Revisiting the Next Yokozuna
With Hakuho testing positive the week before the basho and an uptick in Coronavirus cases generally, the status of the Hatsu basho is still unclear. Even if it goes ahead, which looks likely, there are other protocols to sort out. That makes basho-specifc preview pieces a little difficult. This was planned for awhile, and it doesn't address those issues. Hope this is a positive way to think about sumo right now for everyone.
A year ago, this site ran a five part series trying to predict the next Yokozuna. It's a fun parlor game for sumo fans, but this went a little bit deeper. There was some analysis as to who could be a Yokozuna. A year is probably a good time to revisit the takes on certain rikishi. Perhaps this will even become a recurring feature.
Of course, right now is also an interesting time to consider the Next Yokozuna, because we could see the Next Yokozuna by March. Takakeisho won the yusho in November as an Ozeki. By the usual promotion criteria, 2 consecutive yusho, he is in with another victory in January. The Yokozuna Deliberation Council can really do whatever it wants, since the actual promotion criteria is a combination of power, strength, and hinkaku (品格 , grace or dignity.) Yet denying Takakeisho after two straight yusho seems unlikely.
So, really, this is about the Next Yokozuna other than Takakeisho. This post will review some elements of the series from last year, but it's worthwhile to read all five parts. In Part 1, the 9 Yokozuna from Akebono to the present were analyzed. In Part 2, the profile of a future Yokozuna was determined from the 9 Yokozuna that went before. Part 3 looked at "Near Yokozuna," Ozeki who won yusho but couldn't get the second one in a row for promotion. Possible Yokozuna favorites were ruled out in Part 4. Part 5 outlined the potential future Yokozuna.
The 9 Yokozuna had a few things in common. All made short work of the lower divisions. All came into sumo as teenagers, without university sumo laurels. They also made solid progress through the Maegashira ranks. At that point, they diverged. There were 4 "Inevitable Yokozuna," Akebono, Takanohana, Asashoryu, and Hakuho, and 5 "Eventual Yokozuna," Wakanohana, Musashimaru, Harumafuji, Kakuryu, and Kisenosato. The Inevitable Yokozuna were on a rocketship to the rope, while the Eventual Yokozuna spent more time in Sanyaku and especially at Ozeki.
The five Eventual Yokozuna are the ones to really consider. They were not dominating everyone from the jump, but needed to round into Yokozuna form as the pinnacle of their careers. 10 rikishi have won a yusho as an Ozeki who then did not go on to get Yokozuna promotion since 1992. What separates the five Eventual Yokozuna from the Near Yokozuna is mostly injuries and luck. Becoming a Yokozuna isn't just difficult, but incredibly rare. That's why just 9 men have done it in thirty years.
When considering whether any individual rikishi will be a future Yokozuna, keep that in mind. The odds are strongly against any individual. Yet the periods of sumo without any Yokozuna are incredibly rare. The Next Yokozuna is out there.
But let's start by considering who is NOT a likely candidate for the rope.
Over the Hill
None of the above rikishi would be first in line in a "Next Yokozuna" contest, but the key factor to thinking about who will be in line for the rope is age. No one over 30 has won Yokozuna promotion. There has also been attrition in the last year. Among the 2019 retirements were Goeido and Kotoshogiku. Both were "Near Yokozuna" and retired after injuries made them shells of their former selves. Age is not kind in sumo, and it has to be considered.
University Sumo Competitors
The only University Sumo champion to make it to Yokozuna was Wajima, who ascended in 1973. This is a bit odd, because Amateur Yokozuna can enter professional sumo as "Makushita Tsukedashi." That means the start as highly ranked Makushita wrestlers. Despite starting out with this benefit, University men haven't reached the pinnacle of sumo in almost forty years.
It is, in a way, age. Take Shodai and Asanoyama. Both men achieved Ozeki promotion in 2020, and both have yusho to their names. Both would simply need to win consecutive yusho. Yet Shodai is 29, performing the best sumo of his life. He still needs a jump in his level of sumo. Asanoyama might have a better shot, but he'll turn 27 on March 1. And both Shodai and Asanoyama are kadoban for January, raising the specter of what injuries can do to Yokozuna chances.
On the other end, consider Midorifuji. He will make his debut in Makuuchi for January, on the heels of back to back double digit performances in Juryo. He also made strong progress through the lower ranks. He is also 24, born the same month (August 1996) as Takakeisho. His three years to Maegashira are fast, but he started at 21. He just has less time to make it all the way.
That's not to say no University sumo participant will ever be a Yokozuna in the future, but it needs to be the right one.
