Asanoyama strong favorite to become sumo’s next hot star

For now, sumo training in stables around the Kanto region is continuing, albeit in a limited fashion.

The Japan Sumo Association this week asked stables to refrain from engaging in practice bouts and butsukari (pushing exercises) during their morning sessions. Instead they are to concentrate on leg raises, squats and various other basic movements and exercises outside the ring that don’t involve physical contact.

Given that COVID-19 is transmitted through the air, and that virtually all sumo practice areas are small, poorly ventilated rooms, it’s doubtful that the latest measures will have much impact. That’s especially true when, after training, rikishi sit side by side while eating, then sleep in one large communal room.

The directive seems more like an attempt to do something rather than nothing. But at the very least, it will help reinforce the message that this is a situation to be taken seriously.

The coronavirus continues to dominate the news cycle, and seems set to continue doing so for the next several months at least. I’ve been among the most pessimistic about the time frame needed to get it under control, and have been saying since March that I don’t expect any sport to take place in 2020.

Even if I’m wrong about that — and let’s hope I am — it seems unlikely that the steady stream of COVID-19 related news will stop any time soon.

With that in mind, I want to focus on different topics whenever possible. Apart from sumo, American football is one of the few sports that is still “active” in any sense. The NFL is continuing with plans to hold its annual draft of college talent this month, which will be conducted online because of social distancing guidelines.

Sumo, of course, has no draft or free agency — a fact I bemoaned in a recent column. But, as with last year, I’m going to imagine that it does, and put together a mock draft for the sport’s top talent.

The only guidelines I’m using are that every rikishi is evaluated based on his current age and experience, and picks should be made with an eye on potential success over the next five years or so.

No. 1: Asanoyama Hideki (Toyama)

Last year I called Asanoyama solid, but not a a blue-chip talent. Boy did I get that wrong. Less than a month after that sentence was penned, the Takasago stable man lifted his first Emperor’s Cup. Finishing five of the last six tournaments with double-digit wins, he has also been promoted to ozeki, sumo’s second highest rank. Asanoyama seems set to lift more silverware and is the hot favorite to become the sport’s next yokozuna.

No. 2: Hakuho Sho (Mongolia)

Some people will deride the ranking of a 35-year-old yokozuna ahead of rising young talents like Takakeisho. If you are one of them, here’s a fact to ponder: Since the rotund ozeki won his first — and, to date, only — title in November 2018, Hakuho has lifted the Emperor’s Cup on three occasions. That has brought his total number of championships up to a scarcely believable 44. Hakuho is unlikely to still be active one year from now, never mind five, but the chances are good that he will win more titles in the next 12 months than anyone else currently in the top division will over the rest of their career.

No. 3: Kotoshoho Toshiki (Chiba)

Yes, this is a massive projection, as the young Sadogatake stable wrestler hasn’t yet fought a single bout in the top division. It’s partly a reflection on the dearth of new talent at sumo’s highest ranks, but also a result of something in Kotoshoho’s sumo catching the eye. Displaying a calmness and maturity in the ring that belies his youth, Kotoshoho has the “it” factor for me. Still only 20, if he continues progressing, the Kashiwa native could be a real force in sumo over the next decade.

No. 4: Mitakeumi Hisashi (Nagano)

The Pippo Inzaghi of sumo, Mitakeumi has more championships than every other active rikishi, bar the two yokozuna. His inconsistency makes it unlikely that he’ll ever be promoted to ozeki, but — to use another soccer analogy — don’t bet against him tapping in another one or two from three yards out.

No. 5: Terunofuji Haruo (Mongolia)

I want to believe. I won’t even pretend to be unbiased here: I’ve been friends with the former ozeki since he first entered the pro ranks, and it’s been wonderful to see him make a comeback in the way that he has. Will he be what he once was? No. Can he win another title? Given the current state of the banzuke rankings, it’s possible.

No. 6: Hoshoryu Tomokatsu (Mongolia)

Another projection. Again, I’m heavily favoring a combination of youth and success to date. There is no perfect way to predict a rikishi’s career path, but holding your own in the second-tier juryo division for three straight tournaments at the age of 20 is a good sign. Hoshoryu needs to get bigger, however, if he is to continue apace.

No. 7: Kotonowaka Masahiro (Chiba)

It’s not difficult to spot a trend here. Bouncing back from four straight losses to get a winning record on the penultimate day of his makuuchi division debut, demonstrates that Kotonowaka has mental toughness to go along with his physical skills. Despite eight career wins over yokozuna, his father never won more than 11 bouts in any tournament. I like his son’s chances of doing just that, and possibly even challenging for the title at some stage.

No. 8: Takakeisho Mitsunobu (Hyogo)

Don’t get me wrong. I love watching Takakeisho and think what he has achieved so far is outstanding, given his physical and technical limitations. Those same limitations, though — to my mind anyway — mean that he is already maxing out his talent and ability. It’s entirely possible that he wins another championship or two, but neither would it surprise me if he never lifted the Emperor’s Cup again.

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