It’s that time once again to make predictions, and state hopes and wishes for the year ahead in sumo.
A common refrain over the past decade or so has been the expressing of a desire to see a scandal-free year in the sport.
Ask almost any fan or member of the media and they’ll say the same thing. “I just want 12 months without news of violence or bullying.”
I am hoping for a 2019 filled with stories of harassment and wrestlers being forced out of the sport.
While it’s true that such scandals are great journalistic fodder, that’s not the reason I want to see a year in which more dark tales of violence leak out into the public arena.
In fact, I’d rather be struggling for topics and racking my brain trying to come up with fresh angles, than have to write another story about some young kid getting beaten to a pulp or driven out of sumo.
No, for me it’s all about that Bruce Cockburn line: “You got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”
Let’s be honest — violence has long been part of sumo’s internal culture. Just because there may be periods without scandal doesn’t mean that unsavory incidents aren’t occurring. It’s simply that those involved have been good at intimidating people and keeping it in-house.
When such stories do come out however, more of the bad seeds get removed from the sport, and any who manage to survive get put on notice. Those in the latter group have to be a lot more circumspect, and as a result often tone down their activities. It’s not a perfect solution, but any reduction in violence is better than none at all.
Moving on to brighter matters, it seems as if we are set for another banner year inside the ring.
Indeed, 2018 was nothing short of incredible. Three first-time champions, a new ozeki, dramatic tournaments and exciting sumo playing to packed out arenas. The coming 12 months are set to top that, however, and could also give us the one thing that the sport has been missing in the recent past — a genuine top-class rivalry.
The 22-year-old Takakeisho broke through in November, lifting the Emperor’s Cup for the first time and being promoted to a career-best rank of sekiwake. Onosho, his main rival stretching back to their school days, also put in a strong performance after overcoming injury. While there are no certainties in sumo, both men appear set to be at or near the top of the banzuke (rankings), competing for championships for the next decade or so.
That’s a very good thing, because while it’s true that sumo has been near an all-time high in popularity over the last few years, it’s only the retirement of veteran yokozuna Kisenosato away from a slump.
Throughout history, rivalries have been the driving force behind the sport’s popularity.
It’s no accident that sumo’s eras are defined in such terms.
Whether Umegatani versus Hitachiyama in the 1900s, Akebono versus Takanohana in the 1990s or Hakuho versus Asashoryu in the late 2000s, interest in sumo is normally highest when two great warriors are vying for titles.
The rivalries don’t even have to be evenly matched — witness the “Haku-Ho Era” of the 1960s where Taiho had 32 titles to Kashiwado’s five.
The key element is exciting and unpredictable bouts between those at the pinnacle.
While it’s usually a pair of yokozuna, occasionally an ozeki can be part of the equation. Takanohana (I) in the 1970s is often included in the Kitanoumi — Wajima era discussion.
Takakeisho has a shot at promotion to sumo’s second-highest rank if he does well in the upcoming tournament while Onosho, given his current position will need most of the year to be in a similar situation. I predict that both men will be in the mix for one or two titles over the next 12 months, which will hopefully mark the start of the next great rivalry.
This year should also give us a promising new sekitori in the shape of Ryuko. The Kumamoto native, who is a nephew of Onoe Stablemaster, has been promoted to a career-high rank of makushita 3 for the January meet, putting him just one good result away from sumo’s second-highest division.
Ryuko has been doing sumo since the age of 4 and had quite a bit of success at the underage level, including winning the Hakuho Cup a few years back.
Powerfully built and with strong pushing and thrusting ability, Ryuko has been developing his belt skills over the past year and figures to be in the mix again even at a higher rank.
Five or six wins will be needed this month for promotion and that’s no easy task. The top of makushita is normally filled with former sekitori and up-and-coming wrestlers. In a very real sense, the stakes are higher than anywhere else in the rankings. Even the lowest-ranked wrestler in the juryo division gets a good salary and freedom, while one rank below at the top of makushita can still basically be considered indentured servitude. For that reason it’s often called “Heaven and Hell.”
Ryuko seems to have the potential to be a future star, and he’s a good bet to make the jump soon. When he does, he will likely get a new shikona (ring name). Right now he is using his real name but inverted, and because shikona have both first and family name elements he is currently “Ryuko Kawakami” rather than “Kawakami Ryuko.”