Better Know a Rikishi: Abi
Each basho, it's natural to focus on what a rikishi has done in the last basho, or at best over the last few. Sometimes, you can learn more by looking at a sumotori's whole career. This is the first in a series analyzing the career arc of different rikishi.
阿炎 政虎 | Abi Masatora
Career Record: 219-161 (37 Basho)
Makuuchi Record: 73-61 (9 Basho)
Special Prizes: 2 Kanto-Sho
Abi is the most predictable rikishi in Makuuchi. In every single match, he will throw both hands at his opponent's throat at the very start. If this tachiai doesn't work, his plan B is basically to dance around and hope the other guy gets turned around. Sumo is highly strategic, and such an obvious approach should make a wrestler highly exploitable.
Fortunately for Abi, this works more than it doesn't. He has a winning record in his career overall and in the top division specifically. He also has gotten a win over both current Yokozuna. Most importantly, his 10 wins at Maegashira 4 in Hatsu should see him join the Sanyaku ranks in July.
The key to Abi's success is that his double-hands-to-the-throat maneuver is extremely effective. Even the toughest sumo wrestler doesn't really want to get shoved in the neck, and Abi has a unique ability to disrupt the other guy's strategy. He also is supremely athletic, so he can win more than a few bouts by being repelled and spinning behind the opposition at the tawara. Abi is over 6 feet tall with long arms, while also being very athletic. In a sideways dancing battle, he can move to the side and reach around to the back of the other guy's mawashi like no one else in sumo. Whether that is enough to make Abi a future Ozeki or Yokozuna is unclear.
Abi was born Horikiri Kosuke on May 4, 1994 in Saitama prefecture, to a family who owned a construction company. This very suburban and middle-class upbringing is not the typical path to sumo glory. The only other current Saitama native in the top two divisions is Daieisho, despite Saitama being the fifth most populous prefecture. Abi also doesn't seem to have been the kind of child who instantly gravitated to sumo. He never really liked sports, but was bigger than his classmates. He ended up being a natural at sumo.
"Natural" is a good word for Abi. He entered professional sumo after a good-not-great amateur career, highlighted by being a top performer but not a champion in school. He was a big kid, with surprising athleticism, which allowed him to stand out without much work. In fact, he expressed interest in giving up sumo before surprising his family by joining Shikoroyama stable. That was because Shikoroyama Oyakata, formerly known as the Sekiwake Terao, was a friend of a family friend. He first mounted the dohyo for Grand Sumo in May 2013.
His professional career has seen relatively steady advancement to the top of sumo, with a few small struggles. In his first year in sumo, he won a Jonidan and Sandanme Yusho and made it to Makushita's upper ranks. He made his Juryo debut within a year. Becoming a sekitori and a salaried wrestler also saw him receive a real shikona, Abi Masatora. His ring name means "on fire," essentially. (All Japanese names, and especially chosen sumo names, have layers of meaning which are all weird to translate to English. According to Google Translate, the personal name part of Abi's shikona means "political agent," while the separate kanji are "government" and "tiger.")
The newly named Abi did well in his first few Juryo basho, then faltered and went back to Makushita. Upper Makushita is extremely difficult, as it's full of people aiming for the benefits of a Juryo promotion, and usually only three or four slots are available. Abi spent a year and a half before he returned to Juryo. At that point, he steadily rose up the rankings. He made his Makuuchi debut in January 2018, securing 10 wins in his first two top-division basho. He then stalled out in upper Maegashira, fell a little backward and managed to come back again. Now he's about to be in Sanyaku.
And that whole time he has never changed his strategy. Go back and watch old matches and you can predict what will happen. You can criticize Abi for that, but this weird brand of sumo wins. Abi looks different than any other rikishi, with long arms and legs but a small torso. That makes his two-hand-thrust particularly difficult to deal with because he is not only shoving back his opponent with force but also keeping himself out of reach. He is also athletic enough to spin around and shove his opponent from the side when he's caught out. Fighting Abi is completely unlike fighting anyone else.
The question for Abi's future is whether the best of the best will be able to deal with it. Lesser rikishi have found solutions to Abi's style at times, but he also has beaten Hakuho, Kakuryu, Tochinoshin, Goeido, and Takayasu. He's only beaten them each once, but he still has the ability to beat the top guys.
He won't do more of that by changing his opening approach. Partly because he seemingly will never change it, but also because his opening works well enough. He needs to figure out better secondary options, and he's shown signs. He's gotten a significant amount of hatakikomi, the slap-down, wins of late. That's from his use of a grip on the back of the mawashi when he feels his opponent leaning forward, which allows him to control the match from above.
That's unusual for a sekitori. Abi is an unusual sekitori. He probably won't immediately ascend to Ozeki, much less Yokozuna, because that never happens. Yet he also has been someone who has always found ways to keep climbing the rankings.