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Just two weeks ago a relaxed atmosphere at the All-Japan Championships seemed to reflect a widespread sense that an end to the ongoing pandemic was in sight, and that sumo would more or less be back to normal by next summer.

Scheduled retirement ceremonies for various wrestlers had begun to see lessened or removed limits on the number of spectators allowed, and a mid 2022 return for sumo’s traditional intertournament regional tours appeared likely.

An uptick in COVID-19 cases in Japan over the past week or so though has given some in the sport pause.

While the increase isn’t a huge amount in relative terms, and the overall total is still lower than at any point in the past 18 months, the rapidity with which the omicron variant is spreading overseas, and the havoc it has wreaked on sporting fixtures in other countries has to be of concern.

With Japan’s first known case of omicron community transmission involving a person that attended a soccer game, various governing bodies in sports will likely be nervously following proceedings over the next month or so.

Regardless of the likelihood of transmission in an open-air stadium, sports such as sumo that take place indoors are obviously at much higher risk.

Yokozuna Terunofuji receives the championship trophy from Hakkaku, head of the Japan Sumo Association, after winning the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament at Fukuoka Kokusai Center in Fukuoka, on Nov. 28. | KYODO
Yokozuna Terunofuji receives the championship trophy from Hakkaku, head of the Japan Sumo Association, after winning the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament at Fukuoka Kokusai Center in Fukuoka, on Nov. 28. | KYODO

Training rings likewise are located mostly in small, poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces, with wrestlers sharing living quarters in the same building.

A return to empty arenas and a ban on contact with those outside a wrestler’s own stable isn’t something anyone wants to see in 2022, but the optimistic mood of early December is now tinged with trepidation.

But the evolution and spread of coronavirus variants isn’t something anyone in sumo can predict, so for now, the sport is carrying on as it has for the past few months — not introducing additional countermeasures or scaling back plans to increase the number of fans at tournaments next year.

The January tournament will keep the current cap on seats sold, meaning 5,000 tickets a day will be made available, while the Osaka tournament in March is slated to see an increase to 75% capacity.

Inside the ring — assuming everything on the COVID-19 front progresses smoothly – there is plenty for fans to look forward to over the next 12 months.

Terunofuji’s dominance is unlikely to be seriously challenged in 2022, but given his age and injury history it’s possible we could start to see pretenders to his throne begin to assert themselves before the end of next year.

Takakeisho isn’t on the same level as the yokozuna but in the wake of Asanoyama’s self-induced fall he is the clear number two in the sport right now.

If someone other than Terunofuji is to lift the Emperor’s Cup in 2022 it’s likely to be the 25-year-old ozeki.

The rest of the top division is currently a mix of veteran journeymen and unproven youngsters — none of whom are likely to put a halt to Terunofuji’s accumulation of silverware over the next 12 months.

There are of course plenty of exciting up and comers in sumo, but it may be later in 2022 before they begin to make waves at the higher levels.

Hoshoryu and Kotonowaka are rising stars already in the top division that are on many people’s radar, but further down the rankings a pair of rikishi intimately linked with two of the greatest yokozuna of all time hold even more promise.

Oho and Hokuseiho, grandson and protege of Taiho and Hakuho respectively, have the potential not only to be outstanding wrestlers but to create one of the all-time great storylines in the sport.

To be sure it’s very early in both of their careers and with neither man having yet reached the top division a lot of projection is required, but for anyone connected to sumo it’s hard to resist imagining what a rivalry between them could do for the sport.

Both are still raw talents, that while improving, have a long way to go before their sumo is the finished article.

Time though is on their side.

Hokuseiho is a full decade younger than Terunofuji.

At the same age that Hokuseiho is now, the yokozuna was still in the sandanme division and two years away from his first ever lower division title.

Shimanoumi (right) defeats Hoshoryu on the 11th day of the November Grand Sumo Tournament at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan on Nov. 18, 2020. | KYODO
Shimanoumi (right) defeats Hoshoryu on the 11th day of the November Grand Sumo Tournament at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan on Nov. 18, 2020. | KYODO

COVID-19 outbreaks in his stable and injury have resulted in Hakuho’s most promising recruit competing in just a solitary bout over the past six months, and slowed down his rapid ascent up the rankings.

Hokuseiho however has the talent and physique to be special, and with the greatest rikishi of all time in his ear on a daily basis, the sky is the limit for the 20-year-old.

To fulfill his potential though and reach the top of the sport, Hokuseiho needs to take a leaf out of Terunofuji’s book and hit the gym more in the new year.

Oho’s career meanwhile has been more of a slow burn to date, but as with Hokuseiho, reaching the pinnacle of the sumo world is clearly achievable given his ability and background.

The two rising stars have yet to meet, but their first clash could happen sometime in the next few months. That initial bout is unlikely to be a title decider, and may even not take place in the top division, but it could be the first chapter in one of sumo’s most significant storylines over the next decade.

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