Hakuho, other challengers ready to chase spring glory

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

The Osaka Basho, which gets underway on Sunday, is arguably the most wide-open tournament sumo has seen in years.

With three of the last four meets crowning first-time champions, guessing who will be hoisting the Emperor’s Cup on March 24 is like trying to predict who will ultimately be sitting on the Iron Throne, back at the start of series one of “Game of Thrones.”

Right now, taking recent history, form, age, and injuries into account, you can make a solid case for any one of up to five or six rikishi being in pole position for the title.

As always though, we have to start with Hakuho.

Starting 2019 with 10 straight wins, it looked like the G.O.A.T. was certain to wrap up his 42nd title, before a returning Mitakeumi threw a spanner in the works.

Loses on the following two days to Tamawashi and Takakeisho led to the yokozuna withdrawing citing knee and ankle injuries.

Those three straight defeats came at the hands of the aforementioned first-time winners, and some commentators were left wondering if that was a sign that the Hakuho aura was finally dissipating.

Even if the fear factor no longer applies for up-and-coming rikishi, Hakuho remains the only wrestler that you can say with absolute conviction will be in the yusho race if healthy.

The veteran’s floor, for tournaments he finishes, is still 11 wins.

That stands in contrast to pretenders to the throne such as Takakeisho and Mitakeumi, who have yet to move past the stage where just reaching double digits represents a decent tournament.

Hakuho has been in imperious form in pre-basho training, dominating the likes of Takakeisho and Tamawashi but, apart from judging the health of a wrestler, one should never read too much into those results. There is a huge variance in the intensity each rikishi brings and some men are just poor in training but able to turn it on when the lights are brightest.

Still though, Hakuho is equally as likely to get 14 or 15 wins as he is to get 11, so while not the force he once was, the yokozuna is a good bet this basho to continue the top ranks’ belying of the Osaka tournament’s “stormy” reputation.

That’s a moniker by the way that hasn’t rung true in almost two decades.

Takatoriki’s victory in March 2000 was the last time Osaka saw a genuinely surprising winner.

Of the 17 tournaments (2011 was cancelled) held in the city since, 14 have seen a yokozuna emerge victorious and the remaining three were won by ozeki.

With the ranks of maegashira, komusubi and sekiwake taking four of the last seven championships, however, the “Areru Haru Basho” or “Turbulent Spring Tournament” might once again live up to its name.

If sekiwake Takakeisho grabs his second title in five months he’ll earn more than just the prizes on offer on day 15.

Victory would seal promotion to the sport’s second-highest rank and make him an ozeki at 22.

It’s an age similar to that of such luminaries as Takanohana and Asashoryu when they reached the rank.

Takakeisho’s aspirations

Takakeisho’s size and pushing style make reaching sumo’s peak unlikely but he could have a career along the lines of former ozeki Chiyotaikai.

The Kokonoe Stable wrestler had to deal with Akebono, Takanohana and Musashimaru early in his career, followed by all-time greats Asashoryu and Hakuho at their peak.

With no obvious standout like that on the horizon, Takakeisho could easily surpass Chiyotaikai’s three championships over the next few years.

He doesn’t actually need to lift the Emperor’s Cup in Osaka though to ensure promotion to ozeki.

While the Japan Sumo Association’s nebulous criteria are often a cause of frustration, 10 wins should be enough to earn the Chiganoura Stable wrestler the nod, while 11 would almost guarantee promotion.

Takakeisho actually achieved the oft-cited standard of 33 wins over three tournaments with his 11-4 runner-up performance in January, but a crushing defeat to Goeido on the final day soured things in the minds of those in power and the Hyogo Prefecture native was denied promotion and left to settle for just the technique prize.

That kind of decision isn’t without precedent.

Former ozeki Miyabiyama didn’t make it back to the rank despite his 10 wins in July 2006 giving him a total of 34 over three tournaments, including a 14-1 outing that summer where he only missed out on the title in a playoff to Hakuho.

Takanohana likewise was made to wait for his yokozuna promotion and it wasn’t until after his seventh title that he was awarded the rank.

The JSA often takes factors such as a wrestler’s age as well as the number of men at the aimed-for rank into account when deciding whether or not to promote.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Takakeisho’s non-promotion after January was a least partly a “if you want it come and take it” challenge to the young rikishi.

Going on what the 22-year-old has shown so far in his career, the odds are that the snub will only add fuel to the fire.

I expect Takakeisho to easily reach 11 wins and maybe even grab a second championship along with ozeki promotion.

Serious title contenders

Kakuryu, Tamawashi and Takayasu can also be considered serious contenders for the title and then you have Goeido, Mitakeumi and Tochinoshin — three rikishi that have shown they have what it takes to lift the Emperor’s Cup but who have question marks due to injury and lack of form.

Add to the list hopefuls Onosho and Hokutofuji and you can see why I called the tournament “wide-open.”

In fact in the current climate even the idea of long shots like Tochiozan or Miyogiryu grabbing a late career title doesn’t seem all that far fetched.

Kakuryu, as has been his wont, continues to fly under the radar.

The Mongolian, who pulls off the seemingly impossible task of simultaneously being low key and one of the leading figures in Japan’s national sport, is the “defending champion” so to speak, after taking the title in Osaka last year.

Kakuryu has missed more fights than he has competed in over the past eight months but he was in a similar position at the start of 2018.

Back then many were expecting him to announce his retirement but the Izutsu Beya veteran buried such speculation with an 11-win outing followed by consecutive championships in March and May.

A sixth title would move Kakuryu past legendary rikishi like Kaio and Kashiwado on the all-time list.

Right now there are eight rikishi in the top division that have experienced winning a championship, and among the top eight- ranked wrestlers, Takayasu is the only one yet to lift the Emperor’s Cup.

The ozeki has been runner-up three times since the start of 2018 and reports are emerging from the racetrack where he is based about an all-out effort to break his duck.

Yes, you read that right.

Taganoura Beya has moved from its traditional Osaka lodgings to Sonoda Racecourse, setting up a practice ring in a room ringed by TV screens normally used by punters betting on horses.

While the screens are covered with plastic the racecourse itself is still in use with the venue naming one race the “Ozeki Takayasu Birthday Commemoration” in honor of its famous guest reaching the age of 29 last week.

It’s not the first time a stable has picked an unusual venue in Kansai.

Musashigawa Beya built and used a dohyo under one of the stands at Hanazono Rugby Stadium before its renovation as part of a public relations effort for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Newly retired yokozuna Kisenosato, continues to put on a mawashi to train and, now relieved of all the pressure and expectation of the past two years is fully focused on helping Takayasu get a first title and make it to the highest rank.

The Ibaraki Prefecture native has the physical size and technical ability needed to achieve both but lapses at key moments have stymied his efforts thus far. It’s probably stretching things to say that Takayasu’s main hurdle is a mental one, but until he makes the breakthrough that’s certainly part of the equation.

I’ve often mentioned the similarities between Takayasu and Kakuryu and I believe that if the former can get a first title, several more will follow.

Whether that will happen this month or not is hard to say. Takayasu is certainly putting in the work needed and there is without a doubt a bigger window of opportunity now than at any time in the past 15 years for new champions to emerge.

All of which means despite everything I’ve written above it’ll probably be someone like Kaisei standing on the dohyo receiving the giant silver cup on March 24.