Sumo

Young rikishi offer new hope for sumo

Kyodo

With Harumafuji’s assault scandal seeing sumo’s name dragged through the mud once again, a new generation of young wrestlers are looking to lift Japan’s ancient national sport out of the muck.

One such wrestler is 24-year-old up-and-comer Daiamami, a 14th-ranked maegashira who is the only shin-nyumaku, or rookie, in the top division at the ongoing Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament.

Despite logging just four wins against seven losses through his first 11 days in Fukuoka, Daiamami has shown previous promise, winning the juryo division championship in July and, perhaps more impressively, finishing the September tournament with a winning record.

He is one of seven new faces in the top-level makuuchi division in 2017, joining fan favorites Ura and Onosho, who advanced to the fourth-highest ranks of komusubi in Kyushu.

The Oitekaze stable wrestler Daiamami is the 228th new entry to the elite division since 1989, making this year right around the average of eight promotions per year over the period.

But it might be that Daiamami is arriving ahead of a new, major influx.

The last time the sport saw upheaval similar to that surrounding the flying fists of Harumafuji, there was a major influx of new blood.

After the match-fixing scandal that rocked the sport in 2011 many big-name wrestlers were forced into retirement, and rumors are rife Harumafuji may face the same fate once the facts of the inter-Mongolian brawl are clear.

In 2011, 14 rookies were promoted to fill the mawashi of the departed, and soon there may be a similar generational shift.

For a sport so entrenched in tradition, change is not completely foreign, and it was foreigners who drove one of the biggest shifts seen.

With the debut of the heralded brothers — Wakanohana and Takanohana — in the late 1980s the sport rose to perhaps its peak popularity, but it was the later arrival of foreign faces that took competition to a new level.

Non-Japanese wrestlers like Hawaii’s Akebono and Mongolians Asashoryu and Hakuho took the sport to new heights, and they added to the interest level by coming to Japan and quickly dominating the sport on their rise to yokozuna status.

But while the new foreign influence changed the sport at the top, statistics show that about 10 percent of the post-1989 rookie wrestlers fell out of the makuuchi division after taking part in just one basho.

So with it being a top-heavy sport, sumo can ill afford any more setbacks. And with fewer young people willing to take up the all-encompassing sumo life each year, the Japan Sumo Association faces the dual task of repairing the sport’s image while ensuring a new generation of wrestlers are willing to go all-in.