Sumo

Title appears up for grabs at upcoming Nagoya Basho

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

Commentators often divide sumo into eras, each defined by its outstanding rivalry.

Whether it’s Akebono vs. Takanohana, Taiho against Kashiwado or Tochinoshiki taking on Wakanohana, great yokozuna pairings have traditionally been the standard way to separate one generation of rikishi from the next.

So dominant has Hakuho been over the past 13 years though, it’s fair to wonder whether any rival will be mentioned in the same breath by future writers.

Asashoryu engaged in some titanic tussles with his Mongolian compatriot and ended his career with a slim 15-14 edge, but there was roughly only a two-year period when both were at the height of their powers, meaning Hakuho is often seen more as a successor to Asashoryu than a rival.

Kisenosato faced Hakuho twice as many times as Asashoryu, but had far less success, winning just 16 of 61 matchups.

Harumafuji fought one bout fewer than Kisenosato against Hakuho, but his 22-38 head-to-head record probably gives him the best claim on the title of rival.

Regardless, with all the above contenders already retired, sumo has already moved on and we are into a new era.

Hakuho, of course, remains, but while five championships in the past two years would be an outstanding achievement for 99 percent of rikishi, it’s a major drop-off from the torrid pace he was on over the previous decade.

Any discussion of who will emerge victorious in Nagoya this month has to start with the veteran yokozuna, but rather than an era defined by a rivalry, we are now deep into sumo’s version of the Warring States period and so he is just one of several potential winners.

There are nine rikishi in the top division who have lifted the Emperor’s Cup.

Nine.

Just let that sink in. Almost one-fourth of the top flight has won a championship.

Seven of them have done it just once of course and that, combined with the fact that both yokozuna are at the tail end of their respective careers, makes picking the winner of the July meet akin to throwing darts at a spinning dartboard — while blindfolded.

You can make credible cases for seven or eight rikishi being the favorite to take the title this time out, but all come with serious caveats.

Hakuho hasn’t lost a bout since January, but after going 15-0 in March and taking his 42nd title, he sat out the entire May tournament.

The veteran appears to be in good shape, though, and has been back training for a few weeks. There doesn’t seem to be any lingering injury concerns and even if he isn’t fully back to his best, Hakuho at 90 percent is still more than capable of taking the title.

Fellow yokozuna Kakuryu, was in fantastic form heading into the May tournament, dominating in practice and moving as smoothly as he had in years, but he fell apart in the last five days going 2-3.

Kakuryu did down Goeido on the final day of that meet, but it was only his second win against anyone ranked at yokozuna or ozeki since his last championship in May 2018.

The Izutsu stable man has been written off before, but given his age (he will be 34 in August) and recent lack of success against the upper ranks it’s beginning to look like Kakuryu may no longer be able to sustain the level of performance needed to win a championship for the full 15 days.

Other hopefuls

After we had two first-time champions in 2018, I predicted that 2019 could see even more rikishi lift the Emperor’s Cup for the first time. Halfway through the year and that has already come to pass. While it’s possible that sumo might see yet another championship debutant over the next six months, I think it’s more likely that one of the half-dozen men with a single title to their name gets a second tournament victory this year.

As to which of them has the best chance this time out . . .

Tochinoshin might not seem like the most credible candidate, given that his 10 wins in May (which included a walkover) marked the first time he has reached double digits since being promoted to the sport’s second-highest rank.

But the burly Georgian is sure to be out for revenge after the hugely controversial judges’ decision to overturn his win against Asanoyama last time out. That ruling cost him a share of the lead heading into the final weekend and put him in a perilous situation in regards to getting the 10 wins he needed for a return to ozeki status.

Tochinoshin spent time in his home country after the tournament and, given the fury with which Georgians reacted to that bout’s outcome, it’d be no surprise if every conversation he had there began with a discussion of how he was robbed.

Sumo is a sport that requires strength, and technique but the mental side is by far the most important. Never underestimate the power of motivation. A fired-up Tochinoshin, seeking justice, could well add a second title to his resume this month.

Mitakeumi, another of the recent newly minted title winners, is the “defending champion” so to speak, having emerged victorious in Nagoya last year.

Like Tochinoshin (someone with whom he trains regularly), Mitakeumi has struggled since the highs of 2018. He’s has been stuck in the seven- to nine-win range since that 13-2 championship.

The Dewanoumi man faced no yokozuna last July and was just 1-1 against the ozeki, so while there isn’t an asterisk attached to that victory there is a definite sense that he took advantage of a weakened field.

Nothing wrong with that of course — you can only beat whomever they put in front of you. But if Mitakeumi doesn’t want his championship to be labeled a fluke, he’ll need to string more of his good days together and make a run at a second title.

It’s always difficult to tell with pusher-thrusters just what kind of form they will be in. It’s a style I compared recently to a golf swing. If things are working well and the timing is on point, then anything is possible. Until the tournament actually starts, even the men in question rarely know how things will go.

Keep an eye on . . .

Takakeisho is anther rikishi that avoids the mawashi (belt) at all costs and also one that is dealing with serious injury. Normally he could just sit out the tournament but doing so would drop him from ozeki after just two tournaments at the rank.

Despite doing some light training in the week leading into the tournament and making all the right noises about feeling like he will be taking part, it’d be a surprise to see him in the ring on day one. Embarrassing and all as a quick demotion would be, Takakeisho’s best course of action is likely to sit out the Nagoya meet and aim for the 10 wins in September that would see him immediately regain his ozeki rank.

Tamawashi or Kotoshogiku taking a second title would be an even bigger shock than the first so that just leaves Asanoyama among rikishi with championship experience as the only other candidate.

Expecting an up-and-comer, especially one with the hellish first week schedule Asanoyama will face, to lift the Emperor’s Cup two tournaments in succession isn’t realistic but the 25-year-old’s sumo showed real growth in May and he should be a candidate for sanyaku (komusubi and sekiwake ranks) this year.

It’s a mark many people were surprised he didn’t reach this time out. The banzuke committee was hard on Asanoyama, choosing Abi and Ryuden instead for komusubi. Both of those men are making their debut at that level and Abi, true to form, is already providing fireworks, promising to go 15-0.

That’s the kind of prediction even I would balk at, but the Shikoroyama stable jester is nothing if not entertaining and his outsized personality is good for the sport.

There is only one new entrant for Nagoya. Takakeishio’s stablemate Takagenji joins him in makunouchi and at the same time takes his title as the youngest man in the top division.

Takagenji’s brother Takanofuji is also at a career high mark in the second-level juryo division. If he continues his progress, sumo could have its first ever pair of twins in the top tier.