Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Reviewing last year, previewing 2020 in sumo

by John Gunning

Happy New Year to you all. Here’s to a great 2020.

Sumo is the daytime soap opera of sports when it comes to drama.

Action inside the ring is often controversial — the result of many rules actually being guidelines that are open to interpretation —while regular scandals and political machinations outside it ensure there are few slow news days in Japan’s national sport.

Last year was no exception, with the storylines coming thick and fast right from the start.

First up was the retirement of the man most responsible for the current boom in sumo’s popularity, Kisenosato.

The veteran had missed just a single bout in his first 15 years as a pro — 1,249 out of 1,250 scheduled fights.

His ironman run fell apart immediately after promotion to sumo’s top rank, however, with a massive pectoral tear meaning he managed to compete in all 15 tournament days as a yokozuna just twice, and in January of last year he decided to call it quits.

Fears that Kisenosato’s retirement would harm ticket sales proved unfounded with seats at tournaments still hard to obtain.

Early in the year things were relatively peaceful, with the storm in a teacup of Hakuho breaching etiquette by leading the crowd in tejime (traditional hand clapping) in Osaka to mark the last tournament of the Heisei Era.

Personally, I thought the bigger crime was that, given the location, he chose the better known three-clap style over the Osaka two-clap one, but regardless, noses were put out of joint and the yokozuna received a reprimand while his stablemaster had his pay docked.

Real scandal followed, though, with Takanofuji (in September) and ring announcer Takuro (in October) being suspended for acts of violence against juniors.

The latter voluntarily retired while the former initially resisted a JSA demand to do the same before giving in.

The biggest disruption to a tournament though came in May when U.S. President Donald Trump attended sumo with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There was a massive security presence and increased protective and comfort measures included taking up a whole section of the best seats to install chairs and adding temporary stairs to the side of the ring.

In terms of action, Tamawashi’s victory in the January meet was probably the most surprising championship since Kyokutenho lifted the Emperor’s Cup in 2012.

Most of the tournaments last year were open and well-contested, continuing a pattern started in 2018.

With Asanoyama earning a maiden title and Mitakeumi grabbing his second, the generational shift picked up pace.

So what can we expect in 2020?

Depending on the health of the yokozuna, more championship debutants are a possibility.

If the cat (Hakuho) is away, the mice (Takayasu, Hokutofuji, Yutakayama) might play. There are other rikishi like Endo that, if they have a bad tournament and fall to the bottom of the top division, could also be dark-horse contenders.

Right now it looks like most of the big names in the next generation have already won titles, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if sumo gets a first-time winner for a sixth straight year.

Another grand champion calling it a day is also a possibility.

Despite Hakuho’s recent musings about wanting to go for 50 Emperor’s Cups, there is a strong likelihood of the greatest rikishi of all time ending his career after the 2020 Olympics.

That event has always loomed large for the veteran.

His father, a man whose career Hakuho often measures his own against, was a silver medalist in freestyle wrestling at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the yokozuna has regularly spoken of his desire to perform a ring-entering ceremony at the opening of the Tokyo Games.

There is precedent for that as Akebono performed the traditional ceremony in 1998 when Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics.

While 50 titles isn’t impossible, Hakuho’s age and injury history are increasingly a factor and the best-case scenario to reach that number is likely three or four more years. Will Hakuho still be active in 2024 at 39 or will the undeniable symmetry of going out after the Olympics be too perfect to resist? A lot depends on how the first half of this year goes, but I’d put it at 50-50.

Sumo will have its first-ever Ukrainian wrestler in 2020, as Sergey Sokolovsky finally makes his debut in January after over a year living and training at Irumagawa stable.

The 22-year-old’s entry brings the total number of foreign countries and territories to have provided rikishi up to 24.

Georgia joined that group in 2001 but after almost two decades with a presence in sumo 2020 could see both remaining rikishi from the Caucasus retire.

Tochinoshin and Gagamaru are both 32 and while the former is still more than capable of holding his own at a high level, a return to ozeki isn’t on the cards and he has been discussing life after sumo back in his home country with more regularity. That’s normally a sign that retirement is being mulled over. Gagamaru, meanwhile, is at his lowest rank in over a decade and it’s hard to imagine the Tbilisi native sticking it out in the unsalaried divisions. If he doesn’t make a quick return to juryo, I think Gagamaru will hang up his mawashi.

Life moves on, though, and with retirements also comes the elevation of the new hopes. Naya is destined to become a sekitori before too long and Hoshoryu has the ability to reach the top division in 2020.

Motobayshi’s 21 straight victories from his debut means the Osaka native just needs one more perfect 7-0 tournament to break Jokoryu’s record of 26. Given that he is ranked at No. 14 makushita that is a feat that would also make him the first-ever rikishi to reach the salaried ranks from the bottom of the banzuke without a loss.

The odds against that happening are high but the top of the makushita division right now isn’t exactly stacked with talent, so we could see history made in January.

What a start to 2020 that would be.