The word “bridesmaid” has been attached to Takayasu for some years. “Always the bridesmaid but never the bride,” the hugely talented but hugely erratic former ozeki has a fat stack of Jun-Yusho, but has yet to capture an Emperor’s Cup. His spotless Week 1 performance in the Haru 2022 basho, therefore, raises the question over whether this can be the time where he goes on and wins.
On some occasions, the Tagonoura-beya man has thrown the yusho away, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. So before we analyse what makes his chances so compelling on this occasion, let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane at some of his “nearly” moments:
2011 Nagoya (M11): Takayasu made his makuuchi debut in the first proper basho following the yaocho scandal, and ran out to a 7-1 record, one off the pace after the middle weekend. But Harumafuji was perfect through nakabi and a Day 9 loss ultimately sent the rookie on a spiral to a 9-6 record.
2012 Haru (M7): Takayasu sat at 7-2 after day 9 and again just one off the pacesetting Yokozuna Hakuho. Hakuho would indeed go on to lose another match in this basho, but Takayasu coughed up 3 straight losses to finish well off the pace.
2012 Aki (M9): Takayasu went stride for stride with Harumafuji through Day 8, matching the Yokozuna’s perfect record and sitting atop the leaderboard after nakabi. But while the 70th Yokozuna went on to a zensho, Takayasu got rocked for 5 losses in the second week.
2013 Hatsu (M7): Takayasu’s first Jun-Yusho had him off the pace from Day 1: a quality basho which included 9 straight wins started with a loss, which was all Harumafuji needed to overcome for another zensho.
2014 Nagoya (M11): Again, Takayasu made a perfect 8-0 run through nakabi, matching Yokozuna Hakuho. Hakuho ultimately dropped a couple of bouts in this tournament, and while Takayasu remained 1 off the pace after Day 10, he once again dropped the majority of his second week decisions. He entered the final weekend in contention, but caughed up the decisive loss to Ozeki Kotoshogiku.
2015 Natsu (M8): A theme will emerge here, as 7-1 Takayasu was co-leader on nakabi of a basho that Terunofuji eventually went on to win, for his first yusho. Having matched the future Yokozuna and the pair of Hakuho & Harumafuji through the first 8 days, he only fortunately finished with double digits thanks to a late fusen-sho.
2015 Kyushu (M12): After an 8-1 start, Takayasu was level with the eventual winner Harumafuji and one off the pace set by Hakuho, who would eventually lose the final three matches. Yet, Takayasu was nowhere to be seen in the final reckoning, losing 5 of the last 6 against low Maegashira opposition.
2016 Hatsu (M8): Takayasu exited nakabi at 7-1 and one off the pace set by the historic victor Kotoshogiku, but he never got a chance to face the Ozeki after another week 2 fade left him with 4 losses.
2016 Nagoya (K): The first of Takayasu’s title challenges from any rank of high fixture difficulty, an 8-1 start actually had him in front of eventual winner Harumafuji and Hakuho and level with stablemate Kisenosato. Even with the benefit of the two heya-mates not facing each other, Takayasu let Harumafuji back into the race on Day 10 before coughing up two more to lower ranked opposition later in the week, and leaving Kisenosato with the questions of whether he himself would ever shed the bridesmaid tag.
2017 Haru (S): In one of the all time classic basho of the era, Takayasu and Kisenosato both raced to perfect 10-0 starts, Takayasu giving Kisenosato a crucial assist by beating challenger Terunofuji earlier in the basho. But while Kisenosato performed the all time great moment of winning after suffering what would eventually be his career dooming injury at the hands of Harumafuji in his first Yokozuna basho, Takayasu was downed by both Yokozuna and then, crucially, Yoshikaze to remove the spectre of an intra-heya playoff.
2017 Nagoya (O): A fine start on his Ozeki debut had Takayasu 7-1 after nakabi, and one off the pace. But five week two defeats including a crucial match to eventual champion Hakuho left him way off the pace.
