Report Card: Aki Basho 2023 - Maegashira 9-17
Grading the rikishi from the Fall Tournament, starting with the lower half of the rank-and-filers.
Now that we are a few weeks removed from the Fall Tournament and about 15 days away from the next banzuke drop, it’s a perfect time to revisit what went down at the Kokugikan in September. There were plenty of spills and thrills at that tournament and a highly controversial ending.
I’ve graded all the competitors from the makuuchi and you’ll start getting those reports in your email inboxes over the coming weeks. This first post focuses on those ranked between M17 and M9. This cadre of rikishi includes the surprise story of the tournament, some rebounding veterans and some youngsters looking to prove they are the real deal.
Let’s get to it.
This is a premium pay-walled post. The free preview cuts off with Mitakeumi. So if you’d like to read the reports on Endo, Kinbozan, Hakuoho and Midorifuji you’ll need to buy a paid subscription (which I set as low as Substack will let me). Paid subscriptions allow me to dedicate the time needed to make these longer in-depth pieces.
Rank: Maegashira 17 east
A thoroughly underwhelming tournament for Daishoho which will see him relegated to juryo. This is his third make-koshi in a row, after he treaded water with 6-9 records in July and May. The only wins he managed this time where against fellow strugglers Chiyshoma, Aoiyama and Hiradoumi.
Here’s the win over Aoiyama, where he shows some pretty good footwork and balance. However, his opponent here just plowed straight on. Against opponents who showed a minute amount of craft and guile, Daishoho was lost. I think the reason for that he doesn’t have enough athleticism to compliment his size, so his size actually hampers what he’s able to do in there.
Rank: Maegashira 16 west
Tsurugisho is a wrestler who has been trying to reconcile his size and athleticism and has had mixed results this year. After an impressive 9-6 in May bumped him up to M11, he was brought down to earth with a 5-10 record. In this tournament he showed flashes of what makes him so difficult to deal with, a highly aggressive shove with surprisingly quick hands and feet. That combo saw him get off to a 7-2 start. However, after losing four in a row, his tournament looks pretty average now.
Here’s his best win of the tournament, a Day 11 hatakikomi over Hokutofuji to claim kachi-koshi. You can see how he is able to quickly reset after Hokutofuji circles away to the left. From there he uses both upward and downward strikes to defend from grab attempts before slightly changing levels to get some great leverage on his opponents’ shoulders for the slap down.
Tsurugisho mostly won by yorikiri this tournament, going chest-to-chest with smaller opponents. A lot of his losses came by trying to do that with bigger and stronger wrestlers who were able to close distance and march him out.
Here’s Hokuseiho doing just that.
Rank: Maegashira 16 east
After a stint in juryo Kagayaki returned to makuuchi in September. In the top division he amassed his fourth losing record of the year. He looked very stiff and slow in this tournament and ended up face down in a lot of his matches. That was because he really over commits when going forwards. Midorifuji used that to score his trademark katasukashi (Nishikifuji got one of those off him, too) and Mitakeumi used it to win with a hikiotoshi.
The poor showing will send Kagayaki back down to juryo for the second time this year.
Rank: Maegashira 15 west
Chiyoshoma is one of my faves, so I was sad to see him slump to the second worst record in the division. This will almost certainly send him down to the juryo. That will mark the first time since 2020 Chiyshoma has not been in makuuchi. After a 5-10 record to start year, he looked pretty good with 9-6, 8-7 and then 6-9 records. But at the aki basho nothing seemed to go right for him.
His tricky trip game struck out over and over again, as wrestlers were either able to see it coming and block the attempts or they steamrolled through him before he had a chance to set anything up.
On Day 9 he met Hokuseiho, who was carrying a reputation for being one of the easiest wrestlers to trip over in the division (Chiyshoma managed just that the first time they met in March). However, here he telegraphs the move and Hokuseiho (who was much improved in September) was able to stuff it and ride the attempt towards a force down.
Rank: Maegashira 15 east
Record: 11-4 (jun-yusho, kanto-sho)
Atamifuji was a joy to watch in September. Despite losing out on the championship on the last day, he is well worth his A grade here. He fought with aggression and power, but also a passion that exuded through the screen (and the rows of the Kokugikan).
