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Age in Sumo

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Mitakeumi is about four years older than Takakeisho. Who is more likely to make Yokozuna? Daieisho is five years older than Hoshoryu. Who will have the better next twelve months? Chiyotairyu is an astonishing eleven years older than Kotoshoho. Who will have the better record for this basho? Ichiyamamoto is six years older than Oho. Who is more likely to make Sanyaku first? Mitoryu is about six years older than fellow Aki debutant Hiradoumi. Who has the better career ahead of him?

These pairings are all ranked on the same line for the Aki Banzuke. One of the theories of the Banzuke is that they show a current true ability for each rikishi. There are lots of reasons why this ideal is never met, from injuries to cold streaks to sudden improvements or problems. Yet a Banzuke is meant to say both Maegashira #11 are about the same coming into a basho. How they’ll do after this basho is a different conversation,

Age in sumo can actually be a tricky thing. On the one hand, the all time greats seem to make Yokozuna at remarkably young ages. Akebono was 23 when he gained the rope. Takanohana, Asashoryu, and Hakuho were 22. A dai-Yokozuna is outstanding early. There are also the ageless wonders, like the current 37-year-old duo of Tamawashi and Okinoumi. Before them, there was the extremely long-term ozeki Kaio, who retired the month he turned 39 in July 2011. Sumo is a sport where the exceptional either reach their peak extremely early or hold on very late.

But what about everyone else? What are the peak years for sumo wrestlers? Does a 24 year old have a better future than a similarly ranked 27 year old? When does a sumo wrestler begin a decline? This is an attempt to answer those questions. It probably won’t get there, because it’s a first stab and these are thorny questions. Still, it’s a start.

The method here is somewhat simple. I did a Sumo Reference query for every Makuuchi performance since 2001, including the rikishi’s birth date. From that, I was able to do a “Days Between” formula from the basho back to the birthdate and divided that by 365.25. This isn’t perfect. First, the “Basho Date” is not the same each year, so some things are very uneven. A rikishi born in early November could see their birthday before the Kyushu basho some years and after in others. Second, much of the sorting by age then needed a smoothing process to get real data, so everyone who was 27 years and 1 day got lumped together with everyone who was 27 years and 364 days as “27.”

Those are, in many ways, very small problems. The biggest thing here is that this is a first approach. It will be broad and general. But it can still tell us something. Let’s start here. What is the average age for a Makuuchi rikishi?

Since January 2001, the average age of a Makuuchi wrestler is 28.65 years. However, in July 2022, the average age was 29.83. And it hasn’t been below 29 since late 2019. It was also over 30 in late 2021. Why is the average going up? Impossible to say. The average has only ranged between 27.64 and 30.20 years in the last two decades, so it is not a massive shift. Having Tamawashi and Okinoumi chugging along with men like Myogiryu, Aoiyama, and Tochinoshin in their mid-thirties makes a difference. Also, the only Makuuchi wrestler born in the 21st century is Oho. When Atamifuji, Hokuseiho, and Kitanowaka (the Juryo trio born in the year 2000 or later) join the Maegashira ranks, the average will go down.

But in many ways, the average only tells part of the story. The majority of top-division wrestlers are in a small age-range. Here is the distribution of rikishi by age since 2001.

The overwhelming majority of rikishi competing in Makuuchi are between 25 and 32. Then there’s also a stronger cluster between 27 and 30. A top-division competitor in sumo is almost certainly going to be in his late twenties. This is not different from most sports, where the prime age is roughly the same. Although that isn’t revelatory, it is telling. A sekitori’s prime age is at the general point where athleticism, skills, and experience align right for the most success like in other sports.

The truly intriguing part is the left-hand and right-hand sides. The structure of sumo severely limits how many teenagers and men over 35 will appear at the top level. In team sports, an exciting young prospect can be on a team’s roster for occasional appearances and a jolt of electricity when the team needs a pick-me-up. Similarly, aging veterans may not contribute like they used to, but can still improve a team by knowing the right way to play and limiting mistakes.

As an individual sport with a strict promotion and relegation system not just between divisions but ranks in those divisions, you can’t hang around the periphery. A very young or very old (relatively speaking) rikishi has to compete head on with those prime-age wrestlers and hold his own. In the NBA, a 19 year old phenom can be a bench player to acclimate to the highest level of basketball. In European soccer, the future star can make appearances in lower-level cup matches. In MLB, even an every day player at 18 or 19 may be hitting eighth or ninth in the lineup. In sumo, they need to be at the level of at least the 35th best competitor or so to even be in Makuuchi in the first place. Then they need to keep it up to remain a Maegashira.

