“Close doesn’t count – except in horseshoes and hand grenades.” – Jim Kaat
There’s a rhythm in sumo, you know. Famously a so-called zero-sum game, a meritocracy, where the rankings get redrafted every 8 weeks or so on the balance of wins and losses. It has an element of both predictability and unpredictability: you know that this guy will get promoted and by about how much and this guy will get demoted and by about how much.
Except at the top end. At the top end, you need to demonstrate sustained dominance. You have to have to be a winner, you have to be a killer. You can become enormous, you can become skilled, but you need to demonstrate consistency and the mentality that’s required of winners. “Close” doesn’t count.
These are strange times, you don’t need me to tell you that. Most of us would be happy to watch a basho regardless of which 42 guys composed the top division. But there’s a serious issue hanging over sumo right now that is only going to get more and more murky with time: the current Yokozuna are only fit for action about half the time. Their dohyo health is declining as both men have entered their 36th year and have about 2500 (official) matches on in the ring between the two of them. That’s a lot of mileage.
The problem is, they might have to keep going for a while.
Yes, I know it’s possible to have sumo without a Yokozuna. No doubt, someone’s furiously beating their fingers into bloody stumps doing SumoDB queries to shove all of the great Nokozuna moments that yielded great new champions right back into my face. And yes, I also know Hakuho’s going to have to take the reins of what’s presently called Miyagino-beya before August 2022 when Miyagino oyakata is forced to retire, and Kakuryu’s probably playing out the string until his own citizenship developments allow him to pursue similar work.
But: transitional moments between eras usually came with a newcomer stepping up (or in the process thereof) who would dominate: it was clear. It was clear Takanohana would emerge the next star after the Chiyonofuji-Asahifuji-Onokuni-Hokutoumi era. Asashoryu only spent THREE basho as a rank and filer as he rocketed to the fore after the Waka/Taka-Akebono-Musashimaru era. It’s been Hakuho ever since, with sidekicks of various tenure alongside.
Those are just the recent examples. But in this moment, it’s unclear. Most sumo observers will fully expect Asanoyama to be the 73rd Yokozuna. I expect it, you probably expect it, we’ll probably get an NHK preview show in the next few days where we find out they expect it as well. He’s the best of the current bunch right now, but he’s has further steps to take.
There’s no question Asanoyama is a hugely talented rikishi. But he needs more arrows in the quiver. While he is not totally uncomfortable to the extent of a Tochinoshin in oshi-zumo, it’s clear he also relies heavily on a right hand inside/left hand outside grip. Yotsu-zumo techniques are an overwhelming majority of his wins and when you look at his losses, in the oshi-zumo category you’re seeing the names you’d expect (plus Hakuho): the Abi’s, the Daieisho’s, the Tamawashi’s, the Hokutofuji’s.
These are the names of the joi-jin you have to beat with consistency, and the names of the rikishi who stand between his current level of a reliable 10-12 wins and a champion level of 13+ wins a tournament. Oh, and by the way: you have to start not reaching that level, but in consecutive basho.
I said in the recent Tachiai podcast that Asanoyama’s debut basho as an Ozeki was a success. It was, especially in light of other recent Ozeki performances, and I don’t think any of the above commentary detracts from that. The problem is, the inability of those behind him in the banzuke to deliver has meant we now hope for more from the new top Ozeki.
Behind him, there are promising scenes, but also much of a muchness. Any one of Shodai, Mitakeumi, Daieisho, or even Endo, Hokutofuji and Terunofuji of the immediate challengers can put enough together to mount a run to become the new Ozeki. But none of them have displayed either the consistency, health, mental toughness, or technique (or in some cases all four) required to become serious Yokozuna candidates. We’re still waiting to see what the generation behind them is really made of at the top level: the Kotoshohos, the Kotonowakas, the Hoshoryus. It will be some time until we can develop real expectations there.
And the problem is, while we all love an underdog story, every Maegashira 17 yusho means we look even further down the line for the next great champion. These are great moments, heroic moments, great for the sport, the rikishi, the supporters and the stables. The flip side is that each of these moments trashes a rope run, an Ozeki run, a chance for someone of great expectation to make their next step.
The expectation is that in seven days’ time we are going to see a basho with no Yokozuna grand champion, no dohyo-iri, no great pageantry, no storied legend who electrifies the room the moment they walk down the hanamichi. Don’t think for a minute that Asanoyama, Shodai, and Mitakeumi don’t know that this is their moment, that no matter how many times we say “they may never get a better chance,” they really may never get a better chance.
But now it’s time to deliver it. Close doesn’t count.