Manchester United’s “Theatre of Dreams” and the Green Bay Packers’ “Titletown” are two world famous location-based sporting monikers that have been widely derided over the past decade for failing to live up their outlandish descriptions.
Neither, however, comes close to the complete fabrication that the Osaka Spring Basho’s widely used “Stormy basho” nickname has become.
Once renowned as the site of upset victories and unpredictable outcomes, the spring meet honor roll has long since turned into merely a list of the sport’s biggest names.
Terunofuji’s title win a year ago, while ranked at sekiwake, made him the first non-yokozuna or ozeki to lift the Emperor’s Cup at the March tournament in 21 years, but even in that case, promotion to the latter rank occurred just three days later.
That meet also took place in Tokyo, as COVID-imposed restrictions prevented the Japan Sumo Association from traveling to its normal spring destination. That means the last man outside of sumo’s top two ranks to win the tournament in Osaka remains Takatoriki, who lifted the only Emperor’s Cup of his career in March 2000.
Those looking for historical symmetry are doubtless disappointed by the nightmare finish endured by Takatoriki’s son, Oho, in his top division debut earlier this year.
After a promising start that left him on the cusp of a winning record, newly promoted Oho dropped his final five bouts to end the January meet with seven wins and eight losses.
The 21-year-old was subsequently demoted to the second tier and will miss out on a chance to become the first maegashira ranked title winner in Osaka since his father two decades ago.
Terunofuji, meanwhile, added three more championships over the eight months following his victory last March, and he now returns to sumo’s birthplace a dominant yokozuna seeking to extend Osaka’s wait for a genuine surprise winner.
Whether or not the massive Mongolian will achieve that feat is hard to predict however, as a wave of coronavirus infections hit sumo’s top ranks in early February, and it’s still unclear what condition many if not most of the main title contenders are in.
Kansai may well regain its stormy reputation and see a truly unexpected outcome in 2022, but not for the reason anyone in the sport had wanted.
COVID-19’s effects are disparate, unpredictable and often lingering, so it won’t be until the action finally gets underway at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium on Sunday that we have a clear idea about exactly who is in fighting condition.
For now, barring withdrawals, it seems that three men are set to dominate the headlines over the next two weeks.
An incredible run of title wins, and runner-up finishes that saw Terunofuji rise from the rank of maegashira to yokozuna in just over a year, finally came to a halt in January.
A late tournament injury prevented the veteran from achieving a historic championship three-peat following promotion to grand champion. But even while clearly out of sorts, Terunofuji took matters down to the final bout of that meet.
If healthy, and that’s a big if, the Ulaanbaatar native is still far and away the best wrestler currently active in sumo.
Even if not at 100% Terunofuji has to be considered the title favorite based on what he has achieved over the past year.
The yokozuna has been pictured training at his stable working out with other sekitori level wrestlers, but precious little video of the sessions has been released, so gauging his stamina levels or how much he is protecting his knees isn’t possible.
With the recent coronavirus outbreak also hampering open practice sessions between top-rankers that have been a feature of recent years, there is also no way to judge Terunofuji’s current level against that of the men who figure be his main title rivals in Osaka.
There have of course been video conference-calls with the media by many high-profile wrestlers since the last tournament ended, but as is the case in every sport, actual insight about health and physical condition that could give a competitive advantage to opponents if made public isn’t on any athlete’s agenda.
Sumo’s most recent ozeki is also the most successful one of the past decade.
With a third Emperor’s Cup under his belt and promotion to the sport’s second highest rank achieved, it would appear Mitakeumi has managed to extract maximum value from his undoubted sumo abilities.
Even the Nagano native’s more ardent supporters have long recognized that achieving the ultimate honor of yokozuna promotion requires a kind of consistency that Mitakeumi has never come close to displaying.
An 11-4 outing in November followed by a 13-2 title run in January is the best back-to-back tournament performance in Mitakeumi’s career to date.
While a 13-2 record is probably good enough to put a rikishi in the title hunt in most tournaments, it’s still on the lower end of the scale when it comes to assessing what should be considered a title “equivalent” performance for yokozuna promotion.
If the Dewanoumi stable man hopes to take advantage of sumo’s current weakened state and make a run for the white rope, he’ll need to kick on and elevate his sumo to a level and consistency previously unseen.
Additional Emperor’s Cups aren’t out of the question, and Mitakeumi could even emerge victorious again in Osaka. That would be a surprise, however, and the smart money is probably on more up and down performances from the 29-year-old.
Regardless of whether or not you buy the narrative of Abi’s redemption and turn away from the dark side, there is no questioning the impact he has had on the top division since returning from a JSA imposed suspension for breaking COVID-19 protocols.
Back-to-back 12-3 runner-up performances that included wins over both Terunofuji and ozeki Takakeisho injected excitement into proceedings and have earned the Shikoroyama stable man promotion to sumo’s third highest rank of sekiwake for the first time.
But his new position will mean a much tougher slate of matches straight out of the gate and should quickly show whether or not Abi has what it takes to survive and thrive at the sharp end of the banzuke.
At 27, the Saitama native is at the age when many sumo wrestlers reach their peak. With the top two rikishi in the sport bedeviled by injury, and the next generation of rising stars not quite there yet, Abi has a window in which to create a storybook final act for a career that he seemed to have thrown away just two years ago.
Takakeisho, Hoshoryu and Takanosho
Outside of the three rikishi discussed above, Takakeisho still bears watching the most.
The ozeki is kadoban for March, which means that unless he manages eight wins, he’ll lose that rank for the second time since getting promoted in 2019.
Like Terunofuji, health is the determining factor for Takakeisho’s place in the pecking order. If fully fit, he is behind only the yokozuna when it comes to title favorites.
The 25-year-old’s pushing-thrusting style of sumo means that we’ll know within the first couple of days what shape he is in. When firing on all cylinders, Takakeisho overwhelms virtually all opponents, but when out of sorts, he struggles against even lower-level wrestlers.
In terms of a first surprise title winner in Osaka since Takatoriki, most people will be looking to fast-rising Hoshoryu to mount a challenge.
The 22-year-old Mongolian is an exciting prospect, and his famous yokozuna uncle (Asashoryu) ensures plenty of column inches, headlines and guest spots on variety shows.
Hoshoryu has a bright future ahead of him, but it may well be a veteran like komusubi Takanosho that grabs the glory in Osaka this time out.
For good or bad, illness and injury have made the upcoming tournament arguably the hardest to predict in years, and there are arguments to be made for at least half a dozen other rikishi being in position to lift silverware at the end of the fortnight’s action.
One major positive, however, is the fact that not only will sumo return to Osaka for the first time since 2020, but fans will be allowed in to watch the action in person. That’s something that hasn’t happened in three years.
Starved of sumo for so long, it’s unlikely fans in Kansai will care whether we see dominance by the yokozuna as usual or a reclaiming of the basho’s stormy reputation.
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