It’s been a bountiful few years for anyone interested in sumo’s more archaic elements.
While the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have long endured a tough time from a public relations standpoint, the games did lead to the revival of one sumo’s most seldom-seen ceremonies.
In October of 2016, at a government-funded, Olympic-focused event entitled “Оzumo Beyond 2020 Basho,” yokozuna pair Harumafuji and Kakuryu performed the first sandangamae seen in 20 years.
The three-part ceremony had only taken place on 24 occasions since the Meiji Era and was normally reserved for the most significant of occasions.
One year later Hakuho and Kisenosato repeated the performance at a similarly named event in front of an invited audience.
With a large proportion of the free tickets in both 2016 and 2017 being distributed to embassies, international schools and similar institutions, it was also the first opportunity many foreign fans had to witness the unique ceremony.
Another even rarer sight occurred in March of 2020 when the first yokozuna-ozeki in almost four decades appeared on the banzuke rankings.
One of sumo’s lesser-known rules is that while there is no requirement for a yokozuna to exist, there must always be at least two ozeki at any one time.
If retirements leave the sport short of ozeki, one of the existing yokozuna normally covers both ranks until the next promotion occurs. That’s exactly what Kakuryu did for one tournament between the retirement of Goeido and the elevation of Asanoyama.
While sandangamae and yokozuna-ozeki have re-emerged in recent times, some formerly common sights in the sumo world are unlikely to come back anytime soon.
All the various ties of yesteryear seem to have been consigned to historical curiosity, with all bouts since 1974 ending in a win for one rikishi or the other.
Likely gone for good as well are hari-dashi slots on the banzuke, where third-ranked yokozuna or sanyaku-level wrestlers were offset outside the normal border of the official ranking sheet.
Although ties and overhanging ranks have been abandoned, there is still a slight possibility that yet another of sumo’s rarely seen occurrences may be about to take place in the very near future.
Takakeisho’s loss to Terunofuji in a playoff for the Emperor’s Cup last time out technically gives the younger ozeki what is known as a yūshо̄ equivalent. That’s significant because if the same situation were to reoccur in July (with the opposite outcome), it’s conceivable that both men could be promoted to yokozuna at the same time.
There is precedent for two wrestlers concurrently earning the sport’s ultimate rank, with double-yokozuna promotions having taken place on three occasions in sumo history.
The first such instance occurred after the summer 1942 tournament, when a 13-2 record was good enough to see both Akinoumi and Terukuni receive the white rope despite there already being two yokozuna present. Interestingly, Terukuni had not yet won a title before promotion, and Akinoumi had just one championship to his name.
Under the current six-tournaments-a-year system, double-yokozuna promotions have taken place just twice — in 1961 Taiho and Kashiwado earned the nod, and nine years later rivals Tamanoumi and Kitanofuji reached sumo’s summit.
The last name on that list will be familiar to current fans, as the almost 80-year-old Kitanofuji is one of the sport’s most prominent television commentators.
Whether the ten-time champion will see his half-century-old mark equaled in 2021 seems like a long shot, but a double promotion for Takakeisho and Terunofuji after the July meet cannot be ruled out entirely.
Terunofuji — with three Emperor’s Cup wins and two runner-up performances in the past six tournaments — is clearly in pole position, and discussions of his promotion chances by both the media and those inside the sport would seem to indicate another championship in Nagoya will seal the deal.
By the same token, the silence surrounding Takakeisho’s chances mean the Tokiwayama stable man’s odds of reaching sumo’s highest rank before autumn aren’t great.
In his favor is the fact that Hakuho’s career is almost at an end, and Terunofuji, for all his recent brilliance and overall ability, will turn 30 this year and has knee issues that could derail his wrestling career at any point.
Meanwhile, Takakeisho is just 24 years old and could potentially hold down the yokozuna rank for a long time.
Promotion would come with risk for the burly wrestler, however. A lack of consistency and susceptibility to injury has already seen him demoted once from the rank of ozeki, and the standards for yokozuna are far higher.
Losing records are unacceptable at sumo’s highest rank and should Takakeisho struggle to reach double digits or have a run of performances similar to those in late 2019 and early 2020, he would likely face calls for his retirement.
The prospect of one of the sport’s few young stars being forced into early retirement has to be on the minds of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council and Japan Sumo Association elders.
Short of a dominating 15-0 title run with wins over Terunofuji and Hakuho, it’s hard to see Takakeisho being in the conversation for yokozuna promotion after July.
Given the pressure of the rank and the Damocles-esque threat of forced retirement that hangs over it, it’s probably a good thing that Takakeisho likely won’t need to worry about such matter for a while more.
If the burly ozeki does rule the roost in July however, we could see history made.
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