Professional sumo closed out the thrill ride that was 2020 with one final flourish.
Comeback king Terunofuji pulled off an emphatic win against ozeki Takakeisho in the last regulation bout of the year, only to lose in a playoff for the Emperor’s Cup against the very same opponent moments later.
Takakeisho’s championship ensured that, for the first time since 1991, every tournament ended with a different rikishi taking home silverware.
The victory also contributed to the November Basho having a distinct end-of-season cliffhanger feel, as events over the past month have set up the January 2021 meet to be one of the most momentous in years.
As with any ozeki that wins the Emperor’s Cup, Takakeisho now finds himself in line for promotion to sumo’s ultimate rank.
Should he emerge victorious next time out, he’ll become the 73rd yokozuna in sumo history.
If the burly Hyogo Prefecture native earns the white rope, he’ll also be the shortest grand champion since Tamanishiki retired in 1938.
That lack of height — when added to a one-dimensional style and a suspect defense — stacks the odds against Takakeisho, but anything seems possible after a year in which two men at the top division’s lowest rank walked away with championships, a feat that that had only ever happened once before in sumo history.
In the Chiganoura stable man’s favor is the fact that the need for a new yokozuna is becoming acute — something that was brought into sharp focus immediately following the November tournament.
The Yokozuna Deliberation Council’s decision to issue a warning to both Hakuho and Kakuryu means that should either man fail to enter (or possibly even finish) the January meet, then a recommendation to retire is almost certainly coming.
Even if the veteran pair manage to stave off the end for another few tournaments, it’s clear that their time in the ring is rapidly drawing to a close.
Early 2021 could well mark the conclusion of sumo’s Mongolian era and, in the case of Hakuho, bring to a close what has arguably been the sport’s most successful career of all time.
The next seven weeks will seem like an eternity for many sumo fans, as time ticks down slowly toward what is set up to an incredibly significant tournament.
Lost in the excitement surrounding Takakeisho’s championship is the fact that the man he defeated could be in line to achieve something far rarer than any yokozuna promotion.
Since its introduction in the 1960s, six men have taken advantage of the “soft drop” system, which allows a demoted ozeki to immediately regain his rank with 10 wins in the following tournament.
Only one rikishi in modern history, however, has managed to earn promotion twice through normal means.
After falling from sumo’s second highest rank in January 1976, Kaiketsu battled for a year in the upper reaches of the makuuchi division, before a championship followed by two strong performances at sekiwake saw him promoted to ozeki for a second time.
Unlike wrestlers who bounce back immediately, Kaiketsu was also given the full promotion ceremony once again. That put him in a bit of a bind with regards to the choice of special phrase. The first time around he had vowed not to sully the rank of ozeki, but feeling that he hadn’t upheld that pledge, and not wanting to make another promise he couldn’t keep, Kaiketsu simply expressed gratitude for the honor.
Terunofuji may have lost out on a third career Emperor’s Cup in November, but his performances over the past few tournaments have put him in line to join Kaiketsu in one of sumo’s most exclusive clubs.
If the giant Mongolian takes the title in January, promotion is all but assured. Even 12 or 13 wins without a championship may be good enough. 33 wins over three tournaments at sekiwake or komusubi is the theoretically required standard, but nothing is set in stone and the Japan Sumo Association will always look at the bigger picture.
If he can avoid injury though, Terunofuji has every chance of making the upcoming tournament even more historically meaningful. If he does get promoted for a second time, it’ll be interesting to see if age and injury have put paid to the hubris that saw him choose “aim higher” as his phrase last time out.
Speaking of sumo history, January will also see the ascension to the paid ranks of Naya, grandson of legendary rikishi Taiho.
It was Taiho of course who held the record for the number of Emperor’s Cups won before Hakuho came along, with the latter man’s ring name being partly a homage to the former yokozuna.
Naya (whose ring name will change to Oho) and Hakuho won’t meet in January, but if the young star maintains his recent hot streak — and Hakuho remains active — such a matchup would evoke memories of Chiyonofuji’s career being bookended by bouts with ozeki Takanohana and his teenage son Takahanada.
Connections to Hakuho run throughout the banzuke these days, and one of the most important also has a chance of making history in January.
Hokuseiho, a rising star who became a rikishi as a result of a chance meeting with the yokozuna in an airport when he was a small child, has won 23 straight bouts since his debut and is eyeing the record for the best-ever start to a sumo career.
With so many mouthwatering storylines in place, it’s hard to avoid wishing sumo was like a streamed series where we could just push a button and skip December.
Bring on 2021.
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