After one of the best years in the ring the past couple of decades, sumo heads into the final January tournament of the Heisei Era poised on the edge of its own era change.
Fedor Emelianenko may be the self-styled “Last Emperor” but what yokozuna Hakuho has done over the past 13 years is arguably even more impressive than the fearsome Russian’s total subjugation of the global MMA scene in the 2000s.
The son of a legendary Mongolian wrestler and Olympic silver medalist, Hakuho has dominated sumo for over a decade. His perfect 15-0 victory last September made it a 13th straight year in which he has lifted the Emperor’s Cup at least once.
There is almost no sumo record of significance that the 33-year-old doesn’t own, but age and injuries have started to take a toll on the Miyagino Stable veteran and the autumn championship, while impressive, was his only title of 2018.
It was also the first time since 2006 that Hakuho failed to win at least two tournaments in a calendar year.
Reports from training sessions have been mostly positive in the lead up to the Hatsu Basho (January Tournament) but those are in a controlled and pressure-free environment where, by virtue of his rank, the yokozuna can pick and choose opponents and number of bouts on any given day.
There is no doubt Hakuho deserves respect, and he will be among the favorites for any tournament he enters, but the New Year Basho is the one in which historically he has had the least success by far.
The yokozuna has emerged victorious in January just four times in his career. In every other tournament he has seven or eight championships to his name.
What’s the reason? Perhaps it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the holiday period taking the edge off. More likely, however, is that a new year gives impetus and motivation to wrestlers hoping to make a breakthrough. At least that’s an argument that could be made looking at the past three winners of the January tourney.
In 2016, Kotoshogiku broke a 10-year drought when he became the first native-born wrestler since Tochiazuma to lift the Emperor’s Cup.
Two years ago, Kisenosato took a long-awaited final step when he won his maiden title and was promoted to yokozuna.
Twelve months ago, Tochinoshin made it three straight years with a first-time winner in January, setting the stage for his own eventual ozeki promotion later in the year.
Could we see the trend continue this month? The odds seem to be quite good as there are a few men that look to be on the cusp of winning a championship.
First and foremost is ozeki Takayasu. The 28-year-old from Ibaraki finished three of the last five tournaments he competed in with a 12-3 record. All three were runner-up performances.
To a man, Takayasu’s career path is a virtual mirror of that of yokozuna Kakuryu’s — just about half a decade behind.
Both men have a similar build and took five years to make it to the jūryō division after joining sumo in their mid teens. It took each man a few years in the top division to reach the sanyaku ranks. From there it was three years later that both took the step up to ozeki.
Stylistically and personality-wise, they are similar and while Kakuryu arguably has better technique, that wasn’t readily apparent until he reached the top of the rankings.
Neither man generates a lot of buzz and at each stage of their career there have been far more people proclaiming that level to be their ceiling than there have been predicting them to go higher.
While their overall records have diverged a bit in recent times, I still think the Taganoura Beya veteran will push through in 2019 to not only grab his first title but perhaps — just like Kakuryu — achieve promotion to sumo’s highest rank three years after making ozeki.
Right now that seems wildly optimistic sure, but just go back and see what people were saying about Kakuryu prior to the January 2014 tournament and you’ll see many, if not most, pundits were also writing his chances off.
Kakuryu is as hard to judge as ever heading into 2019. I fully expected the Mongolian veteran to retire last year, but instead he won consecutive tournaments for the first time ever. The rest of the year though was nothing special and despite the reports of him beating up on the usual suspects in neighboring Tokitsukaze Beya in training, injuries seem to be lingering.
However because Kakuryu relies on technique rather than brute force or speed, he is often able to work around his various physical ailments, and of course as a yokozuna with five titles to his name, he can never be counted out. If he can make it to the middle weekend with no more than one loss, then Kakuryu becomes a serious threat.
A lot of pre-tournament column inches are being devoted to the last of the three yokozuna.
Kisenosato has been doing well (as always) against Takayasu in training but was far less successful when taking on others. His 10-5 record in September bought him some time but that is the only tournament the veteran has completed since March 2017.
Even in practice bouts he won, the yokozuna looked shaky and it would seem that January could well be his last hurrah.
It’s not the first time that possibility has been raised though and it’s clear that the powers that be are willing to allow Kisenosato to hang on as long as he sees fit.
Will another early withdrawal after multiple losses be enough for the Taganoura Stable man to call it a day? That’s a question only Kisenosato knows the answer to. He has given no indication that he is contemplating retirement, but barring a miracle recovery it can’t be far off.
Regardless, given his condition, the yokozuna isn’t expected to compete for the title. Double-digit wins and a further extension of his career is probably the best he can hope for at this stage.
Ozeki pair Tochinoshin and Goeido also seem like long shots to do well in January. The burly Georgian once again injured himself right before the start of the meet and while it may not be enough to keep him out, Tochinoshin’s power sumo normally requires a clean bill of health to be effective.
Goeido, meanwhile, has been reasonably steady over the past six to nine months but even if fully recovered from his own injuries, the January tournament has never been a happy hunting ground for him. Only once in his career has he even reached double digits at the Hatsu Basho, so as with Tochinoshin, just getting a kachikoshi (winning record) could be seen as a success.
Outside of Takayasu the best chance January has of seeing a new tournament winner seems to be Onosho.
If he is fully healthy, the 22-year-old will likely have had a fire lit under him by the fact that longtime rival Takakeisho won a tournament and is in line for ozeki promotion with a strong showing this month.
Injuries derailed Onosho’s ascent in 2018 but they may have been a blessing in disguise as he has been forced to add more variety to his sumo to compensate. As with Takakeisho, Onosho is an aggressive forward- moving rikishi who rarely slows down his attack from start to finish. With a couple more weapons in his arsenal he could break out in a big way in 2019.
Last tournament, Onosho avoided the kind of soft “leaving your feet behind you” slap-down losses he had been prone to in the past. When he does well he rarely loses that way, but of course that’s often the case with primarily pushing and thrusting-style wrestlers. When they are hot it’s normally because their timing is working well.
Repeating as champion in the tournament following your first title is extremely difficult. In fact Asashoryu and Kisenosato are the only two men to have achieved the feat in the last 69 years.
The parties and celebrations following a first win along with the inevitable comedown make it tough for wrestlers to train properly and keep the focus needed for a second straight championship.
For that reason, while I think that Takakeisho has a shot at the 12 wins needed for promotion, lifting the Emperor’s Cup again — especially with all the top rankers likely present when he is slated to face them — is probably too big of an ask.
The only newcomer in the top flight for January is Oguruma Beya’s Yago. A former winner of the All-Japan Championship, Yago is a big powerful man who has slowly but steadily made his way up the banzuke since joining professional sumo a couple of years ago.
Like a lot of former college wrestlers, he has the skills and experience needed to have a solid career in the top flight but probably without ever challenging for a title. Ranked at maegashira No. 13, however, he could reach double digits and earn himself one of the three special prizes.