Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Sumo lacks marquee rivalries of recent times

by John Gunning

The upcoming Spring Grand Sumo Tournament seems to have everything going for it.

The basho kicks off with a wealth of storylines.

One is a tale of vengeance as Takakeisho seeks to correct the record on his controversial non-promotion to sumo’s second-highest rank.

Others involve veterans like Hakuho out to show that they still have what it takes despite injury and advancing age.

There is also the tension of Takayasu’s bid to avoid becoming the lost man of history.

The ozeki seems to have gone from young hopeful to a veteran who is staring at what is likely his best chance to win a title and make a run at the white rope before the next generation reaches maturity and overtakes him.

Those young guns have plenty to prove too, with Onosho, Hokutofuji, Asanoyama and a few others not really establishing themselves yet despite varying levels of hype.

The eventual winner of the Spring Basho could come from any of the names mentioned above, or indeed from among several others.

While sumo will never have NFL-like levels of parity, the current generational shift means that the field of contenders is wider than it has been at any time in the past two decades.

There is another side to that coin, though, and it’s one that has caused ripples of concern inside the Japan Sumo Association.

The sport lacks the sort of marquee rivalry than has defined it for decades, if not centuries.

Tickets for the upcoming tournament officially went on sale on Feb. 3, a couple of weeks after Kisenosato announced his retirement, but the reality is that a lot of seats are pre-sold and plans made for March often couldn’t easily be undone.

The next Tokyo-hosted tournament in May will be the first where people know well in advance that the former yokozuna will no longer be competing.

While basho in the capital take place in a city with population and tourism figures large enough to counterbalance fluctuations in popularity, this year’s meets in places like Nagoya and Fukuoka could possibly see a big drop in ticket sales.

Although sources inside the JSA didn’t want to go on record on the topic, there was a lot of lip-chewing when the prospect of the salad days coming to an end was raised.

Sumo tickets have been like gold dust in the past few years, but it’s less than a decade since half-empty arenas were the norm on weekdays in Kyushu and Nagoya, and tickets were easy enough to come by for the other venues.

Kisenosato may not have been a true rival for Hakuho in terms of numbers and indeed they only met once while both were yokozuna, but their battles were always fierce and often significant.

Kisenosato, remember, was the one who ended Hakuho’s win streak at 63, stopping the Mongolian legend short of sumo’s all-time best of 69 set by Futabayama in 1939, and denying Hakuho the only record of significance he doesn’t own.

While there is still another yokozuna on the banzuke, Kakuryu versus Hakuho doesn’t get the blood up the same way the latter’s bouts with Kisenosato, Asashoryu or Harumafuji did.

Even though there is a whole host of up- and-coming talent in sumo, there aren’t many obvious rivalries.

Takakeisho vs. Onosho holds a lot of promise as they have been going at it since they were kids, but injuries have slowed the latter’s progress and right now we have to wait and see if he can get back to form fully and match his longtime foe’s progress.

In the longer term we can look at wrestlers like Naya and Ryuko (both currently in makushita) and envision a scenario three or four years hence in which they are exciting the crowds, but projecting that far into the future in an injury-heavy sport like sumo can only ever be speculation at best.

Unlike in the past when up-and-coming rikishi like Hakuho, Asashoryu, Takanohana, Akebono and Kitanoumi were easily identifiable as destined for the top from early in their career, the current banzuke lacks that kind of sure thing.

Perhaps parity is what will define sumo for the next five or 10 years, and if so, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

A plethora of rikishi with championship experience fighting for the title means that a higher number of bouts will have greater significance, and those in the title hunt will have far fewer easy matchups.

Spectators will be able to see matches that have a direct bearing on the destination of the Emperor’s Cup earlier in the tournament, and that could offset the expected decline in ticket sales.

Fans have always been drawn in by exciting, slim or short rikishi like Takanoyama and Mainoumi who use speed and skills to down much larger opponents.

Enho and Terutsuyoshi could potentially play that role in the top division over the next few years.

So while there is no obvious successor to the great rivalries of the past, sumo could find that greater parity and more wide-open tournaments, rather than turning fans off, actually bring them in.