A Real Yokozuna: The Vindication of Kisenosato
The era of four yokozuna may not last long and its first tournament was one of the most turbulent in recent memory. Since 2003, each sumo wrestler promoted to the rank of yokozuna—the highest in the sport—has been Mongolian. From Wakonohama’s promotion to yokozuna in 1999 until 2017, no Japanese wrestler achieved the highest rank in Japan’s own national sport, and since 2014 the three active Yokozuna have been the Mongolians: Hakuho, Harumafuji, and Kakuryu. That was until Kisenosato finally achieved his potential and won this year’s January tournament.
Kisenosato, the Great Japanese Hope, came close to being a Great Japanese Almost as he continued to do everything a wrestler need do to be called great, without ever actually winning one of the six major tournaments which are held each year. Following Kisenosato’s career and studying the statistics it seemed as though this was an unfortunate feat which couldn’t be matched even if he were trying to. An ozeki—sumo’s second highest rank—since 2012, Kisenosato had proven himself capable of beating anyone, even Hakuho, on any given day. In 2016 he achieved the most impressive kick in the teeth imaginable as he came out of the year with the most tournament victories of anyone, without winning a single tournament—a feat which had not been recorded in hundreds of years of professional sumo. Kisenosato’s failures were making history. It seemed as though Kisenosato would forever be remembered as a man who owned all the technical skill and physical ability of a yokozuna but who always fell at the last hurdle, be it by chance or by mental collapse.
When Kisenosato finally pulled through in the January 2017 basho to win the gold with a 14-1 record, besting the great Hakuho once again in the final, those in charge were keen to get the yokozuna rank on him as quickly as possible but many were calling for a second tournament victory to prove his worth. So on March 12th, the first tournament of the era of four yokozuna was underway and from day one it was a bizarre one.
The Fall of the Old Guard
Of the four yokozuna, only two won their opening bouts. The undersized Haramafuji is the smallest of the yokozuna and a brilliant technician, but at each basho he appears to have more and more of his joints heavily taped up. In his first match Haramafuji met the fan favourite, Kotoshogiku. ‘Giku’ is famous for his no nonsense style of sumo—he doesn’t palm strike, he doesn’t throw, he doesn’t sweep, he digs for underhooks and he quite literally bounces forwards, projecting his belly into the opponent. It is hilarious to watch, but it was this technique that allowed Giku to become the first Japanese wrestler to win a major tournament in over a decade last year. As the two came together, Giku got his grips, drew himself into the yokozuna, and it was the same bounce to the edge of the dohyo that he had gone through a hundred thousand times before.
Hakuho, who has won more bashos than any wrestler to ever live, suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Shoudai. A missed swat at Shoudai’s head was all it took for the yokozuna to fall on his hands and move into the second day of the tournament at 0-1.
Even the calm and technical Kakuryu, the sole member of the Mongolian trinity to make it through day one unscathed, looked to have trouble.
The ranking system of sumo is fluid, up until the rank of yokozuna. While Kotoshogiku was fighting to accumulate the eight wins necessary to regain his ozeki rank, a yokozuna cannot be demoted and so when they begin to lose more than they should they are quietly urged to retire. On day two Haramafuji scraped a win as his opponent fell to the floor while Haramafuji was flying out of the ring. On day three Haramafuji fell flat on his face while attempting to push out the far inferior wrestler, Soukokurai—himself 0-2 in the tournament so far. Haramafuji’s face as he sat up on the dohyo floor spoke volumes.
By day five of the basho the record of the usual favourite, Hakuho had run to 2-2 and he decided to pull out from the tournament. With a tournament every other month the life of a high level wrestler is a rough one and injuries rarely get time to heal properly. Whether it be the ankles that are routinely turned as wrestlers fall from the edge of the dohyo, digits being mangled in the belt of the other man, limbs being landed on by felled opponents or concussions sustained in the course of a slugfest—the business of two three-hundred-pound men smashing into each other is a damaging one. Hakuho was reportedly nursing leg injuries and rather than drop more losses to lesser wrestlers he opted to pull out and look to heal up by the May basho.
A way of receiving head trauma in a professional contest that you didn’t even know about.
Haramafuji was scrambling to stop dropping bouts, winning awkward slapping matches as his opponents slipped over in front of him. Kakuryu had suffered a defeat to Kotoshogiku and then a shock upset to Shouhouzan on day six, affording Shouhouzan just his first win of the tournament! But amid it all it was the new yokozuna who looked the picture of calm. Kisenosato, the notorious choke artist who stumbled under pressure, looked head and shoulders above the rest as he had no trouble through the first week of the tournament. Gently guiding opponents to the edge of the ring, pushing them out, and catching them so that they would not fall off the lip of the area, Kisenosato was stoically marvellous.
A Mongolian Giant
As the other yokozuna seemed to fall by the wayside, a rival emerged for Kisenosato in the form of Terunofuji. A training partner of Harumafuji, Terunofuji stands at six-foot-three and weighs four hundred pounds. From the tachi-ai, the initial charge that begins every bout, Terunofuji almost always reaches underhand for the front of his opponent’s belt. Where most dig for a grip at the back to make a powerful underhook or overhook, Terunofuji seems confident in what is generally a less powerful grip.
This is for good reason, Terunofuji is strong enough that he can often waltz his opponents to the edge of the dohyo even when conceding double underhooks.
In this basho Terunofuji repeated the breathtaking feat of simply carrying another rikishi out of the area, producing gasps from those in attendance. It shouldn’t need to be emphasized, but sumo wrestlers are heavy.
