Sumo, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
It’s an aspect of the sport that has resulted in Hakuho’s long goodbye causing half the men in the top division to rush in and try and fill the massive gap left by the legendary yokozuna.
The lack of a clear successor to Hakuho, however, has instead created a kind of wild parity where, incredibly, even Asanoyama’s nightmarish 0-3 start to the current tournament hasn’t ruled the ozeki out of title contention.
Nine wrestlers with 6-2 records led the way at the midpoint of the Autumn meet, while six more rikishi stood just one loss behind. Defending champion Terunofuji dropped his first two bouts yet by the weekend seemed to be the one best placed to lift the Emperor’s Cup. But just as the former ozeki, with his toughest opponents out of the way, was being tipped to go unbeaten the rest of the way, he lost for a third time and fell out of the lead.
Even Asanoyama’s turnaround to reach 7-3 included two default victories, as Yutakayama and Kiribayama withdrew injured when due to face the Takasago stable man. If sumo’s newest ozeki does somehow manage to emerge victorious after 15 days, he’ll be first title winner in modern history with a pair of walkover wins.
Without a doubt, the roller-coaster ride that has been professional sumo in recent times is providing plenty of thrills, but even more fascinating is just how long it has gone on.
Exciting turbulent periods often accompany generational shifts, but what’s happening in sumo right now might be unprecedented.
Japan’s national sport often counts from the emergence of one great yokozuna period to the emergence of the next, and we are at the end of the seventh such era since sumo started adding extra tournaments to the calendar in the 1950s.
In that 70-year span there have been a few occasions when dominant figures started to fade and opportunistic rikishi grabbed a couple of titles before the next yokozuna reign began, but it’s arguable that we’ve never had a time with as much uncertainty as that which we are currently seeing.
Even two decades ago when, in the post-Chiyonofuji period, seven wrestlers in less than three years won inaugural titles, it was clear that at least some of those men were destined for stardom.
Whether it was 204-cm, 200-kg Akebono on an inexorable march to the top, or his great rival Takahanada achieving a winning record in sanyaku as a teenager and lifting the Emperor’s Cup at age 19, there was little doubt that the future of sumo was in safe hands.
Those men led a class that also contained several other strong yokozuna and ozeki and when their bodies began to fail, first Asashoryu and then Hakuho were ascending and ready to take up the baton.
So it was with Wakanohana and Tochinishiki making way for Taiho and Kashiwado and that latter pair being replaced by Kitanofuji and Tamanoumi.
Wajima and Kitanoumi then followed before Chiyonofuji took over.
As things stand right now, however, it looks like a long string of what would be called Hall of Fame-level yokozuna is about to come to an end.
Even though some of the younger stars in the sport like ozeki pair Takakeisho and Asanoyama have started to step into the limelight more, their career paths, and records to date in the top division, suggest that even if they take the final step and earn the white rope, we’ll have yokozuna akin to Asahifuji or Kakuryu at best.
With four former ozeki and an incredible ten wrestlers with championship experience still active in the top division, sumo is the very definition of parity right now.
That has essentially been the case over the past four or five years and it shows no signs of changing anytime soon.
Although it’s possible there may be another legend lurking in the lower divisions, it’s impossible to tell just how much potential a rikishi has until he reaches at least the third-highest tier.
Throughout sumo history there have been numerous wrestlers who went undefeated in their first 15 or 20 bouts only to flame out when faced with the battle-hardened veterans that populate the upper reaches of makushita.
Kotoshoho and Hoshoryu, a pair of 21-year-olds with good sumo genetics appear to represent the best hope of finding top level yokozuna among those already in the sport’s top division but given their inexperience that’s still a big projection.
My (perhaps overenthusiastic) evaluation of 18-year-old Hokuseiho last month still stands by the way. He may be the one rikishi currently in sumo with the best chance becoming a legendary champion. As I said in that August 26 column, the Hakuho protege has the best combination of size, power, fluidity and aptitude for the sport that I’ve seen in the decades I’ve been involved in sumo.
If I’m wrong though we could be in for a long, barren period before a true successor to the G.O.A.T. emerges.
Of course, if sumo continues to serve up one exhilarating tournament after another it’ll make the waiting fun.
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