder brother, definitely has the ability to make waves. Maybe it's just his personality not to give a flying damn that he's up on the dohyo facing living legends for the first time. Must do better.

Going down to M6 we have Ama, who just keeps on getting better and better. It would be a major achievement for a man his size to get into sanyaku but he really does have the balls and ability to do it. How can you not admire Ama for the way he fights anyone at all straight on? That destruction of Kotomitsuki sticks out in my mind, as well as his win over Roho, although I wasn't too impressed with his delayed tachiai tactics on that particular occasion. Pissing around at the tachiai seems to be all the rage these days. It would be nice to see the powers that be come down hard on it. They tried to once before a year or so ago, perhaps longer (too lazy to check), when they told rikishi that both fists had to be down on the shikiri-sen, but the call was obviously ignored, which is not surprising as it is not sufficiently enforced. As Kenji mentioned the other day, consistency is the key. Sodding well make your minds up, lads, and stick with it. The same goes for the so-called 'dead body' rule, but that's a story for another day.

Actually, on the subject of all the shenanigans that we seem to see so much more of these days, I would like to go on record saying that I agree wholeheartedly with George's comment in his excellent day eight report in which he roundly condemned all the false starts and gamesmanship. In addition, I want to state that I was one hundred percent with the day seven comments of Clancy, who was eloquent in his lament over the win-at-all-costs culture that so threatens the sane world as a direct result of Western cultural (equals economic) influence. If you disagree with his words on this topic, you are wrong.

Back to the action, M11 Hokutoriki obviously deserves a mention for his 12-3 record but I didn't really see all that much to get excited about. On top of that, as Mike mentioned in his review, we're just going to see him get kicked to hell come March. Still, credit is due to Hokutoriki for keeping his concentration and going nine days straight until he was stopped by another upstart on top of his game, the excellent Tokitsuumi. More on him later. Despite his generally average sumo and gamesmanship, he was worth the Kantosho he rightly received. At M12 I thought Kasugao showed some excellent technique and looked very strong once he got the belt. 9-6 was an excellent record for him and he should find himself just outside the fringes of the jo'i in Haru. Don't think I've forgotten that valiant 1-14 last year when he fought on with an injury sustained on the first day. What a warrior.

M14 was a rank of mixed fortunes. Tosanoumi looks doomed after going 1-7 in the final eight days and finishing with a depressing 5-10 record. I don't see this man amongst men retiring yet because it is obvious that he still loves his sumo, although possibly not as much as I love it. Anyway, he has a better than medium chance of being promoted straight back up from Juryo. I hope so because this is one top geezer. Tokitsuumi was one of the success stories of the basho, a shining example of what can happen when the bit is well and truly between the teeth. He was flying all the way through and got his reward in a match-up with jun-yusho winner, Hakuho on day 14. Yes, he lost that one, but he took the piss out of Kotomitsuki big style on the final day, which went some way towards making up for the disappointment. He was also given the honour of being up there competing in one of the final three bouts on senshuraku - not many M14s get to do that. Tokitsuumi's technical ability has always been acknowledged but at 32 you have to say this basho was probably his swansong and that reality will bite good and hard in Osaka as he finds himself up against superior opponents daily.

At M15 we have a certain character who shall remain nameless but merits a mention for getting exactly what he deserves after his disgraceful treatment of the retiring Kotonowaka last basho – demotion to Juryo. If I had my way, he'd be down in mae-zumo scrubbing mawashi. If you never believed in karma, this case might well change your thinking a little.  Hands washed.

M16 Wakanosato got the 10-5 that was the minimum expected of him and will be up in slightly more familiar surroundings in March. He looked a little heavy to me in some of his losses but his injury seems to have cleared up in the main and he should continue scything his way back to the top with relative ease. M17 Kitazakura was the surprise package for me this basho. I've always thought he was a bit of a spanner, to be honest, with his fist-pumping and dohyo-slapping antics, and his sumo has always come up short of the level required to stay in Makuuchi in the past, but one cannot question the fighting spirit and sumo pride of Kitazakura and I apologise wholeheartedly to the man for giving him no chance in my pre-basho report. Yes, he may well get his arse kicked in March but I will not be the one predicting it. I just wish Hakurozan would take a few lessons from this grizzled old battler. Well done that man.

In summary, Hatsu 2006 was clearly the standout basho for quite some time, certainly far superior entertainment to some of the bilge we had to endure in 2005 (Asashoryu's majestic dominance apart, naturally). We have plenty to talk about going into the Haru Basho and, for once, the spotlight will be off Asashoryu and Kotooshu as Tochiazuma and Hakuho take centre stage. The top ranks are getting more competitive and the popularity of sumo is rising accordingly. The future of sumo is looking far brighter than it was twelve months ago.

I'll be back in March for my preview of the Haru Basho. In the meantime, don't get maimed or mangled.

I'll conclude by reviewing my picks of the basho with special thanks to Kotooshu and Asashoryu...

Hatsu Pre-Basho Report
If there is one thing that increases the already healthy respect I have for almost all professional rikishi, it is the idea of them training at seven in the morning in these temperatures with only a practice mawashi to keep them warm. It is definitely one way to ensure enthusiastic participation in the keiko. While there has been little in the way of keiko reports, I will provide here a summary of what we know about the condition of the lads.

Yokozuna Asashoryu has had his usual cold but that is no cause for concern. His dominance is such that he would likely take the yusho wearing a blindfold and a pointy hat. He has been on TV a few times over the New Year holiday but that also is normal for the top-ranked rikishi and it will not distract him from his day job in the slightest. He performed the traditional New Year dohyo-iri at the Meiji Shrine and said there that he felt strong. He also said that he intends not to lose this basho (indeed, this year) and that he is looking forward to testing the mettle of the new Ozeki. Asashoryu is at his peak at this time and I can't see him losing unless someone gets lucky. I also guarantee he will do his utmost to stop Kotooshu getting his belt like he did last basho, and the shin-Ozeki aside, there really is no one around who can beat him (apart from a fit Kaio). Put another yusho on the board for Asashoryu and don't be surprised to see a zensho, although I have a feeling he will drop at least one bout. I'll say fourteen wins.

The main focus of this basho will be on the performance of the new Ozeki on the block, Kotooshu. I am no fan of hype (and living in Japan, you get to see plenty of that) so I would not normally dwell on one rikishi more than any other but yet again Kotooshu has a legitimate reason to be in the limelight. The first basho as an Ozeki is always a fraught affair, though at least he has the hard part behind him now – actually getting there in the first place. All he has to do is put on a good show – ten wins will do the trick – and I think he will do it. He is just too good not to. Last basho apart when he was clearly nervous, he has proved that he can consistently beat the rank-and-filers, a very important skill. This is where the other Ozeki usually fall down, losing to someone they just shouldn't be losing to. Kotooshu should beat most of his lower-ranked foes without breaking a sweat and will then hold his own against the other Ozeki-jin. It has all been said before: to Kotooshu, his height is not a disadvantage but just the opposite. Tall, relatively slim rikishi need to be deadly on the belt, and he is. Just ask Asashoryu how deadly. One thing that may distract him is the amount of TV appearances he has been making, far too many in my opinion, but by all accounts he has been training hard and focusing on his sumo. I don't see this being a major factor. Eleven wins for the shin-Ozeki, but I suspect that he will be aiming to go seven straight in the first week to set up a yusho run in order to emulate Tochiazuma, who won his first yusho as a shin-Ozeki four years ago in the same tournament. This would not surprise me in the slightest. Whatever happens, we will see the burgeoning rivalry between Kotooshu and Asashoryu continue to flourish. As a side note, Kotooshu once named Asashoryu as his role must be a great feeling for him to have reached a position where he will challenge him regularly. How many people get to do that? Not me, unfortunately, as my role models are Homer Simpson and Austin Powers.

The top-ranked Ozeki this time is Chiyotaikai. I spotted him on some utterly rubbish TV programme (take your pick) on New Year's Day, chucking a 10kg barrel over a 6.5m high any injuries he has had can safely be written off. He himself has said that he feels good and is approaching peak condition. His sumo will no doubt settle into its usual pattern of late: try to do his own sumo but fall back on the ballet dancing if that fails. He is trying, though, and apart from that awful henka he pulled on a fellow Ozeki last basho, I really have felt for him during his long lull. However, now he has no injuries, it is time to step up to the plate and fight like an Ozeki, the one he used to be. As he is now so effective with his fall-back tactics, Chiyotaikai should waltz to at least nine or ten wins, but it would not surprise me to see him still in with a shout as late as the eleventh or twelfth day. The sad part will be watching the days when he cannot get his sumo working.

