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Time to close the book on the Nagoya basho with my final report card post. This time I’m examining the eight men who make up the san’yaku. Hoshoryu’s awe-inspiring yusho and Kotonowaka’s sneaky 11-4 aside, this cohort was pretty disappointing. There will be lots of elite wrestlers heading into the aki basho with points to prove so that should make for some compelling drama on the dohyo.
But let’s dig into why most of these wrestlers had such a tough time in Nagoya.
Rank: Komusubi 1 West
Abi gave us another live by the sword, die by the sword performance in Nagoya. There are lots of wrestlers in the top division who have pretty obvious and one-track gameplans. Having a one dimensional game seems to result in records that mostly waver around the mid-line, speaking to the fact that—when you go to the same move all the time—sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The better wrestlers have back-ups in place for when their favourite move fails. Others just spam the move and take the lumps for when it doesn’t pay off. Abi is certainly in the latter category.
This year his records have been 8-7, 9-6, 8-7 and now 6-9. In 2022 he went 12-3 in the first and last tournaments of the year, but in between he was 8-7, 7-8, 8-7. His 12-3 records came when he was ranked M15 and then, for his yusho, M9, When he’s ranked higher than that he’s treading water, thanks to the hit-and-miss approach to his sumo.
Below you can see what happens when it goes right. See how he lures Meisei into a fire fight with his high thrusts, letting himself get moved back to where he feels the straw. Then he dives to the side and, as Meisei tries to drive him out, he hops and lands in bounds, leaving Meisei to fall face first.
What Meisei should have done was go to Abi’s belt and body earlier, instead of waiting for Abi to get to his favourite spot on the ring. See below how Hakuoho is able to hit Abi in the midsection before he runs out of real estate. By getting to Abi early, and immobilizing him with a thrust to the thigh, Hakuoho had room to powerfully drive his feet forward before he has to dive.
Abi is shaping himself into an interesting, albeit predictable, puzzle for higher level rikishi to try and solve. He feels like an underwater level of a platform video game, somewhat challenging, but ultimately beatable if you know the risks. If he wants to increase his difficulty level he’ll need to mix something else into his game (something more than his occasional, though excellent, henka).
Rank: Komusubi 1 East
Record: 11-4 (Fighting Spirit Award)
A great record, but still a somewhat quiet performance from Kotonowaka; who will be moving up to sekiwake thanks to his 11-4 mark here. That’s six kachi-koshi in a row now for Kotonowaka, who remains extremely tough to force out, but still perhaps lacking some of the intensity needed to really take a basho by the throat.
Some of Kotonowaka’s most thrilling bouts come in defeats, like this tournament when he lost to Tobizaru after a great back and forth battle. To me that speaks to a lack of cardio and also a lack of grit in being willing to keep up the pressure and fight through adversity, should his opening thrust and force out fail.
See how, after being turned by Kirishima (on the heels of a poorly attempted throw) he looks to kind of give up along the boundary. This is a little similar to what I critiqued Kotonowaka for in the previous basho, where he was backing opponents all the way to the straw but then gassing out and failing to get them over and out.
Those criticisms aside, Kotonowaka still produced 11 wins in Nagoya. And his win over Hoshoryu displayed some nastiness. I think his game would improve if fully let that off the leash.
In May his tournament suffered from a five bout losing streak. But he flipped that in Nagoya and was able to end the tournament with a six fight winning streak. Though, aside from Hoshoryu, those wins were against wrestlers who he was expected to beat (based on rankings). I can’t judge him too harshly for that, though, given he also racked up wins against Daieisho and Nishikigi early on.
Rank: Sekiwake 2 West
Wakamotoharu got kachi-koshi in Nagoya, but he still fell well short of scoring an ozeki promotion. To get one he would have had to score 12 wins, something he’d never done before. The 9-6 effectively restarts his ozeki run. If he were to get 14 wins at the aki basho that would satisfy the 33 win threshold, but he still might miss out on the promotion thanks to this sub-double-digit performance in Nagoya and the fact things are less desperate over at the JSA now there are three ozeki on the banzuke.
I think Wakamotoharu’s struggles are down to how reckless he can be at times. His solution to problems often seems to be a blunt instrument, even when finesse is needed. I think he’s the most athletic and perhaps the strongest pound-for-pound wrestler in the game. However, pure power doesn’t always get the job done.
