The Haru Basho is in the books and featured some pretty fun story lines. The once-invincible Hakuho continues to show his decline through nagging injuries. Some of my lower-tier favorites like Ichinojou and Hokutofuji had rough fortnights. Fast-charging Takayasu, wrestling out of the same heya as our new yokozuna Kisenosato, put on a clinic of domination before flagging in the last five days.
A sample of the great fun before we get to the main story: Day 8, courtesy of Moti’s YouTube channel:
But this basho will be remembered for a long time thanks to three wrestlers: the aging Kotoshougiku, the callow Terunofuji, and the rookie yokozuna Kisenosato. Their intertwined, epic story involve two of the core concepts of sumo that require a bit of explanation–the relegation system and henka.
As I mentioned in another post, there is a lot of movement up and down the ranks in sumo. Score a good result at your level, go up. Score a bad result, go down. Most rikishi bounce around in the lowest bracket, megashaera, and fight to stave off relegation to the lower league of juryo.
Really good megashaera rikishi get promoted to sanyaku, the higher ranks of sumo’s top league. The sanyaku ranks are, in ascending order, komusubi, sekiwake, and ozeki. Sanyaku is a little funny in that there are a semi-fixed number of komusubi and sekiwake (typically just two of each) but a slightly more dynamic number of ozeki.
Normally when a rikishi makes it to sanyaku for the first time, he faces tougher competition and gets smacked down hard to the megashaera ranks. However, the really good ones, the future ozeki and yokozuna of the sport, establish themselves at sekiwake and then make a run at ozeki.
Reaching ozeki is hard. The “rules” for promotion are, like many things in sumo, a bit fluid. The simple idea is that you must win 30 matches over 3 basho as a sekiwake to receive promotion to ozeki. That’s some pretty tough business, avoiding injury and dominating all the weaker guys in the lower ranks. And every ozeki will be out to prove you don’t belong on their level.
Because reaching ozeki is hard–a career accomplishment most rikishi will never achieve–losing the rank is also hard. Ozeki enjoy a semi-immunity to the popcorn relegation rules of the sport. If an ozeki fails to make kachikoshi (8 wins) in a basho, he is put on a probationary status known as kadoban. If he fails to make kachikoshi in the following basho, he is demoted to sekiwake. But even then the demotion is temporary–if he can score 10 wins in the basho after that, he is automatically restored to ozeki with full privileges. If he fails in those three consecutive basho, he loses his rank and must re-acquire it the hard way.
Most who lose the rank permanently choose to retire–climbing that mountain is a young man’s game–and the Haru Basho was exciting precisely because Kotoshougiku was facing exactly this scenario. He was kadoban in the Hatsu basho, failed to make kachikoshi, and so had to win 10 matches to save his ozeki status.
Koto is deceptively agile and wily like a coyote–he’s been around forever–but the laws of nature bow to no one. Entering day 14 he was only at 8 wins and needed to win out in order to save his career. That was when he faced surprise leader Terunofuji, himself an ozeki very familiar with being on kadoban.
But before we see what happened between the two of them, I have to explain henka.
Sumo is delightful in that the written rules are few and extremely easy to understand…but lurking behind them is a host of unwritten rules that live up to Western expectations of an ancient culture based on honor. Sumo is ceremonial and there are expectations about how rikishi will conduct themselves at every phase of the ceremony (and outside the ceremony, for that matter). It is not good to violate these rules.
Every match in sumo begins with the tachiai–a violent collision very much like what you see on any given Sunday in the NFL, except the players are not wearing any pads. The rikishi face off in the center of the ring and “go” happens when all four hands are touching the ground–with the gyoji supervising to call false starts or yell at rikishi to get their hands down as needed.
Well, almost every match. Because as it will eventually occur to anyone watching or participating in this sport, you could always just sidestep your bull-rushing opponent and let him smash into the ground or out of the ring. That’s a henka and it is perfectly legal in sumo.
It also violates one of the more serious unwritten rules of sumo. Henka is for the injured and the soulless. If you are hurt on Day 3 then everyone knows you will likely try henka tactics in the next few days. Any opponent who falls for it gets what he deserves; conversely if you take it on the chin the next day in spite of your injuries, you get a big bump of respect.