Ozeki Kaio is all screwed up with injuries as usual. As it seems mandatory these days to have a kadoban Ozeki each basho, Kaio is the odds-on favourite to take on that role in March by possibly withdrawing. Kaio is not the kind of guy to stick around if things go badly. Apart from in Aki 2003 (where he went 7-8), every make-koshi for Kaio as an Ozeki has been due to withdrawal (seven times). What this means is that if things are looking bad, he pulls out early to save face. Naturally, he really has had injury problems but if they translate to poor results in the first week, it means sayonara. I actually prefer to see this. It drives me bonkers to see rikishi fighting on, risking the exacerbation of their injuries. The thing about Kaio is that if he gets the belt, he can pull off those famous uwatenage throws with ease, injured or not. That is what he will be looking for so expect to see his trademark technique a few times. That's good news for me is always easy on the eye. If he can rise above his injuries, Kaio will get his usual ten wins.

Ozeki Tochiazuma is our kadoban boy this time. It seems an eternity since Tochiazuma was involved in a yusho race. In fact, since his second and last yusho in Kyushu 2003, he has garnered twelve wins only once (Natsu 2004), where all his efforts were wasted anyway because Asashoryu won with a zensho. In fact, twelve wins are a very rare occurrence for Tochiazuma. He has been looking good in keiko, by all accounts, against decent opponents, too (Hakuho, Tamanoshima and others) so he should easily manage ten wins and keep his Ozeki rank. But it really has been as Mike said in his report: boring. Come on Tochiazuma – show me some of the sumo that made me your biggest fan back in 1995/6.

Our two Sekiwake are the correct ones on current form/skill. Kotomitsuki, as always, is unpredictable, and will no doubt get somewhere between zero and fifteen wins (yes, it's a joke...geddit yet?). He has been training with Kotooshu (not the worst training partner to have) as usual and there have been no reports that I am aware of that he is in anything other than fine condition. He will most likely get nine or even ten wins. Hakuho has also been looking good according to reports and now that the taping is off his ankle, it looks as though his injury has cleared up. He also will easily keep his rank with a ten-win performance.

In the Komusubi ranks, we have Kyokutenho and Tamanoshima. For a man with such accomplished technique, Kyokutenho is strangely unimpressive to me. Let's not forget that he had to resort to henka on the final day of the Kyushu basho to get his eight wins to ensure that he stayed at Komusubi East. Hmm. I don't see him getting a kachi-koshi this time round. Seven wins at most. Tamanoshima has really improved in recent basho and looks a solid proposition. He may well have got nine in Kyushu but he himself was a victim of a Roho henka on the final day. He can get nine this time around.  More likely eight.

Let's ponce on down to the Maegashira ranks. As usual, I'll go through the goodies and the baddies to watch. The top lad is Miyabiyama. If he fights like he did last basho, we are going to see nine wins easily. As Mike mentioned, Miyabiyama's success or lack of it depends on his using tsuppari. It's as simple as that. Tokitenku is his counterpart and will hopefully add a nice technical element to the mix. It is likely he will get his arse kicked badly but I can see him picking up five or six wins here and there, purely through excellent technique. It will be a valuable learning experience for him.

At M2 we have Roho and Kokkai, who will have to show balls galore to get eight wins. Roho has the body, the strength and the ability, but I just don't think he has the brains. He goes for the cheap win at the wrong time – it happens far too regularly. He CAN get eight wins at this rank if he just takes his opponents on straight. He doesn't have the guile or agility of Chiyotaikai or Kotooshu, two rikishi who are adept at the pull-down, so why bother trying? At this rank, he will be murdered for it. Kokkai is another one who needs to fight his way or it will be curtains. In fairness to him, he doesn't usually go for the cheap win, but it is essential for him to make each of those huge thrusts count for something because the force is so high, he is often yanked off balance when he misses slightly, allowing even his small opponents to get inside his reach, where Kokkai becomes utterly useless. I don't see him getting more than six this basho.

At M3, we are going to see Takekaze get humiliated. He'll be lucky to get four wins. Tochinohana will be in a similar boat to Tokitenku; his technical excellence will be offset by his lack of solidity and relative inexperience at this high rank. He used to be a Komusubi (Kyushu 2000) as some readers will know, so let's hope some of that old magic comes back to him. He will need it. Six wins.

At M4 we have Hakurozan, who looked solid last basho. Under normal circumstances, I would give him a decent chance of getting eight wins but he reportedly hurt his hip in keiko the other day. It was not clear how bad it was but it is worrying. Given that this is his highest ever rank, and that he will be fighting all the top rikishi (including the Yokozuna), this injury could be a decisive blow. We shall see. He is growing on me, however. If he can just lose that same habit his brother has, he will be a force. Whatever happens, we won't see the two brothers fighting each other as siblings are kept apart in honbasho (unless there is a yusho play-off, of course) but that will not happen, you can bet your life on that.

M6 Ama will be one to watch as usual. He really is improving all the time and I expect him to put on a decent show for us. His small size will always be his major stumbling block but you have to love the way he fights absolutely anyone straight up. Eight wins. M6 Dejima endured a miserable basho in Kyushu but if those legs are working, he can beat almost anyone. Yes, he is a one-trick-pony but it is great to see him driving bigger men out so easily when he is on his game.

At M8 Futenoh should do very well, at least as long as the injury that caused his partial withdrawal in Kyushu has cleared up. Futenoh just seems to be lacking something at the moment, seeming just not to be in bouts. That could, of course, be due to many factors, but he has given us all a glimpse of his talent and I'll be backing him to come good in the future. He is quality – nine or ten wins. M9 Kisenosato is another one I'll be watching closely as usual. He is still learning but should find plenty of easy meat at this rank. This is Kotooshu's bogey man after all. Ten wins if he can keep his concentration.

At M10, Takamisakari would usually stroll to a kachi-koshi but he had an operation on his right elbow on December 14th. You make your own decision, but Takamisakari is just the type of rikishi who would say he was fine after having three limbs amputated. I don't see how he can use that right arm at full strength for fifteen days. At M11 we have Kyokushuzan, who will be pressing the up button on his elevator. He knows that the clock is ticking and that if he wants the yusho that will crown his career, it has to be now. He will be doing his utmost to get off to a good start, but if that doesn't come off, he will probably give up mid-basho and stop trying, just as he did in Kyushu.

New boy M13 Yoshikaze is definitely one to watch after his impressive rise up the ranks. Mike has already talked about him but I agree that he could make an impact. And at M16 we have Wakanosato, who should find it easy going. Let's not forget what happened to Tochinonada in the last two basho, however. Still, Wakanosato has undeniable class and I expect him to get eleven wins at this rank, assuming he has recovered fully from his injury (which he has, apparently). Anything else will be a disappointment.

And finally, propping up the division, we have M17 Kitazakura, who generally annoys the hell out of me with his dohyo-slapping antics when he loses. Konishiki used to do that in the twilight of his career when he'd (been) toppled over (again). Please stop it. Still, it was Kitazakura who sealed Tochinonada's demotion to Juryo, which was no mean feat, and he therefore deserves to be up there with the big boys. Don't expect much, though...he'll likely be back in Juryo in March.

As a side note and away from sumo, I just wanted to use this forum to have a good gloat at the football fans of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for failing to qualify for the World Cup with England. I assume you will all be supporting any team who plays against England as usual. Oh dear. The secret to success, of course, is teamwork, as illustrated by Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United (pictured right). I will, of course, be supporting Costa Rica, Togo or Angola, or any other country that suffers as a result of the greed and indifference of rich countries! Go on lads!

In summary, and back to sumo, I would say we have the makings of a decent basho. We just need a couple of rikishi to keep their heads together and give the Yokozuna a run for his money. My first report is on day three. See you then.


Yusho: Asashoryu (14-1)

Ginosho: Hakuho

Shukunsho: None

Kantosho: Tokitenku



Kyushu Roundtable Report

Welcome, warlords, to my wrap-up of the Kyushu Basho. This was a basho of records. Asashoryu broke three biggies - you know the ones - and Kotooshu won the right to become the first European Ozeki. In yet another sure sign that sumo is entering an era of dominance by foreign rikishi, the willowy Bulgarian got to the (second) top in record time, nineteen basho since his dohyo debut.

