Grand Sumo’s last tournament of the year is upon us. The Kyushu basho gets underway this Sunday and runs for two weeks as the Japan Sumo Association looks to give out the last Emperor’s Cup of 2023. This year in sumo has been fascinating with established talents getting so close (and yet so far) to their ultimate goals and new/young contenders emerging from obscurity.
In Kyushu there are a number of reasons to tune in and burning questions I want to have answered. You can check out five of those below. Enjoy!
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1. Will a new yokozuna be crowned Kyushu
Back in January Takakeisho wowed sumo fans with a thundering performance in the New Year tournament, slinging down his old High School friend Kotoshoho on the Final Day. After that victory, murmurings began over Takakeisho’s candidacy for a yokozuna promotion.
Takakeisho is a popular (but polarizin) figure in Japan and the idea of having a Japanese wrestler promoted yokozuna for only the second time since 1988 stoked a lot of intrigue into the man dubbed ‘The Angry Hamster’ by westerners. Two championship wins in a row is considered the bar for entry in the yokozuna conversation, so Takakeisho headed to the March basho on his home turf of Osaka looking for that ultimate prize.
However, the championship in Osaka eluded Takakeisho due to a knee injury suffered in a bout with Abi. Takakeisho gutted out the following the tournament to keep his ozeki rank and then sat out in July. In the last tournament, in September, Takakeisho returned and finally looked about as healthy as he did in January.
So the yokozuna conversation has been reset and now we head to Kyushu with Takakeisho looking for a second title in a row and his best shot at becoming the next yokozuna.
In January dissenters spoke of Takakeisho’s style being too undignified to earn the yokozuna rank. One of the loudest of those voices was a Japan Sumo Association member who said Takakeisho too often looked like a squat frog on the road when he lost (very un-yokozuna-like).
Since then Takakeisho has spent less time on his face and has instead mixed some crafty slap downs and henka into his game (much to the chagrin of his boo-birds).
In Kyushu we’ll be able to see if Takakeisho has the nerve (and health) to deliver a third championship in 2023. If he does, the debate over whether he is ‘yokozuna material’ will rage to new levels.
2. Are the ozeki jitters over?
Kirishima’s first half of 2023 was sensational. An 11-4 runner-up performance in January was followed by a 12-3 championship win and then an 11-4 record to meet the 33 win threshold to land the ozeki promotion (and name change to Kirishima from Kiribayama).
Since then, things have been a little shaky.
Kirishima came into his first tournament as an ozeki injured, sitting out on Day 1. He struggled through the remainder of the tournament, slumping to a 6-7-2 record and kadoban status for the next tournament.
In the aki basho this September Kirishima was able to save his rank with a 9-6 record, but he rarely looked close to his top form. Whether this was injuries or nerves, we don’t know.
Hoshoryu, who used to attend the same judo school as Kirishima back in Mongolia, got his promotion to ozeki one tournament after Kirishima. And just like his rival he struggled in his first appearance under that rank.
At the aki basho the normally composed, and ruthless, Hoshoryu looked like he was second guessing himself and he lost a number of bouts in quite embarrassing fashion.
However, towards the tail end of the tournament he did seem to pull it together and was able to rescue an 8-7 record and avoid being kadoban after his first ozeki tournament.
With both men now having some ozeki experience under their belt (and both seemingly being healthy), we might just see them fight to their full potential in Kyushu. If that’s true, we could be in for a heck of a tournament. It would also be great to see them face each other while in the best possible shape (and head space).
3. Was Atamifuji’s aki basho a fluke?
21-year-old Atamifuji came into the September tournament with just one top division appearance under his belt (a forgettable 4-11 in 2022). But his second appearance in the makuuchi was a totally different story. Coming off a juryo championship win, this version of Atamifuji took the top division by storm at the aki basho.
He got off to an 11-1 start in September, with just a hiccup to Tsurugisho spoiling a perfect 12 bout run. Over that time he showed excellent power and technique, either going chest-to-chest or straight arming opponents before running them out the ring. He also mixed in a number of throws, including a picture perfect uwatenage on a shell-shocked Tobizaru.
On Day 12 nerves crept in, though. Up until that point Atamifuji seemed to just be having fun out there and not thinking about the possibility of a surprise Emperor’s Cup run.
When the number of wrestlers at the top began to thin and he saw it was pretty much between him and Takakeisho, the wheels came off a little. The first sign of this was a loss to Daieisho (who was making darn sure a youngster didn’t get the better of him).
