Better Know a Rikishi: Atamifuji Sakutaro
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In the future, sumo fans will look back on the Kyushu 2022 basho as historic. At this writing, we don’t know who will win, what individual records will be, and who may be in place for significant promotions. Kyushu could be a rather boring affair, where one rikishi is left standing undefeated after a week, no one challenges him, and it’s a 12-3 Yusho with no one on 11 wins. Kyushu will be historic for one significant thing. Atamifuji is making his Makuuchi debut.
Perhaps that is a lot to place on a barely 20 year old who has never competed as a Maegashira before. We can’t know the future, and, despite immense potential, Atamifuji’s future is unknown. Yet the very fact he is making his making his debut at this age signals greatness. Atamifuji is already doing something special.
Since 2000 (the era covered by the Age in Sumo piece from September), just 13 of 162 debuting rikishi had yet to reach their 21st birthday. In order of age at debut, they were Kisenosato, Hakuho, Wakanoho, Tochiozan, Asashoryu, Takakeisho, Harumafuji (then Ama), Tochinoshin, Chiyootori, Onosho, Masunoyama, Kotoshoho, and Kotoshogiku. That includes four Yokozuna and three Ozeki. In fact, the three who didn’t make Sanyaku are Kotoshoho (still building his legend), Masunoyama (a notorious injury case), and Wakanoho (who bombed out of sumo after a promising start due to a marijuana arrest he lied about.) If Atamifuji doesn’t become a future star, something wild will have happened.
And there’s another thing about Atamifuji’s debut. He made Maegashira from entering sumo in just 12 tournaments, which is tied for the eighth fastest rise from the bottom Jonokuchi division to the top Makuuchi division. The list isn’t as impressive as the men who became Maegashira at a young age, but it is largely university sumo standouts and/or foreigners who excelled in amateur sumo, judo, or other grappling sports. The three men who made it faster than Atamifuji while starting as eighteen year olds were Konishiki and Tochiazuma, Ozeki who almost made Yokozuna, and Asashoryu, the lone Yokozuna in sumo from 2004 to 2007. Even if his future is impossible to call, Atamifuji has already done remarkable things.
But who is Atamifuji?
Takei Sakutaro was born in Chiba prefecture, but moved with his family to the resort town of Atami in Shizuoka prefecture as a child. Atami was a favorite vacation spot for Tokyo’s residents in the 1950s and 1960s, which then fell off in popularity. Atami is just on the outside of the greater Tokyo area, and its onsen (hot springs) were famous. Most importantly, it was not exactly a sumo hotbed. In fact, the young Takei Sakutaro had to travel to other nearby cities for his junior sumo club and his high school sumo team.
Nonetheless, he was a clear standout. His size is good, if not overwhelming, at 185 cm (6’ ½”) and 166 kg (385 lbs). He was easily recruited into the Isegahama stable after his graduation. Isegahama was not exactly hurting for high-quality rikishi when he joined. Terunofuji had already made his triumphant return to Makuuchi and was on his way to Yokozuna. Takarafuji and Terutsuyoshi were solid Maegashira. Midorifuji and Nishikifuji were in Juryo making their names. Yet Isegahama oyakata, the former Yokozuna Asahifuji, wanted to recruit the young man.
He was christened Atamifuji. The name is a simple combination of the rikishi’s hometown and the typical ending for his stable. Part of this was that he was the first rikishi from his hometown. It is also more appropriate for Atamifuji to use “Fuji” in his shikona, since the town of Atami sits near Mt. Fuji itself. Yet it is not a previously held name of honor or relating to a great rikishi who came before. It’s a solid, although unique, ring name. Atamifuji made his shikona stand out as soon as he began competing.
Even Isegahama oyakata had to be surprised by his new rikishi’s performance. He lost his very first match in January 2021, then won his next 19. That meant Atamifuji opened his sumo career with a Jonokuchi yusho, a Jonidan yusho, and a Sandanme Jun-Yusho. After three tournaments in professional sumo, he made it to Makushita. In his closing three tournaments of 2021, he went 17-4. That gave him the Makushita #1 West rank for Hatsu 2022. A winning record would guarantee he would make Juryo and sekitori status.
It is worth considering what should have been expected of Atamifuji at the start of 2022. Often, young rikishi will stall out in upper Makushita. The top 2 or 3 dozen slots of Makushita are taken up by tough competitors. They are generally either former sekitori still in prime sumo age or youngsters figuring out how to compete at the top levels. And all of them desperately want one thing more than anything else, to make it to Juryo and gain the privileges of sekitori-dom. Usually, this creates problems for young rikishi when they first fight in upper Makushita. Everyone they face is more talented, skilled, and desperate to win than their previous competition in sumo.
Atamifuji went 4-3 at Makushita #1 West, gaining him a Juryo place for March. Atamifuji made the future come faster than expected with no significant setbacks. Over four Juryo tournaments, he hasn’t exactly dominated. His record has been 33-27, slowly climbing through the division. But that is a winning record against men who are mostly a few years older than he is and many with Maegashira experience. Staying above water is a tremendous feat for a 19 year old in the second division of sumo.
Now Atamifuji will get a chance to show what he can do against current Maegashira. His sumo is unspectacular but effective, somewhat akin to veteran stablemate Takarafuji. Atamifuji mostly wins and loses by yorikiri because he generally takes an opponent head on to find a grip. This works because he is very tough to push back, possessing excellent footwork and a strong sense of balance. The JSA officially lists his preferred grip as migi-yotsu, but watching him gives the sense that he can redirect opponents based on the openings they provide. His second most-common winning kimarite is oshidashi, showing he can mix it up when needed. He has also pulled off a few throws. At his size and strength, that efficiency and adaptability is a winning combination.
Even if Atamifuji won’t wow anyone with amazing techniques, he has always won. And since he’s done it consistently and against much older competition, he should keep doing it. If you want to prepare for Atamifuji to win the yusho in Kyushu, you should slow down. Do get ready to see him compete at the top level for years to come, with a chance for a truly outstanding career.