Harumafuji’s departure was likely the starting gun for the wave of change that will sweep through sumo’s upper division. Entering Hatsu 2018, we have two additional Yokozuna that could possibly face retirement if they are not able to perform at Grand Champion level. Likewise, we sadly lost an Ozeki when Terunofuji was unable to defend his rank as an Ozekiwake in Kyushu. This means that the promotion lanes, still impossibly narrow, are starting to open and could be active later this year.
As is always the case in these times, there is a vigorous crop of young rikishi who are battling their way to the top, eager to make their bid to attain sumo’s highest ranks. Most of them are in their mid to early 20’s and have a distinctive, bulbous body shape. I have nicknamed this cohort the “tadpoles”.
Days before Hatsu, we have a determined group of young men who we expect to keep the Ozeki and Yokozuna on their toes.
Mitakeumi – I would call him the king of the tadpoles, as he was the first to reach the upper ranks. He showed a great deal of promise early and then broadened his sumo from the traditional Tadpole Oshi sumo by becoming increasingly competent fighting on the mawashi. He has proven surprisingly resilient at Sekiwake, including at Kyushu where he seemed to struggle at times, but prevailed with a workable 9-6 record.
Takakeisho – At times he seems almost unstoppable, but his mostly tsuppari offense leaves him a bit one-dimensional. He has the body, the health, and the drive to go far, but right now he does not seem to be able to go chest to chest with the upper ranks, and that will keep him out of Ozeki contention.
Onosho – As long as he keeps the red mawashi on, I think he can keep winning. Although he ranks one slot below Takakeisho, my opinion is that he is a more versatile rikishi, and has a real shot at staging a bid for Ozeki this year. It may be a few more years before he can succeed, however.
Hokutofuji – Where Takakeisho and Onosho grab the attention, Hokutofuji continues to move ahead with commanding force. For Hatsu, he is ranked one step behind Onosho, but his sumo has a greater degree of variation than the two rikishi immediately ahead of him. At this point, all of Hokutofuji’s problems are in his head, and the moment he accepts his skill and fixes his mind, he is Ozeki material.
There is another group behind them, who are not quite ready to shine.
Yutakayama – He has moments of brilliance interspaced with matches he should have won. To a large degree, he has the skill and ring sense to at least be upper Maegashira if he can improve his focus and his reaction times. Many fans think there is no hope for this guy, but I am quite sure he’s got a lot of room to grow.
Kagayaki – He needs to replicate Kisenosato’s approach. He does not have the overwhelming talent of Onosho, but he has the workmanlike persistence to grind his way higher. Sadly at Takadagawa beya, he may not have a consistent partner (as Kisenosato has Takayasu) to help forge his strength. [See here and here for lists of Takadagawa’s members. –PinkMawashi]
Asanoyama – I think this guy has huge potential. He had a bad basho in November, and Hatsu will be the one that reveals if he is going to persist and advance or be washed back down to Juryo to re-focus.