A basho runs for fifteen days and entering the last three days Kisenosato was the favourite—undefeated—while Terunofuji was biting at his heels with just a single loss. On day thirteen, Terunofuji went to war with the yokozuna Kakuryu but emerged with the victory. In the final match of the day, Kisenosato went up against Harumafuji. Harumafuji had quietly rebuilt some steam and saved some face, finally taking out Takayasu, Kisenosato’s stablemate and the third man in the running for the tournament crown. In that bout Harumafuji found an opportunity to apply an uncommon komatasukui to score the victory. Grips on the lower body are generally rarer in sumo because the hand contacting the floor is a loss. It often makes no sense to reach for the leg and put oneself in danger of being pushed down.
Harumafuji has a couple of answers to clutch fights against top notch opponents. The first is to charge in at the tachi-ai, contact the opponent, and immediately change direction to throw them out in the direction they are facing or onto their hands. This is skirting around the edge of what is known as a henka. Henka is a change of directions at the tachi-ai, slapping the opponent down or side stepping him as he is charging. It is frowned upon because the tachi-ai is an agreed upon staple of the game. If neither man charged there would be no match. By actually engaging momentarily, Harumafuji takes advantage of the opponent’s forward momentum and uses it against him—as is the principle in every martial art—without getting booed or gaining a reputation for dirty sumo. Here is an example against Hakuho from last year.
Harumafuji’s other staple is to overwhelm his man with aggression and speed, and against Kisenosato this is what he did. Diving in behind his head straight from the get go, Harumafuji smashed the Japanese yokozuna onto his heels and drove him from the ring with underhooks. The loss was fast but not terribly hard, the fall from the dohyo to the arena floor was agony. The near four hundred pound body of Kisenosao fell onto his shoulder and it became immediately apparent that he was hurt. The sumo world waited with baited breath for an announcement and news came that Kisenosato would be competing on day fourteen.
The penultimate day of the March basho drove it over from a memorable collection of bouts to a readymade screenplay. Kisenosato intended to compete, but his injury was obvious and he couldn’t hide the pain he had been in the day before. The basho seemed to be Terunofuji’s to take, but he still had to get through Kotoshogiku. Kotoshogiku was two victories short of a promotion back to ozeki, and he only had two days left to do it. In the past it had seemed like Terunofuji had Kotoshogiku’s number, in the one area that Giku could overpower everyone else he had struggled with the gigantic Mongolian. In Giku’s sole tournament victory in January 2016 he had benefitted greatly from Terunofuji’s injuries taking him out of the competition. The room was charged as the two squared up on day fourteen and the crowd were fit to burst when Terunofuji jumped the gun on the first tachi-ai and the two reset positions. As Kotoshogiku burst from the blocks to attempt to knock the bigger man onto the back foot, Terunofuji established himself as the villain of the basho. The giant who had beaten Kotoshogiku plenty of times fair and square, and who had manhandled all but one of his opponents in the tournament, leapt aside as though he were diving off the tracks to avoid a freight train.
The disgust of the audience was obvious as even the booing averse Japanese crowd showered down some jeers. It had always been a weakness of Kotoshogiku’s that he only knew one way to wrestle, and he went at it with his heart on his sleeve. He had fallen for henkas before, and he had even side stepped Terunofuji himself in Nagoya back in 2015. But it stung for the crowd with the stakes that were on the bout, and Kotoshogiku’s face was a cross between heartbroken and disgusted as he left the dohyo, missing out on a promotion back to ozeki and nearing retirement.
Harumafuji’s record fell from the respectable 10-3 to a less impressive 10-4 as his knee seemed to collapse under him against Tamawashi on day fourteen. Finally Kisenosato took the dohyo against Kakuryu—a man he had defeated over thirty times in their previous meetings. The two collided and Kisenosato quickly gave ground. Where he had absorbed the charges of everyone to that point, immovable and unimpressed, something quickly buckled in him as he felt the impact and his legs gave ground immediately. Kakuryu drove him from the ring, stopping at the edge almost to apologize to the Japanese yokozuna, who was clutching his injured shoulder.
But Kisenosato did not drop out of the tournament. He was still 12-2, and on day fifteen he would meet Terunofuji. Terunofuji was 13-1 in the tournament. If Kisenosato could beat Terunofuji he could force a second match to decide the winner of the tournament. If Terunofuji won the first bout, there would be no second.
As the two came together, Kisenosato side stepped the charge of Terunofuji, offering karmic retribution for Terunofuji’s actions the day before, but Terunofuji was alert and wheeled around to attack Kisenosato again. Kisenosato’s left arm shot in for a grip on Terunofuji’s mawashi, and the Mongolian took his own grip on the yokozuna’s mawashi and dropped his weight upon the injured shoulder of Kisenosato. Abandoning the now useless grip, Kisenosato was forced backwards towards the boundary, but angled out to throw Terunofuji down on his hands.
A second match was on. Here it is in its entirety:
Throwing Terunofuji down by a whizzer, Kisenosato had bested the giant Mongolian ozeki twice, almost with one arm.
After a career of being second best, Kisenosato had broken through in January to achieve his dream of winning a basho and was granted the title of yokozuna. Yet there doubters, many who didn’t believe he had proven himself ready for the title. As Kisenosato stood for the national anthem at the closing of the March basho, he had achieved even more than in his first tournament victory. He was not a one hit wonder, he was not a choker, and he wasn’t a quitter even after having his shoulder badly mangled just days before. He is, quite possibly, the future of sumo. It’s a brilliant story, the kind that stretches credulity when it is written into a movie, but it was just another beautiful tale brought about organically through the chaotic and unrelenting tournament system of sumo. To keep abreast of all the sumo action, make sure to subscribe to Kintamayama and Jason’s All Sumo Channel on YouTube.
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