One of the more unusual tournaments of recent times gets underway in Tokyo on Sunday.
Sumo returns to the capital for the first time since January, with the intervening six months having seen a spectator-less basho in Osaka, a canceled tournament in May and a long period of enforced restriction on wrestlers' training and movements.
Add to all that the coronavirus related death of 28-year-old veteran Shobushi, and it’s hard to know just what kind of physical or mental condition rikishi will be in when things kick off at the Kokugikan on July 19.
In terms of the former, it’s almost certain men like Mitakeumi, Onosho and Tamawashi, who train in stables that lack wrestlers of a similar standard, won’t be fully match-fit at the start of the July meet.
Degeiko (going to other stables to train with tough opponents) has long been a major part of pre-tournament preparation in sumo, and when it hasn’t been possible rikishi have suffered.
Those in stables with numerous sekitori (wrestlers in the top two divisions) undoubtedly will have a sharpness advantage in the early days of the upcoming tournament.
That’s not something that should persist, however. Most of the top division is made up of people on the right side of 30, so bouncing back quickly and working themselves into shape likely won’t be too much of a problem. By the halfway point, everyone should be up to speed.
Of course, while a tournament can’t be won in the first week, it most certainly can be lost. Wrestlers who struggle to shut out distractions could find this tournament particularly tough.
The strangeness of a silent arena in Osaka clearly affected performances in the early going there, and it’s easy to imagine that a small audience not allowed to shout or cheer will have a similarly discombobulating effect this month.
When it comes to the championship race, veterans with previous experience of long layoffs, and in stables with strong opponents, should have an edge.
The two yokozuna obviously spring to mind.
Hakuho of course has history on his side, with the Miyagino stable veteran winning the tournaments that came either side of the canceled March 2011 meet. While he isn’t the all-conquering force he was a decade ago, sumo’s greatest wrestler has to be considered the favorite heading into the July Basho.
Kakuryu, at the time a komusubi, finished runner-up in May 2011. The Ulaanbaatar native narrowly missed out on a ninth Emperor’s Cup last time out, losing a title-deciding bout to Hakuho on the final day of the March tournament.
Now in the Michinoku stable, Kakuryu has up-and-coming Mongolian stablemate Kiribayama to train with daily. In an uncut training video released by the Japan Sumo Association last week, the yokozuna was in dominant form and could well emerge victorious this time out — even if Hakuho is healthy and remains in the tournament.
Outside of the two yokozuna, most of the media attention will likely fall on newly promoted ozeki Asanoyama. The Kindai University graduate has kicked things up several notches over the past year and looks set to inherit sumo’s throne in the not too distant future
Although he lacks top-level training partners and is the only man in the yokozuna or ozeki ranks who has never experienced a long layoff, Asanoyama has shown an ability to keep a cool head when under pressure, and has continuously improved his sumo since turning professional. The key for the Takasago stable man this time out is the same one needed to take the final step on the sumo ladder – namely dominance against lower rankers.
To win a second title and put himself on the path to yokozuna, Asanoyama has to stop dropping bouts to rikishi like Abi and Yutakayama on a regular basis. Losses to Hakuho and Kakuryu will happen, but those need to become title deciding matchups, not fights with nothing at stake for the new ozeki.
While the main focus for the July tournament rightly falls on those at the top of the ranking, the lower half of the makuuchi division this time out is fascinating. Four former ozeki (Terunofuji, Kotoshogiku, Takayasu and Tochinoshin) will be battling it out with rapidly rising Sadogatake stable youngsters Kotonowaka and Kotoshoho. If one of them catches fire we could see a fourth rank and filer lift the Emperor’s Cup in the space of two years, after just one in the previous 17.
Terunofuji, back in the top tier after falling all the way down to the second-lowest division seems like the best dark horse candidate for the title. The Mongolian veteran won’t fear anyone he could be matched up with over the first ten days. Having already experienced life as an ozeki, and with a championship to his name, the pressure won’t be a factor either.