New sekiwake Takakeisho said he will be targeting promotion to ozeki when enters the ring at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament kicking off on Sunday.
Takakeisho, who claimed his first top-division title at November's tourney in Kyushu, will need to once again show off his resilient determination when he squares off against yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Takayasu, two of 15-day meet's top contenders.
The 22-year-old Takakeisho ended November's tourney 13-2 with all three grand champions absent and narrowly triumphed over Takayasu, who posted his third 12-3 record of 2018 in the ozeki's quest for a maiden makuuchi title.
The triumph earned Takakeisho a bump up from komusubi for the first time in his career, and put him in prime position for another promotion down the line.
"My goal is ozeki. This year it's do or die," Takakeisho said.
One of the criteria typically needed for promotion to sumo's second highest rank is 33 combined wins from three tournaments. Takakeisho fell just shy of the mark in November with 32, and would need 11 wins at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan to meet the target.
In practice ahead of the tournament, the 175-centimeter tall, 169-kilogram rotund wrestler demonstrated that his trademark strikes, thrusts and shoves remain polished, and he was able to occasionally sidestep attacks without hesitation.
"Ideally, I always want to bring full power (to the ring), but it can't be done for all 15 days," he said.
During Monday's practice in front of the yokozuna council, Takakeisho was overwhelmed by Hakuho. He lost all five of their bouts despite the Mongolian grand champion missing November's meet due to right knee and ankle surgery, earning some candid advice from Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku that his sumo lacked vigor.
(Takakeisho, left, practices with yokozuna Hakuho on Jan. 7, 2019.)
Defeating the sport's elites will be Takakeisho's key to earning ozeki promotion. Among them, Takakeisho may face a resurgence from Kisenosato as the Japanese yokozuna attempts to bounce back from a devastating 0-4 start to the Kyushu tournament.
The 32-year-old Japanese grand champion won eight of nine practice bouts Wednesday against Takakeisho, 10 years his junior, but likely has his career on the line after his November performance garnered criticism from the yokozuna council.
"I've gotten into good shape," Kisenosato said. "Now I'll just believe in myself and give it everything I've got."
Kakuryu, who won back-to-back top division titles last year, will also return to the ring after sitting out November's meet due to right ankle pain. The Mongolian yokozuna is seeking his sixth career title.
Among the ozeki, Takayasu has his sights firmly set on claiming his first top division trophy.
"I'm fully prepared and ready to go out and fight for the championship," said Takayasu, who turns 29 in February.
Kisenosato's junior at the Tagonoura stable, Takayasu is the only fighter under 30 years of age among the three grand champions and three ozeki, an indication of the generational gap in the upper ranks.
Both 32-year-old Goeido, who won his first title in 2016, along with 31-year-old Georgian Tochinoshin, will be looking for a second top division crown. Both wrestlers barely finished Kyushu's meet with a winning record, Goeido having pulled out on Day 12 with pain in his right arm.
Among other contenders, Takakeisho's western counterpart Tamawashi will also be competing as a sekiwake for the first time. The Mongolian went 9-6 as a No. 2 maegashira in November.
Komusubi Myogiryu, who earned a third "kimboshi" prize for defeating struggling Kisenosato in Kyushu, is poised for another solid tournament, while Mitakeumi, Nagoya's champ, will aim to rebound from a losing record and renew talks of his own future as an ozeki.