Just as books shouldn’t be judged by their covers, inferring anything from the opening few days of a sumo tournament is rarely a sound strategy.
There are quick starts and commanding victories abound, and it can be tempting to write off those who fail to keep pace in the early going.
History, however, has consistently shown that it isn’t until the second week of action that serious challengers for the title can properly be identified.
The present makeup of the top division makes things even more uncertain than normal.
No active wrestler has ever achieved a perfect 15-0 record, while the only two men with 14-1 championships to their name — Tokushoryu and Tochinoshin — are in the second division and heading toward it, respectively.
High-flying Terunofuji did of course manage a one-loss outing in July, but the numerical best performance of his last four meets was, ironically enough, the only one in which he failed to lift the title.
Dominant and all as the new yokozuna has been on the clay in 2021, the probability of him taking home the Emperor’s Cup with a 12-3 or 13-2 mark is far higher than doing so with a 14-1 or 15-0 effort.
Consecutive losses to start a tournament, although not ideal, aren’t fatal to his opponent’s championship hopes in the way that they often were during the reign of Hakuho.
In addition, Kyushu is where Takakeisho won both of his titles to date, and the burly ozeki has looked back on form in the early going.
Starting 3-0, as he has this time out, has invariably resulted in a championship or runner-up performance for the Tokiwayama stable man over the past three years — something that bodes well for his hopes for a third Emperor’s Cup.
Yet despite that seeming openness to the ongoing meet there is a sense of inevitability about proceedings in Fukuoka that appears to be draining some of the energy out of the tournament.
It may partly be the manner in which Terunofuji is winning. Fully settled into his new role and his style of sumo, the yokozuna’s defense has become even more formidable in recent months.
Daiesho, a title winner himself in 2021, put in an almost-perfect performance against the yokozuna on Day 2 but was still defeated.
Likewise, there was little fault to be found with the approaches of Kiribayama or Wakatakakage on Days 1 and 3, yet neither man troubled Terunofuji too much.
The odds are against Terunofuji going 15-0 but there is a growing feeling that championship hopefuls like Takakeisho will need to remain unbeaten until they face the yokozuna to have a realistic chance of causing an upset. That may be taking away the sense of unpredictability that is vital to any sport.
The somewhat muted atmosphere in Fukuoka can also be attributed to the location itself and its historically poor attendance. Even with the COVID-19 enforced reduction in tickets available, sales have been particularly poor. Large swathes of empty seats are once again visible on TV screens. Having competed in silent arenas in 2020, a lack of noise won’t be too disturbing for rikishi, but the energy in the arena noticeably dips when a bout doesn’t involve a local wrestler, which is bound to have an effect.
The elephant in the room is one that is literally present in the arena. Former yokozuna Hakuho, now Magaki stablemaster, seems to be enjoying the novelty of his temporary new role — that of a blue-jacketed security guard.
After being the face of Japan’s national sport for over a decade and a half, being out of the spotlight and able to chill out backstage with other former rikishi has to be fun for the legendary grand champion. His absence from the ring, though, is taking a toll.
Despite the long goodbye that was Hakuho’s departure from sumo, and the rise of Terunofuji to take his place, sumo fans can be forgiven for feeling like something is off with proceedings now that the legend has gone.
The loss of such a towering presence is bound to require a period of adjustment. Every tournament win or achievement by an up-and-coming wrestler since the late 2000’s has taken place in the shadow of Hakuho. The Mongolian native dominated his sport in a manner previously thought unimaginable, and even in the latter decline phase of his career divided opinions and generated almost as much heat when he was absent as when he fought.
Now that he is gone, expectations for tournaments and the sport in general will require recalibration. Terunofuji is clearly the best rikishi in sumo right now, but he doesn’t overwhelm opponents in the manner of Hakuho or Asashoryu. Neither does he play the role of black-hat villain, providing tabloid fodder and attention-grabbing column inches for sumo outside the sports section.
The best thing that could happen for sumo would be for some of its up-and-coming stars to take a big step forward. Few places in the world lionize young sporting talent in the way that Japan does. A breakout performance by someone like Oho (21 years old and the grandson of a superstar yokozuna) would provide a massive injection of interest for sumo and help the sport transition smoothly to the post-Hakuho era.
Something like that is unlikely to happen until mid to late 2022, however. For now Takakeisho continuing his strong start and providing a title challenge that goes all the way to the final day is sumo’s best hope of escaping its post-Hakuho doldrums in Kyushu.
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