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Veteran Takayasu started the March tournament on a red-hot streak and, heading into the final act, seemed set to end almost a decade of frustration by finally lifting the Emperor’s Cup.

The komusubi collapsed down the straight however, going 1-4 over the final five days allowing Terunofuji (another former ozeki) to claim a third title and make a return to sumo’s second highest rank.

Impressive as Terunofuji’s comeback was, a 12-3 championship is definitely on the lower end of the scale and the fact that eight men finished within two wins of that score is further proof that sumo is in a period of flux.

A smaller-than-normal gap in ability between the rikishi ranked at the top and middle of makuuchi, combined with prevalent injury and inconsistent form, means that many in the top division are experiencing more losses than would be expected. Predicting success in the short-to-medium term is harder than it’s been in decades, while the landscape five to seven years from now looks like an unknown country.

Speaking of future projections, every spring that passes sees the growing monster that is the NFL Draft increasingly dominate sporting headlines. Although sumo doesn’t have a similar open player selection process, it’s hard to watch the countless hours of television dedicated to football prospects and not wonder who the overall number one pick in Japan’s national sport would be.

For the past couple of years I’ve put out a mock draft with the names of rikishi I think would make the most sense for growing stables to choose.

In 2019 the selections were Hakuho, Naya (Oho), Takakeisho, Takayasu, Kakuryu, Ichinojo, Onosho, Ryuko, Goeido and Asanoyama.

It’s arguable a couple of picks there would get any general manager fired, but overall it wasn’t too bad of a draft. Four of the subsequent ten tournament winners were included.

Former ozeki Takayasu has failed to live up to expectations and is yet to win a top-division title. | JOHN GUNNING
Former ozeki Takayasu has failed to live up to expectations and is yet to win a top-division title. | JOHN GUNNING

Last year I went with Asanoyama, Hakuho, Kotoshoho, Mitakeumi, Terunofuji, Hoshoryu, Kotonowaka and Takakeisho.

The 2020 class was certainly a stronger effort than 2019 — two of the four following champions were picked, with Terunofuji paying full dividends on what would have been seen as a very risky selection.

A lot has changed in the past twelve months and the odds of Hakuho making it to 2022 seem remote, but I’m not willing to give up on some of those other picks.

Here’s my mock draft for 2021:

1. Takakeisho

This isn’t a complete U-turn, but certainly a re-evaluation of what the ceiling may be for the Tokiwayama stable man. Takakeisho may lack the physique and style to be consistently dominant, but when the burly ozeki is on form he reaches heights few others in the sport can. Younger by several years than all his main rivals, and with those coming up behind him stumbling on the ladder, Takakeisho could conceivably win another three or four titles over the next five years.

2. Terunofuji

Terunofuji is pushing 30 and physically isn’t a shadow of what he once was physically, but the former ozeki has learned how to win with wrecked knees. His style of sumo doesn’t rely on speed, which means he shouldn’t noticeably decline as he enters his fourth decade. Already one of the greatest comeback stories in the history of sumo, Terunofuji has the nous and mental strength to overcome any setback, and — health permitting — should continue to take advantage of a weakened field for another two to three years.

Terunofuji has rebounded from several injuries to return to sumo's second-highest rank of <i/>ozeki. | JOHN GUNNING</P> <P>
Terunofuji has rebounded from several injuries to return to sumo’s second-highest rank of ozeki. | JOHN GUNNING

3. Hokuseiho

After 23 straight wins from his debut in sumo, Hakuho’s giant protege finally tasted defeat for the first time in March. Going a full year and reaching sumo’s third highest tier without loss is a rare feat, and Hokuseiho arguably has more potential than anyone else in the sport right now. There are still some aspects of his sumo that need polishing and refinement, and it remains to be seen how he handles the inevitable losing record, but the sky is the limit for this two-meter-tall teenager.

4. Asanoyama

Asanoyama might be the most competent rikishi in sumo right now but the ozeki is in danger of drifting away from the line separating very good from great. Three runner-up performances and a single tournament with at least 12 wins over the past 18 months is a poor return for a wrestler with his ability — especially considering that neither yokozuna has been much of a factor in that time. Still though, it’d be foolish to write off the Takasago stable man at this stage, and he still remains the rikishi most likely to make a push for the white rope in the top division.

5. Kotoshoho

The youngster from Sadogatake Beya was having a tough time in sumo’s upper echelons before injury struck. His long-term potential is obvious, however, and with some recuperation and seasoning should be back on track.

6. Takayasu

Takayasu’s career once mirrored Kakuryu’s to an eerily similar degree. Time is running out but if he can get the title-blocking monkey off his back, the floodgates could finally open.

7. Wakatakakage

Quietly impressive since his top division debut, Wakatakakage is on track to being known more for his sumo than for being part of a set of brothers with tongue-twister shikona (ring names).

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