Fall sumo tourney: a September to remember

The Fall Grand Sumo Tournament got underway in Tokyo on September 8 at the venerable Kokugikan arena, the home of sumo. The 15-day contest was missing some of the sport's biggest stars, but those who turned out made sure that what took place in the ring was nothing short of spectacular.

Grand champions missing in action

The two top dogs, Yokozuna Kakuryu and Hakuho, were both present on the opening day but soon left the tournament with injuries.

Hakuho was the first to disappoint the fans by announcing his withdrawal on the second day. The 42-time-champ said he reinjured his right hand in practice and aggravated it in his match on the first day.

Hakuho ends up in the front row after being upset by Hokutofuji on opening day.

He said he felt it better to sit out now and aim for a full recovery before the injury gets worse. Honestly, I was flabbergasted to hear the news, because when we talked about a week before the competition began he told me that he was in pretty good shape, fired up and ready to go. That said, I'm behind his decision one hundred percent, because I've seen so many wrestlers making poor judgments about their injuries and shortening their careers.

The other Yokozuna, Kakuryu, looked sharp the first four days, going 4 and 0, and had a lot of people thinking he was the top contender to win the coveted Emperor's Cup. But, the roof caved in fast for Kakuryu. When he got beaten by rank-and-filer Asanoyama on Day 5, he never got to regain the momentum he had earlier. The Yokozuna also dropped his next two matches to rank-and-filers and revealed his decision to withdraw on Day 8. He told us his left knee was so banged up that his body is not going to hold up for the remainder of the tournament. It must be mentally devastating for Kakuryu to be out of the ring, as he looked confident and determined to capture back-to-back top division titles after picking up his sixth championship in July.

Kakuryu loses for a third consecutive day when he gets slapped down by Tomokaze on Day 7. He pulled out of the contest the next day.

We'll have to wait and see how the two Yokozuna recover, but let's hope they're on the mend and can get themselves back in top form in time for the November tournament.

Emperor's Cup up for grabs

In the absence of the usual suspects, the championship race was wide open, offering almost everyone a chance to go home with the Emperor's Cup.

In particular, three men stepped up to the plate to lead the pack and headed into the final day with three losses each. They were Mitakeumi, Takakeisho and Okinoumi. On Day 15, Takakeisho and Okinoumi were matched up to fight each other, while Mitakeumi locked horns with Endo.

First, Takakeisho took care of business by manhandling Okinoumi with his strong pushing and thrusting attack.
Then, Mitakeumi followed suit with a convincing win over Endo, which set up a winner-take all showdown between Mitakeumi and Takakeisho.

Now, the playoff. Mitakeumi was gunning for his second championship, after winning his first in July last year. Takakeisho also was aiming to haul in his second title. He had taken home his first Emperor's Cup in November.
Everybody expected to see a fierce battle, but as it turned out what we witnessed was an anticlimactic match with Mitakeumi overwhelming Takakeisho with a sharp initial charge and finishing him off in just a matter of seconds, thus winning the September championship.

During the victory ceremony, Mitakeumi said his first championship last July was a bit of a fluke, so he had set a high goal for himself this time and he's happy to accomplish what he wanted.

Mitakeumi forces Takakeiso out of the ring to clinch his second top-division title.

Mitakeumi zeroing in on Ozeki promotion

With his second championship under his belt, Mitakeumi now has his sights on making the second highest rank of Ozeki in the next tournament. Nobody has any doubts about Mitakeumi's strength, ability and consistency, as he's been competing at the rank of either the third-highest Sekiwake or the fourth-highest Komusubi for 16 consecutive tournaments. For Mitakeumi to get that promotion, my projection is that he needs to rack up at least 11 victories. Anything less will keep him from moving up to Ozeki. So, it's gut-check-time for the 26-year-old Sekiwake come November.

Takakeisho makes his return to Ozeki

A big topic heading into the fall contest was whether Takakeisho could return to Ozeki or not. The feisty 23-year-old earned promotion to the second highest rank in May, but had his respected rank stripped after failing to put up kachikoshi -- more wins than losses -- in the two tournaments following his promotion. Fighting at Sekiwake in the September competition, he had a chance to get back up to Ozeki by scoring 10 or more wins.

