- Fantasy Basho
Better Know a Rikishi: Abi Masatora
It certainly was an odd way to win a yusho. Abi was on the outside looking in for most of Kyushu 2022. To begin with, he was down at Maegashira #9 West, not a prime yusho race spot. On Day Eight, he was part of a four way tie for first place at 7-1. Then he lost his next two. He needed to win out to stay in the race. He did, then was able to get in a playoff with a final day win over Takayasu in an excellent match.
And then they faced each other in the first round of a three-way playoff that also included Ozeki Takakeisho. Abi went slightly high and to the left. Takayasu went awkwardly forward and immediately down. Then the former Ozeki stayed hunched over on the dohyo as Abi wearily looked on. The match was Abi’s, and he was the one that got to face Takakeisho. He won that one pretty comfortably, although he had to work at it for more than a few seconds.
The Abi-Takayasu playoff match immediately became an infamous sumo moment. The most charitable explanation was that Abi changed up his tachiai in a way that confused Takayasu, who has always struggled in the biggest moment. More ominously, it could be that Takayasu didn’t react well to the opening of the playoff match because he was not right after their regulation match. Takayasu did land funny in that one, then didn’t pop back up well in the playoff.
Most people, though, saw Abi pull out a henka in a playoff. The deliberate sidestep is one of sumo’s most controversial topics. It’s legal to go away from your opponent at the jump, but severely looked down on for bigger rikishi, top rankers, and in the most consequential matches. Even if Abi wasn’t trying a ludicrous jump around Takayasu, he wasn’t delivering head-on sumo.
Nonetheless, Abi has a yusho. It is just marred by extremely odd circumstances. That is fitting for Abi, who’s sumo style, personality, and career have been unusual.
He was born Horikiri Kosuke in 1994 to a family with a construction business in Koshigawa city, Saitama prefecture. He competed in sumo as a kid not because he loved the sport, but because he was bigger than most kids. He turned out to be good enough to win low-level school championships and even compete nationally. He still wasn’t looking like a future pro. He did keep with it, making friends with the future Hokutofuji and Daieisho. Then he competed in high school sumo, but not at one of the powerhouses. He was one of many Japanese kids who did fairly well in schoolboy sumo.
The story even goes that he had told his parents he just wanted to go into the family business. Then they were told he was joining Shikoroyama-beya. Shikoroyama Oyakata, the former Sekiwake Terao, was friends with Horikiri Kosuke’s school coach. Shikoroyama convinced the boy he had a bright future. And so he joined Shikoroyama stable in May 2013 using his family name of “Horikiri” as his shikona. He was the stable’s shiny new thing when they didn’t have a Maegashira. His best attribute was that he was big and had sumo experience.
This points to another of the many oddities about Abi as a rikishi. Some wrestlers just look like sekitori. It’s not just the overwhelming physical specimen like Ichinojo, but wrestlers like Kagayaki, Kotonowaka, or Tamawashi. They are over 183 cm (six feet) tall, with broad shoulders, big chests, and low centers of gravity. Before they got on the dohyo in the Kokugikan, it was clear pushing them back would be a challenge.
Then there are also sekitori who are not that ideal body type for sumo, but have found their way of fighting. Again, the outliers are obvious, with the Mainoumis and Enhos of the world being the mighty mites everyone loves. But high-level rikishi like Wakatakakage, Midorifuji, and Chiyoshoma have all found their specific ways of fighting Makuuchi opponents despite not having that ideal size and weight. They are fighting like sekitori. These can be considered the two poles of sumotori.
Abi is a strange combination of both. He is 187 cm (6’2”) and 151 kg (332.2 lbs), so he has pretty good size. Yet he is also all arms and legs, with a relatively small torso and less bulk than similarly sized rikishi. When he joined sumo, he weighed even less. That only exacerbated his inability to get a head-on mawashi battle to his favor. He was never going to be able to get lower than an opponent and muscle him out with a grip. His long legs always put him too high to maintain leverage, while his long arms meant he could never have the power grip necessary for a yorikiri battle.
What he could do was use those long arms to maintain a tsuppari barrage on his opponent’s neck and keep the other guy at bay. Fighting under his family name, he went through the lower divisions fairly quickly without crushing the opposition. He made it into Juryo in two years, with a record of 48-16, with two losing records. That is very good, but not “everyone watch out” territory. Watching his matches, he was also remarkably awkward for someone winning three-quarters of his matches. He had no idea what he was doing, but his physical attributes meant he could dominate everyone else who didn’t know what they were doing.
Once he made Juryo, he got a real shikona. Now he was 阿炎 政虎, Abi Masatora. The Japanese name is a little more complex than it may seem at first. The first kanji is meant to invoke the asura, many-armed and multi-faced demigods of Buddhism. The second means, essentially, “aflame.” The hope was that he would be on fire like an asura, creating his own brand of sumo.
