This weekend, for the first time in 588 days, a professional sumo tournament with fans in attendance will take place outside Tokyo.
The July meet, in Nagoya’s Dolphin’s Arena, also gets underway a week earlier than it normally would in order to avoid clashing with the upcoming Olympic Games.
Sumo lovers in central Japan’s capital will see their sport return with a bang, as the upcoming tournament is primed to be one of the most significant in recent memory.
Depending on how things go over the 15 days of action, by the end of the month there could be anywhere from three to zero yokozuna at the top of sumo’s rankings.
The fact that the three best wrestlers currently in the sport occupy the top three slots on the banzuke heading into the July meet should thrill purists and, more importantly, set up a thrilling finale in Nagoya.
Without doubt, “the return of the Hak” is one of the main storylines heading into the July tournament. Yokozuna Hakuho last completed a full basho in March of 2020 and has missed 76 of 90 bouts since.
Interestingly, all six of the legendary grand champion’s most recent titles have come following an absence in the previous tournament, meaning ring rust has rarely been an issue.
Of course, Hakuho has never been out of action for such a prolonged period before. Except for two bouts at the start of March, he hasn’t competed in almost a year. With the Yokozuna Deliberation Council warnings having been exhausted, it’s very much a case of do or die for sumo’s greatest-ever wrestler in July. Making it until day 15 with at least 11 wins would also allow Hakuho to realize his long-cherished dream of playing some role in the Olympics as an active yokozuna. So, barring another serious injury, it’s hard to see him dropping out even if he suffers a couple of losses in the early going.
With Terunofuji knocking on the door to promotion and Takakeisho not far behind, Hakuho isn’t short of serious competitors for the Emperor’s Cup in Nagoya. Even so, the 36-year-old is still on a level few ever reach and, if healthy, should still be considered the title favorite. That’s a huge ‘if’ however, as healthy isn’t an adjective that has been applicable to Hakuho in quite a while. Whether or not he wins a record 45th championship on July 18 likely comes down to what condition his surgically repaired right knee is in.
While the story of Hakuho’s career is mostly written, ozeki Terunofuji’s is slap bang in the middle of the third act. A third straight title in Nagoya would seal promotion to sumo’s highest rank for the Isegahama man, and put a Hollywood ending on what is already the greatest comeback in the history of sumo.
Even with an imposing yokozuna back in the fray, Terunofuji seems set to get his dream outcome. As with Hakuho, knee issues hang Damocles-like over the ozeki’s chances, but Terunofuji has built his rise on an ability to overcome physical limitations so, barring a total collapse, he should be able to persevere even if not in great shape.
With double-digit wins in every tournament since his return to the sanyaku ranks in November and Emperor’s Cup wins in March and May, Terunofuji has given decision-makers a lot of leeway heading into the July meet. Even a playoff loss would still almost certainly result in promotion to yokozuna, while a regular runner-up performance also may be good enough — depending on the win-loss record and who he loses against.
Whether or not Terunofuji becomes the fifth Mongolian to earn the white rope is entirely in his own control. Right now, the veteran is in better form than anyone in the sport, and it’s hard to imagine, after all he has been through, that nerves will suddenly become an issue. The probability of the coronation of the 73rd yokozuna occurring ahead of the September tournament seems high.
The 74th yokozuna being named at the same time looks like a much longer shot.
Takakeisho has technically put himself in the discussion by making it to a playoff against Terunofuji in May. That loss, crushing and all as it was, is considered a “championship-equivalent” in sumo terms, and if the ozeki were to follow it up with a 15-0 or 14-1 title this time out, he could find himself performing a yokozuna ring-entering ceremony next month.
Takakeisho, of course, has yet to record 14 wins in a tournament, so another significant step up in performance is required if he hopes to reach sumo’s summit by the spring. That is probably too big of an ask, considering the ozeki’s head-to-head record against many of the men he will face in Nagoya.
The Tokiwayama stable man has plenty of motivation to fight hard right through the final day even if the title race gets away from him early, however, as Hakuho and Terunofuji’s injuries mean late withdrawals are always possible and 12 or 13 wins will help his promotion chances long term.
With Asanoyama starting a six-tournament suspension, Shodai is the only other ozeki expected to compete in July. After an excellent run in 2020 that earned promotion to sumo’s second highest rank, the former collegian has mostly been disappointing. In the current climate, title threats can come from anywhere, so Shodai recapturing his form from last year and making a push for a second title isn’t something that can be ruled out. Apart from personal glory, however, a championship for the Tokyo University of Agriculture grad doesn’t carry any wider implications, so he’ll toil in the shadows of his fellow ozeki for most of the upcoming tournament when it comes to column inches.
Veterans and debutants occupy sumo’s gateway ranks this time out.
At sekiwake, Takayasu and Mitakeumi are a case study for “which career would you rather have?” debates. The former is heading into the 98th tournament of a solid career that has included a stint at the sport’s second highest rank and numerous special prizes but no championships, while the latter hasn’t come close to ozeki promotion but has lifted the Emperor’s Cup on two occasions. It’s the same argument that plays out in sports around the world and, for NFL fans, would be a variation on the Dan Marino versus Eli Manning career debate.
One rank lower, Meisei and Wakatakakage find themselves at komusubi for the first time. Both have potential to achieve much in the years to come, especially given the age profiles of rikishi above them, but Wakatakakage looks like he could have the higher ceiling right now. Either way, July will be their toughest test to date with komusubi, and the hellish first week slate that rank brings, rightly having earned its meatgrinder moniker.
The second most anticipated return in Nagoya is that of Ura to the top division. The wildly popular Kise beya man figures to bring a surge of energy to makuuchi after almost four years away because of injury-enforced absences and demotions.
The first, and to date only, rikishi from American football powerhouse Kwansei Gakuin University, Ura was well known in sumo circles before turning pro.
Competing in high-profile international tournaments, a much slimmer Ura seemed to be made of rubber as he pulled off seeming impossible throws and moves from all kinds of ridiculous positions.
His backward body drop of Batyr Altyev at the 2013 World Combat Games is still considered one of the greatest moves ever seen in a sumo ring
After turning pro, Ura kept the spectacular wins coming but bulked up significantly in order to handle the rigors of ozumo. Whether or not an increase in weight contributed to the serious injuries that have plagued him since making the switch is impossible to say, but it’s certainly a point of discussion among sumo fans and commentators.
At 29, and with a series of surgeries behind him, Ura isn’t the dynamo he once was, but is still a joy to watch and his return to prime time is a welcome one. Even with the recent stinginess in their awarding, Ura seems a good bet to walk away with a special prize or two in July.
The only newcomer to the top division this time out is Ichiyamamoto. A former collegian who had a steady if unspectacular career, the Hokkaido native actually decided not to go pro and instead worked as a civil servant for a time after graduation. When a visit to a tournament reignited his love for the sport, he needed special permission from the Japan Sumo Association to join a stable as he was already a few months past the normal age limit of 23.
Ichiyamamoto turns 28 this year and his professional sumo career thus far has mirrored his collegiate one. Just managing to get eight wins and staying in the division would be a realistic target for him.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.