Better Know a Rikishi: Ichinojo Takashi
Ichinojo won the Nagoya 2022 Basho with a 12-3 record, including wins over both Komusubi, both Sekiwake, two Ozeki, and a kinboshi against Yokozuna Terunofuji. He won it clear on Day Fifteen, delivering impressive yorikiri throughout the tournament. He was a surprise Maegashira winner, and he earned his first yusho at the age of 29. It was a crowning achievement.
It’s also hard not to shake the feeling that he should have done this sooner. That’s the thing about Ichinojo. He has a Yusho, 2 Jun-Yusho, 4 Special Prizes, and 9 Kinboshi. He has spent 8 basho at Sekiwake. Since the year 2000, across 134 basho, just 30 men have won an Emperor’s Cup. Ichinojo is one of those rikishi. It’s already been a hell of a career, and he isn’t necessarily done.
But it also, maybe, could have been so much more.
Ichinojo had the best debut in modern sumo, earning 13 wins at Aki 2014 to get a Jun-Yusho as a Maegashira #10. He faced Yokozuna Hakuho on Day 14, picking up the second loss that denied him the yusho. Hakuho won his 31st basho that September with a 14-1, but it seemed he may have a new challenger. Ichinojo was promoted to Sekiwake the next basho, he had an impressive amateur pedigree, and he was absolutely massive.
It is really inescapable to discuss Ichinojo without talking about just how big he is. Currently, the Japan Sumo Association lists him at 192 cm (6’3 ½”) and 211 kg (465 lbs). He is both one of the tallest and the heaviest rikishi in sumo, and has been since he joined. Everything about him is big, with tremendous shoulders, huge thighs, and a massive stomach. When Ichinojo has entered the ring against anyone, he’s had a size advantage of some kind. In a sport that can be imperfectly, but generally accurately, described as “two large men slam into each other,” that’s an advantage.
His size also made him standout even before he began competing in sumo. Born in Arkhangai, Mongolia, Ichinojo is the rare Mongolian sumotori to come from a nomadic group. His birth name was Altankhuyag Ichinnorov. Raised among sheep herds, he stood out as a youngster in the traditional Mongolian wrestling form of bokh. At 14, he came to Japan to attend Tottori Johoku for high school, competing in judo. The story is that Tottori Johoku’s sumo coach saw him practicing with the school’s judo team and knew he needed to try sumo. Presumably, he just saw the giant teenager and knew he was a good bet for sumo.
No one would need to see Ichinojo compete to think he had potential on the dohyo. His bokh background certainly helped the transition to sumo, but he would have held his own with no previous grappling experience. In reality, the young Ichinojo absolutely dominated. He won five amateur titles in his time in school. Minato stable arranged to make him their foreign recruit upon graduation. Instead, he stuck around his alma mater as a coach and competed in amateur tournaments. That allowed him to become THE amateur sumo champion of Japan.
That achievement earns a wrestler the right to begin their professional career at Makushita 15 in a system known as Makushita Tsukedashi. Without competing in a professional match, Ichinojo (Japanese for “First of the Castle,” essentially, but also a play on his birth name) had been placed to the top of the third-highest division. Essentially, he had proved he didn’t need to see the lower levels, because he was too good. Remarkably, he quickly proved he was too good for Makushita and the second-highest Juryo division.
In two Makushita basho, Ichinojo went 12-2 with back to back one-loss efforts. Then he went to Juryo and immediately went 11-4 for a Yusho. In his second Juryo tournament, he went 13-2, losing the playoff match to the returning from injury Tochinoshin. (A fantastic match, by the way.) The very next tournament was his Makuuchi debut where only Hakuho bested him. A future superstar seemed to have landed in the top division.
Ichinojo didn’t hold the Sekiwake rank he earned within a year of starting sumo. Over the next few years, Ichinojo was a Maegashira mainstay who had flashes but never had another great tournament. This is another time to talk about Ichinojo’s size. As much of a blessing as it was for him while coming up the ranks, it also proved to occasionally be a curse.
