Sumo kicks off its new year on Sunday, with hopes that a stellar New Year Grand Sumo Tournament will help put the ancient sport back on proper footing after two months of turmoil.
The 15-day event offers the chance for a new start following a pair of scandals. Yokozuna Harumafuji recently forfeited his place in the sport after assaulting a fellow wrestler — a scandal that led to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko skipping the tournament at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan. The sumo world was then shaken by a scandal involving a referee kissing and touching a teenage referee during a regional tour.
Sumo’s highest rank is coming off a bad year in which three grand champions withdrew repeatedly and one retired due to scandal. Because of that, the yokozuna rank has the most to gain from a successful tournament.
Grand champion Hakuho increased his record title haul to 40 last year by capturing three grand tournament championships despite twice pulling out of tournaments due to injury. And although he went 14-1 to win November’s Kyushu tourney, Hakuho was chastised in December by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council for appearing to elbow opponents in the initial charge and slapping.
The yokozuna did not resume training this year until Jan. 5, and has not sparred with any wrestlers from sumo’s elite four ranks. In practice bouts, Hakuho has experimented by trial and error with various techniques, and on occasion been forced backward by opponents.
If the sport’s biggest star is unable to establish a rhythm when the matches begin on Sunday, it could throw open the race for the Emperor’s Cup.
The New Year tourney will be a critical battle ground for the other two yokozuna, Kakuryu and Kisenosato, each of whom have withdrawn from the past four grand tournaments. Yet both enter with concern over their form — Kisenosato has been displaying poor balance, and Kakuryu because, among other things, he has been vulnerable at the outset of matches. A lot may rest on how well they get through their first matches.
The remaining elite ranks appear to be in good shape. The ozeki pair of Goeido and Takayasu enter the tournament without any known issues, while sekiwake and komusubi wrestlers could provide much of the excitement.
Mitakeumi, who will be participating in his fourth straight tournament at sekiwake and coming off his first 10-win effort in the elite ranks, is building his portfolio as a candidate for ozeki promotion.
The komusubi slots are manned by a pair of 21-year-olds, Takakeisho and Onosho.