The Wild Card
Arguably, Terunofuji has had two stretches of Yokozuna level sumo in his career. One was in 2017, when he got back-to-back Jun-Yusho as an Ozeki. The most recent was the last three basho, when he got a Yusho and Jun-Yusho to his name.
Between that, he suffered an epically awful knee injury and fell down to Jonidan after enough absences. His comeback has been special, and he is one of the most impressive rikishi on the dohyo. Yet his health is a constant worry, especially as he would probably be an Ozeki again right now if he didn't get injured in September. It feels wrong to discount Terunofuji in this conversation, but feels equally wrong to insist he can do it.
Before we get to this year's predictions, let's look at last year's bad ones. The outline of a Next Yokozuna is not easy to spot among non-Sanyaku wrestlers. Here are the ones that just twelve months later look like an indictment of this whole activity. Abi was included for relative youth and a high rank. The thought was that if he got his sumo just a little more polished, he might take a leap. Instead, he violated COVID protocols, lied about it, and was suspended for three basho. He's listed in Makushita for January.
Oshoho, the former Motobayashi, is also in Makushita presently. He has seemed to stall out there after shooting up the Banzuke subsequent to a stellar University career. One year ago, he was undefeated in his first three basho. He also probably needed to keep that pace, and he hasn't. He could still be a good Makuuchi wrestler, but he's 24 and struggling to dominate in upper Makushita. Toma actually came with a warning last year. In his first year in sumo, he had dominated the sub-Makushita divisions. The problem was he is a very large, fat man even for a sumotori. His lack of agility was easily shown out throughout 2020.
These three should be a reminder that the predictions that follow might not just be wrong, but obviously and laughably wrong in less than a year.
Next Yokozuna Contenders
It's worth it to consider Takakeisho's chances if he doesn't win the yusho for Hatsu. In all honesty, he should still be the favorite to be the Next Yokozuna. He has won two Yusho. He has racked up 4 Jun-Yusho. He has spent 9 basho at Ozeki, with one Yusho and one Jun-Yusho in that time. He is also just 24 years old.
In fact, only three rikishi are younger than Takakeisho in the top division for Hatsu, rising stars Kotoshoho and Hoshoryu, plus debutant Midorifuji. And Midorifuji is less than a month younger. Takakeisho could still improve. If he improves, the only place is Yokozunadom.
The knock on Takakeisho is two-fold. The first is a sense he is limited, because he so overwhelmingly favors an oshi-zumo style. Yet his pushing and thrusting has produced success. It also belies a special strategic mind. He might only be shoving, but he'll shove a grappler away from his favored grip and change up his rhythm to keep his opponent off balance.
The second knock is injuries. He already got demoted once from the Ozeki rank because of a knee problem, and he must stay healthy to make the leap. Injuries are a knock for most sumotori, though. Injuries are what could keep any rikishi from his ultimate potential.
Kotoshoho is 21 years old. He made it to Makuuchi after just two years as a professional. He won 9, 9, and 12 matches in his three Juryo basho, with a yusho in the final one. His first three top division basho produced 8, 10, and 8 wins. He is now a Maegashira 3 for Hatsu 2021, where he will be the youngest rikishi in Makuuchi and the second youngest in the top two divisions.
That's future superstar stuff. Even better for Kotoshoho, he has prototypical size at 191 cm and 156 kg (that's 6' 3" and 344 lbs.) Most impressively, Kotoshoho is extremely skilled. In his 110 career victories, he's used 14 different kimarite. He also seems fine grappling or pushing.
Kotoshoho's 2021 might not be a smooth shot to the top of the banzuke. He is still just 21, after all. But he's proved he is already a solid Maegashira, and he should improve rapidly. No one is equally promising and already strong.
Onosho might just be a cautionary tale for Kotoshoho. He, too, was once a rapidly rising hotshot, having made it to Komusubi as a 21 year old. Then, in January 2018, he suffered a right knee injury. In the three years since, he has been able to have his moments. The issue is they were mixed with disastrous basho.
Yet a 24 year old ranked in upper Maegashira with a strong pedigree could rise a level or two. At that point, Ozeki-dom isn't far away, and then anything is possible. Onosho is probably a long shot in this conversation, but so is anyone. The key thing is he can't be ruled out yet. One more big injury or a few more awful basho would do it.
Compared to Kotoshoho, Hoshoryu's 15-15 record in two Makuuchi basho and current Maegashira 14 rank might be unimpressive. Yet most of the other superlatives for Kotoshoho apply to Hoshoryu. He is just 21, shot through the lower divisions, and has already shown himself capable of hanging in the top division.
