The start of the Aki Basho 2018 is only one day away! Lots of things to be excited for during this basho. The yokozuna, Kisenosato, is returning after missing three consecutive bashos due to injury. Will he be able to compete in 15 matches for the first time in a year and a half? Likewise, Tochinoshin is returning from injury and hopes to complete his first full basho as an ōzeki. Will this be the start of his own final sprint to yokozuna? The mighty mini-rikishi, Enho, is back in the jūryō division. It is always fun to see a 97 kg (~214 lbs) pound rikishi (sumo wrestler) throw around competitors almost twice his weight. He isn’t even close to the middleweight limit of U.S. sumo standards!
Of course, I am excited for the performances of the two North American rikishi, Musashikuni Mamu and Wakaichirō Ken. This basho will be very important for both of their careers. Musashikuni went 3-4 in the Nagoya Basho, so he will be fighting to prevent any downward momentum. Wakaichirō, on the other hand, just received his first kachi-kochi (more wins than losses) in the sandanme division with a 4-3 record. He’ll be fighting to continue his upward momentum. Below is a chart of the career rankings of each rikishi (along with Homarenishiki Yasokichi, aka Brodi Henderson), which visually demonstrates their current momentum. Click here to open a new tab with a full-size version of the chart. Further below, I use this chart (and other media) to preview and predict Musashikuni and Wakaichirō’s performance in the Aki Basho 2018.
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Musashikuni Mamu and the Aki Basho 2018
As evident from the chart, Musashikuni has had five phases in his career. The first was his immediate ascent to the top of the sandanme division, dating from 2013.09 to 2014.07. The second phase was a volatile plateau, between 2014.07 and 2015.11, where Musashikuni wavered all throughout the top 2/3rd of the sandanme division. The third phase was from 2015.11 to 2016.09, when the rikishi made a dedicated march to the makushita division. The fourth phase was a steady drop back to sandanme division between 2016.09 and 2017.07. The fifth phase, between 2017.07 to the present, is his gradual ascent to and up the makushita division.
Musashikuni will be battling to keep his current ascent going. Two make-koshis (more losses than wins) in a row would derail his progress up the makushita division. On the other hand, a stellar performance (e.g. 6-1 or 5-2) could even lead Musashikuni into a new phase of his career; one where he battles with the top of the makushita division to enter the jūryō division. Can Musashikuni do it? And, if so, what must go right for him?
When looking at Musashikuni’s prior performances, I previously pointed out that he sometimes struggles against larger opponents. I’ve also seen others comment that he has an unsteady base. That is, he sometimes possesses a high center of gravity and/or overextends his positioning which causes himself to get off balanced easily. For instance, when in a stalemate, Musashikuni will sometimes reach for his opponent’s mawashi (belt), although his opponent is clearly defending against the grab. Musashikuni will nevertheless extend further for the grip, and his opponent will win with a thrust-down or a throw. Here is a gif, below, that illustrates this weakness of Musashikuni from the Nagoya Basho 2018.
Here is an even more surprising loss from the Natsu Basho 2018, in which Musashikuni loses in a similar manner.
I would say that Musashikuni must stop attempting these grabs, but I am not so sure about that. Part of Musashikuni’s winning streaks have come from his fearlessness. Every time he loses by overextending himself, he seems to later win by the same risky move. For Musashikuni to ascend even further up the ranks, he needs to either (a) be lucky or (b) better distinguish bad risks from good risks. . .in addition to keeping firmer footing.
So, what do I expect from Musashikuni? I would bet on a 4-3 performance. He has shown that he can compete with the makushita division, but his unstable base sometimes betrays him which prevents him from going 7-0 or 6-1. At the same time, a 5-2 performance isn’t out of the question. . .or a 3-4 performance for that matter. The possibilities are pretty wide-open for Musashikuni!
Wakaichirō Ken and the Aki Basho 2018
Being a younger rikishi, Wakaichirō has only had two phases to his career. Interestingly, they closely mimic the start of Musashikuni’s career. The first phase dates from 2017.01 to 2017.11, where Wakaichirō had a steady ascent to the bottom of the sandanme division. The second phase, from 2017.11 to the present, is Wakaichirō’s own volatile plateau, where he is wavering between the botton of the sandanme division and the top of the jonidan division.
Wakaichirō will be fighting to break out of this plateau. He has had two kachi-koshis in a row, and a third could solidify his current march up the ranks. I could certainly see this happening. Wakaichirō has demonstrated clear sumo instincts since his start in the sport, and he is very agile for a rikishi his size. He has steadily gained weight and mass throughout his short career, which has allowed him to incorporate new moves into both his offensive and defensive repertoire. He is beginning to win more often by push-outs, and he is beginning to lose less often by push-outs. So, what needs to go right for Wakaichirō to get his third kachi-koshi in a row?
While Wakaichirō is very agile, sometimes he is “too” agile. When he loses, it is occasionally because he finds himself in bad positioning due to over-movement. Although he is getting much better, Wakaichirō will sometimes even have his back towards his opponent when he is vying for a different position. Below is a gif of just that happening during the Nagoya Bashoasho 2018. The match was too long to include its entirely in the gif, so click here to watch the whole match.
Here is another one from the Kyushu Basho 2017.
As highlighted in a previous post, Wakaichirō sometimes has difficulties against more tenured rikishi. I believe it is because these tenured rikishi can quickly identify when Wakaichirō is in a bad position and capitalize on the opportunity. Or, the tenured rikishi may even bait Wakaichirō to get out of position, knowing that Wakaichirō has a tendency for over-movements. For Wakaichirō to traverse up the sandanme ranks, he needs to ensure that his movements are more careful. One of Wakaichirō’s best abilities is sumo instincts, but he can always improve upon them.
For Wakaichirō during the Aki Basho 2018, I would again bet on a 4-3 performance. Wakaichirō’s continued growth, both physically and mentally, bodes well for his future success. With a more varied skillset, he can battle with the best of the sandanme division. At the same time, he is still relatively inexperienced, which may prevent him from presently obtaining a 6-1 or even a 5-2 performance in the division. It is even possible that he could produce a 3-4 performance. So, we’ll just have to wait and see!