Kakuryu emerges as clear favorite to capture title

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

Gambling on sumo, like most sports in Japan, is illegal.

The Japan Sumo Association also takes a tough line with any of its members involved in such activities, even kicking an ozeki (Kotomitsuki) and stablemaster (Otake) out of the sport completely in 2010 over their involvement in a baseball betting ring.

If there were books open on sumo, however, Kakuryu would have the shortest odds to emerge victorious in the upcoming Summer Grand Sumo Tournament.

The veteran was the clear class of the field at the Yokozuna Deliberation Council open practice held at Ryogoku Kokugikan on May 6.

Win-loss numbers often mean little at training sessions, so even though Kakuryu won nine of his 12 bouts on the day it’s not the record that matters but how he won.

The veteran was in imperious form, displaying a solidity to his sumo that hasn’t been seen in a long time.

Kakuryu was moving well and getting his desired grip at will. Despite the three losses, he was head and shoulders above everyone else last Monday.

Goeido was the only other standout on the day, but while he also had nine wins, the ozeki had to struggle to reach that number. Few of his victories came easily.

Yokozuna Hakuho for his part spent the morning stretching, only stepping into the ring at the end of the session to lend his chest to others.

With the tournament starting on Sunday, it’s now official that Hakuho will not take part. But as is normal in sumo, he wasn’t tipping his hand.

When asked after the session whether he would be ready for shonichi (opening day) the Miyagino Stable man said “sure” with a wry smile.

Even if the yokozuna genuinely believed there was a chance his arm injury would be healed in time, with no practice bouts leading into the meet, he wouldn’t be in any kind of shape to fight.

Sumo is so physically intense that even the greatest wrestler of all time wouldn’t be able to go into a tournament without proper preparation and expect to be competitive.

The two remaining men at the sport’s second-highest rank seem to be going in opposite directions.

There was a lot of handwringing over the 3-8 record that newly minted ozeki Takakeisho posted at the YDC sōken (open practice) but the Chiganoura Stable wrestler was his usually feisty self and put up a good fight even in his losses.

The 22-year-old has enough quality to reach double digits again, even with all the extra events that come with promotion having taken a toll on his preparation. If Kakuryu slips up, Takakeisho could well be lifting the Emperor’s Cup for the second time in six months.

Takayasu’s challenge

Takayasu, the only man in the top two ranks without a title to his name, looks unlikely to change that unwanted distinction this time out. Slow and seemingly suffering from pain in his right side, the Ibaraki native was clearly frustrated with his performance and results at the sōken. Things aren’t going any better for the ozeki in his home stable either. Retired yokozuna Kisenosato has been utterly dominant in their joint training sessions, winning a shocking 20 of 21 bouts on May 2.

Takayasu is in danger of becoming the lost man of history if he doesn’t win a championship soon. There are several up and coming wrestlers that a year or two from now should be contending for titles and with his 30th birthday coming up in February, time is not on Takayasu’s side. Although he did better against Takakeisho on May 8, going 13-17 in the Nishonoseki Group joint practice, the fact that he had to take the previous day off with back pain shows that age and injury are starting to become an issue.

Outside of the yokozuna and ozeki, the main storyline heading into the Summer Tournament is newly demoted Tochinoshin’s attempt to bounce straight back and regain his ozeki rank.

To make an immediate return, the big Georgian will need 10 wins in May. Anything less and he’ll be back to scratch, and require the same 33 or 34 wins over three tournaments as any other promotion candidate.

Given his age and the fact that in the last year he has just two winning records, neither of which was double digits, the chances of the latter happening are slim. For Tochinoshin, this is a do-or-die tournament.

His form in training has been reasonable but nothing special. With Hakuho out of the tournament and Takayasu continues to perform as poorly as he has, then Tochinoshin might get the 10 wins he needs. It’s hard to rate his chances as anything better than 50-50 but the Kasugano Stable veteran has made a career out of comebacks, so he could well defy the odds again.

Tochinoshin’s victory over Ichinojo last time out was the sole blemish on the giant Mongolian’s record and the only thing that prevented Ichinojo reaching at least a playoff with Hakuho for the title.

That 14-1 outing has imaginations running wild once again with online discussions over a potential ozeki run for the Minato Beya man. Even the sumo elders present at the sokken seemed to have forgotten that Ichinojo went 6-9 in the two previous tournaments, urging him to get into the ring with the yokozuna and ozeki.

Going on past history, the Arkhangai native is far more likely to revert to eking out 8-7 records than consistently contend for the Emperor’s Cup.

In Ichinojo’s favor, though, is that fact that 27 of the 29 men who have gone 14-1 without winning a championship reached at least the rank of ozeki. The remaining two — Tsurugamine in 1956 and Toyonoshima in 2010 reached sekiwake.

In a recent column, I wrote that Ichinojo has the size and power to occasionally be in the title race but the chances of it happening in consecutive tournaments are slim.

Wide-open field

With the current title favorites being a yokozuna that hasn’t lifted the Emperor’s Cup in a year and an ozeki whose sole championship came in 2016, it’s not a stretch to imagine sumo crowning a first-time winner yet again.

Since January 2018, wrestlers without previous championship experience have won four of eight tournaments. All have been surprising, and, despite Takakeisho and Tochinoshin subsequently making ozeki, none has won a second title.

If there is to be a fifth rikishi on that list, it’s anyone’s guess who it will be. There are least half a dozen names that wouldn’t be as surprising as Tamawashi.

Aoiyama went 12-3 last time out, but he is ranked at komusubi for May and three of his four previous tournaments in sanyaku have been losing efforts with his sole winning record being an 8-7.

At maegashira No. 10 west, Onosho, even with all his recent difficulties, is likely to reach double digits. With a bit of good fortune he could be a dark-horse candidate.

Top-division debutant Shimanoumi is coming off two straight 13-2 juryo division championships where he fought a lot of opponents with experience in the upper rank. At maegashira No. 12 east in May, he is likely to face a similar slate level wise. A special prize could be his for the taking and it’d be no shock to see him still in the title race on Day 12 or 13.

Fellow rookie Enho will do well just to get his eight wins, but every single bout involving the division’s smallest man is likely to electrify the crowd. Win or lose, he is a joy to watch and arguably the most exciting wrestler in the sport.

With Terutsuyoshi and Ishiura also in makuuchi, there will be no shortage of David vs. Goliath battles.

One effect of Hakuho’s absence will be the score needed to take the championship is more likely to be 13-2 than 15-0 or 14-1.

That difference of a win or two brings more rikishi into the title conversation. It also increases the likelihood of the Emperor’s Cup destination being decided on the final day.

With U.S. President Donald Trump slated to be in attendance and presenting a trophy, an exciting climax to the tournament while the eyes of the world are on Ryogoku Kokugikan can only bring new fans to the sport.

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