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  • 2019 Natsu Basho Preview

     

    The 2019 May sumo tournament or the Natsu basho, as it is called, is set to run from the 12th to the 26th of the month. With this basho, a new era will be ushered in, a visit from a famous American may take place and some new sumo blood will be striving for dominance in the sport’s upper echelons.


    The End (and beginning) of an Era


    Although I could write an entire blog about the Heisei Era in Japan, that’s not what I intend to do here. However, I will just point out that the previous era did run from 1989 until the present time and will end on the last day of April when Emperor Akihito abdicates the throne. It is interesting though, to look back at who dominated sumo during that time.

    The early 90’s signified the beginning of the end of Japanese success in Japan’s national sport. First it was the Hawaiians, with Akebono becoming the first foreign-born rikishi to reach yokozuna. Shortly thereafter Musashimaru obtained the rank. Over the course of a decade (1992 - 2002) the duo captured 23 total yusho between them. Then, of course, came the Mongolians. The accomplishments of Asashoryu dwarfed both his Hawaiian yokozuna predecessors combined. He captured 25 tournament victories from 2002 to 2010. He was joined by Hakuho at the sport’s highest rank in 2007 and together they changed sumo forever. Harumafuji followed suit in 2012 and Kakuryu in 2014. Asashoryu was only the beginning, though. One yokozuna outshined even him and will probably go down as the greatest of all time - Hakuho. He’s currently got a record 42 yusho (and counting), leaving every other champion in history in the dust.

    Most sumo fans, even the new ones, know that Kotoshogiku was the first Japanese rikishi to win a tournament in over 10 years when he took the Emperor’s Cup in January of 2016. But don’t let that “achievement” let you from staring in awe of what is not stated - the fact that foreign-born rikishi won every single tournament from March of 2006 to November of 2015.

    The sport’s credibility was also seriously marred in this era by many scandals involving gambling, match fixing, drug use, unexplained deaths, molestation, internal power struggles, violence outside the ring and other such disparaging reports that seriously hurt sumo’s image.


    Trump


    The between-basho headlines have been dominated by one thing: Donald Trump. Apparently being in every other headline around the world is not enough for his ego. He feels it’s necessary to dominate the sumo headlines as well. Evidently he’s scheduled to visit the Land of the Rising Sun on a three-day tour, which just coincidentally happens to fall during the final days of the Natsu. If this does in fact happen, Japanese officials may suggest that he not only attend the final day of the tournament, but perhaps even give out a trophy to the winner.

    According to an unnamed source who wrote a snarky comment on Facebook, Trump may or may not have said “It’s going to be an honor, folks. To hand out this trophy, it’s something really unbelievable. Our administration has been doing this for a long time. We’re the best at it. We really are. I’ve handed out many more trophies than Obama ever has. Trust me.”

    Seeing as how The Donald is such a polarizing figure, this is either the greatest thing that has ever happened to sumo or the worst. I personally am a firm believer in the old saying that “any publicity is good publicity” and he will certainly bring a lot more eyes to the sport than would normally be there. Will this translate to more sumo fandom? Will it take Trump to finally make sumo great again? Who knows? At any rate, it will surely be interesting to see what happens.


    New Blood Rising


    Sumo’s highest two ranks seem to be akin to a human lung recently. With every breath they expand and contract, taking in the new fresh air and exhaling the old. It wasn’t so long ago that we had a full house with four yokozuna on the banzuke. Now it’s been whittled down to two. The ozeki rank has also fallen victim with our beloved Tochinoshin already gone after a five month stint. He can, however, still recover his rank, should he put in at least 10 wins this time around. Conversely, Takakeisho will make his debut as an ozeki at the Natsu after compiling a total of 34 wins, 4 special prizes and an Emperor’s Cup over the last three tournaments.

    In an ironic twist of fate, on day 15 of the March tournament Tochinoshin met Takakeisho. At that time Tochinoshin was 7 - 7 on the final day and needed the win to keep his rank. A win for Takakeisho would mean his 10th of the basho, perhaps all that was necessary to solidify his ozeki promotion. Takakeisho won easily over Tochinoshin without almost any resistance at all.

    Looking back at Takakeisho’s Haru tournament, nothing that significant really jumps out at me. He had some solid wins over a few rank-and-filers, a few “gimme” wins, including his win over Kakaryu and he had a couple of really embarrassing losses to the likes of Ichinojo, Goeido and Hakuho. Certainly I will not compare him to Kisenosato, but I will be watching carefully how he copes as an ozeki, especially against the other ozeki and yokozuna. He’s nowhere near yokozuna material and if the machine gets behind him, so to speak, and starts revving up the motor in that direction, I think it will be a very big mistake. It’s kind of like Mike often says - the stats are there on paper for Takakeisho, but the quality of his sumo in the ring isn’t all that impressive.

