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The relocated 2021 Spring Grand Sumo Tournament will get underway Sunday in an unseasonably warm Tokyo that is set to experience a full cherry blossom bloom before the 15-day meet concludes.

It’s now been 12 months since a basho took place outside the capital, and in that time there have been five straight 13-2 championships — with two more names added to a growing list of debutant winners.

Even the return of the sport’s current king is unlikely to alter sumo’s current state of flux, and the stage is set for yet another roller-coaster ride, with half the top division in contention for the title.

If that seems like an exaggeration, bear in mind that even with Tokushoryu’s demotion there are still ten men in the top-tier makuuchi division who know what it’s like to have lifted the Emperor’s Cup.

With Hakuho not the dominating presence at the top of the rankings that he once was, and no clear claimant to his throne in sight, sumo continues to be a free-for-all with surprise champions now the norm.

Hakuho to hit milestone

When he takes to the ring on Sunday, Hakuho will be seeing action for the first time in 227 days. The last time the yokozuna actually managed to complete a full tournament was twelve months ago, at the closed-door meet in Osaka.

In addition to the inevitable rust that needs to be shaken off, Hakuho is dealing with the aftermath of a COVID-19 infection. Although he has reportedly fully recovered, novel coronavirus symptoms have been known to linger, and there have been enough recurring cases to cause concern.

Even if he is back to perfect health, Hakuho’s normal routine has been impacted, and it would be no surprise to see the 36-year-old struggle with his stamina over the course of the two weeks.

The March 2021 meet is a landmark one for the veteran. Hakuho will become just the second man in sumo history to reach 100 tournaments while ranked in the sport’s highest division — and the first to do so uninterrupted from a top-tier debut.

Yokozuna Hakuho (right) grapples with Onosho during a February training session at Ryogoku Kokugikan. | KYODO
Yokozuna Hakuho (right) grapples with Onosho during a February training session at Ryogoku Kokugikan. | KYODO

It’s a significant milestone, and one that provides additional motivation to do well. More importantly, a good result in March would also create enough breathing room to allow Hakuho to compete through to the Olympics in July.

The yokozuna has made no secret of his desire to play a role in the games — something that would allow him to honor his late father (a silver medalist and flag bearer for Mongolia in 1968) — and end his legendary career on a high note.

If he does survive into the summer, Hakuho would likely be the only man occupying sumo’s top rank.

Yokozuna Kakuryu’s late withdrawal from the March meet with an injury suffered in training would seem to signal the imminent end of the Michinoku stable man’s career — despite his stated intention to keep going and compete in May.

Kakuryu (and Hakuho) both recently received warnings from the Yokozuna Deliberation Council over nonparticipation in tournaments, and that advisory panel is unlikely to take a softer stance the next time it issues a statement. Anything but a retirement recommendation for Kakuryu at the conclusion of the upcoming tournament would be a surprise.

Window open for Asanoyama

Shodai bounced back from a withdrawal in his ozeki debut to record a solid 11-4 runner-up performance in January, but had the Kumamoto native not lost both bouts on the final weekend he might have been heading into the spring meet amid talk of a yokozuna run.

After doing little in his first four years in the top tier, Shodai has been running hot since late 2019. The big question, however, is whether he can take advantage of a field that is much weaker than it has been in the recent past, and kick on to better things — or if this is just a mid-to-late career burst destined to peter out at ozeki, like those experienced by Goeido and Kotoshogiku.

The jury being out is something that could be said of everyone currently at sumo’s second highest rank.

Asanoyama and Takakeisho, whether through injuries at inopportune moments or mental lapses, continue to let chances for both championships and yokozuna promotion slip through their fingers.

The latter, coming off an outstanding title win in November, looked set to defy biology and sumo history by becoming the first short and heavy pusher-thruster to reach the rank of grand champion since the 1800s.

Four straight losses from the opening day in January put paid to that dream, but time is still on Takakeisho’s side and other opportunities will come. The Tokiwayama stable man won’t turn 25 until August and is still two-to-three years away from what is normally considered a wrestler’s peak.

The window for Asanoyama is now, however. At times the Kindai University graduate, who celebrated his 27th birthday on March 1st, seems to be overthinking things and getting in his own way. But if he can lift silverware a second time, the chances are that it will give him the confidence to fulfill his undoubted potential.

If size, technical ability, health, rank and age are all taken into consideration, then right now Asanoyama is arguably the rikishi best placed for success over the next couple of years. A title this time out could kick-start a string of championships — and free him from the constant abuse and scorn on Twitter dished out by former yokozuna Asashoryu.

Terunofuji eyes ozeki run

Daieisho’s excellent championship performance in January didn’t earn much in terms of reward from the judging department. When the banzuke rankings for March were released there was almost universal surprise at the Oitekaze stable man’s komusubi ranking.

Although no one would blame Daieisho for feeling slighted, in reality it makes little practical difference whether a rikishi is at sumo’s third or fourth-highest rank. Daieisho has already been a sekiwake and (assuming he goes no higher) will always be referred to as such after retirement. For ozeki runs, results at either of the sanyaku ranks carry roughly the same weight as well.

Despite that title last time out, and the 10-5 record which preceded it, Daieisho isn’t the closest man in sanyaku to ozeki promotion. That honor goes to Mongolian miracle Terunofuji.

Written off by virtually everyone just a few short years ago, the Isegahama stable wrestler is in the midst of what may be the greatest comeback story in the history of the sport.

Eleven (or perhaps even 10) wins this time out will see Terunofuji reclaim the rank he lost all the way back in 2017 before plunging down to sumo’s second-lowest division.

Although his knees will never be 100% and various health issues regularly arise, Terunofuji continues to display incredible physical and mental strength. In a single bout the Ulaanbaatar native is a match for anyone in the sport, and if he can stay (relatively) injury free over the next six months then perhaps even the ultimate fairytale ending — yokozuna promotion — is possible.

Tokushoryu falls from grace

Five tournaments after lifting the Emperor’s Cup, Tokushoryu became the fastest ever former tournament winner demoted to the second tier.

Just a year ago we were bemoaning the fact that Kansai fans wouldn’t get to see the Nara wrestler parading around his home region as a champion and now the 34-year-old faces a battle just to return to the top flight by the time sumo returns to Osaka in front of spectators.

Tokushoryu’s place in makuuchi hasn’t been taken by any top-flight rookie, but one interesting returnee to makuuchi is Hideoumi. The older brother of Tobizaru is back after a three year absence.

Although the siblings are in different stables, JSA rules prevent family members from facing each other in regulation bouts. The only way fans will see a Tobizaru-Hidenoumi matchup is if they both make it to a championship playoff.

In terms of dark horses for the title, take your pick from among the numerous potential contenders. Takanosho has been holding his own near the sharp end of the banzuke and could be set for a breakout tournament, while Mitakeumi has a history of coming out of nowhere to grab silverware. If he does so again, the Dewanoumi man will become the first-ever rikishi ranked below ozeki to win three Emperor’s Cups.

If forced to pick a name, I’ll go with Kotoshoho. The youngster endured a torrid time back in January, but after falling all the way down to the maegashira No. 11 rank he should find the opponents he will face in March far easier to deal with.

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