Making a Case For The End of “The Transition”

Everything goes in circles. Photo credit @nicolaah

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.

18 thoughts on “Making a Case For The End of “The Transition”

  1. Will Hakuho’s heya have an adjacent “Hakuho Museum”? Lord knows he has enough trophies and tributes to fill a good sized warehouse. I would not be surprised if Miyagino is eager to clean out that closet.

    • I certainly hope so and I really hope that rumour is true. Given that it will probably replace the current place, ex-Chikubayama can go get himself a nice new place of his own with some nice clean closets!

      I posited over on sumoforum that I think he’ll have been inspired by Araiso but will have the means to build in a place where people with money like to spend money, that’s close to Kokugikan as well as the shinkansen (meaningful not just for basho but for his connections to far flung parts of Japan and beyond, scouting, etc). He also has track record for this given that he has his chanko spot in Ginza. In terms of capturing the casual sumo fan or casual merchandise consumer, it’s a much better location than virtually every other stable.

      The whole idea is very very very good. I hope there are legs to that story so that it can be analysed in great detail.

  2. I can’t help but think of similar situations in basketball in the late 90’s and in tennis right now. In basketball, you of course had Michael Jordan, the best of all time, dominating the decade and then retiring. Basketball languished a bit until Kobe Bryant starting winning, and even then the popularity was a bit reduced. Right now tennis is going through an even more marked decline – the three best men of all time are winding down their careers, and the next generation took so long to develop that they barely even developed into champions, let alone ones that can measure up to the ones they’re replacing.

    So sumo looks to be in a similar boat. Sadly that likely means popularity will likely suffer short-term, barring some sort of international Akebono-type phenom. But as with all sports, something always comes around. This likely isn’t the end of the transition, but the true beginning of one that will last many years.

    • Interesting points. Truth be told, I think we have enough metrics to go by to say that at least in terms of the english speaking audience, popularity was completely hammered by the pandemic, and went off a bit of a cliff from the cancelled basho last year onward. Not only was Hakuho not around, but there was just less to talk about generally beyond the odd scandal of someone rolling up to a place they shouldn’t have been during the pandemic.

      In terms of the sumo economy, it’s been profoundly impacted, there are indications that even the Japanese public might not have confidence in returning in the numbers they did before (live sumo also tends to attract a substantial elderly audience), ticket sales are reduced, and new foreign fan acquisition has recently been driven in no small part by the huge push that the Japanese government made to increase tourism over the years leading up to the Olympics. Once that avenue to exposure was shut off, and with the Association not taking meaningful new steps to increase digital exposure outside Japan, there certainly has been an impact to the English speaking audience.

      That will change, but Hakuho’s retirement now certainly won’t help matters until someone appears as a meaningful rival to Terunofuji, or Terunofuji embarks on some kind of record setting rampage.

      • No Jungyo. We got our wish, the wrestlers got a break and are able to focus on healing and staying at the heya. “Be careful what you wish for,” has never rung so true in my life.

  3. As Hakuho was the story teller/storyline from basho to basho I believe T-Rex will be the same right now. For better or for worse there is really no one on the current banzuke that can hang with him.

    The guys from Komusubi to Ozeki are massively underperforming, Skipping Asanoyama’s 0-0-15, the remaining 6 went a collective 45-42-3, that’s a 50% win rate. Digging into the numbers we find the following:

    1) Both Ozeki only managed 8-7 records
    2) 4 wrestlers were 8-7 (Shodai, Takakeisho, Meisei, Ichinojo)
    3) Only Mitakeumi went 9-6
    4) Takayasu was 4-7 with 2 wins by opponent withdrawal before he had to withdraw himself
    5) None of the elite in this group posted double digit wins

    Digging further into the numbers, only an M10 (Myogiryu) and an M11 (Endo) posted 11-4 records and were in the hunt for the yusho during act 3.

    Maybe the elites were tired or beat up or over trained but right now they appear to be less than able to “bring it” on the regular. Going forward I hope this changes because much as I like T-Rex it would be nice to see some top level competition that can at least challenge on a consistent basis.