Now, those of you who bother to read my reports (all four of you – thanks, by the way) will be aware that I see talking about records as a total waste of time in real terms. Nevertheless, in the minds of the rikishi themselves, beating any record in such an old and difficult sport is no doubt exhilarating. Asashoryu has said that he doesn't think about records, and he may well be telling the truth about that, but I think if you offered him a choice between being the top banana on paper and not being so, I think he'd take the former option faster than a germ at a sneezing competition. I think Kotooshu is most likely brimming with pride at getting up there at hyper velocity as well, but he probably wouldn't talk too much about it, being the extremely likeable chap that he is. The point is, we have two very happy little pandas post-Kyushu, and it don't matter one jot to them that the records don't matter. Know what I'm saying?

The Yokozuna looked as dominating this basho as I've ever seen him, despite losing THAT tachiai to Kotooshu on day 13. Back in January I predicted he would get all six yusho this year, as did many others, and the fact that so many would make such an outrageous prediction clearly shows first that Asashoryu really is peerless at this time, and second that the competition is just not there. Expect the Yokozuna to keep on winning in 2006 but I am less confident about saying he'll do another sweep this time. He now has someone there in Kotooshu who, while not yet a head-to-head rival, has shown he can consistently rack up the wins against the same competition. Asashoryu will relish this challenge and will no doubt put his usual pre-basho psychological tactics to good use against the Bulgarian in early January. Well, right after he kicks Hakuho's arse for that day one insult anyway.

As for the soon-to-be shin-Ozeki Kotooshu, the goal for 2006 will surely be yusho, especially against a healthy Asashoryu. If he can pick up one or two of them, it will do his confidence the world of good and hopefully put to bed all those nasty insinuations about his mental strength at the big moments. He is the only rikishi right now who I see as capable of beating everyone consistently. Yes, I know he lost to three Maegashira rikishi this time but the Kakizoe one was probably nerves and he let up too soon in the Tamanoshima bout, a mistake he will hopefully learn from. It was only against the still-learning-the-ropes Kisenosato that he got well and truly murdered. I won't count the loss to Kaio against him as that was an Ozeki who is obviously capable of beating anyone on his day. The point is that he isn't going to lose to Kakizoe or Tamanoshima very often so there really is not too much to worry about. He can rack up those wins and keep in the yusho hunt until the very end, and this is something that sumo desperately needs at this time. A perceived rival to Asashoryu will not fill the stadiums by any means, but neither will it do any harm to attendance levels, which, let's face it, are pretty damn worrying. Overall, there is no doubt now in my mind that Kotooshu deserves his promotion and I think he will do very well as he grows mentally into the role. It really is about time that we had new blood up there.

Let's have a swift look at the Ozeki trio. Kaio was the most impressive by far but some lifeless sumo in the first week hurt him badly. He did as well as could be expected when you take his injuries and age into consideration and I thought beating Kotooshu on senshuraku was a nice touch, a message to his fans, and probably to Kotooshu as well, that Kaio is not a goner yet. Chiyotaikai showed some awful sumo but it wasn't all bad. We had a bit of everything: some of the old magic against Kisenosato, ballet against Kotomitsuki and a nasty henka on Kaio. He usually comes out fighting like a giant manic squirrel, a good thing, just like the old days, but as soon as he decides the tsuppari isn't working (quite often), he pulls out the shenanigans. This proves that he comes into bouts wanting to do his own sumo (a lot of the time) and tries the pull-downs when it isn't working. We've gone over this a million times: at this time, Chiyotaikai is an Ozeki in name only, but I honestly don't think he is finished yet. The lad might have something left in the tank. In the last two basho he has shown flashes of his former glory so I don't think it is at all certain that he will be demoted in 2006. One thing you can be certain of: if his injuries clear up, he will try his hardest to show good sumo because it is obvious that he is embarrassed by the tactics he has been forced to use in the last year and more. Tochiazuma will be our token kadoban Ozeki in January after being forced to pull out with an injury.

Sekiwake Kotomitsuki showed everyone why I predicted (as a joke, for those very few humour-challenged among you) that he would pick up between four and twelve wins...or was it eleven? Who cares? Certainly not me. Kotomitsuki is inconsistency incarnate. He looked indifferent in the first two days despite winning on both, and then the quality of his sumo improved and he looked almost as good as he did while on that 13-win streak in the Natsu Basho. Then he remembered his name and totally lost momentum in the second week. I just shake my head in sadness every time I see Kotomitsuki; coulda, shoulda, woulda.

In the Komusubi ranks we had Kyokutenho. Did we? I didn't notice. Well, I did spot him ensuring his survival in the sanyaku ranks by pulling that nice little henka on senshuraku against the hapless Kotomitsuki who was obviously a total idiot for walking into that one. Yes, Kotomitsuki, you damned fool you! Enough said. Hakuho, on the other hand just bemuses me. He oozes class and talent. I just wish his list of attributes included commitment but it doesn't at this time. A healthy vicious streak a la Asashoryu would not do this lad any harm at all. And he only has himself to blame for losing to Kotooshu, his erstwhile Ozeki promotion rival. How the hell he lost that bout I will never know. I think it was a combination of Kotooshu being a fine technician and Hakuho being complacent. Hakuho, folks, is a future Ozeki, if not Yokozuna, but he is his own worst enemy at the moment. We need from him a lot more of the focus that Kotooshu has displayed.

Overall sanyaku was lackluster this basho, the kachi-koshi clean sweep notwithstanding (injured rikishi excluded). Let's hope they all make New Year's resolutions to kick ass in 2006. Don't hold your breath.

Let's take a brief stroll into Maegashira territory. M1 Tamanoshima surprised me with a solid display, finishing with a deserved 8-7 and taking the scalps of Kaio, Kotooshu and Hakuho along the way. I know Mike likes this guy and would probably make him a nice sandwich and a cup of tea if he visited La Maison de Mike one day, but until this basho I've always seen him as an average rikishi. Still, I must concede that he looked pretty good this time around. M1 Hokutoriki only bothered to come out of his basho-long sulk to pummel an injured man (Futenoh). I don't think I've ever seen such a poor display of sumo, and what makes it worse is this is the man who guaranteed his place in the record books by stopping Asashoryu's run of 35 straight wins back in May 2004. We know he can fight like a dervish so what the hell went wrong here?

I want to congratulate M4 Miyabiyama for surprising me greatly and actually showing decent sumo for once. It all goes to show what happens when you play to your strengths. He has just the right sort of build and size for morote attacks, which are hell to get around when they're done effectively. Just ask Hakuho. They had an epic battle, one of my favourite bouts of the tournament, and Hakuho was almost dead on his feet after trying his utmost to find a way around Miyabiyama's outstretched arms. The former Ozeki is like a giant zombie, the kind of rikishi you might have nightmares about chasing you down dark corridors. As a side note, if you do have nightmares like that, you'd better go and see a doctor. The only down side for me was the inevitable henka (he just has to do it, doesn't he?) against Tokitenku on day 11. The good news was this: he lost that bout. Hope it teaches him a lesson.

Two of my favourite rikishi fought at M5 this basho. Kisenosato showed real balls to take everyone on straight up and I don't doubt he will come back with real verve in January despite his losing record. The make-koshi was expected by most observers but he won't forget the fact that he gave some big names a run for their money. He will probably be disappointed that he didn't prove spoiler for Kotooshu but there is no doubt whatsoever that he will be back to screw his big rival up in future yusho races. Being Kotooshu's bogey man from Maegashira is definitely something to write home about, especially when you're only nineteen years of age. Other M5 Ama is just great to watch. Forget the size; he takes on all-comers and gives them his best shot. It was great to see him pawing Iwakiyama into submission on day seven, not to mention spectacularly turning round what looked a lost cause on the first day against Kokkai. I reckon Ama will one day squeak his way into sanyaku but he needs twenty more kilos to stay there. If he can garner those twenty kilograms of muscle while keeping his body balanced, what you will have is a VERY dangerous rikishi in the mix. Go Ama.

M6 Kokkai is obviously trying to mix up that tsuppari attack, going for one-handed lunges as well as his familiar double-barreled thrusts, and the tactic generally worked against the lower opposition. He'll be at or around M3 next basho and I just don't see him getting a winning record up there. The top lads know how to get onto his belt, which generally means sayonara for the big Georgian.

