Sumo Stomp! 5 questions heading into the Aki Basho

Sumo's aki basho starts this weekend. Here are my musing on what to look for during the latest grand sumo tournament.

By: Tim Bissell | 4 weeks ago
Sumo Stomp! 5 questions heading into the Aki Basho
Sumo wrestler Takakeisho. IMAGO/Kyodo News

Sumo is back! The aki basho (fall tournament) starts in the early hours of Sunday for us in North America. In Tokyo the rikishi of the makuuchi division will battle it out for an Emperor’s Cup. Coming off Nagoya, which was host to some incredible performances (and stellar debuts) there are lots of questions heading into this one.

Let’s get right to it and discuss the five story-lines/questions which I’m particularly interested in this month.

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1. How healthy is everyone?

The aki basho comes at time when many of the top ranked rikishi in the game are injured or coming off injuries. We have question marks over Terunofuji, Takakeisho, Kirishima and Nishikigi. And yesterday it was announced that Hakuoho, whose performance in Nagoya showed he is a potential yokozuna candidate despite still being a teenager competing in his first every top division tournament, was out of the aki basho due to shoulder surgery.

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Hakuoho almost won it all, in his first top division tournament, as a teenager, with a bum shoulder. Incredible.

Because of all these injuries, expectations for the entire tournament have been marred a little bit.

Terunofuji returned from a year absence, due to double knee surgery, to compete at the natsu basho and looked incredible. He won the division with a 14-1 record. Then in Nagoya he was beaten by Nishikigi and Tobizaru early on and then had to sit out the remainder of the tournament with a supposed back injury (even though it looked like a kick from Tobizaru damaged his surgically repaired knee).

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That looked painful.

Takakeisho has struggled with knee problems since day one of the haru basho. He toughed it out at the following tournament to save his ozeki status but then sat out of Nagoya.

Kirishima suffered through rib injuries in Nagoya, leading to his losing record.

Nishikigi, who was one of the surprise contenders in Nagoya, reportedly suffered a torn calf recently.

There’s probably countless other rikishi carrying injuries at this point in the calendar.

And some of those injuries may have been exasperated by the brutal exhibition tour we’ve seen between now and Nagoya. On the exhibition, and cross-training circuit, there have been a number of stories regarding especially severe practises.

Tobizaru needed hospitalization after a very rough round with Terunofuji. Kirishima was also apparently brutalized by Terunofuji during recent open workouts. So the yokozuna might be healthy again, to the detriment of everyone else. I’m just hoping we see the top ranked guys get through the entire tournament and see, for the first time this year, a complete san’yaku fight it out for the cup.

2. Will Hoshoryu live up to his rank?

Over time, I have no doubts that Hoshoryu will prove to be an incredible ozeki. And I personally think he, along with Kirishima, are future yokozuna. My question here is just about this next tournament, though. And whether The Golden Boy has what it takes to reverse some of the snake-bit vibes of the position.

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Hoshoryu uses one of his patented throws against Hiradoumi.

After his win in January, Takakeisho has had an awful year due to injuries and he sat out the previous tournament entirely. Kirishima came into Nagoya as a freshly minted ozeki and suffered an injury the morning of day one which greatly hampered his performance. He and Takakeisho are kadoban for the aki basho.

So I’m hoping Hoshoryu can come into his first basho as ozeki and put on another thrilling performance (and not get hurt!). He’s certainly capable of it. His stoic nature and cold stare have made him a star on r/sumomemes. But in Nagoya he showed that this demeanour isn’t just for show. He went into multiple must-win bouts that tournament, both to secure his ozeki promotion and to win the Emperor’s Cup. Those bouts included match-ups with the always tough (and sometimes dirty) Wakamotoharu, the rising phenom Hakuoho and the surprising Hokutofuji (who took a win off Hoshoryu early in the basho).

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Hoshoryu after winning his first Emperor’s Cup.

It wasn’t until the job was done against Hokutofuji that he finally let his mask slip. Because of this I think he’ll do fine with the pressure of being an ozeki, despite him still being in his early twenties.

