Sumo is firing up preparations for the November tournament with a brand new ozeki in the ranks, as well as yet another newly crowned debutant winner of the Emperor’s Cup.
The tumult that has been sumo over the past year might have mirrored mayhem in the wider world, but as we prepare to wind things up in 2020, there are many aspects of Japan’s national sport that should give hope for the future.
Sumo’s newest ozeki, Shodai, may have taken the long way round with both his entry to ozumo and ascent to the sport’s second highest rank, but the Tokitsukaze stable man has been a changed wrestler over the past 12 months, and his recent emergence into the limelight has provided a boost.
To be fair to the Kumamoto native, he always had the physicality and technique, but just seemed to be missing the fire. That’s no longer the case however — as anyone who witnessed his dominant win over Asanoyama last time out can attest.
With Shodai joining Asanoyama and Takakeisho at ozeki there is every chance that the four-year long title drought for men at that rank will end in the near future.
Of course, with championships being as easy to come by these days as audience gifts on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," there will also be stiff competition from roughly half the men in the top division for that silverware.
Regardless of how long it takes for one of the ozeki to claim a second Emperor’s Cup, having three men leading the way that have shown an ability to be in title contention in recent tournaments is a positive, particularly when those who actually should be doing so (the yokozuna) are essentially winding down their careers.
With Asanoyama 26 years old and Takakeisho just 24, neither wrestler has yet entered what are normally considered the peak years. They should be doing so just as youngsters with huge potential like Hokuseiho and Shishi are breaking into the top division.
While a superstar yokozuna is unlikely to emerge in the near term, sumo will have no problem maintaining fan interest, as the multitude of aforementioned contenders should see the fascinating tournaments with nail-biting finishes that we have seen over the past few years continue for the next few years.
Title races aren’t the only interesting part of tournaments though.
Terunofuji may have lifted the Emperor’s Cup, but it was the overarching narrative of his comeback that provided one of the top highlights of 2020.
Such stories of pain and redemption are an intrinsic part of sports' appeal, and sumo fans have another one coming down the track with Ura's return to the paid ranks in November.
Virtually untouchable at lightweight in amateur sumo — think of a taller, stronger and more skillful Enho — the Kise stable wrestler packed on the kilos after joining ozumo in order to deal with the bigger opponents he would face in the pros.
That was always a risky strategy as it robbed him of his trademark speed and agility, but ever since he was a small child Ura has been determined to do forward-moving, powerful sumo.
The graduate of Kwansei Gakuin (a university more well known for a dominant football program that holds the world record for most national championships) made it to the top-tier of sumo in two years, but knee injuries inevitably followed his large weight gain.
After surgeries, and dropping all the way down to jonidan 106, Ura began his latest fight back in November last year.
With a record of 32-3 in the past five tournaments, his ascent has been rapid, but as with Terunofuji and Tochinoshin before him, success in the lower divisions doesn’t mean much. Ura’s real test begins in November.
Older, heavier and with rebuilt knees, Ura is no longer the kid that pulled off one of the most amazing throws ever seen in a sumo ring on his way to gold at the 2013 World Combat games, but his presence in sumo’s second tier will make the jūryō division far more interesting.
By the way, the video of that bout against Russian veteran Batyr Altyev is still on the event’s official YouTube channel, so give yourself a treat and check it out.
If there is plenty to look forward to inside the ring moving forward, things are just as positive outside it.
Having safely held consecutive tournaments with fans present during an ongoing pandemic, the Japan Sumo Association deserves praise for successfully keeping those in attendance safe.
Although there have been a few incidents involving stablemasters and wrestlers breaking the rules, the JSA, to its credit, has taken swift and decisive action in every case.
More stringent enforcement among spectators in the arena is still needed as video feeds and photos clearly show numerous masks being worn below the nose, but in general sumo fans are well behaved, and in speaking to those that have attended the July and September meets, confidence in the measures being taken and comfort level inside the Kokugikan (especially on the second floor) remains high.
Of course it’s essential that such vigilance continues – particularly if the number of fans allowed to attend is raised – but compared to the anger that has greeted recklessly unsafe behavior by fans, athletes and coaches of other sports, both domestically and internationally, over the past week, sumo seems to be in a good place.
Signs are good that it will continue to remain there for the foreseeable future.
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