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Sumo in 2019: Scandal + Embarrassment = Success


For professional sumo, 2019 will be starting much the way 2018 did - on the heels of a scandal that just won’t seem to go away and with booming ticket sales despite the ignominy behind the scenes.

Plagued by Scandal

As 2017 came to close yokozuna Harumafuji, former yokozuna Takanohana and Mongolian makuuchi-ranked wrestler Takanoiwa found themselves entangled in an abuse scandal. Evidently, after a night of boozing Harumafuji proceeded to pummel Takanoiwa with a remote control about the head and face, causing serious and visible injury. This was said to have happened as a result of disrespectful behavior from Takanoiwa towards his higher ranking countrymen Hakuho and Harumafuji, who both, at the time, held the sport’s highest rank of “yokozuna”.

The thing is, it still remains unclear exactly when the incident took place. The beating was said to have happened in late October, but there are photos of Takanoiwa days later with no visible injuries. He was said to have been hospitalized from November 5th through the 9th, with the Kyushu basho being set to begin just days later on the 11th. The news of the attack broke just three days into the tournament, on November 14th. It was then noticed that, in fact, Takanoiwa had never entered the November basho.

So, Takanoiwa must have had some kind of official excuse for not entering, right? Well, it turns out that is a complicated question to answer. Takanoiwa’s stable master, Takanohana, did not immediately inform the Sumo Association what had happened. Instead, he first reported the incident to the police and was late in submitting a medical report to the JSA (Japan Sumo Association). From that moment on, Takanohana basically went into self-imposed sumo exile, refusing to meet with JSA board members, cooperate with their investigation or talk to the press about the incident. Perhaps one of the reasons being that there were two different medical reports, one which said there were traumatic injuries and another that seriously downplayed everything. He also initially lied about how Takanoiwa’s injuries happened, originally stating that they had occurred by some other means.

Other Scandals and Embarrassments

As 2018 opened up, ticket sales were great and Takanohana still had yet to cooperate with the JSA’s investigation and even refused to show up to the tournaments at times and neglected his duties more and more. Eventually he was demoted for his behavior and ended up resigning after reconciliation seemed impossible.

In the meantime, a referee was reported for sexually harassing a much younger trainee, who he had reportedly kissed and inappropriately touched. His only excuse for his actions - he was drunk and didn’t remember the incident. This scandal, quite interestingly, received little to no attention in the press in contrast to the other scandal. He was suspended by the JSA for three tournaments.

Also in the news early in 2018 was Egyptian wrestler Osunaarashi who, embarrassingly, was caught driving without a license. Not only is driving not permitted for sumo wrestlers, but he also had his pregnant wife in the car and caused an accident. His retirement promptly followed. Maybe even more embarrassingly, he went on to have the most abysmal debut in MMA the sport has ever seen, losing to Bob Sapp in September. Sapp, who is notoriously known for intentionally throwing fights and who had not won an MMA contest since March of 2010, beat Osunaarashi by decision.

In the spring of 2018, sumo’s tradition came into confrontation with modern times, causing another open sore for the sport when a female medical attendant was ordered off the dohyo while trying to administer emergency medical treatment to a man who had unexpectedly collapsed. Women are still forbidden from participating in professional sumo or even entering the ring for that matter. The event caught the eye of the press worldwide and the JSA later issued an apology.

And just when you thought the Takanoiwa scandal was over, it reared its ugly head again. With Takanohana gone (and recently divorced), Takanoiwa planned to sue Harumafuji for the cash he missed out on while injured. The case was eventually dropped, but in a shocking turn of events, soon afterwards, Takanoiwa himself retired after it was learned that he had assaulted one of his own attendants.

Plagued by Injury - Yokozuna in Peril

With all of this happening, one would assume that to make up for all the folly outside the ring, sumo could have at least saved face by providing top notch action inside the ring. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Besides Tochinoshin’s tournament win and subsequent ozeki promotion, there has been little to boast about as far as solid sumo during the actual tournaments.

Looking at the sport’s top-ranked athletes, 2018 was a complete disaster. Hakuho, sumo’s living legend, pulled out of two tournaments prematurely due to injury and did not compete at all in two others. The undefeated Aki basho win was his only bright spot, but overall 2018 was his least productive year as a yokozuna.

Even worse was yokozuna Kisenosato, who since reaching the rank in March of 2017, has only managed to finish two tournaments from start to end. He has either left all other nine tournaments early or not even entered at all. In November of 2018 he set a new sumo record. He became the first yokozuna in 87 years to lose his first four bouts.

Yokozuna Kakuryu managed to win two tournaments in 2018, but also turned in two less than stellar efforts in addition to his two tournament withdrawals.

Ticket Sales Still Good

Despite the lackluster sumo and the never-ending stream of derogatory headlines, 2019 will open much the same way 2018 did, with a sold-out Ryogoku Kokugikan arena in Tokyo which holds over 11,000 fans. How is this possible? As was speculated on previous episodes of The FightBox Podcast, the Japanese don’t seem to mind so much that their golden boy Kisenosato is not winning or even participating for that matter. It’s only important that he is a yokozuna and that he is Japanese. He is, after all, the country’s first yokozuna since the retirement of Takanohana in 2003. Since then there has been a domination of Japan’s national sport for the past 15 years starting with the Hawaiians and following with the Mongolians.

With more and more foreigners leaving the top ranks (Harumafuji, Osunaarashi, Takanoiwa) and a so-called “youth movement” happening, sumo’s popularity has not dwindled at all. This is in stark contrast to the actual quality of sumo happening in the ring. As Mike Wesemann of says “There’s not a lot of substance [in the ring] for anyone to get excited about. The guys are doing it on paper … but I don’t feel as if there’s any substance there in the ring right now.”

The Future is Bleak

With no real Japanese prospects on the horizon and with Kisenosato’s future in jeopardy, how much longer can sumo fans continue to turn a blind eye to the reality that is facing the sport?

Sure, there were the two tournament victories by Mitakeumi and Takakeisho in 2018, but the quality of their sumo has yet to come close to any of the elite foreign rikishi such as Hakuho, Kakuryu or the recently departed Harumafuji. It’s also worth mentioning that during the September tournament when Hakuho went undefeated, winning his 41st career victory, there were no special prizes awarded. This is the first time such a situation has occurred and is perhaps a sign of the times and that the much talked about youth movement is not much of a movement at all.

What’s Ahead in 2019?

Looking forward to 2019, I can say that many questions still remain unanswered. How much longer does Kisenosato have as yokozuna? With Takanohana, Takanoiwa and Harumafuji out of the sport, will the truth about what happened finally come out? Who of the new generation of wrestlers will emerge as a dominant force in sumo? Who will make an ozeki run? How much longer will Hakuho stick around and what kind of impact will he have in 2019? Will we have any more unexpected tournament winners?

Whatever the case, I look forward to seeing how things pan out in this coming year. For me, the biggest void missing in sumo is a dominant wrestler who fights with passion and intensity. Maybe Hakuho will fill that void if he is not injured. Maybe Ichinojo will finally reignite his flame and keep it burning. Maybe someone else will rise to the occasion. Or maybe, and most pessimistically, mediocrity will continue to reign. We shall see. Let’s hope for an exciting 2019!


- Daniel Austin (Don Roid) (blog) (podcast)



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