Before the Harumafuji scandal broke, 2017 had been shaping up to be one of the better sumo years of recent times.
It started with Kisenosato finally winning a tournament and becoming the first Japan-born yokozuna since 2003. Fellow yokozuna Hakuho then broke the all-time career wins record in July and finished the year with 40 top-division championships — by far the most in sumo history.
A whole host of exciting up-and-coming rikishi also provided thrills and entertainment throughout the year as they challenged the old order for supremacy. Things were looking good and sumo was at an all-time high of popularity before everything went south on Nov. 14 with the news that Harumafuji had assaulted Takanoiwa while out drinking.
When a yokozuna gets forced into retirement, it casts a shadow over everything else, especially when the Japan Sumo Association has worked to eliminate violence in the sport in the decade since Tokitaizan’s death.
The current scandal and the wider intrigue around it threaten to continue on into 2018, but the fallout will be mostly legal (Harumafuji) and political (Takanohana). Matters inside the ring are unlikely to be affected and that means the coming changing of the guard should get into full swing next year.
Hakuho, of course, remains atop the mountain but age and the aforementioned young guns will combine to make his position less secure. The other two yokozuna, Kakuryu and Kisenosato, seem on even shakier ground and it would be a major surprise if at least one of them hasn’t retired by the end of 2018.
Leading the charge from below are a pair of 21-year-old komusubi. Takakeisho makes his sanyaku (top four ranks) debut after an outstanding 11-4 runner-up performance in Kyushu, and Onosho won seven of his last eight fights to hold on to that rank. Rebounding from a 1-6 start illustrates the mental fortitude and self-belief the Onomatsu Beya man possesses.
The role ‘belief’ plays in sumo success can’t be overstated. According to former maegashira Sentoryu (who had a 57-percent career win rate) when he was confident he would win, about 80 percent of the time it happened.
Belief, of course, comes in many forms.
For some, it is supernatural in origin — the notion that a deity or cosmic force has preordained success, or indeed that winning and losing is all part of a bigger plan and therefore out of the individual’s hands, removing the pressure of responsibility from them.
Sumo has had religious rikishi of many persuasions, with the three major Abrahamic faiths also represented. Hoshitango from Argentina is Jewish, and Kokkai and Gagamaru make no secret of their Christianity. Photos of both Georgians often show them with religious icons or regalia. Osunaarashi’s Islamic beliefs have been widely reported on and while the fasting during Ramadan may take a toll physically, the mental strength he gets from his faith more than counterbalances that.
Indeed, according to Konishiki, who was also raised in a religious household, it’s that bond of belief that maintains people in the tough times.
“When I was feeling the struggle or hurt, I would call my dad and we would pray over the phone.” he told The Japan Times.
For others, ‘belief’ means a trust in your training or in the coach’s methods. The certainty that if you do what you have been taught, then success will follow.
The two needn’t be exclusive either, as Konishiki added that he also “believed in the teachings of my oyakata. I trusted him 100 percent in everything.”
Belief doesn’t necessarily have to come from an external source either. Takakeisho and Onosho are known for their willingness to go above and beyond regular sumo training to do what it takes to climb the ranks. The fact that both men, while taking different approaches, have been successful is bound to reinforce trust in their own systems.
The actual methods they, or indeed any athlete, use are almost secondary. In fact they don’t even need to have a scientific basis. Many people swear by ice baths despite the lack of any proven benefit and NFL quarterback Tom Brady will credit a large part of his success to not eating mushrooms or drinking coffee.
That doesn’t mean anyone off the street willing to give up Kona and shiitake could replicate Brady’s physical longevity. It’s not the system — it’s the belief in the system.
Sport at the highest level is all about trying to gain a slim edge over your opponent. Once an athlete has done all they can physically, then the only place left is the mental battleground.
True, belief is the psychological equivalent of peak physical condition. You don’t have to look far to see many rikishi that had all the physical tools but never reached the top because they lacked the required self-belief.
In sumo it’s a well-known saying that you need shin-gi-tai (heart-technique-physique) to succeed. Ask anyone involved in that world and they will tell you heart is by far the most important of the three. Takakeisho and Onosho have that heart in spades and that is why I believe that 2018 will be their year.
This is the season when faith is most required. Whether it’s in Santa, peace on Earth or my sumo predictions, you just gotta believe.