Sunday, 22 May 2016

Breaking Down the Natsu Basho: Hakuho's 37th Championship

Sumo's Natsu (summer) Basho has just concluded and with its end comes the continued dominance of Hakuho.  Running through the competition with finesse and incredible skill, the Mongolian Yokozuna ended the tournament with a perfect 15-0 record.  This Basho marks Hakuho's record-setting 37th championship and 12th undefeated championship.

In Sumo, each bout begins with the Tachi-ai, the initial charge between the two Rikishi.  A number of tactics are at play here.  Some wrestlers charge head first, attempting to use their momentum to drive their opponent out of the dohyō.  Others prefer to advance behind their hands, thrusting and slapping to back the opponent up.  Still others will use their forearm to pop the head up in order to raise their opponent's center of gravity and get underneath them.  Another common tactic is the henka - a sidestep to avoid the opponent's charge.  This practice is used to punish overly aggressive opponents, but it is controversial in the world of Sumo, with some seeing it as a way to avoid the fight.

The majority of Sumo matches are won by oshidashi (pushing the opponent out of the ring), or yorikiri (using the opponent's belt to force them out), but it's also possible to win by causing the opponent to touch the floor with any part of his body aside from the bottoms of his feet.

Striking is legal in Sumo, as long as it is done with an open hand.  This combination of stand up grappling and limited striking makes for a unique and interesting paradigm in the handfight that looks like a mashup of standard wrestling grips and the parries and slips of striking arts.  The mawashi (the cloth belt worn by the wrestlers) adds another dimension to gripping in the clinch as well.

If neither man is able to secure a grip on the mawashi or an underhook off the Tachi-ai, the match often falls into handfighting, with both Rikishi looking for inside control - swimming their hands in, thrusting the opponent away, and looking to parry and deny the opponent grips.

Takayasu's opponent comes out hands-first and manages to knock him off balance, but Takayasu recovers and parries a thrust, redirecting his opponent's arm as it reaches out to his neck.

Tochinoshin is an aggressive, smothering Rikishi whose style favors walking his opponent out with yorikiri, but here he demonstrates an ability to fight off the back foot.  He strips off Tamawachi's collar tie and deflects his thrusts while backing up, until Tamawachi leaves his arm exposed and Tochinoshin pulls him down while angling himself out to the side

Japanese martial arts are well known for their tradition of using the opponent's momentum against them, but it is often necessary to provoke that momentum oneself.  Judokas are incredibly skilled at putting pressure on an opponent, waiting for resistance, and giving way with a throw, taking advantage of the opponent's pushback.

Aoiyama demonstrates the applicability of this concept to Sumo as he thrusts his opponent's head past his center of gravity and slaps him down as he overcompensates in reaction.

Although Sumo is a game of incredible skill that involves split-second redirection, sharp footwork, and finesse, many have success overwhelming their opponents with aggression and unrelenting forward motion.

Kotoshogiku is one of those Rikishi.  He starts off every match the same way;  He'll bullrush his opponent, looking to establish an underhook and a grip on the belt, then explosively bounce his way to a yorikiri win.

Kotoshogiku's style, and that of any Rikishi who favors all-out aggression with little variance, gets him into trouble from time to time, however, as opponents are able to redirect the charge they see coming.  This can come in the form of a henka that sends him barreling out of the dohyō, or an opponent angling out and redirecting his momentum.  Yokozunas Harumafuji and Hakuho both put on a show against him, gliding out of the way and flipping him onto the floor.

The bales at the edge of the dohyō allow Rikishi to feel the boundary so they don't step out.  When in danger of being pushed out, the wrestlers will turn their hips sideways and attempt to fight it off, commonly using the bales for balance, and attempt to push back or angle out and hit a throw using the momentum of their opponent's push.

The 2-6 Okinoumi upset the Yokozuna, Harumafuji, by using his push off the bales against him, turning Harumafuji's momentum into a throw.

The whizzer is an important tool for Rikishi backed up to the edge of the dohyō, allowing them to turn their opponent's hips away and escape their own.  Nishikigi gets it done MMA-style, using a whizzer and crossface to get his hips back and circling out to off-balance his opponent.

While it may seem that a Rikishi who has his opponent on the bails is in the lead, and indeed the most common outcome in this situation is a win for him by yorikiri, the craftier Rikishi have tricks to ensure that attempting to push them out of the dohyō is a dangerous prospect.

Mobile strikers have figured out that the way to diffuse an opponent's power is to deny him the opportunity to set his stance.  Constantly pivot off, change your angle, and force your opponent to turn and keep up with you, and he won't be able to commit his weight behind a big shot.  The same concept applies to Sumo.

