When he first shot through the ranks in the mid 2000s, more than a few fans and commentators had Kisenosato penciled in as a future yokozuna.
And in his 13-tournament rise from jonokuchi – the lowest of sumo’s six divisions – to the sekitori ranks, not only did he rise from nowhere at a pace rarely equalled, he did so at a time the upper ranks had a number of rikishi at the top of their game and a number of current senior rankers were also vying for promotion.
He is now on the cusp of promotion to yokozuna.
The main obstacle in his quest for the ceremonial tsuna belt worn only by yokozuna, however, will be Hakuko, himself a yokozuna since mid-2007. Head to head, Kise is starting to get the upper hand on the yokozuna and must maintain the momentum if he is to have any chance of promotion.
An outright tournament victory, though, should qualify him for consideration for promotion by the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee, albeit with just one career tournament victory as opposed to the two often assumed to be the minimum required. That nothing is “official” and set in stone in as far as the Sumo Association goes could thus benefit the ozeki, even if it will come with accompanying claims of favoritism by many non-Japanese fans.
One thing undoubtedly in his favor is the fact that his record over the past couple of years is in many ways second only to Hakuho in terms of consistency. Looking back to late 2010, Kisenosato has only twice recorded less than 10 wins in a tournament. When held up alongside the seven times yokozuna Harumafuji has failed to score a minimum of 10, his argument for yokozuna status based on consistency alone starts to make sense.
As for Hakuho, while undoubtedly the top dog in the sport in recent years, he has his own reasons for keeping his foot on the accelerator and not letting up.
Fresh off a pre-basho break in Okinawa, the winner of four of the six 2013 tournaments, Hakuho will himself be looking to add to his career tally of 27 tournament wins to date in his quest to one day move past the 31 of Chiyonofuji, and 32 of Taiho.
“I still feel strong and healthy just like last year,” Hakuho was recently quoted as saying. “If I am able to obtain the record while facing the pressure (of chasing the record and performing day in, day out as a yokozuna is expected to perform), it will be a good year for me. If I pay attention to avoid injuries and follow my routine, the results will come.”
Few doubt Hakuho will one day move past both Chiyonofuji and Taiho to become the best ever. The only real question is when.
His task, starting today, will be made easier by the absence of fellow yokozuna Harumafuji, who failed to appear on at the Kokugikan for a pre-tourney presentation ceremony on Saturday, after announcing his withdrawal a day earlier.
Just how this absence will go on to affect Kisenosato’s own promotion is anyone’s guess. Some will no doubt claim a weakened field and thus try to take away from any record Kise sets.
But back with Hakuho, the 28-year-old has a 5-7 record in bouts against Harumafuji in the last two years. As a result, the absence of his junior at the rank will be one weight off his mind and has not gone unnoticed by fans.
Harumi Kanaya, a long-term fan of the game, and in particular the upper makushita and lower juryo ranks, sees Hakuho as winning the basho outright, with Kisenosato standing more than a fair chance of promotion to yokozuna. “Since yokozuna Harumafuji is out, I think Hakuho will take the Emperor’s Cup. As for Kisenosato, if he gets more than 10 wins, I am 70% sure he will be promoted because most sumo fans want to see a Japanese yokozuna.
“That said, I’m not overly interested in who will win the yusho, or if Kisenosato will be promoted. I’m more interested in the matches from upper makushita and low juryo as there are a lot of promising wrestlers moving up.”
Moeko Yamamoto, another Japanese fan from Tokyo, sees Kisenosato on the brink of promotion. “Kisenosato is strong now, even if he does not like giving up control early on in a bout (as he often does), so come the end of the tournament I think he will be there or thereabouts when it comes to promotion.”
If Kisenosato does eventually make yokozuna – this basho or in the future – he will be the first in a decade and a half. Should he win a tournament this month, next, or further down the line, he will be the first Japan-born wrestler to do so since 2006!
The time is ripe for Kisenosato. Now or never!
In news received just prior to going to press, but as of yet unconfirmed by officials, conflicting reports indicate the hitherto free online stream from sumo tournaments may now be charged on either a daily or per-basho basis. More updates to follow.