2018 Hatsu (O): Takayasu’s second Jun-Yusho wasn’t much to write home about despite an 8 match winning run to finish, having been 2 losses off the pace of Tochinoshin by the middle weekend.
2018 Haru (O): Ultimately doomed by an 0-2 start, Takayasu’s third Jun-Yusho had him finish winning 12 of 13, but the final day victory over Kakuryu was academic, the Yokozuna already having wrapped up the title.
2018 Aki (O): Another 7-0 start as Takayasu matched Hakuho step by step through week one, but 4 week two losses left him well short of the Dai-Yokozuna’s zensho.
2018 Kyushu (O): His fourth and most recent Jun-Yusho had yet more heartbreak, as Takayasu reached nakabi one off the pace set by Takakeisho and continued as such all the way to senshuraku, where, having already beaten Takakeisho, he coughed up a loss to Mitakeumi in a match which could have sent him to a yusho playoff.
2019 Haru (O): One off the pace of zensho winner Hakuho at nakabi, second week fade which took him out of contention before he got the chance to put dirt on the Yokozuna.
2021 Haru (K): Back from injury and amidst his challenge to regain his Ozeki rank, Takayasu actually had a two win lead on Terunofuji in this basho. Instead, he would capitulate, with losses to Tobizaru, Aoiyama and Wakatakakage handing Terunofuji the yusho that would kickstart the run of championships taking him to the white rope.
It’s pretty grim reading. The first thing that sticks out is how close he’s been to the top in some of the most noteworthy yusho of recent years (Kotoshogiku, Tochinoshin, Kisenosato, Terunofuji – and he was also in the chasing pack for Goeido’s zensho). Those could have been his triumphs, and the narrative of the last several years might well be different. Obviously, it’s incredibly difficult to win a yusho, and only one man can do it per tournament. But Takayasu’s track record of not being able to carry out a sustained challenge is well documented and it’s a big file. And if it’s ever going to happen for him, it has to be now.
While it’s Mitakeumi who has long had the reputation for being a flat-track bully, running up the score against poorer opposition in the first week before running into a wall against the top rankers in week 2, Mitakeumi has largely gained that reputation from a consistent position in the joi-jin where he’s actually facing those top rankers every tournament. And he’s converted his talent into three championships. Takayasu’s similar record of beating up on inferior opposition in the first week before falling out of contention, however, leaves him with little to show for it beyond an injury-wrecked stint as an Ozeki, and someone whose assists helped elevate the career of a stablemate who – perhaps unpredictably so – became one of the most beloved Yokozuna of recent times. Someone who failed to receive the same benefit in-kind, as Kisenosato’s dohyo career was largely over by the time Takayasu became Ozeki.
In this basho, Takayasu deserves credit for navigating the first week with a clean record. He hasn’t been pushed to do his best sumo, and he’s been given the benefit of 4 months of preparation and time to heal injuries due to his stable’s kyujo from the Hatsu basho. He’s also been given the benefit of a first week schedule against massively inferior opposition at a time when the bottom two thirds of makuuchi is as lacking in quality as any time in recent memory. The second week, if he can hold serve, will undoubtedly bring challenges and it will be fascinating to see when he starts to get pulled up to battle other title challengers, with 4 san’yaku rikishi involved the chasing pack directly behind him. Now that Terunofuji is no longer involved, the Ozeki and Sekiwake will need to face someone else this week and that someone should probably be him (Takayasu faces Komusubi Hoshoryu on Day 10 in his first real challenge of rank).
From a sumo point of view, the advantage Takayasu has long had over opponents is that he is a powerful, multi-faceted rikishi, having developed from a pusher-thruster into a hugely capable yotsu-practitioner and defensive specialist who can win almost any stamina bout. However, with the Yokozuna removed from the equation and yet more bouts against beatable opponents to come, his battle for a first Emperor’s Cup is not with his ability. What we’ll see over the coming days is whether he has the mental ability, preparedness and intensity required to win a championship in his brain.