Ama, my beloved favorite rikishi (sumo wrestler) is tied for the lead in the Kyushu Basho, after defeating Yokozuna Hakuho in a widely anticipated upset match. Tied at 10-2, this pair of Mongolian tacticians are the bright light of an otherwise disappointing tournament. Yokozuna Asashoryu – the favorite whipping boy of the Japanese Sumo Association – withdrew from the tournament before it began, citing a chronic left elbow injury. Yokozuna – grand champions – are never demoted. When they can’t compete anymore at the top level, they’re forced to retire, and there are grumblings that if Asashoryu continues to sit out tournaments, he should step down. (Of course, there are folks who’d like Asa to step down for being too brash, insufficiently respectful or too Mongolian.)
While I admire the clean technicality of Hakuho’s sumo, and am glad that he’s getting the love and respect of the Japanese sumo community, he just doesn’t excite and surprise me when he’s inside the straw ridge. Ama, on the other hand, continues to light up my sumo life. No longer the sub-120kg flyweight of his youth, he’s still one of the smallest men in sumo at 129kg – you can tell who he is in footage of any match, as he’s the little guy who’s blazingly fast.
I can’t find video footage of today’s victory yet, but I offer the above video for a clinic in how little guys can defeat extremely talented, significantly larger rikishi. (Above, Ama defeats Hakuho in the May basho.) There’s a reason Hakuho trains as often as he can with Ama – it’s not just that the Mongolians enjoy hanging out together, but that Ama is the hardest working, craftiest, most patient performer in sumo today.
When Ama entered sumo, it was assumed that he’d never be a candidate for Yokozuna. He’s just too small, and early in his career, he’s been inconsistent. But sumo fans have been watching Kyushu closely, because Ama is making a very serious run at Ozeki, the second-highest rank in sumo. To become Ozeki, it’s generally assumed that a rikishi needs to win 33 matches in three tournaments – an average of 11 matches per tournament. Ama comes in with 22 victories in the last two tournaments, but just winning 11 probably won’t do it here. Since Asashoryu is out and since the Ozeki ranks are, frankly, pretty pathetic (Kaio has withdrawn with a leg injury. Kotooshu is 6-6, Chiyotaikai 7-5 – only Kotomitsuke is guaranteed a winning record (kachi-koshi) at 9-3…), Ama’s going to need to do something special to win promotion.
Beating a Yokozuna is always something special. One critical detail sumo fans will be watching for: how do these new cushions fly? It’s traditional for the fans in the good seats to throw their cushions in the air when a yokozuna is defeated. Always looking for ways to make their sport less exciting and accessible, Nihon Sumo Kyokai has now banned cushion throwing and introduced new, heavier cushions which are harder to throw. I’m willing to bet that didn’t prevent some zabuton from taking flight earlier today. I know I would have had mine in the air, even if it meant being thrown out of the stadium. (The yokozuna match is always last, so it would be an excellent time to be escorted out…)
Will Ama beat Hakuho and win this tournament? That’s really hard to predict – when Hakuho is wrestling well, Ama and Asashoryu are the only rikishi I expect to give him trouble. One’s on the sidelines, and he just lost to the other. But if Hakuho stumbles and Ama plows through the remaining three opponents, it’s hard to imagine the JSA denying him the Ozeki rank. Right? (I’m trying to convince myself here – I’m so baffled by how these decisions get made that very little would surprise me.)
Update: Hakuho and Ama finished the basho with equal 13-2 records. Sumo doesn’t consider head to head matchups – they simply hold playoffs. Ama lost his match to Hakuho, so he still hasn’t won the Emperor’s cup. But his performance earned him the Technique Prize – the 5th of his career. And sumo authorities have confirmed that Ama will be an Ozeki next tournament. Yay!