3. Can Kotonowaka take another leap forwards?

Lost among the storylines out of Nagoya (Hoshoryu’s promotion, Hakuoho’s ascendancy, Hokutofuji’s surprising run) was Kotonowaka locking down his sixth straight kachi-koshi and earning his fourth Fighting Spirit Award with an 11-4 record. This performance earned the 25-year-old his first ever promotion to sekiwake. He goes into the aki basho now working on an ozeki run.

His success in Nagoya was a culmination of incremental improvements in his game over the last year. Those improvements haven’t been overly technical, instead they relate to his mentality and approach to his sumo. Earlier this year he seemed to be getting a winning record without ever trying too hard. You’d see him give up along the boundary or gas out in the second or third phases of a bout. However, in Nagoya he looked meaner and hungrier than ever (see his push out of Hoshoryu below).

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Kotonowaka did not want to let Hoshoryu get out of this.

Despite how much bulk he carries Kotonowaka does not have the same kind of injury history as many of the top ranked wrestlers. If he’s coming into this basho with a relatively clean bill of health, he could be a force to be reckoned with. If that’s so, we might just see another ozeki on the banzuke before the end of the year.

4. Will Gonoyama and Shonannoumi sink or swim?

Two other characters who were overshadowed, despite earning 10-5 records and Fighting Spirit Awards, were the makuuchi rookies Gonoyama and Shonannoumi. Both had the misfortune of entering the top division alongside Hakuoho and watching as the Miyagino stand-out came close to making history in the sport. Hakuoho’s brilliance shouldn’t take away from what these rookies managed to do, though.

Gonoyama (who beat Hakuoho to win the juryo division in May) and Shonnanoumi showed a great deal of promise in their maiden top division tournaments. They may have scored the same records, but they got there in vastly different ways.

Gonoyama got to ten victories through putting his head down and attacking all-out with a pusher-thruster style reminiscent of Takakeisho. Though, Gonoyama lacks the size of a Takakeisho or Daieisho he does have superior foot speed. He’ll need to find a way to utilize that more if he wants to stay relevant with this style of sumo.

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Gonoyama blasts through Ryuden.

Shonnanoumi was more graceful than Gonoyama. He scored his fair share of oshidashi as a result of his massive, and athletic frame, but he also mixed it up with some very pretty throws. See how he tossed Nishikigi below, all but ending that rikishi‘s shot at the Emperor’s Cup.

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Shonannoumi with one of the wins of the tournament.

In the aki basho both Gonoyama and Shoannoumi have been promoted to maegashira 5, so they can expect a significant rise in competition (including some san’yaku opponents).

I’ll be watching to see if either man can keep their head above water when facing the best opponents they’ve ever seen. If not, we may see what happened to Kinbozan, who went 11-4 (with a Fighting Spirit Award) in his debut top division tournament in March, was then promoted to M5 and then went 4-11 the following tournament.

5. Is Atamifuji ready for the big time?

Looking to follow in the footsteps of Hakuoho, Gonoyama and Shonannoumi this tournament is Atamifuji. Atamifuji was promoted to makuuchi as a 20-year-old in 2022, but failed to make an impact. He went 4-11 and was demoted back to juryo where he stayed for four tournaments.

In Nagoya he won the juryo division and now has his chance to show he belongs in the top division.

Atamifuji is from the famed Isegahama heya, which is also home to top division wrestlers Terunofuji, Takarafuji, Midorifuji and Nishikifuji.

The 21-year-old faces plenty of tough opponents in training, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s able to beat out a few veterans at the aki basho. He’s looked brilliant in his last two juryo tournaments, too.

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About the author
Tim Bissell
Tim Bissell

Tim Bissell is a writer, editor and deputy site manager for Bloody Elbow. He has covered combat sports since 2015. Tim covers news and events and has also written longform and investigative pieces. Among Tim's specialties are the intersections between crime and combat sports. Tim has also covered head trauma, concussions and CTE in great detail.

Tim is also BE's lead (only) sumo reporter. He blogs about that sport here and on his own substack, Sumo Stomp!

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