In Juryo, Abi’s own brand of sumo didn’t initially work. He went 7-8, 8-7, 7-8, and then 5-10 as a 20-21 year old from March 2015 to November 2015. So he crashed back down into Makushita. What probably should have been a quick bounce back turned into a nearly two year trip through the upper Makushita wringer. In March 2017, Abi won the Makushita yusho with a 7-0 record. After a 5-2 from Makushita #1, Abi made it to Juryo and it stuck. Abi spent the last three basho of 2017 in Juryo, going 29-16 with a Juryo Yusho in the middle.
Abi’s first two bashos in Makuuchi saw him go 10-5 in each one, marking him as a possible future star. Although he got losing records in his third and fourth bashos, he was in upper Maegashira and picked up a kinboshi over both Hakuho and Kakuryu. He also had a big smile and was always enjoying himself. Although he wasn’t banging on the door of Ozeki-hood, Abi was definitely someone with a chance at hanging in Sanyaku for a long time. On his best form, he could beat anyone in sumo. The issue was that he was often not on his best form.
Sometimes, he would fight like a many-armed demigod aflame with fighting spirit. Abi’s sumo mostly involves him delivering a rapid series of open-handed thrusts to his opponent’s upper chest and neck. When he is focused and delivering this tsuppari with power, he looks like he can’t be stopped. His stablemaster fought like this as well, but Terao was keeping much bigger men off balance and using speed. Abi is so big and uses his long arms to attack that he’s an overwhelming force at his best.
Yet there’s another version of Abi that begins the same way, but doesn’t get momentum because he loses his solid footwork and begins flailing. That Abi isn’t always guaranteed to lose, because he is also a master at dancing around the tawara. But the tawara dance is always obviously plan B, and he is usually going backwards and trying to pull or slap down. It isn’t efficient sumo, nor aesthetically pleasing. The fact it sometimes works only reinforces its ugliness, like his victory while going backwards and to the side to olé an onrushing opponent is a guarantee he will try it again. Somehow fighting poorly doesn’t lead Abi to go back to his good form.
In addition to his on-dohyo inconsistencies, Abi had off-dohyo issues. In November 2019, he was reprimanded by the Japan Sumo Association for a social media post where he showed fellow wrestler Wakamotoharu bound with tape. This incident led to a policy where the JSA banned all personal social media accounts for rikishi. Abi didn’t even seem remorseful, because he admitted he slept through the meeting where the JSA introduced this policy.
That was only a prelude to his real problems. After global coronavirus lockdowns and the cancellation of the entire Natsu basho in May 2020, the JSA placed strict restrictions on what rikishi could do. Essentially, they could never socialize or go out. Abi decided to go to hostess bars anyway, bringing along a low-level wrestler from another stable. When this became known, his stablemaster pulled him from the July 2020 tournament. Abi turned in his retirement papers as a formality. The JSA refused the retirement, and Abi was banned for three tournaments.
Three straight missed bashos meant that Abi landed at Makushita #56 West for Haru 2021. He also was forced to live in the stable, not with his new wife. He returned chastened and without sekitori privileges. He also returned focused and mostly showing his best sumo. He wasn’t quite a many-armed demigod on fire, but he was pushing everyone center mass and keeping forward momentum. They were lower-level rikishi, yet he was still beating them resolutely.
Abi won back-to-back yusho to return to Juryo as soon as he could. Then he only needed two basho in Juryo as well, going 24-6 with a Juryo yusho to boot. When he rejoined the top division for Kyushu 2021, he was clearly deserving of a Maegashira spot. The question was really whether he could compete at a Sanyaku level again. Although ranked as a Maegashira, Abi won 12 matches and earned a Jun-Yusho in both Kyushu 2021 and Hatsu 2022.
That took him to Sekiwake, a career high rank. Abi could have been in position to threaten an Ozeki run. Instead, he just kind of hung on to Sanyaku status for four basho. Keeping to one of sumo’s top four ranks is not easy, but it also seemed to be Abi’s ceiling. After he had to sit out all of September 2022 for knee injuries, it would not have been surprising if he never reached it again. He’d be a guy with some Jun-Yushos and a Sekiwake rank to his name when he retired. That’s a remarkable career.
But he capped it by winning that yusho in Kyushu 2022.
In a decade or so, when he has retired and is no longer a regular presence on the dohyo, Abi will be remembered for plenty of things. His unique style. His record. His inconsistencies. His transgressions. His comeback. And the yusho will always stand as a mark of what he accomplished.
Yet even then, everyone will remember that playoff match with Takayasu and how he won it. Maybe controversy around a mix of great and bad sumo was necessary for Abi to win. As with everything he’s done in his career, it made it memorable.