Sumo: Moving on from the Controversy, the Hatsu Basho Tournament Begins in Toyko

2017 was full of drama both on and off the dohyo in the world of sumo wrestling. Yokozuna Harumafuji’s assault against fellow rikishi Takanoiwa, and subsequent retirement from the sport, overshadowed what was a year of ups and downs for the most Japanese of sports.

Harumafuji’s retirement hailed the end of the four Yokozuna era. It was an era that was doomed to never really be. After being forced out of the sport for what turned out to be a very mild beating that he give to a junior wrestler, Harumafuji’s guaranteed that we would never see all four compete together.

In my opinion, Harumafuji’s punishment by the Sumo Council was overly harsh and hypocritical. The opinion of the Japanese general public and non-fans of the sport toward the assault story tainted the Council’s objectivity. Sumo is a violent lifestyle with beatings given out on a regular basis as a means of instruction. This is a strict and violent sport, both inside and outside the dohyo. To act as if this is the first time a senor sumo taught his junior a lesson through violence is absurd. Haramafuji is a legend of sumo and a truly great ambassador of what makes the sport great. To have his name tarnished by this scandal is a terrible tragic that he does not deserve.

For years Harumafuji represented the only consistent challenge to Hakuho’s dominance. He should be remembered for bringing consistently entertaining sumo, favoring high-risk offense over easy paths to victory in order to delight the fans.  God bless Harumafuji’s Mongolian heart. You were a joy to behold.

Of course, the legendary Hakuho cemented his legacy throughout 2017.  He silenced talk of the next generation of rikishi finally ending his reign by winning three of the last four tournaments in the year. Besides sitting out of the Aki Basho, he only lost two matches during that streak. He captured the records for most wins in sumo’s top division and the most Basho tournament victories, as well. What’s even more shocking than his accomplishments is that it seems like there is no competition for him in sight.

2017 couldn’t have started better for Japanese Yokozuna Kisenosato. He won the January Hatsu Basho last year as an Ozeki, catapulting himself into becoming the first Japanese Yokozuna in decades. He followed it up with a win in the Osaka basho and had sumo fans raving about the idea of four competitive Yokozuna challenging for each basho. Add to that having a genuine Japanese star, and Sumo couldn’t have been having a better year. And then it all started going sour. Kisenasato would end up bowing out of the next two tournaments with injury, and he completely missed the Aki Basho. To round out the year, he left the Kyushu tournament with an injury as well. Once the hope for a new generation to take over sumo, now Kisenosato is being observed by the Yokozuna council and will likely by asked to retire if he cannot finish this tournament with a strong record.

Similarly, Yokozuna Kakuryu has not been able to complete any of the last four tournaments, pulling out with injury in each. He only managed to complete a single tournament in 2017, finishing with a record of 10-5. The Sumo Council is looking to see major improvement in the level of his performance. If he is unable to complete this January Basho, he will likely be forced to retire.

Will any of the Ozeki emerge to contend for Yokozuna status? Both Takayasu and Goeido had moments in 2017 but failed to sustain any consistent momentum to take sumo’s greatest crown. Maybe that can change in 2018. Also, look for up and comers Onosho and Ichinojo who are both poised to have a big 2018.

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