Although obscenely big and frighteningly strong, Ichinojo has some noticeable physical limitations. Most notably, he has poor lateral movement and a general lack of quickness. This makes momentum a key element in any Ichinojo match. If he gets moving forward, he can overwhelm a less imposing rikishi. And everyone else is less imposing. On the other hand, if he moves backwards Ichinojo is in serious trouble. When over 200 kgs or 450 lbs or 33 stones or 50,000 momme or whatever significant amount of unit of weight is going one way, it is hard to stop.
Two things tend to happen in Ichinojo matches. They are most likely to end in a yorikiri if he wins or loses, and they are more likely than usual to go on for a long time. In Haru 2015, Ichinojo and Terunofuji went so long the gyoji had to mark their spot on the dohyo, send them to get water, and then bring them back in the same position. Even as a young man, against another huge opponent, Ichinojo’s main strategy was to grab on and lean from a better leveraged spot.
That has occasionally worked out very well for him. In his sensational Maegashira debut, Ichinojo was more willing to move around the dohyo and trust that his bulk could disrupt his opponents. That began to work less well in subsequent tournaments, maybe because rivals learned he wasn’t as invincible as he seemed if he moved backwards. Maybe he also began to be in less great shape. Carrying around that much weight stresses a body.
Ichinojo also seems to struggle with stress in general. In November 2014, just after arriving like a comet in the sumo world, he went to the hospital with shingles. No one ever arrived in sumo quite like Ichinojo, and no one has ever had the up and down career quite like Ichinojo. He always felt like a Sanyaku wrestler, but didn’t keep the extended excellence that would make an Ozeki run a live possibility. He was a force of nature, but one that somehow mostly ended up going 8-7 against the best rikishi in sumo consistently.
Of course, there were those highs. What is perhaps most interesting about Ichinojo’s best bashos is that they had slightly different styles of sumo. In his debut basho, he collected 13 wins by keeping his opponent in front of him and using his size to reposition his rivals. In his 14-1 Jun-Yusho for Haru 20219, he relied on throws. More accurately, he’d stand up his opposite number, then unleash a throwing maneuver. Usually, this ended up in Ichinojo simply swatting aside someone else because he put so much force behind a throw. He mostly won by hatakikomi, but it was a heavy duty, close-in slap-down.
In July 2022, Ichinojo managed to keep his opponents in front of him and do what he wanted with them. Not incidentally, Ichinojo was out of the previous basho because of a COVID diagnosis in his stable. He looked more spry and less sluggish. He also had the ability to deal with surprises in a way he usually can’t. Somehow, he beat Abi by an okuridashi, or rear push out. That only happens with a ton of movement around the dohyo, a scenario which would always seem to favor the ever-dancing Abi. Yet Ichinojo kept Abi in front of him and let him beat himself.
Maybe he can keep it going at Aki. Being able to keep the other guy at bay and let him screw up first is slightly less stress on the body than leaning on him. But Ichinojo is built in a way that will always put stress on his body. He also has never been able to sustain success because he can rarely sustain his peak athleticism. Some of his inability to maintain his highest level is that he needs everything to be perfect, and that isn’t how life works.
Ichinojo’s track record suggests he’ll be back at 8-7 or 9-6. The recent version of Ichinojo has become a fun fan favorite. The image of Ichinojo posing with the Poke-flute after his yusho as a tie-in with the Pokemon sponsorship of sumo played into this. He was already nicknamed “Snorlax” by some online, referencing the big, round, sleeping Pokemon character. His gentle giant persona is more kids anime than Godzilla movie, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
Likely, the yusho will be the career highlight for the big Mongolian. We should never forget that’s a pretty good high point. His main career path has also been better than most, competing against the Ozeki and Yokozuna and holding his own. If he never threatens a yusho again, he’ll be a welcome part of sumo until he retires.