    I believe you’re right Josh. We’re in a transition and I’m thinking the next 4-8 basho will be painful for the JSA and all of us fans as the level of competition is questionable. There may be the odd winner here and there but T-Rex will now most likely be the lone Yokozuna for a while and he is skill-wise head and shoulders above the rest of the banzuke.

    • Right I can’t dispute anything below ozeki, but what a difference Takakeisho’s injury in Hakuho’s last basho has made on the sport. It’s easy to forget he lost to Terunofuji in a playoff in the prior basho, and if he had outright won that next basho, HE’D now likely be a yokozuna. Instead, he gets hurt the fourth match or so, has to withdraw, Hakuho goes undefeated and Terunofuji attains yokozuna status. As for Shodai, well, he’s always been a mediocre ozeki in his time at that rank. But given the rest of the sumo going on, he could middle around that rank for years without demotion. Maybe someday he can put it together and even hit double digit wins again, even for a single basho. It’s sad but I’m getting the feeling we might be waiting for Asanoyama to mature and make a comeback before anything interrupts Terunofuji.

  4. Great Article again. Loved reading it.

    Also, maybe a note to any Tachiai webmaster passing by here but….I think the “Basho’s counter” calendar thingny in the right corner is broken again. Still say the Aki Basho is underway :(

  5. The transition, which was going to happen anyway, has been complicated by the pandemic, the injury to Takakeisho, the implosion of Asanoyama, and the mediocrity of Shodai and the rest of sanyaku. I think it would have been easier three years back. We should pray for the health of Terunofuji’s knees until new stars emerge.

    • Shodai has only to blame himself. He could always work on his tachiai to improve it to a level worthy of an ozeki, yet this didn’t happen so far imo.

      Takakeisho despite his lack of yotsu sumo capabilities could manage to win 2 yusho in a row but with a new serious injury basically every other basho I don’t think he will ever make it.

      Asanoyama will have to fight hard to regain his ozeki rank. Also he is known to crumble under pressure and has a less than stellar record against the ozeki and yokozuna.

      I don’t like to mention any of the “hot” prospects since none of them is even on a ozeki run.
      Until then one can only hope terunofujis knees hold up…

      • Shodai seems to be balancing sumo success with self-preservation, and I can’t say I blame him, even if it’s not always exciting to watch. The approved tachiai style is often hard on the head, which is where the brain is located. Avoiding concussion is in my opinion an intelligent goal, and even if fear-driven, it’s a reasonable fear. He still manages enough success to be highly ranked.

  6. Thanks for this brilliant write-up, Josh.

    There really is a vacuum there for any rising star to burst onto the scene and storm up to ozeki in a hurry, because there just aren’t many gatekeepers left.

    I worry, though, that we could end up seeing some really uninspiring rikishi at ozeki in the next couple of years (I could imagine Abi getting there, simply because many of those who were too good to lose to his style are gone).

  7. This is such a good and clear-eyed assessment of the current state of everything. I do think there are some incredibly hopeful bright spots though. Hoshoryu’s talent is obvious. Were it not for his health issue this basho we would have seen a much different performance. It’s not a matter of if but when he becomes an Ozeki. We also have people like Ura who are a joy to watch. Teru is also not as invincible as people make him out to be. Those knees are fragile and if the JSA would actually let him fight the Endos and Onoshos out there, I think the Yokozuna would get a run for his money. If only the JSA would prioritize cultivating rivalries instead of preserving banzuke stability, we would have a vibrant sumo division at the top.

    • Yeah, I enjoy watching a lot of the current rikishi even if they are not current contenders for dominance. I like interesting moves, so really enjoying Ura, Hoshoryu, Kiribayama, Tobizaru. And feisty scrappers, like Chiyonokuni and Daeisho.

    • Next time out, Teru should face the current san’yaku (except possibly Takayasu) plus Kiribayama, Daieisho, Wakatakakage, Onosho, Takanosho, Okinoumi, Myogiryu, Takarafuji, Endo, and Hoshoryu, so we’ll see.


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