Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

July meet could go down as one of most important in sumo history

by John Gunning

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Less than a third of the way through 15 days of action at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan there are talking points aplenty.

If the 2020 July meet continues to progress along current lines, it could turn into one of the most important and interesting tournaments in recent history.

Straight out of the gate we had the sight of a yokozuna losing for the first time ever by koshikudake (inadvertent collapse.)

Kakuryu’s swing-and-a-miss leg sweep attempt sent him crashing — Charlie Brown style — to the clay and earned his opponent (Endo) the distinction of having both a win and a loss against yokozuna by the rare nontechnique. The Oitekaze stable man lost to Hakuho in the same fashion two years ago.

Adding injury to embarrassment, Kakuryu hurt his elbow in the fall, and was forced to withdraw from the tournament the next day.

With koshikudake occurring roughly three times in every 10,000 bouts it’s certainly not something you see every day, but even that was usurped (in terms of rarity) by another fight on the very same day.

The 42-year-old Tenichi’s defeat of a 50-year-old Hanakaze in sumo’s second lowest (jonidan) division earned him revenge for a loss against the same foe exactly 24 years earlier. Having almost a quarter of a century pass between a pair of rikishi’s first and second bouts is staggering, and you won’t see many matchups in any fighting sport where the combined age of the participants is 92.

Don’t hold out hopes for a Tenichi-Hanakaze decider in 2044 though — the latter man is just 15 years away from the JSA’s retirement age, and in 2035 Hanakaze will have to leave sumo for good. Making it to 2023, however, will earn him the distinction of being the oldest rikishi in sumo history.

A year and a half after Hanakaze made his professional debut, Bo Jackson had one of the most famous plays in NFL history when he kept going after a 91-yard TD and ran right up the tunnel at the Kingdome in Seattle.

It’s unknown whether (the then-2-year-old) Hakuho saw that play, but the yokozuna certainly emulated it on the third day, almost disappearing down the hanamichi that leads into the dressing room after a victory over — you guessed it — Endo.

Hakuho has looked sharp from the get-go and, with Kakuryu out of the picture, is in excellent position to win back-to-back titles for the first time in three years.

It’s a measure of the yokozuna’s greatness that in the five years that have elapsed since what most would consider to have been his peak, the Miyagino stable man has lifted the Emperor’s Cup nine times. Victory again this time out would mean Hakuho’s ‘decline phase’ alone was Dai-Yokozuna worthy.

Incredible and all as that stat is, it pales in comparison with the level Hakuho reached a decade ago.

Between Jan 23, 2010, and May 19, 2011, the Ulaanbaatar native won 102 out of 104 bouts with both losses coming against future yokozuna Kisenosato.

That might well be the greatest period of sustained success in sumo history and is unlikely to be even approached, never mind bettered, in our lifetime.

A decade is a long time in sumo, however, and despite his recent successes, Hakuho is closing in on the end of his career. With newly minted ozeki Asanoyama and a pair of Sadogatake stable youngsters also among the early tournament leaders, the changing of the guard that has been mooted for the past few years might finally be about to take place.

The aforementioned Kotonowaka and Kotoshoho are of course still too young and inexperienced to properly evaluate, but neither has seemed fazed by anything to date and they should drive each other to great things in the years to come.

For now, it is Asanoyama who seems set on a collision course with Hakuho and a title-deciding matchup that would set him on the road to yokozuna promotion.

Of course, in a violent sport like sumo dreams can end in a heartbeat and one only need look no further than former ozeki Terunofuji, battling his way back after serious injury, to see evidence of that.

Assuming Asanoyama avoids getting hurt, his form in the early going has provided confidence for those predicting great things out of the former Kindai University man.

Asanoyama is 0-3 head to head against Hakuho so far but the 26-year-old doesn’t even need to beat the yokozuna to put himself in line for promotion. If, on the final day, his bout with Hakuho is the one that decides the destination of the Emperor’s Cup, whether in a playoff or regulation matchup, the Japan Sumo Association and Yokozuna Deliberation council could well decide that such a result, followed by victory in the September meet, is enough to earn yokozuna status.

For Asanoyama the key will be getting to that decider unbeaten, or with one loss at most. To put himself in line for promotion to sumo’s highest rank, the Takasago stable man needs to avoid the losses to lower rankers that have tripped him up in recent tournaments.

If he can do that and we get a title showdown on day 15, then the July 2020 tournament could go down in history as one both incredibly exciting and hugely significant.

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