Nagoya: Post-Basho Wrap-up

This basho rejuvenated my interest in Sumo in so many different ways. In recent tournaments, my interest has often flagged because nothing changed. Hakuho wins, Harumafuji shows great talent, but not enough size for consistency, Kaio is old, Kotooshu looks like someone just shot his puppy, one “Japanese hopeful” or another is all the rage with the media, there is some scandal or other going on. Its hard to keep one’s interest up in circumstances like that, and I was certainly having trouble keeping mine up. Also, I was finding Sumo boring.

But this basho was fresh. I worry. Is it all a show? Did the Sumo Federation decide to institutionalize yaocho to prevent the appearance of it in money? Are the bouts now fixed so as to give the viewers exactly what they want? These thoughts rush through my mind as I watch, and perhaps they are true, most likely they are mostly false. In any case, it doesn’t matter. Sumo has got my interest. I am back on board and I am seeing it with new eyes.

My break with Sumo occurred soon after Asashoryu was ousted. His ousting really got to me. I had learned to see Sumo as organized around him. I was upset when Hakuho started edging him out in ability. My day of sumo was a good one when Asashoryu slapped his belt with verve and tossed his opponent out of the Kokugikan. My day of sumo lacked luster when Asashoryu was off. I had a place in my heart for the other rikishi as well, but I had really fixed on Asa and I couldn’t imagine Sumo without him.

At the beginning of 2010, Sumo without Asa was made a reality, and it seemed to me that all the interest had been drained from the sport. But, I wash’t idle. I began to develop broader interests. Kaio won my heart and lost it and won it back and lost it again, and won it back. I began to develop a budding interest in not just who won, but how they won. Having discovered that the sumo ranks change, I began to look more into who was coming up through Juryo, and I started thinking about what Sumo might look like 5 years down the road.

That said, nothing changed, and Sumo had become boring. This basho changed all that for me. This basho was fresh. This basho was full of possibility. Anything could happen. In fact, Hakuho lost, Harumafuji showed great talent and consistency, Kaio retired, and the Japanese hopeful that the media was raging about (at least the media that happened to take notice of Sumo this time around) was actually good. The only thing that remained constant was that Kotooshu still looked like someone had just shot his puppy.

This basho was full of memorable moments. There is a gyoji down in jonidan with a voice unlike any other gyoji I have ever heard. There was Takamisakari and his honest face; the man wears his heart on his sleeve. There was Homasho, looking promising. There was Kotoshogiku, looking like a fighter. There was Kaio, who dragged himself across the finish line to the records he had been chasing. There was Hakuho, looking more expressive and vulnerable than he has in past basho. There was Kaisei, proving himself to be a mainstay in the Makuuchi line up. And there was Baruto, who finally got his win over Hakuho. A few words on each of these men.

Takamisakari: Takamisakari has to be one of the most honest rikishi in Sumo. I will always remember seeing Takamisakari when he came to town on an exhibition tour. You couldn’t get near him because he was surrounded by children wanting his autograph. Takamisakari is a crowd pleaser and he has been for a long time. He’s now 35 years old, and the power has been leaving his Sumo over the past few years.

Although the power might be slipping away from his Sumo, it is just a strong as ever in his conviction in the sport. His joy is written all over his face whenever he wins a bout, and his sorrow is telegraphed by the set of his shoulders whenever he loses. Unfortunately, it is his sorrow that we have seen too often these past few basho, and it looks like this basho might be the last we will see of his three pre-bout doggerel grunts in Makuuchi.

Of course, my predictions are ever fallible, but I would be surprised if we see Takamisakari in Makuuchi next basho. Perhaps he will retire. While his name is still on the tip of everyone’s tongue, I would like to award him the Ambassador award.

In receiving the Ambassador award, Takamisakari joins the ranks of Kitazakura. On one of our roadshows, we here at Sumo and Stogies met Kitazakura, and we were impressed by his passion for the sport and his desire to engage the interest of young people around the country. Takamisakari equals Kitazakura’s energy, and I hope to see both of them promoting Sumo to the younger crowd in years to come. As recipients of the Sumo and Stogies Ambassador award, both of these rikishi are invited to come smoke a complimentary Ambassador cigar at a Sumo & Stogies event (hell, if they come, we’d throw a party just in their honor – I would fly all the way out to Japan for that).

Takamisakari, it was a tough tournament, but you are class act rikishi.

Homasho: Homasho is my pick for the next Japanese Ozeki. I am assuming here that Kotoshogiku won’t be promoted this tournament. (The Geek did well in this last basho, but as things stand he only has 32 wins over the last 3 basho.) Homasho displays a wide variety of Sumo techniques. As Creswell noted earlier in the tournament, Homasho’s tachiai is perhaps a little to defensive, but he gets better and more confident every tournament. In this most recent tournament, Homasho won the Fighting Spirit Award.