Below is an example of him succeeding via his strengths. See his back and shoulder muscles ripple as he’s able to stand up Meisei, slide him backwards and then drive him down.
However, when an opponent doesn’t stay straight in front of him and is more active with their hands, Wakamotoharu can look a little loss. See how he tries to block and stall Kirishima below, but then the ozeki moves his feet laterally and switches from an attempted grip on the belt to high thrust to the armpit/chest.
In this situation against Kirishima, he would have been better served trying to circle away early, instead of trying to dig his heels in. By the time he tries to escape here, it’s too late.
Something else that might stop Wakamotoharu from getting the wins he needs to progress past sekiwake is that many of his victories come thanks to last ditch dives and throws, like against Hokuseiho in May and versus Mitakeumi more recently. These desperation moves have worked for him (and created fantastic highlights), but they feel like unnecessary risks for someone capable of winning via safer routes.
Rank: Sekiwake 1 West
Oh Daieisho. He had the easiest route to ozeki promotion in Nagoya. He needed just 11 wins, something he’d done on multiple occasions. However, he blew it. And blowing it is starting to feel like the story of his year.
In March he lost to Kirishima, back-to-back, to lose the championship. In May he fell one win shy of ozeki promotion. And now, in July, he falls three wins shy and finds himself in the exact same situation as Wakamotoharu (both mathematically and narratively).
Daieisho’s ills are the same as Abi’s, he does the same thing every time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And good wrestlers know it’s coming and know what to do.
His power thrusting game can make most of his peers wilt, but against fellow elites it’s not nearly as effective.
Here’s Wakamotoharu standing up to the pressure and forcing Daieisho to get desperate with a dive that fails to get the job done.
And here’s Kirishima, who has Daieisho’s number down, showing his opponent he can thrust too. That lights Daieisho’s fire and when he tries to charge back, Kirishima is nowhere to be found.
For how strong Daieisho is, if he were to try and go chest-to-chest and grab onto a belt from time to time, I think he’d get find it much easier to reach ozeki.
Rank: Sekiwake 1 East
Record: 12-3 (Yusho, Fighting Spirit Prize)
There’s only one grade possible for Hoshoryu. He was best in class in Nagoya and showed, when the pressure is on, he can deliver despite his young age and relative lack of experience.
He got himself into a position to compete for the Emperor’s Cup with a diverse game where he mixes strong pushing, fast evasive footwork, and an arsenal of throws that few can stop.
When Hoshoryu gets the outside grip with his right hand and the inside grip with his left, it’s a wrap. Below are four examples of him scoring wins off of that grip.
Against Hakuoho, during crunch time in the basho, he showed incredible upper body strength and perfect leg placement to send his new rival down.
Here he is dispatching Wakamotoharu, using movement to get him off balance after elevating the right leg. The cold stare here is because Wakamotoharu tried to henka Hoshoryu in this match; a match Hoshoryu needed to win to keep his ozeki run intact.
Asanoyama blocked Hoshoryu’s first attempt when they met, but then charged into a second attempt. With Asanoyama’s feet moving, Hoshoryu needed excellent timing to trigger the throw when his opponent’s foot was raised.
Kirishima is the only rikishi who can match Hoshoryu with these kinds of techniques. He was banged up in this tournament, but let’s not take anything away from Hoshoryu’s win. Kirishima knows what Hoshoryu is looking for here, so he keeps his leg out of the way of Hoshoryu’s knee and tries to use pressure on Hoshoryu’s head to prevent him from getting the angle he needs. However, Hoshoryu’s grip doesn’t need to result in a throw to be successful. Here his outside grip disarms half of Kirishima’s body, while the inside grip is used to drive him straight back.
These wins were part of an early career-defining basho for Hoshoryu and proof that he’s yokozuna material. His only slip ups this basho were thanks to strong performances from Nishikigi and Kotonowaka and an errant foot outside the line during his first bout with Hokutofuji. I can’t wait to see how the newest ozeki performs at the next tournament.
Since I have access to images from Kyodo News when writing on Bloody Elbow, here’s a gallery of great pictures of Hoshoryu celebrating his yusho and ozeki promotion.
Rank: Ozeki 1 West
Kirishima gambled in his first basho as an ozeki. And he lost. …
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