If you are not injured and you are just scrapping for kachikoshi? Gutless, honorless, feckless, soulless. There’s no penalty in terms of wins and losses, but the reputation of those willing to henka…not good. And Day 14 brought us the perfect storm of henka, characater, and tragedy.
It actually started on Day 13, with an epic confrontation between the newly-belted yokozuna Kisenosato and one of the three Mongolian yokozuna, Harumafuji. Kisenosato had been just as unstoppable this basho as I expected (just kidding–I mentioned this as a remote possibility but was sure it would not happen) and entered the day undefeated. The job of every yokozuna is to defend the honor of sumo–teach the kids how the sport is properly done. When two yokozuna match, the fight has to be excellent. And in this case, it was Harumafuji’s job to make Kisenosato prove his new credentials.
There’s a lot of subtext here. Harumafuji is a Mongolian who represents the foreign invasion Japanese fans both embrace and resent. He’s the agile and wily yokozuna who takes risks, shows the widest range of techniques, and overcomes opponents often much larger than himself. He’s also the one who has been publicly called out by the sumo elders and threatened with forced retirement when he does not do well. Kisenosato is everything he is not–classical build and skills, enormous physical gifts, a history of mental weakness, and most importantly, Japanese. More specifically, the at-long-last-realized hope of Japanese fans whose ascension carries a whiff of gift-anointing. Now…watch this:
Welcome to the club, %$#*! That
walk strut back across the dohyo says it all. In my notes I wrote, “Kisenosato dislocated his shoulder on the landing and will have a tough, tough time in the last two days. Almost certain to pick up two more losses and have no shot at the title despite dominating Days 1-12.
Sumo is tough.”
So that was the setup for the Day 14 madness. Because Kisenosato not only lost but was clearly injured the previous day, suddenly the door was open for another ozeki, Terunofuji, to seize the yusho. He also had one loss at this point, but his last two bouts were against the aging Kotoshougiku, fighting for his career, and the now-injured Kisenosato. Brass ring, thy name is Mine! Opportunity, wherein all character is revealed!
Hoo hoo hoo…man, the fight between Kotoshougiku and Terunofuji…I’ve never liked Terunofuji, something about his attitude and willingness to henka, his low character and repeated trips to kadoban…but I’ve never seen anything like this one. Koto is an aging rikishi fighting for his career. He entered day 14 needing to win out and was paired against the surprise leader of the basho, the villainous Terunofuji, himself an ozeki under kadoban (8 wins or provisional demotion). What happened next…yikes, watch this (Terunofuji on the right with the black mawashi).
That matta (stop!–false start) was just nerves on Terunofuji’s part I think, but Koto may have been messing with his head a little and came back to the line a little slowly. Terunofuji’s blatant, shameless henka caught him 100% off-guard and sealed his fate in such a low, mean, cruel fashion that I have to believe he was paying him back for the embarassment of the matta. Then Koto gave him the look of death and absolutely no show of respect at his walk-off. Terunofuji looked resolutely furious accepting his prize. That’s some bad blood, friends. Someone’s going to get messed up Jets and Sharks style later in the week. Nasty!
As expected, Kisenosato lost on Day 14 without putting up any fight at all. Stage: set!
So dawned the senshuraku (Final Day). Villainous Terunofuji entered the last day with a 1-win lead and an easy fight against the wounded yokozuna. Tough to throw a man pushing 400 lbs. even with two good arms! Even if Kisenosato were somehow able to defeat him, it would force a playoff and the two would just have to fight a second time. The yusho was in the bag for the craven Terunofuji.
Except the sumo gods are real and whom they would destroy they first drive mad. Terunofuji came face-to-face with their avenger who passed his first test as yokozuna, with a karmic half-henka:
Would the sumo gods rewarded their avenger in the playoff? Of course they would. Having proven his point with the henka in their regulation match, Kisenosato went straight ahead in the playoff, then threw his opponent out of the ring.
What a glorious sport.