Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Quest to capture 10 titles a tough challenge for current crop of star wrestlers

by John Gunning

It’s been over 15 years since Andre 3000 of seminal Atlanta rap group OutKast once asked — and answered — a pressing question: “What’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold!”

It’s well past time for the sumo version.

What’s more yokozuna than being yokozuna? Dai yokozuna!

While not an official title in any sense, dai (great) yokozuna is a commonly used moniker in Japan for grand champions who have won ten or more Emperor’s Cups.

Newer fans, especially those who have come to the sport in the era of Asashoryu and Hakuho, may think 10 titles is a low bar for greatness, but the fact that the careers of the yokozuna pair — two of only four men ever to win at least 25 championships — came back to back has skewed perceptions quite a bit.

Five to eight tournament wins is a much more common figure for yokozuna.

Sixty percent of the 28 promotees since the introduction of the six-tournaments-a-year system in 1958 have failed to reach double digits.

Harumafuji, of course, was one championship short when his career came to an abrupt halt, and it’s almost certain he would have taken at least one, if not several, more titles had he not been forced into retirement.

It wasn’t to be, however, so we are left wondering — just who will be the next dai yokozuna?

Guessing who will make it to grand champion at all is extremely difficult, never mind accurately predicting who will become an all time great.

The obvious place to start is with the rikishi who is currently closest to that achievement — Kakuryu.

The veteran yokozuna has lifted the Emperor’s Cup on six occasions with three of those coming in the past year and a half, but the fact that he is 34 makes him already the third-oldest man to hold the rank in the past half century or so. Only Hakuho and Chiyonofuji have been older yokozuna in that timeframe, with the former born just five months before Kakuryu.

Given the amount of up-and-coming talent in sumo, as well as the number of rikishi who have already tasted title success, four more championships for Kakuryu before he retires is hard to see.

The Mongolian looked to be in the best shape of his career at points in 2019, so it’d be foolish to write him off, but title winners in their mid 30s aren’t something that one sees often, meaning the smart money is on him falling short by two or three championships.

After Kakuryu there is a big drop off in terms of tournament-winning experience.

Mitakeumi’s second championship last time out makes him the only active wrestler outside of the yokozuna to have lifted the Emperor’s Cup more than once.

Once again the Dewanoumi stable man took advantage of the fact that the top dogs were either missing or out of form, but a 12-3 record hardly inspires confidence in his ability to go on a title-winning spree over the next few years.

Even more damning is the fact his 12 wins in September — and 13 in July of 2018 — are the only double-digit winning records he’s accomplished in the past 16 tournaments.

Another factor against Mitakeumi’s favor is age. The Nagano native turns 27 before the end of the year. That’s not old, of course, and in sumo terms it’s when many rikishi reach their peak. But of the five most recent dai yokozuna, Hakuho, Asashoryu and Takanohana were already over 20 titles each by the same age while Akebono had eight. Musashimaru may have had just three but he was also runner-up nine times at that point.

Mitakeumi has been sumo’s ultimate opportunist recently, but whether or not he will even reach ozeki is up for debate, never mind becoming one of the all-time greats.

Sumo has many tales of late bloomers finding their greatest success in the years just prior to retirement but, almost to a man, the greatest rikishi in history won early and won often.

Chiyonofuji is the outlier, winning the majority of his 31 titles after turning 30, but even he was a yokozuna by age 26.

Whether or not a rikishi is on the path to legendary status can be seen by the time he is 23 or 24.

Takakeisho, if he can overcome the injury problems that have derailed his last six months, seems set to become the wrestler with the best long-term career out of those currently counted as rising stars. Asanoyama is another potential mainstay at the top of the rankings. Neither man is likely to end up as one of the all-time greats, however.

There are a few rikishi in the lower divisions with a combination of youth and upward trajectory that makes them possible contenders, but so great is the gap between the top ranks and everywhere else that it’s pointless to predict greatness before rikishi have proven themselves in the makuuchi division.

There are question marks about all of those young prospects as well, meaning that as the career of the greatest rikishi of all time draws to a close, not only will we not see the next Hakuho anytime soon, but there may not be another dai yokozuna in sumo for a decade or more.

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