Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Predicting next yokozuna a formidable task

by John Gunning

When veteran sumo journalists get together and the conversation turns, as it inevitability does, to up-and-coming wrestlers, talk is rarely of who will be the next yokozuna.

Most writers or commentators are only willing to hypothesize rikishi with the ability to reach sanyaku (the three ranks below yokozuna) with ozeki potential a discussion reserved for outstanding talent.

That’s primarily because earning the white rope takes more than just ability.

The road to yokozuna promotion is littered with the hopes and dreams of countless good and great rikishi, including wrestlers who won more bouts and lifted more Emperor’s Cups than some of those who did make it to the mountaintop.

Elite skill, luck and the ability to avoid injury are of course vital factors, but the biggest barrier for those hoping to make the jump is the need to sustain championship-level performances over a period of three months while facing the toughest opponents the sport has to offer.

A quick look at results over the past couple of years is all anyone needs to understand that putting together an outstanding 15 days is well within the capabilities of pretty much anyone in the top division.

Since Hakuho won his 40th championship a couple of years back, five of nine tournaments have had first-time winners.

Takakeisho’s 11 wins in the tournament following his maiden title was as good as it got for any of them in the subsequent meet, though.

It’s significantly more difficult to stay at the peak than it is to reach it — doubly so if it’s a first championship.

Sumo wrestlers, like many athletes, are creatures of habit, especially when it comes to training and preparation. Every first-time winner of the Emperor’s Cup finds almost all his time prior to the following tournament taken up with parties, meet-and-greets and various obligations. Every person that has supported the man in question along the way expects to have some time with the new champion to celebrate his success.

In the past two years, sumo’s popularity overseas has exploded. A huge number of fans living abroad are relatively new to the sport, which can lead to exaggerated reactions and expectations

I took a lot of flak, for example, when I claimed Takakeisho had reached his peak immediately after sealing promotion to ozeki.

That’s despite the fact that the statement, far from being an outlandish hot take, was actually quite conservative and in line with historical precedent.

I stand by my prediction that despite his stature and short arms, Takakeisho will have a solid career and may win two or three more titles., maxing out his talent in doing so.

Expecting any pusher-thruster, never mind one of his size, to have everything fall into place in two straight tournaments is unrealistic. A style of sumo so dependent on timing will always go through highs and lows.

The one point that Takakeisho has in his favor is the lack of another obvious Hakuho, Asashoryu or Takanohana on the banzuke rankings.

Hakuho is a lock to stick around to the Olympics, but retirement is almost certain to follow soon afterwards and likewise it’d be a surprise if Kakuryu was still active past 2020.

That means Takakeisho, who doesn’t turn 23 until August, might have a relatively easy field to vie with over the next few years. I don’t think he will make yokozuna, but I wouldn’t be stunned if he did eventually get promoted.

The wild card, of course, is the fact that the “two consecutive championships while ranked at ozeki” requirement actually includes a “championship equivalent” clause. If both Hakuho and Kakuryu have retired and Takakeisho wins a title then goes 14-1 but doesn’t lift the Emperor’s Cup, the odds are he will be promoted.

Hinkaku (dignity) is also supposedly a prerequisite for yokozuna. but it’s something that only comes into play in the above-mentioned scenario. No ozeki, no matter how uncouth, will be denied promotion if he wins back-to-back championships.

Loathe as I am to predict who will be the next man to wear the white rope, if I have to make a prediction, I’m going with someone still in sumo’s third-highest division and a wrestler who has been a professional for less than a year and a half.

Naya, from Otake stable, is just 19 years old and extremely raw, but his father was a former title winner and his grandfather’s 32 tournament victories were a record that stood for decades and are still the second-most all time.

Naya is not spectacular, but he has the size and power to succeed and crucially shows noticeable improvement every time I watch him in training.

Naya’s only losses in the past two tournaments have come to former sekitori (wrestlers in the top two divisions). Back-to-back 6-1 records in the makushita division are an impressive feat at his age.

Declaring someone who has yet to fight a single bout in even the second-tier jūryō division a future yokozuna is beyond projection, but as mentioned before, any prediction of who will reach the peak of sumo is little more than a guess.

If Naya does end up as the next man with the white rope, however, I’ll be framing this column.