Since the beginning of 2018, sumo fans have been spoiled for entertainment with one dramatic event after another hitting the sport.
Multiple first-time tournament winners, incredible comebacks, promotions, demotions and repromotions have made the action in the ring compulsory viewing over the past couple of years.
And that’s without even mentioning the high drama of controversial judging decisions, scandals, high-profile resignations and the co-opting of sumo for national and international political machinations.
Japan’s national sport outdoes any reality show when it comes to watchability.
A big part of that is its recent unpredictability, with the sport’s old guard refusing to go gently into the night, battling and barely holding off a growing number of exciting up- and-coming rikishi.
As a result, guessing the winner of the upcoming basho is a nigh-on-impossible task.
Who will emerge victorious at the end of the two weeks isn’t the only point of interest however, or even the main one.
This time out, rising star Takakeisho’s fight to get the 10 wins he needs for an instant return to the sport’s second-highest rank, is arguably the main storyline.
The ozeki ranks as a whole have been a major disappointment in recent times, failing to push yokozuna, contend for titles or even stay healthy and finish tournaments.
Goeido and Tochinoshin at 33 and 31 years old, respectively, are veterans with plenty of wear and tear on their bodies, and at this stage it’d be a surprise if either man won a second title. Playing the role of spoiler is about as much as we can expect from them, but at least both have an Emperor’s Cup to their name.
Takayasu’s fate was in his own hands twice in 2018, but he was unable to capitalize on either occasion, and at this stage it’s looking increasingly like the 29-year-old has missed his window of opportunity.
Then again, the Taganoura stable man’s longtime training partner Kisenosato was in a very similar position at the start of 2016, seemingly destined never to win a title or get beyond ozeki.
Having been able to finally make the breakthrough at the age of 31 with a pair of titles and promotion to yokozuna, Kisenosato is uniquely positioned to advise Takayasu about what he needs to do to follow in his footsteps.
Carrying an injury that doesn’t appear fully healed, odds are that the veteran won’t be doing that anytime soon.
Takayasu is relying on hope and history, and Goeido and Tochinoshin are already on the back nine of their careers, so it’s imperative for sumo that Takakeisho gets double-digit wins and returns to ozeki.
With one title already under his belt, the Chiganoura stable wrestler is undoubtedly the face of the new generation. His short stature but all-out aggressive style makes him very popular and ensuring his career isn’t derailed prematurely by injury is a consideration that contributed to his sitting out of the Nagoya tournament rather than just struggling on while unfit — something that is far more common in sumo.
That absence, however, made his participation in the upcoming tournament a difficult choice.
The 23-year-old is clearly not back in shape; having only restarted training in late August, and his results and performances against other top rankers since have been mixed.
If Takakeisho fails to get 10 wins or sits out the September meet, however, he will need to achieve promotion to ozeki all over again from scratch. That means 33 or 34 wins over three tournaments starting in November. Next summer would be the very earliest he could reach the rank.
That would also require being in top form and avoiding injury from November, to March — something that no rikishi can guarantee.
Takakeisho fans and indeed most neutrals will be hoping the pusher-thruster makes his 10, as the sport needs exciting young fighters at the top of the banzuke.
There are plenty of those to be found in the lower half of the top division with the two smallest men in makunouchi at career high ranks.
Listed at 169 cm, Terutsuyoshi and Enho defy their genetics in contrasting styles but both are a joy to watch.
Raised in a stable that contained yokozuna Harumafuji, ozeki Terunofuji, skillful veteran Aminishiki and numerous other outstanding wrestlers of varying shapes, sizes and sumo styles, Terutsuyoshi has taken full advantage of the fact that he has spent a decade in one of the best training environments in sumo.
Using a forward moving attacking style, something that is unusual for a man of his size, the Hyogo Prefecture native was in the title race until Day 14 of last tournament, finishing with an outstanding 12-3 record and being awarded the fighting spirit prize.
At the maegashira No. 9 east rank this time out he’ll avoid the top rankers and could even get another winning record.
Likewise, Enho got his first-career special prize in July but, as befits his brand of sumo, his was the technique prize.
