Homegrown Yokozuna retires
The year started with an announcement by one of the sport's most popular figures. Yokozuna grand champion Kisenosato told the sumo world he was retiring. Kisenosato admitted that his body simply couldn't take the punishment anymore, and that it was time to leave the ring for good.
Kisenosato became Yokozuna grand champion in the 2017 March tournament. In that competition, he captured his second top division title but severely injured his upper body in the process. Unfortunately he never fully recovered. Kisenosato told me afterwards that he regrets rushing back to the ring and not taking more time to recuperate. He says that misjudgment ultimately shortened his pro career.
He's now working as a coach under the new name Araiso, and he says his dream is to nurture a new generation of stars. Kisenosato went through many ups and downs as a wrestler, so he has the experience and knowledge to help younger wrestlers overcome their own adversities. I really think his future is bright as a stable master.
At the January tournament, Mongolian Tamawashi walked away with his first Emperor's Cup. The championship gave him a chance to earn promotion to the second highest rank of Ozeki, but he came up short at the following tournament in March by going a mere 5 wins...with 10 losses.
In a league of his own
The two Yokozuna, Hakuho and Kakuryu, missed the January tournament with injuries but returned to action in March. Both competed for the full 15 days, but in the end Hakuho overwhelmed his rival Yokozuna. He made it through the tourney with a perfect record of 15 wins and no losses. It was the 15th time he's kept a clean sheet, and his 42nd title.
I had a chance to speak with Hakuho about this particular championship, and he told me that those 15 days in Osaka were pretty magical, because everything seemed to go in his favor. He told me that even when he was in real danger of losing a match, he was able to pull an amazing Houdini act and get away with the win. Hakuho explained: "I guess my experience allowed me to keep my poise under any circumstances. It helped me to analyze each situation very quickly, so I was able to go in for the kill and get the victories."
I guess when you're as good as Hakuho, sometimes you get the result you want without really knowing why.
Asanoyama shines in the new era
The May tournament turned out to be a memorable one, particularly because Japan entered the new Reiwa era on May 1st, so wrestlers had an extra incentive -- to be the first to capture the Emperor's Cup in the new era.
As it turned out, the winner was 25-year-old Asanoyama, who was on nobody's championship-watch list before the tournament. He took advantage of Hakuho's absence, rising to the occasion to capture his first top division title.
During the victory ceremony on the final day, Asanoyama received the US President's Cup trophy from President Donald Trump. The scene drew the eyes of the world and made headlines far beyond Japan. It sure was great for sumo as a whole to get so much global publicity.
So thank you President Trump for coming to Japan and watching sumo live.
Kakuryu redeems himself
Fans got to see what sumo is all about at the July tournament in Nagoya. The tournament championship went down to the wire with two Yokozuna grand champions going head to head for all the marbles on the 15th and final day. The Yokozuna showdown turned into quite a seesaw battle, but in the end it was Kakuryu outmuscling Hakuho to clinch his 6th championship with a record of 14 wins and 1 loss. The triumph put an end to Kakuryu's year-long championship drought.
Kakuryu looked unbeatable throughout the tournament, with his only loss coming against a rank and file Tomokaze on Day 13. Unfortunately that result dashed his hopes of finishing the competition with a perfect record for the first time. The setback on the 13th day proved once again how difficult it is to go without a single blemish in the 15-day contest.
Mitakeumi captures his second crown
Entering the fall tournament in September, all eyes were on the two grand champions who went toe-to-toe in Nagoya. But once again the top dogs disappointed the fans by withdrawing from the competition early. Hakuho dropped out on Day 2 with an injured finger and Kakuryu missed the second week after suffering a knee injury on Day 7.
Taking full advantage of their absence was Mitakeumi. The Sekiwake won his second Emperor's Cup in a similar fashion to his first title winning performance in the 2018 July tournament. In other words, both victories came with all of the Yokozuna combatants out of action. In 2018 July tournament, it was Hakuho, Kakuryu and Kisenosato all missing in action due to injuries.
That's not to take anything away from Mitakeumi's accomplishments, but it sure would be more convincing if he could pull off a title win when all of his Yokozuna foes are competing at the same time. For Mitakeumi, though, a championship is a championship, and this triumph gave him another shot to make Ozeki in the next tournament.
Still reigning supreme
Entering the November competition, most of the sumo experts like yours truly had a hard time projecting who'd walk away with the Emperor's Cup. 5 different individuals had won in 5 tournaments leading up to the year's final tourney in Fukuoka. Tamawashi had come out on top in January, followed by Hakuho in March, Asanoyama in May, Kakuryu in July, and Mitakeumi had won the Emperor's Cup in September. Simply put, the championship in Fukuoka was up for grabs.
But when everything was said and done, it was Hakuho capturing his second championship of the year and his 43rd overall title. Hakuho stumbled on Day 2 when he was upset by Daieisho, but he quickly bounced back, going on to win his next 13 matches.
It showed once again that when Hakuho steps up a gear, there's nobody who can stop him. As a result, he's the only wrestler to win multiple championships in 2019 and
I think it's safe to say he's still the king of the ring.
2019 sum up -- Year of injuries and surprises
One thing that stands out in 2019 is that there were way too many wrestlers in the upper echelons getting hurt and retreating to the sidelines. The two Yokozuna grand champions, Hakuho and Kakuryu, made it through all 15 days in only 3 out of 6 tournaments.
We also witnessed three Ozeki combatants, Takakeisho, Takayasu and Tochinoshin, losing their status after being hobbled by injuries. Takakeisho was able to reclaim the Ozeki rank, but Takayasu and Tochinoshin will enter the first tournament in 2020 without it.
It's mind boggling to think that not one Ozeki has won a top division championship for the past three years. The last Ozeki to do so is now retired -- Kisenosato, and that was way back in the 2017 January tournament. Talk about a long and underwhelming run. I think it's time we saw an Ozeki or two step up to the plate to show what they're really made of.
On the positive side, we saw young up-and-comers such as Asanoyama, Hokutofuji, Abi, Daieisho, Meisei, Enho and few other wrestlers making a big name for themselves. The emergence of a new generation of youth is great for the sport, because it lifts the standard across the board. That's something we want to see all the time.
To sum it up, this year's sumo gave us a sneak preview of the generational shift that's taking place in the top division. Hakuho and Kakuryu are both 34 years old and they're constantly being challenged by the younger wrestlers, who are hungry for success. I'm sure the Yokozuna duo realize that the gap between them and those up-and-comers is narrowing all the time. It'll be interesting to see how long the two top dogs can block the young challengers in the new year.
2020 Preview -- Changing of the guard?
So, what can we expect to see in the ring in the new year? First, I predict Asanoyama and Mitakeumi will make Ozeki. Asanoyama is without question a wrestler in the ascendant and I'm pretty confident about his promotion. As for Mitakeumi, although he botched his opportunity to make Ozeki late last year, I think he will regroup, train much harder and fight with a determination to finally earn his status raise.
As I mentioned, we saw the rise of many young hopefuls in 2019 and their momentum will carry over to the new year. My gut feeling says that one of the following wrestlers; Hokutofuji, Abi, Daieisho, Meisei or Enho will win a championship in 2020.
Also in the new year, I can see those young hopefuls trying everything they can to unseat Hakuho. Will they do it? Well, not so fast. I expect Hakuho to rack up a couple more titles to make a strong statement again in 2020. To my eyes, Hakuho is still head and shoulders above the rest and will not be denied just yet.
The new year tournament gets underway on January 12th in Tokyo. I can't wait and I'm sure you can't either!