M7 Tokitenku gets my nod for most improved rikishi after a fine display that was rightly rewarded with the coveted Ginosho. He will be under the sledgehammer in January along with Kokkai near the top of Maegashira but I think he has the tools to beat at least one of the leading ladies. Like Asashoryu did, Tokitenku has executed an effective change of style and it will do him no harm at all to have all the options on the table when a bout doesn't go as expected in the future. He can fight just fine with tsuppari as well as on the belt. I see him picking up a ginboshi (silver star – win over an Ozeki) next basho.

M8 Roho picked up the ten wins he was expected to at this ridiculously low rank. As usual, when he did his own sumo, he looked imperious, but when he went for the pull-down (as he still does far too often), it wasn't a pretty sight. M10 Kyokushuzan's 7-8 didn't surprise me at all because he did what he so often (not always) does – gave up once he was out of the yusho hunt. How else do you explain a five-day winning streak followed by a six-day losing one, which came suspiciously straight after he knew he was out of the running? No, he just wants to be around this rank for January so he can have another crack at yusho. When Kyokushuzan tries, he can be an impressive performer, so we should see him start strongly in January. I think he still has the ability to do just fine at this rank but it was plainly obvious that he just wasn't trying in the second week.

M13 Hakurozan finally gave us a glimpse of his quality this basho and I see him catching up with his big brother sometime soon. He also showed us that he still has that awful habit of going for pull-downs when he just doesn't need to. Don't believe me? Go watch the bout with Tokitenku on day 14 again. He was murdering the Ginosho winner with blistering tsuppari and then, inexplicably, he went for a pull-down. He just about survived allowing Tokitenku back into the bout, recovered well, went for tsuppari and got Tokitenku on the ropes again, and then unbelievably made the same mistake again, eventually losing. If Hakurozan can stop all this bull, he has the potential to make sanyaku.

M14 Tochinohana was a pleasure to watch and it will be nice to see the veteran up in mid-Maegashira putting that wily technique to good use. He deserved a sansho and I think he only missed out on the Ginosho because Tokitenku (rightly) got it instead. Still, the Kantosho will do nicely. And finally, I was sad to see M17 Tochinonada get a losing record as this means he is now a Juryo rikishi, which is patently absurd for a man of his ability. Put your money on him for the Juryo yusho in January and a slingshot back up the ranks closer to where he belongs: in and around sanyaku. How in hell he lost to Kitazakura on the last day I will never know. A shocker.

So there we have it. Apart from the first and then the final four days, I felt the actual sumo quality was generally poor, as has been the case in much of 2005. However, we had plenty of talking points to tide us over. Let's just keep in mind over the break that Asashoryu is now well and truly up there in the ranks of the greats, and that he gave the Kyushu faithful a practically flawless display to get there. For me 2005 was the year that Asashoryu really matured into his role as the sole Yokozuna and finally won the grudging respect of the Japanese sumo fans. Respect, not affection. That's the way it goes. And we also have a new Ozeki to consider.  What will Kotooshu bring to the mix?

Going into January the obvious talking point is Kotooshu's performance as shin-Ozeki. Will he do as Tochiazuma did and get his hatsu yusho as a shin-Ozeki? Why not? There's a big wall called Asashoryu in the way, but why the hell not?

See you in January.


Kyushu Pre-Basho Report

A (drunk) acquaintance once informed me that there is no shortage of red-hot potential in Kyushu. Although I doubt he was pointing me in the direction of sumo action, his words came back to me with prophetic resonance as I began to write this report. If Yokozuna Asashoryu can dig just one more yusho out of the bag, we are looking at history in the making.

Naturally, you wouldn't know it if you rely on the Japanese media outlets for your news intake. For them, there is only one story: the possible promotion of Kotooshu to Ozeki. Of course, the majority of editors couldn't care less about his promotion.  They just want his face plastered all over their magazines and newspapers to hype him up for sale to the public at large.  I have just one word for all you chief editors out there: PRESSTITUTION. It is not surprising that circulation figures of newspapers all over the world are in freefall when editors insult the intelligence of their readers with this kind of tripe. If any of you editors are reading this, I hope you realize that you deserve everything you get. It's not just sumo either but let's not stray too far from the topic at hand.

To the big story, then. Asashoryu can break three big records in Kyushu if he takes the yusho with 13 or more wins: the first rikishi ever to win seven straight tournaments; the first to win six yusho in one calendar year; and the first to take more than eighty-two wins out of ninety in a calendar year. If he is successful, the sky is the limit - the big records after that are Taiho's main ones: 32 career yusho and 8 zensho yusho. Make no mistake – the Mongolian master wants the lot, and he will further want to ensure that his name rings down through eternity by making his records unassailable. The big thing to avoid is injury, something he has been particularly adept at keeping at bay so far. In a sport as inherently violent as sumo, however, bad luck can strike at any time. Barring that, there is no one around who can really challenge him, except, perhaps Kotooshu, but head-to-head the Bulgarian is no match for the Yokozuna. In terms of putting up big numbers, Kotooshu's great strength is his ability to be elusive. More on that later. Back to the main man, you have to say that Asashoryu is the odds-on favourite to break all three records. Expect a 13 or 14-win yusho, and don't be surprised to see a zensho (15-0) as you can be sure that the Yokozuna will want to make history in fitting style.

The second major story going into Kyushu concerns Sekiwake Kotooshu's bid to reach Ozeki. Unofficially, he needs ten wins to be promoted. As many readers will know, Kotooshu already has 25 wins from the last two basho (12-3 at Komusubi in July and 13-2 at Sekiwake in September) so he actually needs only eight wins to fulfill the first main requirement of Ozeki promotion – 33 wins over three basho in sanyaku (the three ranks below Yokozuna). However, as eight wins would not be considered a record worthy of an Ozeki, he is going to need ten, which is considered the bare minimum for a rikishi of that exalted rank. This should be no problem for Kotooshu as he has mastered the art of being very difficult to beat. He is so lithe and acrobatic that he can regularly wriggle out of death-holds at the edge, and he often uses his superior height to reach over opponents and grab their belts from the back. That in itself gives the man a devastating advantage over his smaller foes. Most rikishi can at least attempt to block opponents who go for the belt from the front but it is pretty tricky stopping them going via the North Pole. All this adds up to plenty of weapons in the Bulgarian's armoury.

On the other hand, his weak points are pretty clear. Looking back on his five losses over the last two basho, two were due to him choking in big bouts (Wakanosato in Nagoya and Kisenosato in Aki), one was a surprise win by susoharai by Chiyotaikai, one was a straight-up loss to Hakuho (who is equally tricky to beat) in Nagoya and then the really big ones were the losses on days 13 and 15 in Aki to Asashoryu. Yes, I know that's six losses but the day 15 one was the yusho play-off, which is not counted officially. Judging by the way he capitulated in these bouts, we can see that Kotooshu really does not like fighting someone he sees as a threat to him. Asashoryu is obviously always a threat but Wakanosato and Kisenosato were standing in the way of glory and were therefore temporary demons. He either panics (Asashoryu and Kisenosato on Aki days 13 and 14) or meekly throws in the towel (Wakanosato on Nagoya day 15 and Asashoryu on Aki day 15). If Kotooshu can get his mental act together, he is going to be a formidable force. It should be noted, by the way, that although Kotooshu has actually beaten Asashoryu once (in Nagoya), that was only on the eighth day when the basho was still wide open and therefore the pressure was not really on. He has yet to prove himself when the chips are down. Let's see what this basho holds in store.

Another obstacle for Kotooshu's Ozeki promotion is his sometimes negative approach to bouts, using tachiai henka and going backwards, not dominating the dohyo as any Ozeki should. There is only one really bad thing for an Ozeki in sumo (well, two, actually, but the Kyokai don't allow sheep on the dohyo) and this is it. Whatever your opinion is of the henka, it won't hold water with the Kyokai if he tries any of that crap (now you know my opinion) this time round. He is going to have to show good forward sumo in Kyushu and this, in my opinion, could be where things might unravel. In his urgency to show forward sumo, he may no longer be able to control the bout unless he has sufficient strength, and this will leave him vulnerable to counter moves. There are more than a few rikishi capable of surprising opponents when they come straight forward at them. It will be interesting to see how he copes with this conundrum.