He looked unafraid for 90% of the basho. However, when he first met Takakeisho nerves seemed to get the better of him (as exhibited by the false start and subsequent warm-up where he took some extra time to get set).
He also seemed nervy in his Day 15 loss to Asanoyama, too, where a win could have clinched the tournament. The second time he met Takakeisho, in the play-off, he seemed to shelve those nerves, but in doing so threw caution to the wind and barrelled forwards. Takakeisho, who had smashed into Atamifuji for the win earlier in the tournament and showed off some devastating pushing against Daieisho earlier on the last day, expected as much from Atamifuji and took the win with a crafty henka (which I’m fine with, by the way).
Those hiccups aside, Atamifuji was a dominating presence this basho. He smashed his way through the lower ranks and was looking good against some of the higher ranked folks. His powerful shove on Takayasu and his enormous throw on Tobizaru are two lasting images from the tournament for me.
At 21-years-old, with the physical profile he’s blessed with, I think there is a lot of room for improvement with Atamifuji. However, I think that’s contingent on whether or not he tries to just coast by on his size alone. If he adds more bulk, and loses speed as a result, that would be terrible for him. But if he commits to adding and maintaining muscle, and keeping his explosiveness, he will be pretty hard to stop both off the tachiai and in chest-to-chest duels.
Rank: Maegashira 14 west
Forget about the record here, I was seriously impressed with what I saw from Kotoshoho this tournament.
I have been tracking him quite closely since his runner-up performance in January. I loved the storyline that took place there, with him almost knocking off his old high school senpai Takakeisho to win an improbable championship. However, I recognized that there was some luck to his run in the New Year basho.
He seemed reckless and anxious and was lucky to win a few of his bouts. After coming so close in January, his luck seemed to leave him.
In the tournaments that followed he looked even more reckless and lost bout after bout in sloppy and sometimes embarrassing fashion, often with mouth full of dirt.
In Nagoya he seemed to turn things around, managing a 7-8 record and some quality wins. I will argue until I am blue in the face the this 5-10 record does not represent a backslide for the Sadogatake man.
He performed better than his record suggests and displayed a fine mix of aggression and control. His demeanour also seemed improved, with him carrying his head high after a tough loss.
This win below over Oho showed off some of that improvement. In previous tournaments he would have flown off the ring after that brush aside attempt. But here he showed composure and was able to plant himself on his feet and then pull off a very nifty side-step to get prime position for the push out.
I think he might surprise some folks in Kyushu.
Rank: Maegashira 14 east
After saving his makuuchi status by the skin of his teeth in Nagoya, Aoiyama slumped to a disappointing 5-10.
Whereas Kotoshoho looked like he was really trying this tournament, Aoiyama felt like he was going through the motions.
I feel like this loss to Sadanoumi really sums him up. He’s going to come at you with those thrusts and see if it works or not, with little plan or interest in flipping the script when it gets in trouble.
In retrospect his form in the last tournament reminds me of an NBA player in their contract year. He secured his top division status then and he'll need to call up a similar effort in Kyushu. I get the feeling he my call it a day if he gets demoted, which explains why he's doing just enough to get by and collect as much top division salary as possible in the time he has left.
Rank: Maegashira 13 west
Nishikifuji is 27-48 this year after another double-digit losing performance. Ten of those wins came in March, but in each other tournament he's failed to win more than five bouts.
Nishikifuji strikes me as wrestler who doesn't know what his strengths are. Therefore he just doesn't know what kind of position to play for. It makes his sumo appear very random, poorly thought out and unremarkable.
Here he is against Tsurugisho. He opens up with a very weak attempt at a throat thrust, which Tsurugisho barely notices. Once locked up, he settles for the chest-to-chest position, despite being against a larger and stronger opponent. He twists his hip to avoid being grabbed, but doesn’t do it early or dramatically enough. It all results in a pretty simple win for the lower ranked wrestler
Half of his losses came to wrestlers who would finish with losing records. Form like that could make Nishikifuji look like a soft touch and someone other wrestlers are eager to face when they know they need a win.
Rank: Maegashira 13 east
Myogiryu, perhaps the strongest guy in the division, has had an up and down year, but in September he showed that, unlike Nishikifuji, he's a tough out and someone you can't take for granted.
