The second of two Grand Sumo Tournaments switched to Tokyo as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic gets underway this Sunday at Ryogoku Kokugikan.
The cap on attendance has been raised from 2,500 to 5,000 people per day for the November meet. That’s less than 50% of what the Kokugikan can hold but would be two-thirds capacity had the event taken place, as originally scheduled, in the Fukuoka Kokusai Center.
The wisdom of doubling the number of fans allowed in the door in a metropolis with 3,000 active coronavirus cases (as opposed to 80 in Fukuoka) is debatable, but the move is hardly surprising, given the strong push from many corners to ensure next year’s Olympics go ahead (the Kokugikan is slated to be the venue for boxing during the games.)
Inside the ring, predicting the outcome of the November meet remains as difficult as ever in these turbulent times in sumo, but the return to health of the greatest wrestler ever to put on a mawashi will put a massive dent in the hopes of any rikishi hoping to join the sport’s (no longer exclusive) club of Emperor’s Cup winners.
Hakuho took full advantage of the joint training sessions at the Kokugikan that were organized by the Japan Sumo Association in the lead up to the November basho. The veteran was the only wrestler in the sport’s top ranks to show up every day and was utterly dominant when taking on recent title winners Shodai and Mitakeumi. The lopsided win-loss numbers in those practices predictably provided plenty of fodder for tabloids and shrill commentators on Twitter and YouTube, but of course mean little in the grand scheme of things. The fact Hakuho was able to get through a large number of bouts in consecutive days was far more significant than how well he did in them.
The all-time record holder in virtually every category of note declined several opportunities to be bullish about his prospects in the upcoming tournament but, barring a re-occurrence of injury, has to be considered the favorite to take the title.
It had been widely expected that Hakuho would retire after participating in the 2020 Olympics in some capacity, but that notion, like the games themselves, got pushed back to 2021 and now the Miyagino stable man is in position to extend his championship record and pick up an incredible 45th Emperor’s Cup.
The future prospects of Hakuho’s compatriot (in terms of rank and birthplace) Kakuryu, seem much bleaker. Caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of a slowly progressing Japanese naturalization application and pressure from those inside and outside of sumo to either compete or retire, Kakuryu’s preparations (or lack thereof) for the November tournament had inspired little confidence in his participation. The yokozuna was not in any condition to fight and, as expected, announced his intention to withdraw.
The four-year, 21-tournament long drought since a wrestler at sumo’s second-highest rank last lifted the Emperor’s Cup has a very good chance of coming to an end this month.
Asanoyama, Takakeisho and Shodai all seem to be decent health and, apart from Hakuho, the most likely candidates to lift silverware come Nov. 22.
With yokozuna promotion before his stablemaster retires no longer possible, some of the pressure may be off Asanoyama. The Takasago stable wrestler has arguably the best combination of age, size, power and skill in the top division but, like many others before him, appears to have a tendency to let outside distractions and his own thoughts trip him up. If Asanoyama finds a way to let all that slide away and just do the sumo he is capable of when relaxed and in the zone, then a championship this month is just the first step toward greater glory.
Shodai, meanwhile, might have taken 28 years on the planet to fully unlock his sumo abilities, but the Kumamoto native has been on fire recently and as good as anyone in the sport over the past 12 months. Winning a title and earning promotion to ozeki, though, both come with their own challenges and pressures and it remains to be seen how the Tokyo University of Agriculture graduate deals with being in the spotlight for the first time.
Takakeisho hasn’t put back-to-back double-digit records together in almost two years but something about the way he has gone about preparing for this tournament inspires a sense that he could be set to make a real run at a second championship.
Sanyaku and below
If the title doesn’t go to one of the big guns there are several rikishi in the top division who could add their name to the list of 14 active men who have won the Emperor’s Cup.
The one to keep an eye on, though, is Kotoshoho. The 21-year-old has been enormously impressive since reaching the paid ranks a year ago, but is set to come up against the best in the sport for the first time in November.
Facing a slate packed with yokozuna, ozeki and other top-rankers may be too much to overcome the first time out, but if Kotoshoho manages a winning record it’s an almost sure sign of future stardom.
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