    One guy who most certainly is yokozuna material, however, is Ichinojo. The ease with which Ichinojo won each and every one of his bouts was impressive. Fighting from the M4 rank, he didn’t face either yokozuna, but it was still impressive nonetheless. Nearly all of his wins were backwards-moving victories by slap down. That doesn’t bother me though. Maybe he’s just finally found something that works for him. Mike Wesemann of Sumotalk.com pointed out some time ago that during my interview with Konishiki, the former ozeki stated that in his day a lot of top guys had a trademark technique or style that they won the majority of their matches with. Maybe this is just Ichinojo’s trademark style now. Who knows?

    Another thing we don’t know is if Ichinojo’s new found success is here to stay. We have seen this kind of sumo once before out of the Mongoloid, back in his maegashira debut in September of 2014 when he went 13 - 2, but since then he has laid dormant, like methane trapped inside a glacier. Maybe he finally senses that his time has come. The yokozuna pack has thinned out and the remaining ozeki, Takakeisho included, are not on his level. Perhaps it’s time for Ichinojo to finally ascend to his rightful place atop the banzuke. This tournament will be very telling for him. We shall see. Technically, he’s in the midst of an ozeki run. He’s got 20 wins over the past two tournaments. I’m no mathemagician, but to reach the magic number of 33, he’ll need 13 wins this tournament. Imagine if he won the tournament this time around with 13 or 14 wins. Do you think they’d promote him?

    Another guy to keep your eye on is Tochinoshin. This guy is kind of like Bob Marley. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him. He may be down, but he’s not out yet. Like I said, with a 10 win performance or better, he can regain his lost ozeki rank. But that is often easier said than done. Tochinoshin has reached double digit wins only 8 times in the past 27 tournaments, since resurfacing in maegashira from his injury in 2014. At 31 years old and with two bad wheels, there would certainly be no shame in hanging around in the division for a few more years, or as long has he feels healthy enough to compete, even if he’s not an ozeki. Sadly though, I feel he has peaked, as far as success goes and I don’t predict a return to ozeki for him.


    Hakuho


    Yep, we don’t want to overlook The Storyteller, do we? With his eccentric sumo these past few years, and lack of yusho, it’s easy to do that, though. The March tournament was as stern reminder that he’s not going anywhere yet and when he feels like it, he can still do what he wants to whomever he wants any time he wants.

    Hakuho’s zensho yusho, the 15th of his career, was not the only headline The Great One was able to grab between the bashos this time around. He was also heavily criticized and reprimanded for his absolutely shocking, repugnant, repulsive, disrespectful, degenerative, appalling behavior during his post-basho speech. Did you see what he did? Did you bear witness the atrocity that Hakuho encouraged? This rabble-rouser nearly incited a riot in Osaka when he asked the crowd to clap their hands … and in unison, no less. Greatest yokozuna of all time, I think not.

    Another Hakuho issue at hand (pardon the pun) is his arm injury. There are some who will say this is just another fake Hakuho injury that conveniently happens from time to time, to give the illusion of parity in sumo between foreigners and Japanese rikishi. There are others that will say that the only explanation for Hakuho’s erratic sumo over the past few years are his injuries coupled with his age. Maybe both are right. Maybe neither are right. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Only The Storyteller knows. And that’s the beauty of it.

    Hakuho stirred even more gossip recently when he officially applied for Japanese citizenship. This most likely signals that he is planning on sticking around in the sport after he retires, since it’s a requirement to be a Japanese citizen if you wish to do that. Perhaps his eventual retirement is weighing more on his mind now and maybe it’s a signal that his arm really is hurt, maybe even more than we think it is.

    But here’s one more thing to consider about Hakuho. With Donald Trump potentially being present in the audience and maybe even handing over a trophy, don’t you think that even in spite of his injury, Hakuho would do everything possible to win the 2019 Hatsu basho? I’m not sure where The Great One lies on the political spectrum or if he’s a Trump supporter or not, but surely he wouldn’t want to miss a publicity opportunity like this, would he? After all, he is the face of sumo and to not win this tournament and miss out on an opportunity like this would surely be a fail for him. Would it not?


    Let the Games Begin


    At any rate, let’s enjoy the 2019 Natsu basho. I hope this tournament rocks as hard as Sumotalk writer and guitar god Kane Roberts’ new album “The New Normal” does. If you haven’t heard it yet, make sure you do. Kane is back in action with former band mate Alice Cooper on one track and teams up with Nita Strauss on another. It’s worth a listen.

    Unfortunately, I’ll be on the road all month long doing kickboxing and MMA commentary, so I won’t be writing any reports, but I’ll definitely be following the daily breakdowns of all the top division matchups on sumotalk.com. Check it out if you have a chance. You can also follow Sumotalk on Facebook.

     


    - Daniel Austin (Don Roid)

     


    daniel.austin@spiintl.com

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