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Emergence of new generation bodes well for Summer Basho

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I was honored to be asked by The Japan Times to write a sumo column as part of the 120th anniversary revamp. This paper was probably the first place I read about sumo and was an invaluable source of news back in the days of dial-up internet, when I first came to Japan.

For those that don’t know me, I’m a former amateur sumo wrestler who now works on various NHK programs including live tournament broadcasts. I deal with rikishi and others in the sumo world on a daily basis and will be giving you the inside grip on all its going-ons.

And what a time it is to be starting a new column, with the national sport reaching a level of popularity not seen since the 90’s heyday of brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana.

The current boom is of course mostly down to one man: Kisenosato. The veteran rikishi, an avid football fan, pulled off a Tom Brady-esque comeback on the final day of the March tournament, overcoming both serious injury and young stud ozeki Terunofuji to claim the title in his first basho as yokozuna. That’s a feat that was last managed by the aforementioned Takanohana in 1995 and something only seven men in history have achieved.

Such drama, coupled with the fact that in May, Kisenosato will become the first native-born yokozuna to set foot on the Kokugikan dohyo in Tokyo since Jan 2003, meant that less than an hour after ticket sales started on April 8, all 168,000 seats were sold out. In comparison last year, tickets were still available well into the first week of the basho.

A wide-open tournament with several possible winners has also been driving excitement. The once-untouchable Hakuho hasn’t lifted the Emperor’s Cup in a year. Kisenosato has been absent for the entire spring regional tour with pectoral and bicep injuries and seems unlikely to be able to do any significant training ahead of the tournament. With many of the other top contenders injured or struggling for form, a group of exciting young rikishi are poised to usher in the next sumo era.

Foremost among them is the man that Kisenosato beat twice on day 15 in March: Terunofuji.

The young Mongolian went back to his native country after his playoff loss to recover both physically and mentally. He is a rikishi that hates losing more so than most and is sure to be highly motivated once the tournament starts.

Of course revenge isn’t the only driving factor, as a tournament victory will likely see him promoted to the sport’s highest rank for the following basho. That’s a long way from a night just four years ago when he and I sat on a park bench near his stable and he told me that he was thinking of quitting sumo and returning to Mongolia for good.

In those days, there were just four rikishi in his stable and apart from Terunofuji (then known as Wakamisho), only 165-cm tall Shunba practiced regularly. On occasion I would walk into Magaki Beya of a morning to find Terunofuji working out alone in the ring. Not permitted to go train at other stables, and seemingly stagnating, he was growing increasingly frustrated and on the verge of hanging up his mawashi when Magaki closed down and both he and Shunba were transferred to Harumafuji’s Isegahama stable.

There, under the guidance of the yokozuna, Terunofuji has blossomed and now stands just a tournament victory away from the white rope. Shunba, now his personal attendant, said that becoming ozeki hasn’t changed Terunofuji and he is convinced that yokozuna promotion is an inevitability.

Shunba, too, has reached new heights. At 35 years of age and after 13 years in the sport he finally made it to sumo’s third highest division (makushita) in March. Incredibly, he finished that tournament with a 6-1 record and will be within touching distance of promotion to the paid ranks with a good showing in May.

“After I got promoted to makushita, all the feelings I have had for so long, such as ‘I want to be promoted — I have to be promoted,’ disappeared and I was just able to wrestle the way I liked,” Shunba told The Japan Times.

Terunofuji’s promotion to yokozuna may be a 50-50 proposition but there is almost certainly going to be a new ozeki after the May tournament. Takayasu’s outstanding 12-3 record in March, on the heels of an 11-4 mark in January, means that in theory he only needs 10 wins next time out to make it to sumo’s second-highest rank. He’s managed that in four of the past five tournaments and seems energized by his stablemate Kisenosato’s recent upturn.

Further down the banzuke, Shodai’s big drop means he’ll be fighting at a rank well below his level and could give sumo its first “hiramaku yusho” since Kyokutenho exactly five years ago. Various yokozuna on the regional tour called out the 25 year-old Kumamoto native for extra training, which is a good indicator that they see him as someone with a bright future.

All in all, the May basho promises to be another very exciting tournament, and perhaps one we will look back on as the one where a new generation of rikishi made good on their potential.

John Gunning is a former amateur sumo wrestler who competed at several world championships. He is creative director of Inside Sport: Japan and a color commentator on NHK’s live sumo broadcasts as well a presenter and reporter on NHK World’s ‘Sports Japan.’