Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson asked the age old question in the title of this post. Presumably, they weren’t talking about the Hakuho experience at Nagoya 2021 (unless the titular subject matter was the drainage from that man’s surgically repaired knee), but for a track whose content focuses heavily on the emotions of anticipation, there are, at a stretch, some parallels with the return to dohyo of the Boss. What will he look like? How will he perform? What’s it gonna be!?
So let’s go a bit into the weeds here and look at his likely opponents. I’ve picked the 15 guys directly below him who are in competition from Day 1. Some may go kyujo, some may come back from kyujo (not Asanoyama), and as a word of caution some overzealous mid-level maegashira or lower rank and filer with ideas above his station (Ura, you have been summoned) may get thrown into the mixer in the second week, as is wont to happen.
M4E Kotoeko, M4W Chiyotairyu, M5E Okinoumi
You’d call this group the intai-makers. The group of lowest-ranked opponents, Hakuho can’t be losing to this lot. If he does, and especially if it’s not a fluke, you’d have to say we’re looking at the end. Mostly, these guys have had the benefit of generous promotions and none of them look like they’re going to be bothering san’yaku any time soon. Okinoumi and Chiyotairyu of course are wily vets with previous when it comes to kinboshi, but this just isn’t the place to cough one up. Sumo-wise, there just isn’t anything that should catch a meticulous preparer like Hakuho out unless he’s really off form. Kotoeko and Okinoumi are predictably straightforward belt guys. Chiyotairyu may lead with a big hit followed by a pull down attempt, or a weird hit-and-shift or some kind of push-me-pull-you combination of both, but if Hakuho can survive this tournament he’s going to need the mobility that would make him too agile for the Kokonoe man. Kotoeko will meet the Boss for the first time but the others are a combined 1-32 against him.
After his showing in May, the Flying Monkey can perhaps be fortunate to find himself in with a chance for a kinboshi here. Nevertheless, he’s the Wild Card. Against someone with a dodgy knee, the chaos created by his boundless energy and “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to sumo makes him possibly one of the slippiest of the rank and file opponents for Hakuho. This would be a first meeting.
M1E Endo, M2W Ichinojo, M3E Hokutofuji
… The kensho thieves. These three, while not displaying the consistency needed to regularly bother the san’yaku rankings, have racked up 22 kinboshi between them and turn it on when it’s all on the line. Ichinojo, balancing his enormous potential and ability with his creaking figure, famously only seems to get up for the big ones. Hokutofuji consistently acts as a thorn in the side of the top rankers and the maddeningly on/off Endo has possibly 2020’s greatest sumo match in his locker – vs none other than Hakuho – and the rematch will be greatly intriguing. While they sport a poor 8-33 ranking combined against Hakuho it’s worth noting that’s a better win rate than most and each of them have served him a black star multiple times. Apart from Hokutofuji – who will absolutely lead with a head-first upward tsuki/oshi attack aimed squarely at the Yokozuna’s “centre mass” as Bruce likes to say – they also are somewhat unpredictable (especially Endo) in terms of what approach they’ll bring to the match.
M1W Daieisho, M2E Takanosho
The upstarts. Daieisho gave Hakuho a run for his money the last time we saw his abortive attempt to return to the dohyo. Both of these guys seem to have been found out a bit in recent months following their high-altitude exploits in recent tournaments as far as their banzuke position is concerned. It could be argued they both need a bit of a Plan B and that probably isn’t what you want when facing Hakuho. Takanosho is 0-1 against the dai-yokozuna while Daieisho brings a 2-7 record to the party.
K1E Wakatakakage, K1W Meisei
The pair of shin-Komusubi may both be in for a rough ride as is traditional for debutants at the rank, although they’ll be boosted by the disappearance of a Sekiwake and an Ozeki respectively. Only Meisei has faced Hakuho before, losing once, and I think both will be better served looking for their 8 wins elsewhere. Wakatakakage’s technical sumo has enormous potential in my book but is still too easily unpicked by Yokozuna level opposition, while Meisei – who has improved his belt ability to go with his thrusting – may be the likelier bet to spring a shock. Still, I’ve been wrong before but I don’t see it.
The underachiever. You know, if he ever had completed an Ozeki run, he’d still be there. When you talk about the disappointing tenures of some of those who have made the rank, it’s possible that one of the better Ozeki who remind you of Kaio – long tenure of doing enough, big fanbase, gets a yusho every once in a while – of this generation is the Ozeki who never became one. That said, he has form for big big wins over Hakuho, especially in Nagoya (twice), and has a huge opportunity to get an inside track on that Ozeki run later in the year given the weakened field this time out. Another who has improved both the mawashi and pushing attacks, Mitakeumi has let himself down mentally in the past. Like Hakuho, his ability in many facets of sumo means that he chooses the technique he takes to his opponent. Unlike Hakuho, he gets it wrong too often. What will he do here?
The forgotten one. In fairness, it’s less than a year since Shodai’s thrilling (yeah, I said it) yusho. But after a middling start to ozeki life, the spotlight’s firmly off him here in a year where the headlines and intrigue have been stolen away by others. He took his last match from Hakuho but otherwise his record is not good and I think the fact that everyone knows what his tachiai is going to look like means that Hakuho will be able to devise a way past him even if Hakuho’s brain is stronger than his body. Shodai only needs 8 wins (and not even that, really), and he’ll probably rack them up elsewhere.
O1E Terunofuji, O1W Takakeisho
The challengers. Both men, with different odds, likelihoods, back stories and momentum are gunning for the rope in their own way. Terunofuji has a 4-9 record against Hakuho but hasn’t met him since he was last an Ozeki in 2017. He hasn’t beaten him since 2016, but still has the best record against him of any likely opponent, and all of the momentum following back-to-back yusho and with the tsuna on the line. Takakeisho meanwhile has only taken one from six against the GOAT. While Takakeisho will have nonetheless have been sharpening his unique style of sumo in anticipation of yet another memorable match against Hakuho, one gets the feeling Hakuho may yet again just stand there and encourage the separation and look to exploit a mistake. He may also try and get separation against Terunofuji, who with bad wheels of his own will be trying to take advantage of his position as strongest man in the division to go chest-to-chest by all means. These two matches – coming in the final two days of the tournament unless something crazy happens – are arguably the show stopping events of Nagoya 2021. And it’d be tough after all of the time out to bet on Hakuho winning both.
Hakuho’s return is one of the most riveting stories of sumo in recent months (and we’ve been blessed with plenty of them – good and bad). There’s something to watch for in each of his likely battles, assuming he goes the distance. Whether a yusho is likely or not is the biggest question of all, but what is sure is that each day’s musubi-no-ichiban will be must-see viewing. HAKKEYOI!