- Fantasy Basho
Hatsu 2020 Lower Division Review
Makuuchi is always the main show, and it was quite a show at Hatsu. Tokushoryu isn't just a shocking winner, but almost an unfathomable one. He also had to win 14 matches, 13 straight and by beating fellow contenders over the last few days. It made the top division continually exciting.
The lower divisions had much less drama. While the competition for the Emperor's Cup and other attendant prizes went down to the wire, all but one of the lower divisions was wound up by Day 13. The exception was the second-lowest Jonidan division, where two rikishi were tied and guaranteed a playoff on Day 13.
Despite the fact things were easily wrapped up, there was still lots to learn from what happened underneath Makuuchi. Let's go division-by-division.
The second division is usually a collection of young wrestlers progressing to top form, injured rikishi finding a way back, and old guys fighting to keep a hold. It usually does not feature overwhelming performances, since no one is in dominant form and everyone is going all out. Hatsu 2020 proved to be one of the exceptions.
Former Ozeki Terunofuji returned to the salaried ranks for the first time since May 2018 after overcoming a range of health problems. All he did was win his first 13 matches, demolishing everyone in his way. In 2017, Terunofuji was the best bet for becoming the next Yokozuna, For most of a tournament, he seemed to be back, despite his massive knee braces. Once again, he was grabbing his opponents' mawashi and then quickly and powerfully moving them over the edge of the dohyo.
The Mongolian actually ended up losing his last two matches to Nishikigi and Daiamami. That might have prevented Terunofuji from securing promotion back to Makuuchi, but a 13-2 record is an amazing achievement. Nishikigi and Daiamami, recently in Makuuchi and not performing well, were also standouts with both garnering 11 wins. They will both go up to the top division again.
The other likely promotion candidates are Kotonowaka, who achieved 8 wins at Juryo 2 and might make his Makuuchi debut in March, and Wakatakakage, who got 9 wins from Juryo 5. But guessing promotions is often tricky. Another performance of note was 20-year-old Kotoshoho, who got 9 wins from Juryo 8 West and is now probably one winning record from popping up to Makuuchi.
The Makushita division is notoriously difficult, especially at the very top, since promotion from Makushita puts rikishi into the salaried ranks and all that comes with being a sekitori. Tellingly, the Yusho winner was not someone at the top of the division, but Makushita 51 West Kaito. His 7-0 was almost as remarkable as Tokushoryu's performance, since he had gone 0-7 in the previous basho. He did win it fairly by beating Ryuko and Wakamotoharu in his last two matches to hand them their only losses.
Wakamotoharu, who fought from Makushita 1 West, will certainly get to Juryo and sekitori-dom for March, getting a third try to make it stick. Likely joining him is Midorifuji, who will be a sekitori for the first time after going 5-2 at Makushita 2. The other possibilities for joining Juryo are Chiyonoumi and Hakuyozan.
The other story in Makushita was that young rising stars hit some walls. Naya, the 19 year old grandson of legendary Yokozuna Taiho who has made it to Makushita 5, went 3-4 and needs to wait more for his Juryo debut. Motobayashi, who literally had not lost in 3 basho, went 4-3, with a 1-3 over the last 4 days. Tsukahara continues to peter out in upper Makushita after making it there as a 19 year old, getting a second consecutive make-koshi. On the other end, Roga got a 5-2 at Makushita 17 to continue his climb, while Kitanowaka made his division debut with a 5-2 at Makushita 57.
Continuing the theme of yusho winners being rikishi coming out of nowhere and/or back from injury, the Sandanme yusho was won by Yuma. Yuma is just 21, but has already been in sumo for nearly six years and had the kind of injury that sent him all the way back out of sumo, forcing him to go through Maezumo again in September 2018. He had been in Makushita for Kyushu 2019, but recovered nicely.
Sandame is often a way-station for rikishi on their way up, or more tragically on their way down. A good record can charge a wrestler into Makushita from most of Sandanme. That's what young wrestlers like Sandame 48 Marusho and Sandanme 55 Hokutenkai hope they'll do after 5-2 records. Further up, Suzuki, Toma, and Daikisho went 4-3, but could see themselves spend no more time in Sandanme.
Jonidan, too, was won by a former sekitori overcoming injury. The difference in Jonidan was that Ura had to win his lower-division yusho with a playoff over Kyokuyuko. Ura is in his second basho back from a second terrible injury. At his best, he was the ur-Enho, a smaller rikishi who used technique to beat bigger opponents. In Jonidan, he can overpower opponents. He'll test that in Sandanme in March.
Many quite young rikishi had excellent basho in Jonidan, with Chura, Tosaeizan, Yanagida, Ostuji, and Ayaminato all going 6-1 and all being born in 1999 or later. They've had mixed results so far, but this could be a launching point. On the other end of the spectrum, Hanakaze, sumo's resident old man at 49, participated in his 204th basho. This highlights the true strangeness of sumo's lower division.
Jonokuchi was, perhaps appropriately for the lowest division, was won by a youngster overpowering his competition. 19 year old Nihonyanagi went 7-0 in his first official basho as a rikishi, getting a yusho to begin his career. In doing so, he gave the only loss to Dewanoryu, on Day One, and Mudoho, on Day 13. Those two are also just 18 and also are in their first real tournament. All three have announced themselves with this basho.
But Jonokuchi is not all glory for new wrestlers. Hattorizakura went 0-7 to move his career record to 3-179-1. He is just 21, but he has probably proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the least successful rikishi in history. At least his fighting spirit should be commended.