(And an important note here: “Rikishi” in the above chart means line entries on a big spreadsheet of every individual basho performance since 2001. If someone competed in all six basho in their age 27 year, that’s six “Rikishi.” So there were over 5,300 rikishi for this chart, but just 161 competitors in total.)

Interestingly, 27, 28, and 29 year old rikishi did not perform that differently than their much younger or older counterparts.

The average win total overall is 7.08 wins per basho for each rikishi. Yes, the average is below a kachi-koshi. Most rikishi will eventually fall out of the top division. Also, this average does include zeroes for bashos where a rikishi sat out all fifteen matches. 7.3 and 7.2 aren’t far off the overall average, and at no age is anyone performing that far above or below the average. Most rikishi are hanging around the kachi-koshi/make-koshi line.

The overall shape of the graph can conceal the narrow range of average win totals by age, but the shape is interesting. A decline into a rikishi’s 30s is predictable and expected, and the final few columns are basically the end of Kyokutenho’s career with a handful of Aminishiki bashos thrown in. Remember that there are very few rikishi competing in Makuuchi after the age of 35. The numbers get skewed very, very easily.

The rikishi competing at ages 19, 20, and 21 are the standouts here. Why would the youngest Makuuchi wrestlers perform better than their elders? If a sumo wrestler’s peak is between 27 and 30, then why are the highest average win totals on the younger rikishi?

Because the youngest rikishi are also usually the best, historically. Here is the complete list of rikishi who made their Makuuchi debuts before turning 21 years of age in the 21st century:

  • Kisenosato

  • Hakuho

  • Wakanoho

Wakanoho? Yes, Wakanoho. If you don’t remember watching Wakanoho on the dohyo, then you weren’t watching sumo in 2008. He first appeared in Makuuchi in November 2007 and if you only began watching after 2008, then Wakanoho was no longer competing. Hailing from the Ossetia region of Russia, Wakanoho was on the lines of Kotooshu, Baruto, or Tochinoshin: an Eastern European with a grappling background and truly immense size. In Wakanoho’s case, he was a freestyle wrestler who got too big for that sport’s weight limit. At 195 cm (6’5”) and 156 kg (344 lbs), he demolished the lower levels after joining sumo as a 17 year old. He was in Makuuchi by November 2007, when he was 19 years and 4 months old. By the next September, he was a 20 year old Maegashira #1 who looked like a possible future Yokozuna.

Then it all crashed around him. It began when the police were given a lost wallet. They discovered it 1) belonged to Wakanoho, and 2) had a cannabis cigarette in it. They then searched his dwellings at the heya and found more cannabis. Since cannabis is illegal in Japan, this was a very serious charge. Wakanoho could have faced five years in prison. Although charges were dropped, he was dismissed outright by the Sumo Association. Then the story got weirder, as Wakanoho began making and then retracting match-fixing claims against other rikishi. He also said he smoked marijuana with other Eastern European rikishi with no evidence or consistency to back his claims. He tried playing football at multiple American colleges with little success after sumo. It’s one of sumo’s great burn-out stories.

Here’s the full list of the 38 rikishi who debuted in Makuuchi before turning 23, listed alphabetically, with their career high rank:

  • Ama (Yokozuna)

  • Aminishiki (Sekiwake)

  • Asasekiryu (Sekiwake)

  • Asashoryu (Yokozuna)

  • Baruto (Ozeki)

  • Chiyomaru (Maegashira #5)

  • Chiyonokuni (Maegashira #1)

  • Chiyootori (Komusubi)

  • Daieisho (Sekiwake)

  • Endo (Komusubi)

  • Goeido (Ozeki)

  • Hakuho (Yokozuna)

  • Hoshoryu (Sekiwake)

  • Ichinojo (Sekiwake)

  • Kagayaki (Maegashira #3)

  • Kakuryu (Yokozuna)

  • Kisenosato (Yokozuna)

  • Kokkai (Komusubi)

  • Kotonowaka (Maegashira #2)

  • Kotooshu (Ozeki)

  • Kotoshogiku (Ozeki)

  • Kotoshoho (Maegashira #3)

  • Kotoyuki (Sekiwake)

  • Masunoyama (Maegashira #4)

