Early on Thursday, it was announced that yokozuna Hakuho had decided to skip the upcoming Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo due to injury.
According to reports from his stable, the most successful man in sumo now or in any era since sumo was organized as a sport, is suffering from a combination of arthritic pain on the right side of his body, a long-suspected left-knee injury, and a right-toe injury picked up in Nagoya in July.
Incredibly, it is only the second time in a career now spanning 93 tournaments that Hakuho will sit out a full 15 days of action.
The last time he was forced to sit out an entire tournament, although ranked as an ozeki in November 2006, his absence passed by almost unnoticed thanks to a strong showing from the other four men ranked just below then-top dog Asashoryu at the time — Tochiazuma, Kotooshu, Kaio and Chiyotaikai — all bar Chiyotaikai (9-6) notching up 10-5 records.
This time last year, however, the September 2015 Autumn Basho also proved less-than-fertile stomping ground for the yokozuna, who pulled out after back-to-back losses late on the first two days to Okinoumi and Yoshikaze to finish with a 0-3-12 record.
And, by missing this month’s tournament he will, perhaps unknowingly, be equaling his dismal 66-win, 24-loss record of 2015, albeit with another 15 bouts scheduled for Fukuoka in November.
Should he lose or opt to sit out just one more fight down in Kyushu, he will post his worst ever calendar year record as a yokozuna.
Not since 2006, when he failed to win in 29 bouts over the course of the year, has the man with more career titles than any other appeared so ‘human.’
One man set to benefit from the absence of Hakuho is Kisenosato.
Still on his own ‘yokozuna-run’ with promotion to sumo’s highest rank likely should he win the title with a 13-2-or-better record, the ozeki from Ibaraki has yet to comment publicly on Hakuho’s withdrawal. But Hakuho has himself claimed to be “supporting (Kisenosato)” now that he is not actually fighting the man with the second-best win/loss record in recent times.
Come the last day of the Autumn Basho though, anything bar a Kisenosato victory or an out-of-the-blue win from a rank-and-filer, and talk will soon return to Hakuho and just how long it will take him to reach his 1,000th career win when the rikishi move to Fukuoka for the year’s final tourney.
In the meantime, seven men in the makunouchi division are set to compete at career-best ranks, most notably the sekiwake debutant duo of Takayasu and Takarafuji.
Both being Japanese — although Takayasu has one parent from the Philippines — a murmur of excitement has been seen passing through the sumo community.
Of the two it is perhaps Takayasu, if either, who will progress further. Still in his mid-20s but with a decade of experience behind him, his yo-yo-ing of recent years has largely stopped and he has put in some impressive tournaments of late after dropping to maegashira 12 late last year.
Physique-wise he has the height and the physical presence to advance but having taken so many known knocks over the years, and no doubt having hidden a few, I am not sure he will ever make the ozeki ranks due to injury.
Hopefully I am wrong as he is a hugely likeable rikishi but experience says this is as high as he is set to reach.
Takarafuji too is never likely to get further having come into the sport after university and now just a few months away from his 30th birthday.
Both should at least, on recent form, give the men ranked at ozeki and yokozuna above a run for their money.
But my money — were gambling on sumo legal — for the very last time will be on Kisenosato.