Next he met Takakeisho. And he looked terrified. After a false start and a long time to reset, Takakeisho (who gave him a death stare throughout) blasted through the young man to take a lead heading into the last two days of the tournament.
A misstep by Takakeisho and a big win over Abi tied things up and gave Atamifuji two shots at winning his first makuuchi yusho on the final day.
His first challenge was Asanoyama, but the former ozeki was able to withstand Atamifuji’s push and get him out with a firm, and slick, yorikiri. This set up a play-off with Takakeisho.
Atamifuji looked as if he shelved his nerves for this second encounter witj ‘Keisho. However, that meant he had the guts to plow forwards and challenge, head-on, the best pusher in the game. Unfortunately for him, Takakeisho guessed he would do this and simply stepped back to win a controversial championship.
The young Atamifuji won a lot of fans at the aki basho and he has been rewarded for his performance with promotion to maegashira 8. At the Kyushu basho he will be immediately matched with a higher level of competition than he beat-up during the first half of the aki basho, so it will be exciting to see if he can cut it at a higher level or whether his last tournament was just a flash in the pan.
4. Can Hokutofuji stay in the san’yaku?
Hokutofuji remains must-see-TV. However, unlike other fun and fan-friendly talents, like Ura and Tobizaru, Hokutofuji showed this year he was a threat to win a championship.
The owner of sumo’s most famous bald spot was a beast in Nagoya, going 12-3 and losing out on his first ever Emperor’s Cup in a play-off loss to Hoshoryu. In that tournament he beat every san’yaku opponent he faced, other than Wakamotoharu. He had beaten Hoshoryu on Day 12, prior to their play-off bout.
Things didn’t go as well for Hokutofuji at the aki basho, but he still claimed a kachi-koshi and he still scored some notable wins.
He started the tournament with a Murderer’s Row schedule, being booked against all three ozeki back-to-back-to-back. And he beat them all.
He made both Takakeisho and Hoshoryu taste dirt with slap downs and then he bull-rushed Kirishima out of the ring. Losses to Daieisho and Wakamotoharu followed, but he did score a win against the newest sekiwake Kotonowaka. He also beat both komusubi in the last tournament.
That winning record has seen Hokutofuji promoted to the san’yaku himself as komusubi.
This is the fourth time Hokutofuji has been promoted to komusubi. Each previous promotion lasted just one tournament. In 2019 he went 7-8 and went straight back down to maegashira 1. Later that year he was promoted back up, but another 7-8 record sent him straight back down. In 2020 we was promoted a third time, but suffered a dreadful 4-11 record.
Since then he has been very inconsistent, yo-yo-ing up and down the maegashira ranks, going as low as M12. He started the year as M6 and may have finally shown he has what it takes to hang with the elites over a sustained run.
We’ll have to see if his sparkling 2023 form against upper ranked wrestlers continues in Kyushu (when he needs it most).
5. How will Wakatakakage look after his 10 month lay-off?
Wakaktakakage was an established sekiwake looking to put together an ozeki run this year. However, a disappointing March tournament (which started with five losses) turned into a disaster when he and Kotonowaka went smashing into the dohyo apron on Day 13.
During that incident, Wakatakakage twisted and then had the full weight of Kotonowaka land on him. This resulted in a torn ACL. Despite suffering that injury, Wakatakakage needed to shake it off, instantly, and face Kotonowaka in an immediate rematch. He won the fight and then hobbled backstage.
He was forced to sit out the next two days, meaning he ended with a 7-7-1 record.
The injury required surgery and it has kept him out of action for three straight tournaments. Those consecutive 0-0-15 records have seen the now former sekiwake demoted to the makushita division, outside of sumo’s salaried ranks.
In most other sports, an ACL injury means a year out of action and baby steps back to competition. But this is sumo we’re talking about.
Wakatakakage will likely compete in Kyushu to halt his slide further down the rankings and give himself a shot of being a top division wrestler again in 2024.
He’s been training on the exhibition circuit wearing a heavy-duty knee brace, so it doesn’t seem like he’s 100% healthy.
He and his stable must be confident that his skill-level will mean he can get through makushita bouts (which happen every other day, not every day like juryo and makuuchi) and earn a winning record while remaining relatively unscathed. It’s a risk. I hope it pays off.
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