Kotooshu is still developing and with time and experience mental fortitude will no doubt come to him and that will be half the battle won. He has not been around for very long and is only 22 so I suggest we all give him time to develop. It is inevitable that he will make Ozeki one day, even if he doesn't make it this time around, and his chances of making Yokozuna are higher than 50/50 in my opinion. The numbers he has put up during his rocket-ride to sanyaku are eloquent reminders of his potential and there is no denying his technical proficiency. Just remember that he made his debut right at the bottom of the pile only three years Kyushu! That's a phenomenal rise up the ranks.

Let's mosey on down to Ozeki-ville. Imagine a dusty frontier town with a few (three) mangy dogs lying limp in the noon sun, waiting to be put out of their misery. There you have the Ozeki trio. Tochiazuma is ranked highest at Ozeki East after a run-of-the-mill 10-5 outing in September. He will want to efface the memory of that embarrassing loss to the Yokozuna on senshuraku with a more fiery performance this time. Tochiazuma is not the rikishi he once was. He is just so ordinary these days. I used to be such a huge fan of him - I still am, of course, but that's just loyalty speaking. There was a time when Tochiazuma was one of the most exciting rikishi around. Now he seems to excel only at wars of attrition, absorbing blows and staying on his feet with the best of them. Maybe it is old age but he is a lot more cautious than he used to be. We rarely see him go all out these days from the tachiai. I would love to see him bring the sparkling talent he possesses out of the dusty cupboard and combine it with a little viciousness a la Asashoryu. He might lose a couple of bouts (and limbs) along the way but so what? He loses more than a couple along the way anyway by boring us all to tears. Come on lad! None of this will happen, of course. Chalk up another workman-like ten wins for Tochiazuma.

Regarding Chiyotaikai I will borrow from the words of lethal gibbon-in-chief, GW Bush: "There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again." Wise words. They apply here because every time I predict Chiyotaikai will do well, he screws up, and vice-versa. After losing his bouts on days one and two last time out, he went on to win ten out of the next eleven. Some were pretty suspicious, particularly that THROW of Futenoh and the defeat of Kyokushuzan (to secure kachi-koshi), but on some of those days he looked almost like his old self and it really was a pleasure to see it. I hope he can bring that attitude to Kyushu but I fear that he dislikes fighting away from Tokyo. Since and including the last Kyushu Basho, he has had a make-koshi in every honbasho away from the capital. I can't get fooled again so I say make-koshi for the big fella and the inevitable taking-on of the kadoban mantle in January. Shame on you.

Poor Kaio could well be on his last legs. He knows he needs eight wins to keep his rank and he will need to drive his increasingly creaky body to extremes to keep up with the pace. We will probably see a difficult start from a rusty Ozeki but if he can keep going, he should rally after the first couple of days to capture at least eight wins. At this time it is unclear how bad his injuries are – Mike's report next week will no doubt touch on that in detail – so I cannot confidently give a prediction here. I hope he gets eight, though, because he may well decide he has had enough if he is demoted to Sekiwake. Although I am all for new blood coming through, the world of sumo will miss this charismatic old campaigner when he goes, so I am hoping he can postpone the sad day for a little longer. If his injuries force a withdrawal in the first week, we could well be looking at an intai (retirement) announcement.

Looking through the rest of sanyaku...Sekiwake West Kotomitsuki was lacklustre last basho by his own admission and he will want to put on a better show this time. He is the king of erratic sumo so I will not even attempt to predict his performance. As always, anywhere between four and twelve wins. He has said that he does better when he doesn't think too much about his sumo and just follows his instincts. His recent failed Ozeki bid bears that assessment out. Let's hope he follows his own advice.

Komusubi East Kyokutenho makes a return to sanyaku after a decent 10-5 showing in September, where he picked up some notable scalps: Chiyotaikai, Hakuho, Futenoh and a real schooling of Kisenosato. He has not had much luck in the top ranks in the past, only once managing a kachi-koshi (10-5 in Natsu 2003) at Komusubi. I don't see him having the quality to do all that much at this level...he has not improved on two years ago, although he has shown some signs of getting back to his best. Seven wins at the most. Komusubi counterpart Hakuho is a class act and is only down this 'low' because of his dodgy ankle. He still went 9-6 at M1 in September and looked agile and steady despite the injury. If he is back to his best, Hakuho has the potential of being a dark horse for the yusho. I'll say at least ten wins for him, injured or not.

Now it's time for our usual trip through the ones to watch in the Maegashira ranks. M1 Tamanoshima kicked arse in September with a nice 11-4 but he is going to find the going much harder at this rank. He has looked more solid of late so I give him a reasonable chance of getting eight but my gut says seven at best. M2 Futenoh will be desperate for proceedings to get underway so he can consign his disappointing sanyaku debut performance to the forgotten past. He should have no trouble getting eight wins and could easily get nine or ten.

Combative imp M2 Kakizoe is always feisty and up for it, and he has won my respect for his fighting spirit. He will probably do his usual trick of losing to all the top rikishi while quietly racking up seven wins against lesser mortals.  M3 Wakanosato should storm to at least ten wins if he has recovered from that nasty-looking injury he sustained in September. That type of injury takes around six weeks to heal so his only problem is making sure he gets back in decent shape to fight the top lads. He will no doubt be practicing against top sekitori in keiko to ensure his bout-readiness. M5 Kisenosato will have the hopeful eyes of Japan's tortured fans on him as he takes on the top rikishi regularly for the first time. At this rank, he may or may not face the Yokozuna but my money is on them meeting because one of the Ozeki is bound to pull out at some point, creating a vacuum on death row, where the condemned meat is lined up for Asashoryu's convenience. In other words, he may be put up the order a bit if someone is forced to withdraw. I see Kisenosato struggling quite a bit due to inexperience but he will put up a real fight, win or lose. I want to predict eight but I'll say six or seven for the talented youngster. A couple of basho from now, I confidently predict he will be picking up kachi-koshi easily at this level, but it might be a little too soon yet.

M6 Kokkai has a serious problem on his shovel-like hands: tachiai. He has to think of some way of being a far more vicious animal (more cornered badger than slightly concerned squirrel) or he will be massacred by the rikishi who have sussed him. Let's face it - last basho proved that he has been worked out by most of the top rikishi. All they have to do is absorb that first thrust and then get inside that gargantuan reach. When that is accomplished, it is usually game over for the big European, as the air force come in and shoot him on the roof of the building he climbed. M9 Takamisakari, now vying with Kotooshu for the newly-introduced sumo popularity prize (only joking), should have a lot more joy at this rank. He looked woefully out of his depth in September against decent rikishi but he has proved in the past that he can more than hold his own against the less fearsome opponents in the lower half of the division. Nine or ten wins. M10 Kyokushuzan is another so-called elevator rikishi who really should make mincemeat of everyone at this level. At least nine for him, I reckon.

The M11 rank is interesting because the two likeable veterans (Tosanoumi and Kotonowaka) have made of it their abode. Both are definitely over the hill but they also have the quality to pull upsets this low down. With Tosanoumi, it's that well-documented balance problem. With Kotonowaka, it's those old knees he has to worry about. Whatever else you say about Kotonowaka, you have to agree that he has the finest breasts in sumo. Both should get at least six wins and eight is not impossible.

At M15 we have Tamaasuka who really disappointed me with his poor 4-11 record last basho because he showed flashes of real ability at times. I am hoping he will turn things around and get eight or nine this time around. And finally, I congratulate the Kyokai on having the good sense to allow M17 Tochinonada to survive in the top divison and have one more chance at kick-starting his career after that excruciating injury in Nagoya. If his condition is good, he will stroll through the bouts at this rank and should easily rack up ten or eleven. He is still one of my favourite active rikishi and he deserves a second chance after that battling 7-8 in September.

On to possible villains: as always, rely on M4 Miyabiyama to pull a few henka and generally fill everyone with apocalyptic dismay. M8 Roho and M13 Hakurozan have given us ample evidence that uninspiring sumo and surly demeanour runs in families. The bad sumo part should not be happening, however, as they both (particularly Roho) have quality. Regarding demeanour, perhaps a nosegay dotted here and there around the dohyo would cheer them (and everyone else) up a bit.

That's it from me. Iron Mike Wesemann, fresh and funky, will be reporting in the run-up to shonichi (first day of the basho). Be sure to read his report as it will have all sorts of info about pre-basho keiko and other stuff. I will be reporting with the usual crew over the course of the basho. See you in a couple of weeks.


