As sumo withdrawal starts to kick in, let’s look ahead to March and consider who might be fighting at what rank in Osaka.
The upper ranks
This part of the banzuke, at least, should be clear. Since both Yokozuna picked up one win before pulling out, they’ll retain their relative positions, with Hakuho appearing at Y1e for a record-extending 52nd time, while Kakuryu will be listed at Y1w. Takakeisho will continue as O1e. He will be the only Ozeki on the banzuke for the first time since January 1982 after Goeido failed to get 8 wins, Takayasu failed to get 10, and Asanoyama (10-5) did not quite do enough for promotion, though he did enough to have another shot at it in March.
The lower san’yaku
Asanoyama will continue his reign as East Sekiwake. Beyond that, things are less clear. At the moment, we have four rikishi vying to fill the remaining three regular slots. Goeido is guaranteed the rank of Sekiwake, but there is speculation that he may retire instead of trying to re-ascend to Ozeki with 10 wins. M4w Shodai (13-2), M2e Hokutofuji (11-4), and M1e Endo (9-6) have all done enough to earn a san’yaku rank, and to force an extra slot to be created if necessary. Goeido’s retirement would make this simple, most likely with Shodai ascending to S1w and Hokutofuji and Endo occupying the East and West Komusubi ranks, respectively. This trio may well hold the same ranks even if Goeido fights on, with the ex-Ozeki ranked S2w.
The upper maegashira
With the san’yaku ranks either holding at 8 or dwindling to 7 for the first time in the modern era, the top 16 (the joi-jin) will extend down to M4-M5, and with likely withdrawals in the upper ranks, rikishi ranked as low as M6 may face multiple san’yaku opponents, as Takarafuji and Tochinoshin did this basho. Who will occupy this part of the banzuke, which was commonly referred to as “the meat grinder” when those ranked there served as mere fodder for powerful upper-rankers, but now offers kinboshi and promotion opportunities?
I am expecting two demoted san’yaku rikishi, K1w Daieisho (7-8) and S1w Takayasu (6-9), to occupy the M1 ranks. M2 should be filled by two rising rikishi, M9w Yutakayama, 11-4, (you’re welcome, Bruce) and M4e Okinoumi (8-7). M2w Mitakeumi (7-8) should see a minimal drop to M3, where he’ll be joined by the “matta king” M8w Ryuden (10-5). Filling out the upper maegashira ranks will be M5w Enho (8-7), who’ll once again reach a new career high, M7w Onosho (9-6), the yusho winner M17w Tokushoryu (14-1), demoted East Komusubi Abi (5-10), M1w Myogiryu (5-10), and M11w Kagayaki (10-5).
The Makuuchi-Juryo exchanges
J4e Nishikigi (11-4) earned a definite return to the top division. He’ll be trading places with the one obvious demotion, M13w Kotoeko, who, with only 2 wins, will be falling deep into the second division.
The second-best promotion case, and one that should be compelling, belongs to J6e Daiamami (11-4). But whose place would he take? The only candidates are M14w Shimanoumi (6-9), who would normally be considered to have done just enough to stay, and the two absentees: M3w Kotoyuki (0-0-15) and M5e Meisei (1-7-7). Given that Tomokaze was demoted last time (ironically, in favor of the yusho winner Tokushoryu, whom most predictions had staying in Juryo) from the same position as Kotoyuki, that might be the way to bet purely for the sake of consistency. Once again, were Goeido to retire and open up an extra slot in the top division, Daiamami could move up without the need to demote any of the three.
The other Juryo rikishi who should receive some consideration are J2e Kotonowaka and J2w Hidenoumi, both 8-7, but I don’t think their rank-record combinations are quite enough to force down any of the bubble rikishi from the top division. J5e Wakatakakage (9-6) made a late push for an immediate return to the top division, but his final-day loss will keep him in Juryo for another basho. J5w Daishoho (9-6) blew what looked like a near-certain promotion with 4 consecutive losses to close the tournament. And the Juryo yusho winner, J13w Terunofuji (13-2), will also have to wait after dropping his last two bouts to Nishikigi and Daiamami.
Two exchanges would be the fewest in 5 years, while only one exchange hasn’t happened in over two decades.