While frontal push-out and frontal forceout account for the overwhelming majority of Terutsuyoshi’s wins, Enho employs a range of techniques. Over one-third of his victories come from pulling underarm throws or leg-grabbing moves that account for just over two percent of an average rikishi’s wins.
Terutsuyoshi and Enho should continue to provide plenty of thrills even at their new ranks, but neither man is likely to walk away with the Emperor’s Cup on Sept. 22.
Predicting the champion
When looking at serious candidates for that honor, the yokozuna have to be at the top of the list.
Hakuho may have lost a step, and his two losses to rank-and-filers in July were certainly uncharacteristic, but the newly minted Japanese yokozuna is still the most successful wrestler in the history of the sport and a credible title threat in any tournament he enters. With the Rugby World Cup starting as the upcoming basho enters the final weekend, an apt comparison would be the New Zealand team. Regardless of what happens between competitions, once the tournament starts both Hakuho and the All Blacks are automatic favorites.
His compatriot at the top of the rankings, Kakuryu, picked up a sixth career championship last time out and has looked to be in better condition in recent months than at any time over the past few years.
Neither man gives much away in pre-tournament training or interviews but short of there being some unreported injury both should be in the mix deep into the upcoming tournament.
Of course, as mentioned above, 2018 and 2019 have seen a whole host of first-time champions and at least a few of those men are young and talented enough to win a second title.
In an era when all the new stars seem to be pusher-thrusters, Asanoyama is one of the few young belt specialists operating at a high level.
Following up his championship in May with a losing record in Nagoya in July was almost to be expected given that Asanoyama was facing a full slate of yokozuna, ozeki and top rankers for the first time and there was bound to be a letdown after the highs of the summer meet.
Asanoyama or Mitakeumi seem the most likely candidates to add to their maiden title, but don’t be surprised if there is yet another new name on the list of champions after this basho.
Hokutofuji seems like a good outside bet to be the next first-time winner. He has established himself at the higher end of the maegashira ranks, with most of his losses coming only against the very best opponents.
With pusher-thrusters, a sudden hot streak can make them almost invincible for a single tournament and if Hokutofuji is able to get it all clicking for two weeks, there is no reason he can’t do what Tamawashi, Mitakeumi or Takakeisho have done in recent times.
Tomokaze is another one to keep an eye on for slightly different reasons. The 24-year-old is yet to have a losing record, rising all the way from the bottom of the banzuke to maegashira No. 3 west in 15 tournaments. He’ll be facing the best in the sport for the first time in September and how he does against them should give the first real indication of his long-term prospects.
While it might seem strange to downplay his achievements so far, coming from a strong sumo program like Nippon Sports Science University means early success is almost a given.
The top levels of collegiate sumo in Japan are roughly equivalent to high makushita or jūryō, so when amateur yokozuna or stars from the university scene blow through the lower divisions of professional sumo it means little.
Tomokaze looked like he was reaching a natural wall toward the middle of the division but his 11-4 record in July, including the only win anyone got against Kakuryu, was an outstanding performance that earned him the prize of the same name.
Tomokaze looked very comfortable and displayed confident, mature sumo in his third tournament in the top division. The Kawasaki native has become something of an ambassador for his home prefecture. He is comfortable in front of the camera and the fact that he is an accomplished pianist endears him to fans. If Tomokaze can continue his exploits against the top ranks, he should have a bright future.
Hakuho’s acquisition of Japanese citizenship is a reminder that we are likely already into the last year of the legend’s career. With virtually every record of note already in the bag, staying active until the 2020 Olympic Games has long been one of the only remaining motivating factors for the greatest of all time.
Changing nationality means Hakuho can now obtain an elder share after retirement and remain in the Japan Sumo Association. That and eventually running his own stable are foregone conclusions now.
All that remains to be seen is how many more titles the veteran can get before he rides off into the sunset. No longer a virtual lock to take the Emperor’s Cup in every single meet, Hakuho now has to battle in his twilight years to expand his legacy against Takakeisho and the young guns.
The fact that the outcome of that battle hangs in the balance makes this upcoming tournament, and indeed all tournaments until next summer, incredibly fascinating.