Thanks to his strong work ethic and completely healed body, Takakeisho won 12 out of 15 matches to haul in his promotion back to Ozeki. He did lose the playoff match to Mitakeumi and came up short of winning his second championship, but you can say that he accomplished his mission this time, because his priority was climbing back to Ozeki.

That said, I must say that Takakeisho's future is not looking very bright at the moment, because he left the arena on the final day with a grimace on his face.
During his playoff match against Mitakeumi, Takakeisho injured his left pectoral muscle and afterwards was seen in pain in the dressing room. We don't know how serious the injury is, but don't be surprised if he's a no show at the November contest.

Takakeisho's championship hopes evaporate when Mitakeumi takes the playoff.

Struggles for Ozeki continue

Three wrestlers were listed at Ozeki on the banzuke, or official listing of ranks, but I have to tell you with much disappointment that none of them lived up to their high expectations.

Takayasu announced his absence way before the tournament began, citing a left elbow injury. He hurt the arm during the July tournament and he said he's nowhere near a full recovery.

Goeido finished the competition with 10 wins and 5 losses, but three losses to lower-ranked wrestlers during the first week pretty much took him out of contention.

Among the three Ozeki, Tochinoshin is the one who left the competition with the sourest taste in his mouth. The Georgian had to win 8 bouts to keep his Ozeki status but only got 6, which means he'll be downgraded to Sekiwake in November. Having said that, Tochinoshin will be given one more chance to regain the Ozeki rank if he can score 10 wins in Fukuoka -- the exact same situation Takakeisho faced this time. We'll see if he still has what it takes to make his return to the rank.

On Day 14, Tochinoshin is dejected after suffering his eighth loss and knows he'll be demoted to Sekiwake.

Raising their games

Naturally, everyone in the top division flexes his muscles and is out to win the biggest prize -- the Emperor's Cup. But even for those who don't, the sumo elders make sure to encourage those who come close and help make the tournament exciting.

Championship winner Mitakeumi also received the Outstanding Performance Award for his aggressive style of sumo in racking up 12 victories.

Asanoyama too was given the same award. The May tourney champ finished the competition with an impressive 10 and 5 record by outmuscling many of his foes.

Okinoumi took home the Fighting Spirit Prize. His skillful moves helped him to score 11 wins. Even though he's 34 years old, the wily veteran has proven that he's still a force to be reckoned with.

The Fighting Spirit Prize also went to rookie Tsurugisho. He surprised everyone with a powerful and energetic top-division debut, ending with 10 wins and 5 losses.

The special prize winning quartet: from left; Asanoyama, Mitakeumi, Tsurugisho and Okinoumi.

What to look for in the 2019 finale

Five grand tournaments have concluded and that leaves us with only one more to go in 2019.

In the next tournament, I'm sure the two Yokozuna grand champions, Kakuryu and Hakuho, will try everything they can to redeem themselves. Allowing someone else to capture the Emperor's Cup for a second straight time will mean nothing but disgrace and embarrassment for the two top dogs.

Will the two dinged up Ozeki compete? Fans are hoping Takayasu and Takakeisho will be back in the ring fully fit.

Also, can Tochinoshin win 10 bouts and reclaim his Ozeki status? If he can't do it in November, he'll have to start from scratch. And, I'll tell you if that turns out to be the case he'll need a miracle to win Ozeki promotion in the future.

And last but not least, I want to mention some of the real up-and-comers who could potentially win the Emperor's Cup in the near future. They're Hokutofuji, Abi, Daieisho, Meisei, Tomokaze and Enho. Yes Enho! Fans all love him to death and so do I. I know he's the smallest rikishi in the top division at 98 kilograms, but I think he has great instincts, works extremely hard and also has the mental strength to come through in big moments.
So, don't be shocked to see Enho and the others on my list stepping up in November.

Enho is fired up after slamming Meisei down to the clay with an underarm throw to go 2 and 0.

The final tourney of the year will get underway in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan on November 10.