No matter how you feel about Hakuho (which seems crazy even to write), the sumo world is absolutely rocked not only by his retirement but the manner of it: out on his own terms, no matter how many veiled – thinly or otherwise – “encouragements” he had received, and at the top, unbeaten in his final tournament, and with almost every meaningful record you could wish to have.
It seems impossible to eulogise Hakuho’s career now (although John Gunning has been first out of the blocks with an unsurprisingly strong effort as usual). The debates about the content of his sumo and what to make of his controversial legacy and what it means to be a champion will wait.
What we can instead eulogise, in my opinion, is the end of a period of transition we’ve been discussing for the last few years. Or at least the end of the transition “out” of what was, as we now move “in” to what will be. While a handful of others from Hakuho’s era are still standing in some diminished status, he is the last meaningful domino to fall. And without his enormous presence casting a “will-he/won’t-he” shadow over literally every tournament – to say nothing of his other adversaries of the era: for example Kakuryu, whose own “should I stay or should I go now” drama was mostly informed by something as tedious as immigration paperwork – the next period can now finally begin in earnest.
Yokozuna Terunofuji of course has his own story, formed out of his battles with himself, and his own body, and it is right that he can set the tone for what is to come over the next few years. Whether or not his body can withstand the pressures of Yokozuna sumo for more than that is up to some substantial debate, but it is clear that he will be the wall that new talents will have to knock down. It seems reasonable to expect that for the next 2 years anyway, this will be the case.
It’s a clean time for the change, because everything below the Yokozuna is now up for grabs. There are no Ozeki runs in play, though Mitakeumi’s throughly uninspiring 9 wins from this tournament could eventually have meaning with a solid-if-unlikely 11+ in the next basho. We’ve seen it before. But while two enormous impediments in the shape of Hakuho and also Asanoyama have now been removed, the famous flat-track bully can’t seem to get it together to best his current score consistently enough to go to the next level. That the challengers from this recent tournament were all veterans unlikely to leave the rank-and-file does not speak incredibly well for the health of the division as a whole.
Relative newcomers like Kiribayama, Kotonowaka and Hoshoryu seem likely to have something to say about the shape of san’yaku to come, but it remains to be seen whether they can be more than this generation’s Okinoumi or Myogiryu or Endo. If there’s another rikishi who might be primed to take another step it could be the 26 year old Meisei, off the back of 8 consecutive winning tournaments. While he has a lower ceiling than the mercurial talents I just mentioned or even than those above him on the banzuke, he’s shown more consistency than any of them, as well as the ability to pull off upsets.
It’s also time to be honest about the state of the remaining veterans. For the Aoiyamas, the Tochinoshins, the Tamawashis, the Takarafujis… for sure their records may be informed by their various injury issues but the reality is that they are also of diminishing ability due to age and mileage. It’s probably fair to ask if we’ll see Takayasu in san’yaku again. Kaisei stated (credit to Kintamayama) during the basho that he simply had less power in his body with each passing year. Myogiryu’s face on senshuraku told us everything we need to know about his future: he knows that he would never have a better chance to win something. He’ll be 35 before the next basho. These guys may have, while the top division is a shadow of the quality it was five or more years ago, the chance to run into this kind of tournament one more time, but the reason for that is likely due more to the ability of the competition than their own ability to meaningfully challenge.
The new era is not going to take shape quickly. While there are interesting prospects, there are very few “can’t miss” talents banging down the door. A number of big prospects have fizzled recently atop Makushita (Roga, Oshoryu, Hokutenkai, etc.) and even for the next tournament, the Juryo promotees will be journeymen or slower moving college rikishi in their late 20s. Abi will almost certainly be the only Makuuchi promotee under 30 in the November tournament, and we know what he is already. It appears that there will be plenty of intriguing backing singers for this next era, but the identity of the frontmen is still very much in question.
One of the reasons why the debates about the content of Hakuho’s sumo and what to make of his controversial legacy and what it means to be a champion will wait is that, well… we’re going to have a lot of time to discuss it. If the new era starts now, and we don’t know what it’s going to be, then we can look at what was in better detail in the cold light of day where there is no more Hakuho. Well, no more Hakuho on the dohyo anyway, as rumours already swirl about a new $17M heya in swanky Nihonbashi. We can think about how all of that stuff from this past era made us feel, and what we want the next era to be. And hopefully as we analyse all of that, names will surface and performances will materialise that allow us to dream a bit again.
While there is no Takanohana-defeating-Chiyonofuji moment here to provide the kind of punctuation mark that a satisfying transfer of power deserves, and the vacuum created by the absence of fond names can be a bit dispiriting, it feels like we can approach the next basho, the next year, and the tournaments and years to come with a renewed focus on the excitement of what could happen.