Yusho: Asashoryu (14-1)

Ginosho: Kotooshu

Kantosho: Ama

Shukunsho: Hakuho


Aki Basho Roundtable Report

Kotooshu, Kotooshu, Kotooshu.  That's all I've heard from the Japanese people I've encountered this week.  It is, of course, no surprise at all to hear that from the Japanese public, who are just as vulnerable to mass media manipulation as anyone else.  That's right - generate blanket coverage and get that 204cm frame and lush, lean, gorgeous, magnificent...ahem, fine sumo body dominating the screen and all the young women...uh...serious fans of sumo will go crazy with, sorry, will nod in appreciation of his sumo abilities.

Frankly, the media in Japan is just as profit-driven and shameless as it is in, say, the United States and Britain (just to pluck some examples out of the air).  I say screw the bastards.  It is a flat disgrace that they have almost ignored the remarkable achievement of Yokozuna Asashoryu.  But who cares?  It's just the media.  They don't give a damn about Kotooshu either.  They just see a hunk of attractive meat who will sell more copies of their worthless rags and get more aimless sheep viewing the vacuous advertisements of their sponsors.

So, sod them all.  At Sumotalk, we like to cut through the crap that surrounds the sport and tell it like it is.  This basho was no different in this regard.  While everyone was saying sugoi sugoi in appreciation of Kotooshu's unprecedented twelve straight wins at Sekiwake, we (all five contributers to one degree or another) were pointing out the fact that in the first week, Kotooshu's sumo was at best not in the slightest bit worthy of an Ozeki or an Ozeki candidate.  His sumo improved in the second week as perhaps some of the criticism began to sink in.  That would not be surprising because leading the barbs was Asashoryu himself.  There is no doubt whatsoever that next basho will be crucial for Kotooshu.  Not only will he need ten or eleven wins, he will need to show sumo worthy of an Ozeki, one of the many requirements for promotion.

For readers relatively new to sumo, here are those requirements: a successful Ozeki candidate is required to get at least 32 or 33 wins over three basho in sanyaku (the three ranks above Maegashira not including Yokozuna).  Kotooshu has 35 wins over three basho but one of those was spent at M5, where he did not fight all the top ranked lads, most notably Ozeki Tochiazuma.  They also prefer a rising trend over those basho, for example, 9-6, 11-4, 12-3, although this is not crucial.  And finally, the rikishi is required to show consistently good sumo, in other words, that worthy of an Ozeki.  For all those people who have written in to Sumotalk asking what's wrong with using the henka to get wins, the above promotion requirements go some way towards providing a good answer.  Evasive tachiai and moving backwards is not considered Ozeki sumo.  As Clancy pointed out in his day 15 comments, sumo is about nobility, not showing how efficiently you can jump out of the way.  Kotooshu will have to show us what he can do in Kyushu or he will be a Sekiwake for a bit longer than planned.  The thing is, he CAN bring it.  In the second week, he proved that he can generate good, forward sumo.  Let's have some more of that.

Now let's turn our attention to the true star of the show, Yokozuna Asashoryu.  Kenji has eloquently stated the facts in his post-basho comments.  You don't need me to repeat them.  I agree that we are looking at history in the making.  It is downright scandalous that Asashoryu's achievement has been nigh on ignored.  Make no mistake, Asashoryu will go on winning.  He is in a different class to all and any who would challenge him.  He is also growing into his role as the moral leader of sumo very nicely.  He emits a real sense of presence wherever he goes.  The Japanese sumo fans might not like him, but they are going to damn well respect him.  Ironically, I felt that Asashoryu was relatively weak this basho.  He looked awful in that loss to Aminishiki, and in his victory over Kotoshogiku.  It is a measure of his genius, however, that he was able to turn things round after that to win all the remaining bouts to force a play-off.  That's fourteen yusho at the age of twenty-four (now twenty-five).  It is amazing regardless what your opinion of the overall opposition is, which in my case, is pretty low.  That's a story for another day, however.

Ozeki Chiyotaikai (10-5) dragged us back to the past to give us a reminder of how strong he used to be.  Like a mutant squirrel, he put those tsuppari to good effect and walked through ten bouts to consign his kadoban status to oblivion, at least until January next year.  It appears that Chiyotaikai really dislikes fighting away from Tokyo because he has had make-koshi in every honbasho away from Kokugikan since (and including) Kyushu last November.  This does not bode well for the next basho, but his success or lack of it will depend on injuries and his mental state, not historical patterns.  Ozeki Tochiazuma (10-5) continued to drift as he somehow managed to lose to the laughably outmatched (this basho) Takamisakari.  Although Tochiazuma was beaten fair and square in three of his bouts, the losses to Kotomitsuki and Circus demonstrated once more his propensity to lose to opponents he shouldn't do.  This has damaged his career and he needs to work on his concentration, which has been clearly lacking over the fifteen days of any honbasho you care to mention of late.  Ozeki Kaio (0-4-11) should not have been up on the dohyo at all, but he gave it a shot.  Why bother?  If you're injured, then you're injured.  I understand the pressure these lads are under to avoid demotion but just have a look at what happened to former Yokozuna Takanohana when he decided to fight on with a serious injury.  It ended his career.  Let's hope Kaio recovers enough to give his many fans one last swansong.

Whatever your opinion on the content of his sumo, Shin-Sekiwake Kotooshu (13-2) deserves a great deal of credit for injecting life into this basho as he gave the Yokozuna a real scare.  We have talked a lot about Kotooshu's poor first week so we don't need to go into that any further.  One other point needs to be made.  Kotooshu's mental fragility in the big bouts, as demonstrated so dramatically against Wakanosato on the final day of the Nagoya Basho, was all too apparent again as he choked against Kisenosato on day 13.  He then appeared to give up against the Yokozuna in the kettei-sen (play-off).  Some have said he lost his balance at the edge, explaining why he capitulated so lamely, but it seemed to me that he had lost the bout in his mind before the tachiai had even taken place.  There are two big demons in Kotooshu's mind.  One of them is Asashoryu, the other is his fear of taking/dropping the yusho– take your pick.  Somehow he needs to address these, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.  All this talk would be necessary for a Yokozuna candidate.  It is not so important yet for Kotooshu to be challenging Asashoryu.  An Ozeki simply needs to show good sumo and provide decent competition for the Yokozuna.  Let's get that out of the way first.  One thing I will say is that Kotooshu is becoming very difficult to beat, as a direct result of his awesome technical abilities.  For this, at least, praise is due.

It was a real shame that Sekiwake Wakanosato ( 4-3-8 ) was forced to pull out after doing the splits a la Tochinonada in his day 6 bout against Hakuho.  He was showing some good sumo and would, I am certain, have made an impact on the basho.  He will fall into Maegashira for Kyushu, probably down to the M5 or M6 mark, and should kick everyone's arse down there if he fully recovers.

Komusubi Kotomitsuki was his usual erratic self this time.  He said himself that his condition was poor so a 9-6 record and promotion to Sekiwake West for Kyushu is something of a bonus.  The potential with this rikishi has always been huge but he is going on 30 and it looks like he might have left it a little late.

Komusubi Futenoh (5-10) will be most disappointed with his performance.  I stand by what I have said about this young rikishi.  He is future Ozeki material (conditional on his back problems not returning, of course).  Aki was a bit of a rollercoaster ride for him.  He started with that memorable win over the Yokozuna, followed by a bread and butter win over Kakizoe.  He was then THROWN by Chiyotaikai on day 3 (emphasis on THROWN).  Dejima entertained us all by jumping out of the way on day 4, and then Futenoh was overwhelmed on day 5 by some superb sumo from Wakanosato.  Kotooshu then showed us how good he is at henka on day 6, and by this stage, Futenoh's confidence was shot to pieces.  He only rallied in the final stages of the basho against weak rikishi.  Futenoh will be back down in the Maegashira ranks in Kyushu .  Perhaps when the pressure of being new to sanyaku is off him, he will show us all what he can do.

Let's take a leisurely stroll through the Maegashira ranks.  How bad was M1 Miyabiyama (6-9)?  One of the worst performances I have ever had the misfortune to witness.  His 'sumo' was summed up nicely with that day 14 henka he pulled on Hokutoriki, who was 7-6 at the time, after Miyabiyama already had a make-koshi.  Nice.  Classy.  If you're not going to try to do proper sumo and treat your opponents with respect, then do us all a favour and retire.  M1 Hakuho (9-6) did well despite having an injured ankle.  The fact that he can pick up nine wins at this level when injured speaks volumes about his ability.  Future Yokozuna here.