In other ways, he's really different than a Kotoshoho. Hoshoryu is on the thin side for a sumo wrestler, and his specialty is throws. To his credit, he can throw much bigger competitors. He also has a different level of attention on him. His uncle is outspoken and controversial former Yokozuna Asashoryu. Just know that if you're following Hoshoryu, you won't be the only one.
Until this basho, Oho was known as Naya. Like Hoshoryu, he was initially famous on entering sumo for a Yokozuna relative. Oho's grandfather is the legendary Taiho, generally considered the best to ever do it until Hakuho came along. The young Naya was poised for greatness from the jump.
Yet he seemed to stall out in upper Makushita after a bright start. He spent 8 basho ranked between Makushita 1 and Makushita 10. That seemed to suggest he might not be as good. Don't read too much into it. He went 6-1 at Makushita 1 in November, beating two Juryo wrestlers along the way. He will not be twenty-one until February. Previously favoring pushing-thrusting to an extreme level, Oho has shown more variety of late. His name is a bit much, perhaps, as it means "King Peng." It's a reference to his grandfather's "Great Peng" name. It also shows confidence.
Roga was Oho's one loss in November. He is also young, just 21 years old, and has a career record of 55-22. At Makushita 2 for January, he could jump into Juryo the next basho. Roga is a Russian-born ethnic Mongolian, making him unique in sumo. He isn't blessed with some unbelievable size, but isn't undersized, either. What makes him standout on the dohyo is that he wins, and does so in a variety of ways.
Hokutenkai is another upper Makushita wrestler worth watching. He is a Mongolian wrestling for Onoe-beya who already has yusho in Jonidan and Sandanme. In his less than two years as a professional, he has gone 38-11.
That is Hokutenkai's biggest recommendation, as he has merely good size. He also isn't flashy on the dohyo, mostly favoring a simple pushing style and using solid footwork. There are shades of Kakuryu in him, as he just always seems to have the right approach and deflect his opponent. It isn't exciting, but it works.
Kitanowaka was listed in the previous version of this list, because he spent 2019 going from Maezumo to Makushita. 2020 saw him stall out in upper Makushita. The line between Makushita and Juryo is tough, filled with good, veteran rikishi who desperately want to make it to (or back to) sekitori status. Kitanowaka has held his own. At 20, that's not nothing. And he's a bit if a technician. Kitanowaka's most common winning kimarite is yorikiri. Yet he's also used a variety of throws and once pulled out the unusual susoharai, or "bottom sweep." He isn't far away from Sekitori status and greater things from there.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Hokuseiho. An ethnic Mongolian from Hokkaido, he is one of Hakuho's uchi-deshi. That means he has been a protege of the best there ever was. He also is a specimen even among sumo wrestlers, as he is 200 cm (6'7") with broad shoulders.
More strikingly, he is currently 21-0 with three yusho in his three pro basho. That record is not unheard of, as Jokoryu, Itai, Tochiazuma, Tokitenku, Kototenzan, and Enho all did it. There are no Yokozuna in that list, although Tochiazuma was a "Near Yokozuna" as an Ozeki who won a yusho. Tochiazuma is also the best precedent for Hokuseiho as everyone else was older and most were University grads. Hokuseiho won't turn 20 until November. In theory, he is in Juryo promotion territory at Makushita 15. He would probably need to extend his streak to 28 consecutive.
Don't bet on Hokuseiho beating a record. Just don't rule it out, either.
Yoshii has steadily moved up the Banzuke since his entry into sumo in March 2019. He has never won a yusho in the lower divisions, but he also has never had a losing record. He now stands at Makushita 26 with a 42-21 career record. He also will not be 18 until August.
Yoshii might take awhile to knock on the door of Sekitori status, much less the upper reaches of Makuuchi. But a 17 year old being this good is worth noting. Yoshii also has an interesting division of kimarite. He doesn't seem to prefer pushing or grappling based on results. He also has used an unusual amount of katasukashi, the under shoulder swing down, to win.
Nihonyanagi is another youngster, he will turn 21 in March, who is impressively high on the Banzuke for January at Makushita 52. The worry about Nihonyanagi is that he already had a withdrawal due to injury in July 2020. Other than that, however, Nihonyanagi is the model of a future star. Most tellingly, he seems to just overwhelm people, preferring straight ahead sumo. That indicates he is a cut above most opponents.
The Next Yokozuna is a tricky call to make. This is a best effort. The other thing to keep in mind is that plenty of youngsters could show out in the next few basho. Intentionally, no one below Makushita was considered, as they would be so early in their career it's beyond speculation. Let's see how well these calls hold up over the years.