You have to salute Myogiryu for being one of the older wrestlers in the division (36), yet still being so physically imposing and capable of taking anyone on when it comes to brute strength.
His 10-5 mark in September is his best of the year and he managed it with some quality wins over higher ranked opposition, including Onosho, Ryuden, Kinbozan and Hokuseiho.
Here he is up against fellow vet Takarafuji. You can see him give up ground to Takarafuji’s shoves, but he’s doing that so he can focus on the hand fighting and prevent the former sekiwake from getting anywhere near his belt or establishing a good underhook. From that very compact position, Myogiryu is strong enough to shuck Takarafuji to the side while still maintaining balance. This allows him to remain set and get into a great position to push out his opponent.
Myogiryu isn’t going to compete for any cups anytime soon, but out of the handful of gate-keepers in the makuuchi I personally think he’s the one who poses the biggest challenge for both vets looking to rescue a kachi-koshi and youngsters hoping to move up the rankings.
Rank: Maegashira 12 west
Sadanoumi, like Myogiryu, is another one of the gatekeepers down here in the lower maegashira ranks. He lacks a fair bit of skill and reflexes, and doesn’t have the same horse power to rely on like Myogiryu, but he does have a certain intensity about him. That intensity and guts served him well in September. He used it to overwhelm some of the more reserved opponents he faced (like Oho on Day 13).
Sadanoumi’s mentality helped him stave off a losing record and win three must-win bouts to end the tournament at 8-7. It wasn’t easy, either. After overwhelming Oho he then beat the much higher ranked Takanosho and the rising Shonannoumi.
Five of his seven losses this tournament came to wrestlers with winning records. All of his wins were against wrestlers with losing wrestlers. Few are a better measuring stick for talent in the division.
Rank: Maegashira 12 east
The third of the three gatekeepers is Takarafuji. He lost out on a winning record in a Darwin match with Shodai on the final day. Here’s that bout:
To me, it looked like he just ran out of steam. And once his mobility dropped, Shodai was able to maximize on his strength advantage and put him down.
It wasn’t a terrible tournament for Takarafuji, despite not being very memorable. He’s 36, but like Sadanoumi and Myogiryu he’s still got plenty of fight in him. Just ask Hokuseiho, Endo and Shonannoumi (all younger men who were either pushed out or pulled down by the veteran).
Rank: Maegashira 11 west
I adored what I saw from Hokuseiho this tournament. I had been pretty brutal of my assessment on the big fella in the past two tournaments, having grown tired and annoyed of the stalling technique he spammed throughout.
This time around, though, there was no just looking to stick to an opponent and lean on them until they gassed out. Instead, Hokuseiho was going into contact with a plan to finish the fight. And it wasn’t always the same plan.
He used a diverse arsenal of approaches and reactions across his bouts, making him unpredictable and incredibly hard to beat. It's a startling, and pleasing, change of direction from when he was over dependent on the stall and lean technique which seemed as though it gassed him out as much his opponent and gave savvy technicians ample opportunity to fell him (by targeting his incredibly long legs).
So many of his bouts left a positive impression on me this time around.
Against Endo, he was drawn into one of those stalled moments (though he was aggressive off the tachiai). He responded with a kimedashi. That’s the first time he’s ever won with that technique, despite it being tailor made for his physique.
We also saw a wicked shift in hips to drop Sadanoumi with an uwatenage, a great thrust down on the leg trip hunting Chiyoshoma and a swift yorikiri on Tsurugisho.
There was even a Georgian forklift on the hapless Nishikifuji.
And there was this wonderful slap down on Takanosho.
And even a henka on Kotoshoho.
If this is a sign of things to come, I think we can be very excited about Hokuseiho. There’s relief there, too, in that he seems like he’s not satisfied to let his physique do all the work for him, but also use his brain and a variety of techniques to keep opponents guessing.
I’m really excited to see him climb the rankings a little in Kyushu and face some of the folks who gave him such a tough time in July (when he was promoted to M6).
Rank: Maegashira 11 east
Mitakeumi's return to form is one of the feelgood stories of the tournament, for me. He went 3-12 in Nagoya after his father passed away on the eve of the tournament. Though totally understandable, it was the second time the former ozeki had lodged double-digit defeats this year. The manner of many of these losses were enough to question whether Mitakeumi had peaked at just 30 years of age.