Kotoshogiku: Kotoshogiku is the “Japanese hopeful.” With the retirement of Kaio, that status of “Japanese hopeful” has been upgraded to the status of the “Japanese ordained”. At least, that is, assuming that any Japanese people still watch Sumo and care. I like Kotoshogiku and I think he is a strong rikishi right now, but I am conflicted about his promotion to Ozeki. The problem I have is that over the 6 basho, he has won by yorikiri 71% of the time. Don’t get me wrong, this is an impressive feat to be sure, but yorkikiri is a young rikishi’s Sumo.

When watching Sumo you notice that a rikishi usually only gets three pushing attacks per bout maximum, actually, most rikishi get fewer than three pushing attacks per bout. The reason for this is that yorikiri is an exhausting way to win. As rikishi get older, their stamina drops along with their brute strength. If they don’t develop a wide range of winning techniques, they stall as they get older and their strength deserts them.

This is why I am conflicted about Kotoshogiku’s promotion. I think he will stall in a few years here. Winning 71% of the time by yorikiri is fine when you are young and strong and fight opponents of a variety of levels. As Ozeki, Kokoshogiku will be fighting more top level rikishi, which will tire him out. As he gets older the problem will get worse. Because of this, I don’t see Kotoshogiku as having Yokozuna potential. Without that, there seems little point to promoting him to Ozeki. Of course, perhaps his Sumo will diversify, we’ll have to watch and see. For this basho, even if he isn’t promoted to Ozeki, at least he can go home proud of winning the Outstanding Performance Award.

Kaio: During this basho we said goodbye to Kaio. The man was like an anchor to the past, and with the strong tides of the future flowing in all around him, he had become an anchor that threatened to capsize the ship. With his retirement, the ship that is Sumo has set sail for fresh waters. If the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie hadn’t sucked so much, I would be tempted to say that the ship of Sumo has set sail on stranger tides. As things are, let us just hope that the next chapter in Sumo sucks less than Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides did.

Kaio proved that sometimes it is better to retire with dignity than chase down that final record. If Kaio had retired at the end of the Hatsu Basho, I would have considered him a hero. As it is, I am forced to consider him a once great rikishi, who didn’t know when to quit. His performance in this last basho was painful to watch, but, as I sit and reflect, two moments come to mind that define Kaio’s last basho. I will remember his final bout, which was less than I could have wished, to say the least, or I can remember the touching moment when Chiyonofuji met him in the hanamichi and shook his hand on the day that allowed Kaio to retire with the record for most career wins (the record was formerly held by Chiyonofuji). Chiyonofuji’s comment as he shook Kaio’s hand is rumored to be “What took you so long?”

Lets go with that second moment. It was great to see Kaio’s face as he shook Chiyonofuji’s hand, and that face is what we’ll remember him by.

Kaisei: Its too soon for me to have formed an opinion on any of the other recent promotions, but of Kaisei, I have formed a general impression of what is to come: Kaisei proved his staying power this basho. As we say goodbye to faces like Kaio and perhaps Takamisakari, we have Kaisei to look forward to getting to know better. Kaisei is big, and that certainly helps him get his wins, but he is also poised, and he displays a nice variety in his sumo.

He performed at Maegashira 5 in this last basho and he certainly didn’t disgrace himself. He got a makekoshi, which is to be expected of a newcomer to makuuchi performing way up at the fifth rank. I have no desire to see what comes out of this rikishi in the future, but I am interested in how well he will perform in future basho.

Baruto: Baruto is the reason I hesitate to judge Kotoshogiku to harshly. The Baruto of today is unrecognizable compared to the rikishi he was when I first started watching Sumo. His Sumo has become so much more interesting and versatile. On the final day of this basho, Baruto beat Hakuho. I cannot remember Baruto ever to have beaten Hakuho before. However, as we all know, my memory is about as reliable as Hakuba at the tachiai. Connelly tells me that Baruto did beat Hakuho once before in January 2010, but who’s counting…

Harumafuji: Harumafuji almost went undefeated this basho, and the only bout he lost was a good one. Harumafuji gets to add Nagoya 2011 as his second yusho. It was great to watch hAruMAfuji yusho again. The first time he yushoed, this author along with the whole Sumo and Stogies crew were right there to see it. This time, we watched from afar, but seeing Haruma win brings me hope for the coming bashos. I hope they will be as interesting as this basho was.

Hakuho Hakuho is either getting old or getting bored. Either way, he didn’t look as strong or as confident in this basho as he has in the past. The rikishi that can’t be beaten has been beaten, and Sumo is interesting again.

So much for this basho: we’ll have more Sumo commentary coming at you in September. Check back with us in the interim for posts on our other passions: we’ll be discussing some aspects of the culture of whiskey, and I’m sure we’ll have some other good stuff for you as well.

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