  • Meisei (Sekiwake)

  • Mitakeumi (Ozeki)

  • Oho (Maegashira #13)

  • Onosho (Komusubi)

  • Osunaarashi (Maegashira #1)

  • Takagenji (Maegashira #10)

  • Takakeisho (Ozeki)

  • Takayasu (Ozeki)

  • Tamaasuka (Maegashira #9)

  • Terunofuji (Yokozuna)

  • Tochinoshin (Ozeki)

  • Tochiozan (Sekiwake)

  • Toyohibiki (Maegashira #2)

  • Toyonoshima (Sekiwake)

  • Wakanoho (Maegashira #1)

This list has 6 Yokozuna (Ama was Harumafuji’s shikona before he made Ozeki), 8 Ozeki, 9 Sekiwake, and 4 Komusubi of the 38 rikishi. And of the 11 rikishi who never made it to Sanyaku, Kotonowaka, Kotoshoho, and Oho are under 25 and still working on their legends. Among the other 8, there are some notable injury cases (Chiyonokuni, Masunoyama, and Tamaasuka among others) and two absolute flameouts (Wakanoho and Takagenji, who both left because of cannabis arrests.) Making Makuuchi at a young age is no guarantee of future dominance, but as a group it is extremely strong. To compete in Makuuchi at a young age, you have to be incredibly talented. They tend to stay very good in their peak years, too.

This list will grow to 39 in Aki, because Hiradoumi is 22 and making his Makuuchi debut. He has average size for sumo and has never dominated the lower levels, but he has a very bright future. He has proven his ability by getting to Makuuchi at a relatively young age. That won’t necessarily show up at Aki or even through 2023, but get used to Hiradoumi being in Makuuchi for awhile. That can be said just because he has made it this far this young.

The other Makuuchi debutant for Aki is Mitoryu. Mitoryu has a great pedigree, being a former amateur champion who entered professional sumo through the Makushita Tsukedashi system in 2017. That meant he was so outstanding as an Amateur he could skip Jonokuchi, Jonidan, and Sandanme entirely. He has also been a Juryo mainstay for four-and-a-half years. The track record individually seems much stronger for Mitoryu than Hiradoumi. However, Mitoryu is also 28. Here are the rikishi who debuted in Makuuchi since 2001 after turning 28 and before turning 29, with their career high ranks:

  • Arawashi (Maegashira #2)

  • Harunoyama (Maegashira #10)

  • Homarefuji (Maegashira #6)

  • Ichiyamamoto (Maegashira #13)

  • Kobo (Maegashira #9)

  • Sagatsukasa (Maegashira #9)

  • Shohozan (Komusubi)

  • Tobizaru (Maegashira #1)

  • Tsurugisho (Maegashira #7)

  • Wakamotoharu (Maegashira #4)

  • Wakatsutomu (Maegashira #12)

Of those 11 rikishi, just one made a Sanyaku rank. Tobizaru, Wakamotoharu, and Ichiyamamoto could still change that, but it’s an uphill climb. That isn’t to say Mitoryu can’t shoot to Ozeki, necessarily. He would just be making an awful lot of history if he does.The 6 year age gap between Hiradoumi and Mitoryu is key in understanding their long-term potential. What it says about how they’ll do in Aki is basically nothing. They both come into Makuuchi after strong Juryo performances. Yet in one year and especially five years, Hiradoumi is much more likely to be standing firm in Makuuchi. In five years, he won’t even be as old as Mitoryu is now.

We should return to the questions that started this investigation. Takakeisho is absolutely more likely to make Yokozuna than Mitakeumi. Not just because he is four years younger, but also because he made Ozeki much earlier. Hoshoryu’s five years on Daieisho means he has more room for growth. He might not be better in the next basho or even the next three. But he has a stronger chance of taking his sumo to the next level. Chiyotairyu is trying to arrest his slow age-assisted descent down the Banzuke, while Kotoshoho is reestablishing his claim on Maegashira-dom. Kotoshoho is more likely to succeed in Aki, partially because he is over a decade younger. Ichiyamamoto is fighting to keep a Maegashira place, while Oho’s relative youth means he is trying to build a Sanyaku career eventually. Hiradoumi will almost certainly have a better career than Mitoryu, because he is significantly younger.

How will they do in Aki? Probably fighting to get a kachi-koshi, with a small few shooting for a Yusho or Jun-Yusho. That’s how any individual basho works in sumo for most rikishi.

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