M2 Kakizoe (7-8) recovered well from a tough first week to win the final four days and ensure that his demotion next basho is not too painful.  I am an admirer of Kakizoe in general.  He is never going to make it right to the top but he is a thorn in the side of anyone on his day.  M2 Kokkai (5-10) was frankly horrific.  Tachiai is particularly vital for him and it just was not firing this time.  It looks like the top boys have worked him out.  Back to the drawing board for the big fella.

Like Kakizoe, M3 Dejima (7-8) won the final four days after a tough first week.  He looked a little out of his depth at this rank.  Late career Dejima appears to be happy around the M5 mark.  M3 Kyokutenho (10-5) put up some good sumo, including a memorable schooling of Kisenosato and other prestigious scalps in Chiyotaikai and Wakanosato.  He is likely to be Komusubi West in Kyushu .

M8 Tamanoshima (11-4) outclassed this rank as expected.  This explains why he did not receive any special prizes.  He'll be back at the top of Maegashira next basho, getting his arse tanned as usual.  M9 Tamaasuka surprised me with a poor 4-11 performance.  The youngster impressed in his debut in Nagoya but showed generally poor sumo this time around.  Expect a turnaround from this promising youngster in Kyushu at the bottom of the Makuuchi division.

M10 Asasekiryu ( 6-2-7 ) deserves a mention for coming back from eight days of injury to win four of his last five bouts.  Good lad.  M10 Roho will be disappointed that he could only muster eight wins at this low rank.  It does not bode well.

M11 Ama (9-6) gave his usual display of technical brilliance.  It would be nice to see Ama up at the top of the banzuke but more bulk is definitely required.  M12 Hakurozan proved once again how erratic he is with a lackluster 7-8.  Surely he and his brother are the most miserable rikishi in history.  See Clancy's day 5 comments for more details.

M13 Kotonowaka (8-7) turned back the clock to actually do some decent sumo.  He commented that his knee was a lot better, obviously the reason he was able to put some oomph into his bouts this time.  Let's be honest, though - all it takes is a recurrence and it will be curtains for the big man, and taking into account his size, age and the punishment he has put his body through over the years, it's only a matter of (a short) time.

M16 Kisenosato finally showed us all what he is capable of with a commanding performance of textbook sumo.  He has improved drastically since Nagoya but the potential was always there.  He will have a chance to prove himself against more deadly foes in Kyushu .  If he can keep that lovely tachiai and low stance together, and continue improving his balance at the edge, we will see great things.  Remember that this was the man who stopped Kotooshu from getting his yusho.  Even at this low rank, he proved himself capable of affecting the basho.  He will be ranked up at around M6 or M7 next time and may get the chance to fight an Ozeki, perhaps even the Yokozuna if there are injuries.  A just reward.

Finally, it was sad to see the great M17 Tochinonada fall to a make-koshi and probable (not definite) demotion to Juryo.  He was clearly hampered with his injury but still managed to put up seven wins.  If he recovers fully in the next two months, put your money on him walking to the Juryo yusho (if he is demoted, of course) next time.  He is most definitely not past it yet.

That's it from me.  An intriguing basho, high on excitement and definitely low on all-round sumo content.  However, there's plenty to talk about going into Kyushu .  Thanks for reading...see you in a few weeks.


Aki Pre-basho Report

Hail and well met for the finest basho of the sumo calendar. Why is it the finest? I don't know. All I am hoping for is an upturn in the level of sumo from the sanyaku ranks, which were frankly very disappointing last basho, and indeed have been mostly average at best all year.

Hang on a minute, though. A cursory glance at the Aki banzuke will tell you that we finally have some (emphasis on some) quality rikishi lined up for our entertainment and delight. I will be keeping a close eye on shin-Komusubi (meaning Komusubi for the first time) Futenoh after his impressive breakthrough performance in Nagoya. We also have Sekiwake Kotooshu hoping to put the wheels on an Ozeki-run bandwagon. Kotomitsuki and Wakanosato have proven themselves to be decent – if inconsistent – rikishi. Rounding out the top end of the banzuke we have a seemingly unstoppable Yokozuna. You will note that I have omitted the Ozeki here.

We will start at the top as usual. Yokozuna Asashoryu has been away in Mongolia between basho – wrestling with otters, no doubt – and is going for Taiho's record of six straight yusho and frankly, short of injury or illness, there is no one to stand in his way. Mike has mentioned the need for a rival for the Yokozuna. For the fans, that is obviously true, but Asashoryu would like to get a bit closer to twenty-five or more yusho before someone comes along to challenge him. He knows he still has a long way to go before he gets to that magic figure of 32 yusho and I am sure he likes things just as they are. I remember writing the pre-Hatsu report last January and saying that come Kyushu, Asashoryu would be looking at passing Wajima's fourteen yusho after winning every basho this year. If he can come close to repeating this performance next year, he will be hovering around twenty yusho by the end of next year. Ladies and gentlemen, the Yokozuna will turn 25 two days after the final day of the Aki Basho, and he looks in impeccable condition, and appears able to shrug off and avoid injuries at will. If he can keep it up, we are looking at history in the making. And in sumo, history really does mean history. Another yusho for Asashoryu – his tenth in eleven basho. Write it in your diary. He will want a zensho (15-0), of course, because he is still only halfway to Taiho's record of eight such yusho. For the record, Chiyonofuji and Kitanoumi both have seven zensho yusho.

I will go through the Ozeki ranks with one sweep. This is the sixth consecutive basho where we have had a kadoban Ozeki. Translation: they are all crap, oh, not allowed to say that? OK, underperforming.. According to reports, Kaio has pulled a hamstring and is unable to do any keiko. He is currently waiting to see how it goes before deciding whether or not to go kyujo. If he does compete, he will have done little or no keiko and will most likely suffer as a result. Yes, we have seen top rikishi fight before without doing much keiko, and they have sometimes performed satisfactorily (at least in terms of putting up the numbers). However, the veteran Ozeki is crocked in so many parts of his body it is a wonder he can get out of bed in the mornings. If he doesn't go kyujo, he will probably struggle to a kachi-koshi. He is still good enough to get the odd win here and there with one leg. The trick, of course, will be to get that right hand grip on the opponents' mawashi. He still has what it takes in the nage department. Tochiazuma got injured in Nagoya but still managed to fight his way to a creditable 9-6 record. One thing I have always liked about Tochiazuma is his ability to stay on his feet – you rarely see him lose with a throw. That low center of gravity and cautious tachiai has served him well over the years. However, I have noticed that he is looking a lot more precarious of late. I keep waiting for him to trip up. This could just be a consequence of his injuries - I hope so, being a long-time fan. Don't expect too much from him this time but he is always good for at least ten wins, and we all know what he is capable of when he gets the bit between his teeth. He is no match for Asashoryu these days, though, no matter what the head-to-head stats say. Ozeki Chiyotaikai is kadoban yet again. We all know he has had injuries (currently knee and ankle) and his sumo has been bloody horrendous for over a year – he would be the first to say so. Indeed, he has said so on more than one occasion. He really is just hanging on for dear life now. The top end of the banzuke looks too strong this time for Chiyo so I think we can kiss him goodbye. He will do well to get six or seven wins, meaning a demotion to Sekiwake. Lord Clancy may well have been correct in his prediction that the troubled Ozeki would retire by Christmas, but even if he is demoted, he will still have one more basho to pick up ten wins and boomerang back to Ozeki, meaning retirement may wait until early next year. One thing I will say to any readers who are relatively new to watching the sport – Chiyotaikai was not always rubbish. When he was on his game, he was rock hard, and great to watch, too. Never as powerful as Akebono, of course, but faster and more focused. Bye bye Sooty.

