Mitakeumi's Ozeki hopes dashed
Heading into the November tournament, all eyes were on Mitakeumi who had just won his second championship in the previous tournament in September.
In Fukuoka, he was gunning for a promotion to Ozeki, the sport's second-highest rank. The prerequisite for him to make Ozeki was to win 11 or 12 bouts. A lot of people thought was manageable... given how well he'd been fighting in recent tournaments.
But it turned out to be a long and disappointing tournament for Mitakeumi. The 26-year-old struggled to show any consistency throughout the competition and finished the contest with a dismal 6 wins and 9 losses. What made Mitakeumi fall apart this time was a right eye injury he suffered on Day 3. He badly cut his eyelid and needed 6 stitches to treat the wound.
After that injury it looked as though he was trying to avoid making any contact with his head which took away his aggressiveness and allowed his foes to go after him relentlessly.
His 6 and 9 record will demote him from the third-highest Sekiwake rank all the way down to the rank and file Maegashira position in the next tournament which means he has to go back to the drawing board if he hopes to be promoted to Ozeki.
It's so disappointing to see Mitakeumi failing to accomplish his long-time goal, because when I talked to him before the tournament he told me how confident and pumped up he was heading into the contest in Fukuoka. Let's hope he recovers fast and redeems himself in the new year tournament in January.
Stars missing in action
To the disappointment of many fans, quite a few wrestlers were forced to sit on the sidelines because of injuries.
Yokozuna Kakuryu announced his withdrawal on the opening day. He was willing to compete but during the morning practice session he felt a severe strain on his lower back and announced his withdrawal.
The following day, it was Ozeki Goeido saying that he'll be sitting out the rest of the tournament because of a left ankle injury he suffered on Day 1.
Another Ozeki, Takayasu, said he too is suffering from a sore back and said his body isn't going to hold out any longer. He took himself out of the tournament on Day 8.
The Georgian, Tochinoshin, was hoping to make his return to Ozeki by scoring 10 wins this time, but he injured his rib cage on Day 4 and never returned to the action afterwards. Tochinoshin will now be downgraded to compete at a much lower rank-and-file position.
Furthermore, Tomokaze, Ichinojo and even the rookie Wakatakakage were forced to sit on the sidelines with injuries, leaving the fans in Fukuoka with nothing but a deep sigh of disappointment. We can only hope for all of the injured wrestlers' quick recovery and see them return to the ring in good shape soon.
Back in the saddle again
In spite of missing a lot of stars, the man who stole the limelight in Fukuoka was none other than the Yokozuna grand champion Hakuho. When I talked to Hakuho before the tournament, he told me how this year had been frustrating for him, as he had to deal with numerous injuries. He said he was looking forward to upholding his reputation by winning another championship.
Hakuho started slow by losing on Day 2, but he quickly bounced back and entered Day 14 with a chance to clinch his 43rd title... and that's exactly what he did. Hakuho finished the contest with 13 consecutive wins to go 14 and 1. Even though it was just the second championship this year for him, he was able to prove once again he's still the king of the ring.
Ozeki woes continue
One of the most significant concerns surrounding the sumo world today is the Ozeki combatant's failure to perform at a level that's expected of them. In fact, we haven't had a single Ozeki winning the Emperor's Cup for three years. The last Ozeki to win the top division title was now-retired Kisenosato who won it in the 2017 January tournament. Since his triumph, not a single Ozeki has claimed the Emperor's Cup.
And again in Fukuoka we saw another lackluster performance by the Ozeki men. Among the Ozeki trio of Goeido, Takayasu and Takakeisho, only one was able to compete for the full 15 days. That was Takakeisho and he amassed just 9 wins to his 6 defeats. The Ozeki combatants better get their act together fast. Otherwise, their already dull image will become even more dimmer and possibly they could ultimately lose the respect and support of fans.
The next big thing
Shifting our focus to the positive side of things, we saw another strong performance from Asanoyama in Fukuoka as he stayed in contention till the very last moment. Asanoyama won his first championship in May and since then he's become a real force to be reckoned with. His 11 wins and 4 losses outing in Fukuoka succeeds a decent 10 and 5 record performance in September which shows his consistency, growth and maturity.
Asanoyama has now emerged as the legitimate Ozeki candidate and I'm expecting the 25-year-old to rise to the occasion and make the rank by the end of next year. He looks really strong and promising, and if he keeps up his good work ethic and stays injury-free I'd even rate him as the next Yokozuna hope. Keep your eye on Asanoyama.
Slaying the giants
Fans in Fukuoka always get excited to see their homegrown native stars such as Shohozan and Kotoshogiku compete, but at the same time they're also fascinated to see the most popular rikishi Enho battling hard day in and day out.
Enho stands at 168 centimeters and weighs only 98 kilograms, but he's become famous and popular for beating many opponents twice his size. In Fukuoka, Enho was able to eke out a kachikoshi -- or more wins than losses -- for the third consecutive tournament. That's very impressive and I tip my cap to the pintsize wrestler because I've seen him work so hard to achieve what he's accomplished.
I already can't wait to see him compete in the next tournament, because he'll be fighting at highest rank he's reached so far and that means he'll be navigating through much tougher opponents on a daily basis.
So, good luck Enho!
Special prize winners
There were 3 special prize winners from the November tournament.
Daieisho went home with the Outstanding Performance Award. He was the only rikishi to take Hakuho down in Fukuoka. In January, the 26-year-old go-getter will likely be promoted to the fourth-highest Komusubi rank for the very first time.
Shodai picked up the Fighting Spirit Prize. He won 11 bouts with very powerful sumo to keep himself in the title race for much of the tournament. Many people have high expectations for Shodai and I too would like to see him keep competing at a high level.
Asanoyama won the Technique Prize. Asanoyama's superb techniques allowed him to rack up 11 wins and kept breathing down Hakuho's neck throughout the contest. In January, Asanoyama will gain promotion to the third-highest Sekiwake rank.
New year tourney outlook
In the upcoming new year tournament, Hakuho will once again be the man to beat. That's a no brainer.
I also can see Asanoyama to keep his ball rolling and give Hakuho and co. a run for their money again.
But more than anything, I'm hoping to see wrestlers like Takakeisho, Goeido, Takayasu and Mitakeumi make the championship race go down to the wire. Let's hope that not just these four warriors, but all the combatants in the top division enter the January contest in decent shape and make the tournament very exciting.
The new year tourney gets underway on January 12th in Tokyo.