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Better Know a Rikishi: Goeido Gotaro

Goeido's championship banner, which will hang forever

Aging is difficult in sumo. A rikishi with an injury faces fighting injured or falling down the Banzuke if they sit out. One small loss in strength, speed, or power can mean the difference between winning double digits or losing double digits in a basho. The worst part about aging in sumo is that it can happen fast.

Recently retired former Ozeki Goeido certainly aged fast. In September 2019, he got 10 wins. In November, he suffered an ankle injury. In January 2020, he managed only 5 wins. Instead of demotion to Sekiwake, and a chance at returning to Ozeki, he chose retirement. Shortly after announcing he was stepping away from the dohyo, he acquired an elder stock. From now on, he is Takekuma-oyakata at Sakaigawa-beya.

That summary of the last six months of his career shouldn’t be what Goeido is remembered for long-term, but it says something about his place in the sumo landscape. Likely, he will be known for three things in the future: 1) a zensho yusho at Aki 2016, 2) a 33 basho career as an Ozeki, and 3) being kadoban 8 times and saving his Ozeki rank 7 times.

That quick analysis of his career describes some of the highs and lows of Goeido’s time in top sumo. At his best, he was untouchable. Born Sawai Gotaro, he was an amateur standout, participating in the All-Japan championships as a high schooler at powerhouse Sakami Sakae. When he joined Sakaigawa-beya as an 18 year old, he was a top recruit. He also proved he was worthy of any hype by winning three lower-division yusho in his first year in sumo under his real name. After 11 basho, he was promoted to Juryo and given the ring name Goeido.

His time in Makuuchi wasn’t as smooth a ride as his trip to the top-division. He would mix his successes and disappointments, including injury problems, but overall climbed the banzuke. By 2012, Goeido was solidly hanging on to a Sekiwake slot. In Haru and Nagoya 2014, Goeido got 12-3 Jun-Yushos sandwiched around a 9-6, which was enough to earn his Ozeki promotion for Aki 2014. He would keep that status for over 5 years.

The 15-0 basho at Aki 2016 will always be his crowning achievement. An undefeated championship is usually the preserve of dai-Yokozuna. During his unbeaten run, he defeated the other three Ozeki and two Yokozuna (Hakuho was kyujo), while never facing anyone below Maegashira 6. He was untouched against the very best.

Yet outside that basho, Goeido never shone as bright. He went 7-8 right before his championship and 9-6 right after. That was how his career went. That’s why he managed to be a kadoban Ozeki 8 times. Kadoban is given to an Ozeki who has a losing record, and they are on probation where they need to get a winning record to maintain their rank. It’s always better for an Ozeki to never get kadoban, but it’s also extraordinary pressure. Goeido had the wherewithal to come back even when he stumbled.

A lot of Goeido’s odd career is a reflection of his particular style. Largely a wrestler looking for a mawashi grip, he wasn’t really a classic grappler. Typically, Goedio would charge hard from the tachiai, getting lower on his opponent from the start. His speed and power was so overwhelming this frequently worked. Whether he would grab the mawashi or push hard determined whether he won by yorikiri or oshidashi, but it often looked similar. He also would win with throws a lot, because he had leverage and would turn his opponent around.

That all out style also allowed him to get turned around and at odds. He also was usually at a loss when anyone could get him moving backwards. Often, his losses made him look like he could be beat anytime. He also would occasionally have cold streaks. And those could extend to whole tournaments when he seemed to be falling out of the Ozeki ranks.

He never did, though, until 2020. Perhaps it’s right. Goeido was never the most consistent Ozeki, but he seemed to have a supernatural ability to stay an Ozeki. Seeing him at Sekiwake after that would just seem weird.

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