Sekiwake Kotooshu appears to be perfecting the art of keeping out of trouble at the tachiai and waiting for his opponent to commit himself before pouncing. It is an interesting variation on the tactics used by another jolly green giant, former Ozeki Takanonami, who used to wrap his arms over the shoulders of his opponents and swing them (rather tediously) out of the dohyo. Kotooshu is certainly very adept at nage waza and he keeps his opponents guessing as to whether he will use offensive or defensive sumo. This is a useful tactical edge. Opponents of, say, Iwakiyama, know before they fight that they're going to be facing a straightforward raging bull, but with Kotooshu they have no idea what is going to happen. I am sure his oyakata will say publicly that he would like to see his charge winning more often by yorikiri or other offensive techniques, but privately, I am sure he is happy to see the young Bulgarian putting up the numbers any which way. He is coming off a sweet 12-3 in Nagoya and he should get a kachi-koshi at the very least this time around. One thing that is demonstrably lacking is the mental side of his game. We know from senshuraku of last basho when he got his arse kicked good and proper that when the chips are down his stomach churns with nerves, and fatally so. This needs to be addressed and it will be interesting to see how he handles the increased spotlight this basho. Nevertheless, I predict nine or ten wins for Captain Beanpole.

The other Sekiwake Wakanosato is coming into Aki off a decent 11-4 last time out. Like Kotooshu, he has the chance to get an Ozeki run going for Kyushu if he can scrape together ten or eleven wins this time. He has the advantage of not really being under all that much pressure because he has been around for a while, indeed has been at Sekiwake on and off since the invention of the talking toaster, so he is by no means the new kid on the block as is Kotooshu. I think he will quietly rack up the wins in Kokugikan and should easily manage nine, possibly ten.

Shin-Komusubi Futenoh has not yet been embraced by the Japanese fans as a whole, and the same goes for the press. One might speculate that he just doesn't beat his chest enough before bouts. What he does do, however, is bring solidity and power to the dohyo with a grace I have rarely seen (and yes, I know Asashoryu also possesses these qualities in abundance). He really was a revelation last basho and I desperately hope that his magnificent display in Nagoya was not a flash in the pan. He reminds me somewhat of one of my all-time favourites, former Sekiwake and seven-time Shukun-sho winner, Akinoshima, and that is high praise indeed from my own personal point of view. As the new Komusubi, it is highly likely that he will meet Yokozuna Asashoryu on the first day, and will also have a very tough first week. This is often a real killer for the morale of Komusubi, who often find themselves 2-5 after a first week diet of top class rikishi. One can almost imagine the conversation between Futenoh and another rikishi in Dewanoumi Beya on the day the banzuke was released:

Rikishi (jealously): Hey, Futenoh-zeki, you'll probably be fighting the Yokozuna on the first day

Futenoh: Arse

Rikishi: And you'll be meeting all the Ozeki and other decent rikishi in the first week

Futenoh: Arse

Rikishi: Are you going to write anything on your blog about it?

Futenoh: Arse

I will be supporting him avidly this time, and although it could all easily go wrong for him, I will stick my neck out and say that he will get his eight wins. However, I really do think he is a fine rikishi now that he seems to have completely recovered from his back problems of yore, and then there is the fact that he is solid in defense and able/patient in attack. With this in mind, I reckon he can get nine or ten if he stays calm and focused. As a note of caution, however, don't forget Kotooshu's first basho in sanyaku – a horrible 4-11. It can all easily go wrong at this rank. However, this is a different situation - Kotooshu was little more than a flimsy, teasing little waif at that time, and was hyped to buggery to boot (not least by me). Anyway, Futenoh said recently that he will try to be more aggressive this basho, and he also went up in my estimation by saying he will never do a henka. This means he is a real man, not a mincing ponce who chickens out of a real fight – are you listening Hakurozan? But don't get me started on the henka again!

Other Komusubi Kotomitsuki is a conundrum as usual. I predict anything between 4 and 12 wins. He really is a total nightmare. He would be well-advised to stop thinking and just do his own sumo. He can be absolutely brilliant, and is certainly capable of beating anyone – yes, anyone – on his day. If I am pushed to make a prediction, I will go for seven or eight wins.

I have bored you to death for far too long with sanyaku so I will just make a brief tour through the rank-and-file lads to watch out for. M1 Hakuho went kyujo last basho – a great disappointment as he was looking almost invincible. He has been doing some keiko and there have been conflicting reports about his readiness. He will definitely be competing, however, and the fact that he has managed to do some keiko means that he must at least be able to hobble around. Hakuho and Kotooshu are really similar these days, in my opinion, in that they are both getting excellent at keeping out of trouble at tachiai and waiting for the right moment to make their moves. It is defensive sumo – yes – but it is crowd-pleasing stuff because as often as not the bouts end with last ditch nage. Everyone likes a nice throw. If he doesn't pull out, he should be a safe bet for kachi-koshi. It is hard to say at this time.

M2 Kokkai will be trying that turbo-charged tachiai against all the top lads again this time. Due to injuries, Kokkai met all the remaining Ozeki and the Yokozuna last basho despite being down at M6. The tachiai paid him some serious dividends, most notably in his controversial win over Asashoryu. Rikishi have been bouncing off him, even the biggest and the best. If he can keep it up, expect another eight or nine wins. If not, we will see a collapse.

Keep an eye on M10 Roho and M17 Tochinonada. If they have recovered from their injuries, they are going to walk through their bouts at these ludicrously low ranks, to which they have been demoted because of injuries last time. Indeed, expect to see challenges for the yusho lasting into the second week from these two. This is conditional on them being fully (or almost fully) back to their peaks.

Other rikishi from whom we might see decent sumo include M9 Tamaasuka, who impressed in his debut in Nagoya. He has work to do on various aspects of his sumo but he will quickly adapt to this division and show us what he is capable of. M12 Hakurozan has not yet impressed me with his sumo content, and I have been concerned especially with his lack of fighting spirit on the dohyo. However, the quality is in there somewhere and he won some bouts very easily last time. He should put up eight or nine wins.  Also keep an eye on M6 Kotoshogiku, who showed some delightful sumo in Nagoya.  

By the way, at the recent YDC soken, both Kokkai and Hakurozan did a runner when the Yokozuna got up on the dohyo, and this did not please Kitanoumi Rijicho one bit. They were probably worried that they would get injured. Understandable, I suppose. The Yokozuna is not well-known for holding back in practice. Incidentally, the YDC's only female member, Makiko Uchidate memorably described the recent soken as like 'being in a hospital waiting room.' Remind me not to go to her local hospital next time I am sick. She also said it was the worst soken she had ever seen.

M11 Ama should do all right at this rank. He looked listless and tired in Nagoya so let's hope he's had a fruitful and inspiring break. His solid sumo and dazzling array of techniques is always a pleasure to watch. M16 Kisenosato needs to start getting his arse in gear because a make-koshi at this rank will most likely mean demotion to Juryo. He is obviously a bit of a slow developer, but, as most readers will know, there are many ways to bait a badger - possibly – so let's give him time. I confidently predict at least eight or nine wins for the young hopeful.

M14 Jumonji really should make mincemeat of everyone at this rank. At least I hope he does because I predicted at the beginning of the year that he would make M6 (he managed to get to M7 east – aaarghhh!). And I will be wholeheartedly supporting the plucky Korean M16 Kasugao on his return to the big time. I am sure I am not alone in remembering his courageous display in the Haru Basho when he got badly injured against Kaiho on the first day but fought on to the end of the basho nonetheless, finishing with a 1-14 record. Go Kasugao.

Possible villains are as follows: expect M1 Miyabiyama to shame his rank with some lumbering and pitiful sumo. However, he is a big strong lad and is more than capable of blundering to a kachi-koshi in the manner of a giant careening mutant donkey. He needs to lose weight. M4 Kyokushuzan is still too high to be making an effort and will almost certainly get a losing record. Expect five wins at the most from him. M5 Takamisakari is going to suffer this basho but he will no doubt give his all as he always does. I agree with Mike about Circus being good at the edge but the quality of the competition is just a bit out of his reach, I reckon.

Not villains as such because I am a big fan of both of them but M8 Tosanoumi and M13 Kotonowaka look pretty much past it, especially the latter. Tosa might still have a few surprises in the tank, however, so I would not be surprised to see him scrape eight wins but Koto is looking like retirement material. Bon voyage.

The other injured rikishi I have not mentioned are M7 Kaiho and M10 Asasekiryu. Kaiho will definitely not enter the Aki Basho but Asasekiryu will probably make an appearance. I would keep an eye on the injury news this week as there is plenty of uncertainty.

And that, my furry friends, is that. I will be reporting on four days this basho, mostly in the second week. See you then, and keep your fingers crossed for some red hot action in Kokugikan. I will be there myself on the eighth, thirteenth and fifteenth days. Can't wait!


Yusho: Asashoryu (15-0)

Shukun-sho: None

Gino-sho: Kotooshu

Kanto-sho: Kotoshogiku



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