The first Summer Grand Sumo Tournament in two years gets underway on May 9 at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.
The meet may also be the last in a run of six straight basho held at the home of sumo.
Although the chances of the July tournament taking place in Nagoya as planned seem to be decreasing by the week, having the Kokugikan slated to host boxing at the upcoming Olympic Games the same month means the venue will likely be unavailable for use by the Japan Sumo Association.
Whether or not sumo will be forced to stay in the capital in July — or where a tournament can be held if it is — are questions for a later date. Right now, the sport’s governing body has to be hoping it can just get through a 15-day meet without another injury controversy, and with fans in attendance.
There would not have been fans present for the first three days at least, as Tokyo is under a government-issued state of emergency that was originally set to expire on May 11. With Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announcing the state of emergency will be extended to May 31, there will be some nervous number crunching going on at sumo HQ.
The JSA took a far larger than predicted financial hit in 2020, and with ticket sales making up the bulk of its revenue, canceled tournaments or closed-door meets are outcomes everyone in sumo will be desperately hoping to avoid.
Inside the arena, it remains to be seen what changes to on-site medical care will be implemented in the wake of the death of lower-division rikishi Hibikiryu. There has been growing anger both inside and outside the sport over the recent haphazard handling of concussions and serious injuries.
If the JSA cannot stem the growing narrative that it is failing to properly protect the lives and health of its wrestlers, it risks an exodus of fans, and could see an already difficult recruiting environment become far harder.
One point working in sumo’s favor has been the unpredictable and exciting nature of tournaments over the past couple of years. Numerous first-time winners, historic comebacks and a plethora of upsets have meant that the repeated absence of the sport’s biggest names hasn’t dulled fans’ enthusiasm in the way that it might.
With Kakuryu finally calling it a day and Hakuho not expected back until July, there will once again be no yokozuna in the ring in May.
There is a different atmosphere surrounding the G.O.A.T.’s nonappearance this time around, however. By more or less indicating he is putting everything into one last do-or-die shot in July, Hakuho managed to preempt any move to force him into retirement. The veteran’s keen desire to honor his late father – an Olympic medalist – and play some kind of role in the upcoming games has been well known for years.
With virtually every single sumo record of note long since surpassed, and marks set that will likely be untouchable for decades, Hakuho has nothing left to prove inside the ring. Allowing him to skip the upcoming tournament increases fans’ chances of seeing a few final Samuel Anders-esque moments of perfection, so, even though Hakuho’s absence this time out will be keenly felt, that’s tempered by the knowledge that he is likely to go out in a blaze of glory later in the year.
As one exceptional wrestler prepares to exit the stage, another is on the cusp of adding a chapter to what is already one of sports’ all-time great comeback stories.
Terunofuji is back at sumo’s second highest rank for the first time since September 2017.
Falling from ozeki and then returning to the rank is a rare feat – even with the “10-win instant repromotion” clause. Only three men in history have ever dropped lower than sekiwake and subsequently made it back to ozeki. Prior to Terunofuji’s return, Kaiketsu’s maegashira 6 rank was the furthest down a rikishi had ever gone before battling back to his original peak.
The big Mongolian blew all those records out of the water with a 20-tournament absence that included a plunge all the way down to sumo’s fifth division. To put that in context, until recently, even the prospect of falling to the second-tier juryo division was usually enough to convince former ozeki to call time on their careers. The ignominy of toiling away deep down in the unpaid ranks with 15-year-old recruits and career journeymen seemed unthinkable.
Looking back at videos of Terunofuji — body wrecked by injury and illness — struggling to handle extremely low-level opponents brings home just how incredible an achievement his return to ozeki is. It’s hard not to wince at old footage of him with loose skin and depleted muscles and in obvious pain every time his knees are put under pressure.
It’s almost surreal that the Isegahama stable man enters the May tournament back at ozeki with two additional Emperor’s Cups, four special prizes, and a 9-2 record against all other ozeki since his return to the top division in July of last year.
That latter stat is extremely significant.
With Hakuho out and Kakuryu retired, Terunofuji will go into every fight over the next basho or two as the favorite. Although bound to lose a few bouts, and with injury flare-ups hanging overhead like a Sword of Damocles, the giant Mongolian has a genuine shot at promotion to yokozuna this summer.
That won’t happen in May no matter how well he does. Sumo has never awarded its highest honor to anyone after just one tournament at ozeki, and the guidelines for promotion to yokozuna, while flexible, require two championships or the equivalent while at that rank. Terunofuji’s victory last time out will come into consideration in the event of a runner-up performance in May or July, but the earliest he could be donning the white rope is following that latter tournament.
Outside of Terunofuji, the rest of the division is still in such a state of flux that identifying championship contenders — or even who will do well — is extremely difficult.
The three other men at ozeki, Takakeisho, Shodai, and Asanoyama, have settled into a kind of parity. There are solid arguments to be made for why any of them have the best shot at a title and a run at yokozuna promotion, but their inconsistency makes it hard to feel confident about such predictions.
The possibility of another first-time champion emerging from the chaos is lower than it has been – mainly because so many rikishi in the top division have already lifted the Emperor’s Cup — but the gap between the top-rankers and Hokutofuji, Takanosho, and Wakatakakage isn’t a large one, and with a hot start it’s easy to imagine any of them riding the momentum to a first title.
Mitakeumi, of course, has already won two championships and were the Dewanoumi man to take a third, he’d become the first wrestler in sumo history to manage that feat without being ranked at ozeki or higher.
As we head into the May 2021 tournament unpredictability inside the ring reflects uncertainty outside. For a lot of rikishi, as well as those in the JSA at large, the goal in these turbulent times is often just to make it to the other side unscathed.
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