Israel and Lebanon are at war again, and bloggers IM one another across the border while missles land in their cities. Bloodshed in Iraq has escalated to the point where more than 100 civilians per day die violently. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, forcing US and Afghan troops to retake villages from their control. Iran and North Korea both threaten possible nuclear calamity. And the world’s largest democracy – after facing flooding and terrorist bombs – is ham-handedly squashing online speech.
I understand if you haven’t been keeping up with the world of sumo. It’s okay, I’m here to fill you in.
We’re 11 days in to the summer basho in Nagoya, far enough in that we can make some predictions about likely outcomes of the next four bouts. After missing the previous tournament with an elbow injury, Asashoryu is back in fine fettle, 11-0, and is unlikely to face a serious challenge for the Emperor’s cup, which would be his 17th. While the dominance of the graceful Mongolian is hardly news, there’s an interesting set of subplots that are surely worth your attention.
Ozeki Hakuho, a young Mongolian rikishi who has been tearing through the ranks of professional sumo. He came to Japan young and underweight, and was evidently only able to find a stable through the intervention of Kyokushuzan, the grand old man (he’s my age, 33) of Mongolian sumo. Hakuho has grown into a classic sumo body – 192cm, 153kg – and has proved a threat to almost everyone but Asashoryu. He was promoted to Ozeki at the March basho and won the May tournament… the tourament that Asa was forced to skip.
The sumo authorities have suggested that Hakuho will be promoted to Yokozuna, creating a truly unusual situation in sumo – two Mongolian yokozuna. The usual criteria for promotion – winning two consecutive tournaments as an Ozeki – is probably impossible with Asashoryu’s current dominance. Instead, if Hakuho wins 12 or 13 matches and finishes as the runner-up, many believe he’ll be awarded the wide rope. With two early losses, this looked unlikely, but Hakuho appears to have regained his confidence and is currently tied for second with three other wrestlers. It will require skilled wrestling and more than a little luck for Hakuho to join Asashoryu this tournament… but it’s certainly something to watch.
Unfortunately, some of my other favorite Mongolians are having dreadful tournaments. Ama, the smallest rikishi currently competing, is 3-8… and his most recent victory was against Kyokushuzan, who must be thinking about retirement after a miserable tournament, where he’s currently 1-10. Kyokutenho is 3-8 as well.
Would two Mongolian yokozuna be good or bad for sumo? With sumo’s popularity reaching new lows in Japan – only one prospective apprentice turned up for the physical exam preceding the Nagoya tournament, tying an all-time low – it seems reasonable to look for the future of sumo outside of Japan. Two Yokozuna would change the dynamic of tournaments – instead of watching Asa destroy the competition and wonder whether he’s go undefeated, there will be speculation about whether he’s getting older and whether Hakuho is getting better.
But foreign-born sumo are making headlines for the wrong reasons in Japan as well. Roho – the Russian bear – was recently suspended after a “tantrum” following an ugly match with Ozeki Chiyotaikai. Roho evidently broke a window and slapped two photographers after exchanging words with the Ozeki. He’s been suspended for three bouts… which he’ll probably need to let his hand heal. And Ozeki Kotooshu – the tall, handsome Bulgarian – has had disappointing tournaments since his promotion – 8-7 in May, 9-6 in March, 10-5 in January. At 6-5, he seems to continue his losing trend.
Will Asashoryu remain undefeated? Will we see two Mongolian yokozuna? Which eastern European will get into trouble next?
I promise to keep you up to date, so you can go back to worrying about all that less enjoyable (and more important) world news.
Sanjay was kind enough to ask for links to sumo video available in the US. Goo Sumo used to offer video of all the matches – they continue to provide a real-time video service, but I usually try to be asleep at 4pm JST. Looking for an answer to his question, I found myself back at Banzuke.com, marvelling at their amazing collection of movies – almost every bout heading back to 2000. Only two days of the current tournament are posted at present, but you can check out the Roho/Chiyotaikai match that led to Roho’s “tantrum” and suspension. Looks like Chiyo was badly out of line, having words with Roho in the dohyo, a tremendously disrespectful thing to do.
I might be the only one telling you this but thanks for the update Ethan! I became a fan of sumo back in 1996 when I spent 3 months in Tokyo. Of course, back then we had Akebono and Musashimaru to cheer on. Given the absolute lack of video access to bouts in the U.S., I’ve given up trying to follow it. If you’ve got pointers to videos of current bouts, I’d love to hear about it.
Bless you, Sanjay – I always wonder whether I’m losing everyone when I talk sumo, and then I bump into a reader who’s happy to hear about big men fighting.
The best source for sumo video I know of is the remarkable Banzuke.com, which seems to have most matches from the past six years, available in Windows Media Viewer format, commented in English. The videos are at http://www.banzuke.com/~movies/. The site’s administrator is a few days behind on the current tournament, ill with the flu, but there’s enough back footage to keep you busy for weeks. Let me start you with a match from the first day of last November’s Kyushu basho, showing just why I love Ama so much:
I’ll include my “bravo” here, too. I am also an Ama fan (he’s not Mainoumi, but he’s fun to watch) and a long-suffering U.S. sumo addict. Apparently the Dish Network carries a “Japan TV” channel that includes some sumo coverage, but I don’t do the dish thing, and there doesn’t appear to be anything else available. The banzuke.com video collection is indeed amazing. I hope the site owner gets well soon (both because I appreciate his great site and because I get withdrawal symptoms when I can’t get videos for the ongoing tournaments). Goo sumo used to have a few highlighted matches available after each tournament, but I haven’t found them yet for the recent basho.
Yeah I guess the clips are better than nothing but there is nothing like watching full complete bouts. Plus the English commentary in Japan is pretty good. But then my thoughts on that might be related to my being in Tokyo for three months and not really having any to talk to (native English speaking that is).