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Yokozuna Hakuho showing no signs of letting up anytime soon

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Hakuho continued to defy time, as well as a host of up-and-coming young fighters, winning the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament with a 14-1 record. That came two months after he took the Summer Basho without a loss.

The man who in the spring was being called washed-up, now stands alone in the sumo record books with 1,050 victories, and just one tournament short of 40 Emperor’s Cups. To put that in perspective, if Hakuho retired today and Aminishiki, (the active rikishi with the second most career wins) went unbeaten for the next two years taking 14 straight yusho (championships) 15-0, he still wouldn’t catch Hakuho in wins or be halfway to his number of titles. Indeed one could spend an entire column listing the various incredible stats Hakuho has compiled to date, so good has the yokozuna been for so long.

Don’t expect him to rest on his laurels though. In a ringside interview on day 15, he said his next targets are 40 yusho and 1,000 top-division victories. He stands 44 wins away from that latter mark which means he has no intention of retiring this year at least.

In a press conference the day after the tournament, Hakuho also said he would like to see all four current yokozuna involved in the 2020 Olympics.

Unfortunately, given the status of the other yokozuna, it’s more likely that they will be retired this time next year than still active three years hence.

Harumafuji put up double digits again but hasn’t been in a yusho race for a year. Age and injuries seem to finally be catching up to the eight-time champion. Kisenosato withdrew for the second basho in a row meaning he has only completed one tournament since his promotion to yokozuna and Kakuryu once again didn’t even make it a third of the way through the basho. Both the latter man’s stablemaster and the Yokozuna Deliberation Council have obliquely mentioned the possibility of retirement if he doesn’t put up a good showing in September.

The new kids on the block also had mixed results this time out. Both Ura and Takakeisho had losing records, but Onosho matched the 10-5 score from his division debut last time out. That’s unlikely to be repeated in autumn as he’ll face all the top rankers in the first week or so, but expect the Onomatsu stable man to be around the top half of the banzuke for many years to come.

There wasn’t a lot to get excited about this basho apart from Hakuho’s record breaking and Aoiyama’s out-of-the-blue 13-2 record. The tournament may technically have gone down to the final bout but from just over halfway through it was obvious Hakuho would be the winner.

The big question now is are we going to have another period of sustained dominance by the veteran yokozuna or will Kisenosato and Terunofuji recover from their injuries and challenge him? Will Takayasu also get back on track after slumping in the second week in Nagoya?

Unfortunately for all involved, sumo’s recent surge in popularity means increased demand for regional events, so there will be no rest between now and the start of September.

There are 23 event days in the coming month and the jungyo (regional tour) winds its way through 14 prefectures from Kansai to the Japan Sea, Chubu to Tokyo, up through Tohoku and Hokkaido and back down to Kanto again. It’s an intense schedule in the hottest part of the year. Rikishi wake early, go to the arena, train, and then hang around the dressing rooms all day on their phones, eating cold bento. Intermittent activities throughout the day such as autograph sessions, exhibition bouts with kids, singing or demonstrations of topknot making, mean they can’t leave the arena or sleep for decent periods of time. Once the makuuchi bouts for the day have finished, they all pile into a regular sized bus for the long drive to the next destination. It’s not unusual for them to arrive at the hotel at midnight or 1 a.m. with little time to do anything but grab three or four hours sleep before starting the next day over again.

While the jungyo may be hard on the men involved it’s a godsend to regular sumo fans these days as the unavailability of tournament tickets makes it the best opportunity to see their heroes up close. In fact in many ways for spectators, a day at jungyo is better than one at honbasho (tournament). While the fights may be half speed the chance to see all the activities mentioned above is something that isn’t available anywhere else. Access to the men themselves is far less restricted and it’s not uncommon to see rikishi, referees and ring announcers sitting amongst the crowd chatting.

Each event is run separately by local organizations but all have websites with information on how to get tickets.

For those who want to get a more “interactive” experience, the Japan Sumo Association is holding its free annual “summer healthy sumo exercise” event at the Kokugikan again this year. Several young rikishi as well as an oyakata (stablemaster) or two will lead whomever shows up each morning through a series of sumo exercises. Usually there is a good turnout each day. The event runs for 14 days between July 31st and August 25th. The start time is 7 a.m. and it’s usually over within 45 minutes or an hour. In past years the association has given out a stamp card with each day’s attendance getting you a white star (signifying a win). The objective of course is kachikoshi (a majority of wins). The rikishi are in mawashi but for regular people taking part the Sumo Association on their site just recommend bringing “a towel, water and a positive attitude.”