The crafty Ozeki Goueidou demonstrates these concepts aptly, playing the matador as he angles off and forces his powerhouse opponent to turn in order to continue charging, before ushering his opponent out of the dohyō with a parry and sidestep.

It is when one fighter is in danger of being forced out that we see the beautiful angling footwork that's becoming more common in MMA.

Look familiar?

Daishoumaru shows off some fantastic angles and footwork.  He steps to his left, baiting his opponent into him, only to pivot off to his right with a push under the shoulder.  He continues circling as he swims his right arm into a collar tie and uses it to pull his opponent past him.  His opponent turns to line him up and begins to charge, but Daishou again switches directions, catching under the shoulder, and sending his opponent to the floor.

Perhaps the most dominant position in Sumo is having the back of one's opponent.  Standing behind your opponent facing him while he's facing away from you, unable to observe your actions or offer much offense of his own, is certainly a dominant position in any sport, but the addition of the mawashi makes facing away from your opponent nearly insurmountable if he is allowed to get his grips.

Given Sumo's focus on stand up grappling, it's unsurprising that it bears many conceptual and technical similarities to American wrestling.  Two notable examples from early in this basho are the use of a two-on-one tie and an armdrag to take the back.

As any good wrestler or martial artist skilled in the clinch is well aware, head position is paramount.  Kaisei demonstrates this principle, burying his forehead in the face of his opponent and running him out.  His opponent attempts a throw using Kaisei's momentum, but his head position allows him to ride it out.

Snap downs are another technique shared between Sumo and American wrestling, although in Sumo it often acts as more of a slap.  These can be very effective at taking advantage of an over-committed opponent, but one must be careful because the explosive, leaping transfer of weight that's often necessary to off-balance a Rikishi with his base under him (good luck trying to snap down one of these monsters from a collar tie alone) can briefly raise your center of gravity and present openings.

Now onto the star of the Basho.  Hakuho is an incredibly skilled Rikishi adept at agile footwork, changing directions on the fly, exciting throws, and gripfighting in close.  He favors grappling, but also likes to make use of slaps at the Tachi-ai and whenever an opponent tries to close distance on him.

Hakuho often played the role of a counter striker in this Basho, allowing his opponent to charge onto his slaps and moving away while they were left disoriented.

Hakuho starts off the Tachi-ai with a slap to interrupt his opponent's charge before shifting stance, allowing him to maneuver around his opponent and shove him out.

Hakuho's more staggered stance allows him greater opportunity to angle out at the Tachi-ai.  The shift he used above is similar in nature to the motion famously popularized by Mike Tyson.

Hakuho uses his forearm to lift his opponent's head, before backing off.  As his opponent charges, he meets his advances with slaps and pivots around him.  Eventually, when his opponent gets frustrated and attempts a desperate shove, Hakuho simply bumps to the side at an angle, taking his shoulder off the line of the shove, causing his opponent to lose his balance.

Hakuho leads with his left hand, using it to guide his opponent's face into a forearm shot that drops him.

Here Hakuho's opponent leads with his arms out, protecting his face, so Hakuho uses the forearm to parry his shove and redirect his momentum.

While Hakuho was running through the tournament, the Japanese Ozeki, Kisenosato, was right there with him matching him win-for-win.

On day 10, Kisenosato came back from the brink of defeat to overpower the bulldozer that is Kotoshogiku and retain his undefeated record.

Anticipation built throughout the Basho until Hakuho and Kisenosato put their undefeated runs on the line when they met on day 13.  Hakuho lead with a slap, but they soon fell into an over/under position.  They pushed each other back and forth alternately until Hakuho went for a throw, attempting to sweep out the hip with a grip on the belt, and Kisenosato overextended his base defending it, which allowed Hakuho to change directions and pull him off balance.  Hakuho went on to capture the Yūshō (tournament championship) undefeated, while Kisenosato finished with a 13-2 record as the runner up.


  1. Great aticle I enjoy your work. Never new I would like an article on sumo.

    1. Thanks man, much appreciated! I've just started getting into it myself. This is the first Basho I've watched and I wrote this with the purpose of understanding it better.

  2. excellent article. Though the day gif at the beginning of the Hakuho section cuts off his amazing day 15 Utchari back throw vs Kakuryu which i think was an unintentional error on your part.

    A shame because it is an amazing kimarite and Hakuho executes it to perfection in the missing 3 seconds

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, gfycat cut it off because it was longer than 15 seconds. It's fixed now.

  3. That Hakuho forearm sent Ikoi to La La Land.

  4. That Hakuho forearm sent Ikoi to La La Land.