Last December, when looking ahead to 2018, I wrote that this would be the year when a new generation of sumo talent would rise to glory.
It’s a prediction that came true for the most part, with three rikishi winning their first Emperor’s Cup during the past 12 months.
While no one can accuse Tochinoshin of being a young gun, Mitakeumi and Takakeisho are certainly at the vanguard of the new wave.
Mitakekumi taking a championship, I have to admit, was a surprise. Although he is a talented wrestler, his sumo style, physique and lackluster training habits seemed to suggest a career in the upper maegashira ranks with regular trips to sanyaku, rather than a future title winner or ozeki candidate.
Full credit to the Dewanoumi Beya wrestler though. When an opportunity presented itself he grabbed it with both hands. As the old saying goes, you can only beat who is put in front of you, and Mitakeumi did just that in July, rattling off 11 straight victories from day one to give his stable — one of the most prestigious in the sport — its first champion in 38 years.
Mitakeumi would however revert to type in the following two tournaments, hovering around the kachikoshi (more wins than losses) line while ranked at sekiwake.
He is still, of course, one of the top ten wrestlers in the sport. Any disappointment expressed here needs to be tempered with the knowledge that wrestlers coming into the pro ranks from university, especially those who were college yokozuna or national title winners, are already roughly at juryo level, so early success needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
It isn’t until someone reaches the middle ranks of the top division that their true potential can be gauged.
There has only ever been one college champion who reached the highest level in professional sumo. That man was Wajima. The former yokozuna, who passed away in 2018, won 14 Emperor’s Cups between 1972 and 1980. Since then, no college graduate has ever gone past ozeki or even won a second title, never mind reached double digits.
Yutakayama, Asanoyama, Hokutofuji, Shodai and Endo are just a few of the “next big things” who have been touted over the past few years. All are capable wrestlers, but I haven’t seen anyone come out of the college ranks over the past 15 years who would even be classed with former ozeki Kotomitsuki, never mind Wajima.
The Aichi native might have been the most technically-sound rikishi of the past two decades, but even he failed to live up to his early promise.
Kotomitsuki’s inability to deal with the unpredictably and sheer will-to-win of yokozuna Asashoryu encapsulated the weakness of wrestlers coming from the college system.
While there is no doubt that training at places like Nihon University is at a high level, there is a lack of diversity when it comes to fighting styles. Nor are students exposed to opponents for whom winning and losing is the difference between being able to support families in their home country or returning in disgrace. You just don’t find that kind of hunger and absolute refuse-to-lose type of attitude in college.
Indeed, more than once I saw Yutakayama lose at the final or semifinal stage of major amateur tournaments due to being too casual or overconfident. While not writing the Tokitsukaze wrestler off, it’s hard to have confidence in him developing the kind of fire needed to reach the top of professional sumo.
No, it’s a pair of 22-year-olds who really have the most potential in my eyes. I’ve been banging the drum for Onosho and Takakeisho for more than two years now and the latter finally made his breakthrough in the final basho of the year.
The importance of Takakeisho’s age when he lifted the Emperor’s Cup in Fukuoka last month can’t be overstated.
In the past 25 years, Hakuho, Asashoryu and Takanohana are the only others to have taken a first title before their 23rd birthday. While it would be wildly optimistic to say a 173-cm tall pusher-thruster like Takakeisho is going to have a Dai-Yokozuna-like career, you don’t fluke a championship at such a young age, especially when downing a yokozuna, two ozeki and two other sanyaku-ranked wrestlers along the way.
In his short career in the top division to date, Takakeisho has put up double-digit wins in half of his tournaments. His promotion to ozeki could come as soon as next month should he manage 12 (or possibly 11) wins in the January tournament. Unlike Mitakeumi, it’s much easier to be confident about his prospects of doing so, and even if he falls short this time out, a move up in rank in 2019 seems more likely than not.
Raised in the tough environment of Takanohana Beya, Takakeisho had to fight for everything he got, and despite a lack of stature, he isn’t short on confidence.
“If you are a rikishi you should aim to win championships,” he told NHK recently, “I’m small and can only do pushing and thrusting but I’ll work on improving those techniques and aim for a higher rank in 2019.”
The year’s other new champion Tochinoshin, one of the best wrestlers in the top flight when healthy, managed to take advantage of his promotion opportunity in 2018, but injuries and age are catching up with him.
Almost a full decade older than Takakeisho, it will be difficult for Tochinoshin to put together the two tournaments needed to make a yokozuna run. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility to see him grab a second title though if everything falls right at some stage.
The wheels of change have been set in motion and the next 12 months should see the process accelerate. By December 2019 we could have one or two new Ozeki and possibly even a new yokozuna.
It promises to be a very exciting year.