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The future of sumo was on full display Saturday as the 70th All Japan Sumo Championships took place at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Daiki Nakamura, a third-year student from Nippon Sport Science University, improved on his semifinal finish from last year, taking home the title of 2021 amateur yokozuna and continuing his school’s recent run of dominance in the sport.

With this championship, Nakamura earns the right to join ōzumo at the rank of makushita 15, while all wrestlers that made the final eight can start at sandanme 100 if they decide to turn pro.

The same incentive is normally on offer at three other major tournaments each year, but COVID-19-induced cancellations over the past 18 months have taken away some of those opportunities and increased the importance of the All Japan meet for those eyeing a move into the professional ranks.

That scarcity of opportunity, added to the depth of talent on show, ensured the final meet of the amateur sumo calendar was a tough-fought and high-quality affair.

Nakamura’s class shone through in the end, but several of those in contention for the title on Sunday seem destined for successful pro careers.

Added interest this year came from the rare sight of a high school student among the final eight.

All Japan winner Daiki Nakamura (second from left) and other semifinalists pose for photos during the award ceremony at Ryogoku Kokugikan on Sunday. | JOHN GUNNING
All Japan winner Daiki Nakamura (second from left) and other semifinalists pose for photos during the award ceremony at Ryogoku Kokugikan on Sunday. | JOHN GUNNING

The All Japan Championships are normally dominated by collegiate wrestlers, while the best fighters from the corporate world provide stiff competition and even lift silverware on occasion.

Against such tough opposition, making the final rounds as a high school student is an outstanding achievement. Gotaro Sawai managed it in 2004, reaching the semifinals shortly before turning pro. Sawai, of course, later became ozeki Goeido and took home the Emperor’s Cup in September 2016 with a perfect 15-0 record.

Tetsuya Ochiai from high school powerhouse Tottori Johoku didn’t make it quite as far, falling to eventual champion Nakamura in this year’s quarterfinals, but he is a name to keep an eye on and seems likely to do well in the pro ranks if — as expected — he takes that path.

While inside the ring there may have been some future ōzumo rikishi, in the stands there were many men already holding that distinction.

With 43% of all current sekitori coming from the college ranks and an additional significant number having amateur experience either internationally or at the school level, it was no surprise to see the pros mixing and mingling at the All Japan tournament as they supported wrestlers from their former schools or clubs.

The biggest difference from past years, however, was just how many ōzumo rikishi turned out in 2021 — and how good-spirited and relaxed everyone seemed to be.

From former winners of the meet like Mitakeumi, Mitoryu and Yago, to popular fighters like Enho and Tobizaru, topknots and yukata (a light kimono) could be seen in seats on all sides of the arena.

Backstage, Hakuho, Shodai, and numerous other rikishi and oyakata walked the halls shaking hands and exchanging greetings. Even beyond the friendly faces that stablemasters normally put forward for potential recruits, there seemed to be a real air of cheerfulness around the event.

For sure, the lowest coronavirus numbers seen in the capital — and nationwide — since the early stages of the pandemic had a lot to do with that relaxed atmosphere. For the first time in almost two years there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems as if full stadiums and arenas with crowds that are allowed to shout and cheer will again be a reality in 2022.

Former komusubi Kaiho and former yokozuna Hakuho pose together at the 2021 All Japan Sumo Championships at Ryogoku Kokugikan on Sunday. | JOHN GUNNING
Former komusubi Kaiho and former yokozuna Hakuho pose together at the 2021 All Japan Sumo Championships at Ryogoku Kokugikan on Sunday. | JOHN GUNNING

Masks, temperature checks and hand sanitizer were still prevalent at the 2021 All Japan Championships but for the first time in what seemed like forever, cheering could be heard at a sumo event inside the Kokugikan, and there was a noticeable lack of the tension and fear that accompanied every interaction at the same tournament twelve months earlier — which was held before the country’s vaccination drive.

In one month’s time the first ōzumo event of 2022 will take place at the same venue. While restrictions will still likely be in place for that meet, there is widespread hope that it may be the last one held under the severely reduced attendance limit that has been in place since 2020.

By March the Osaka prefectural gym should be at least 70% full, and some of the men competing in the All Japan meet will likely be making their professional debuts in front of an audience allowed to vocally support them in the same way as fans, friends and colleagues did in the Kokugikan last week.

In a real sense the final amateur sumo tournament of 2021 could well have been a glimpse into the future of professional sumo both inside and outside the ring.

On Sunday Nakamura, one of the most talented and successful collegiate wrestlers of the past few years, downed his opponent and celebrated a title win to roars of approval from the stands in the Kokugikan.

In a post-pandemic professional sumo setting we could be typing the same sentence on numerous occasions over the next few years.

If the joy and celebration on show this past weekend is replicated in 2022, it will be a win not only for Nakamura, but for sumo and its fans in general.

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