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  • Fantasy Basho

Better Know a Rikishi: Kirishima Tetsuo

The Hatsu Basho starts in less than a week, so get your picks set for the basho over on Fantasizr. But also, this basho could be historic, depending on what Kirishima can do.

This may be the face of the next Yokozuna.

Coming into 2023, Kiribiyama was a solid upper-level rikishi. His career record was 273-196-15, with a 134-119-2 record in Makuuchi. His best Makuuchi basho was his debut in January 2020, where he went 11-5 with a Kanto-Sho. He won 10 matches in back-to-back tournaments at Haru and Natsu 2022, but he didn’t get a second Special Prize after his debut. He was able to keep his Komusubi rank for three basho after 9-6 and 8-7 records, but he looked like a guy who could hang around Komusubi.

Over the first three basho of 2023, Kiribayama went 34-11 with a Yusho, Jun-Yusho, and three straight technique prizes. Kiribayama was easily the best rikishi in sumo over those three tournaments. He was also easily the best he had ever been in his career. That sequence of performances is a classic Ozeki run, and after the Natsu 2023 tournament, the Sumo Association announced Kiribayama would be elevated to sumo’s second rank. With that, he also announced he was no longer Kiribayama. From now on, he was adopting his stablemaster’s, Michinoku-oyakata’s, former shikona and becoming Kirishima Tetsuo.

Kiribayama’s Ozeki run to become Kirishima II wasn’t a complete surprise. He was a Komusubi at the start of 2023, and he had proven he had strong performances in him. On a list of possible next Ozeki promotions, he was a contender. He just wasn’t in a likely position to get that nice ceremony featuring a large fish. Yet he was the one who put together the Ozeki run, in the first three basho he could. Kirishima’s Ozeki promotion was somewhat unexpected right before it began. Ever making Ozeki was unexpected for a rikishi like Kirishima at every step of the way.

Now he could do something bigger. In his first basho as an Ozeki, he sat out the first three days with an injury and only managed six wins. Then he went 9-6, and in November managed a 13-2 Yusho. That was capped with a 9 match win-streak, which gave him a career high win total. Most significantly, as an Ozeki who won a yusho, he has a shot at being promoted to Yokozuna. Kirishima may stand astride the sumo world, but already his career has been fairly unbelievable.

The man who would one day become Kiribayama and then Kirishima was born Byambachuluun Lkhagvasuren on April 24, 1996 in Dornod Province, Mongolia to a nomadic family. Dornod Province is in the far Eastern portion of Mongolia. In fact, in Mongolian, “Dornod” means “East.” The capital and biggest city in the province is Choibalsan, a town of 45,000 people named at its founding after Mongolia’s early 20th century communist leader Khorloogin Choibalsan. This was not a place that was ever crowded with people. He was born in a sparsely populated area of a sparsely populated country.

This is actually extremely rare for Mongolian rikishi. Overwhelmingly, high-level sumo wrestlers who hail from Mongolia grew up in Ulaanbaatar. Half of Mongolia’s population lives in Ulaanbaatar. The country’s political, media, and educational centers are all in the city. In fact, it is most commonly referred to as simply khot, “The City,” in Mongolia. Most significantly for sumo wrestling, the Naadam festival, the national sports tournament where champion bokh wrestlers are crowned, takes place in the city’s National Sports Stadium. Children who grow up in Ulaanbaatar are more plugged into the kind of connections and training that can help a young athlete.

The future Kirishima II was a bokh competitor, but he was also competing regionally. Mostly, he was helping his family herd their sheep, riding horses in traditional Mongolian style. He wasn’t part of higher-level school sports, or connected to Mongolian wrestlers through family. For example, Asashoryu had multiple family members who achieved high ranks in Bokh. Hakuho’s father was a silver medalist in freestyle wrestling at the 1968 Olympics. Terunofuji was trained in judo and wrestling by Hakuho’s father. Young Lkhagvasuren was simply a good wrestler.

It’s even worth comparing the future Kirishima to sumo’s other most notable nomad. Ichinojo entered sumo as 20 year old at 183 kg (403 lbs). Ichinojo just looked like a sumo wrestler, even to people with only the barest knowledge of sumo. He also won a provincial championship at 14, elevating him to Mongolian stardom and a chance at attending school for judo in Japan. Byambachuluun Lkhagvasuren was tall and scrawny, but strong enough at Bokh as a teenager to be able to move to Ulaanbaatar to practice judo. From there, he had a chance to visit Japan and specifically the Michinoku sumo stable. 

He was not an obvious candidate to join sumo. He was under 100 kg, and he had no background in the sport. As a Mongolian, he would fill the one foreigner per stable limit, and he needed to obtain a visa. He also did not know the Japanese language at all. Yet something about his attitude and desire impressed the stablemaster at Michinoku. Maybe he saw something of himself in the skinny kid. Fighting with the shikona Kirishima, the name of a national park near his hometown, Michinoku-oyakata was a slight rikishi known for his good looks. He also slowly added weight and worked his way up the Banzuke. In 1990, 15 years after his sumo debut, he made Ozeki.

And so Lhagvasuren joined Michonoku-beya, adopted the name Kiribayama, and made his debut in May 2015. He was a good young rikishi in the lower levels, but never the kind of shooting star that everyone tags as one to watch. For one thing, he got injured enough to go kyujo twice in his first three years. He also wasn’t dominant, needing multiple shots at Makushita to keep his place in the third division. He also wasn’t building streaks of kachi-koshi, getting losing records every few basho.

But he was winning much more than losing. Watching the lower-division Kiribayama is interesting. He is too thin to overpower anyone, but he also doesn’t get overwhelmed himself. There’s a wiry strength that allows him to withstand the heaviest of tachiais. Then he has a bag of tricks that means he can win when he’s even with a dueling mawashi grip. It was certainly interesting, but again not something that screamed future Makuuchi yusho winner and Ozeki.

What may have been his best asset was his ability to incrementally improve enough to keep rising. In May 2018, he won a Makushita yusho from Makushita 35 West. Any yusho is impressive, and he had just turned 22. That made him someone to watch, but not a guaranteed future star. Maybe not even consistent Maegashira. He had been bouncing around Makushita for a year-and-a-half, and he went 2-5 from Makushita 16 East in the previous basho. He certainly had a shot at Maegashira-dom, but he’d have to keep working.

And he did. After two straight 3-4 records in July and September 2018, a 6-1 in November made him a Makushita 1. He qualified for a Juryo promotion with a 4-3 record in January 2019. Despite his struggles in upper Makushita, he climbed through Juryo. In five tournaments in sumo’s second division, he went 45-30. True to form, he was best in the last basho in the division. He went 11-4, losing the first match in a four-way playoff for a Jun-Yusho.

That made him a Makuuchi debutant in January 2020 as a 23 year old. That’s good, but not historic. It’s more of a profile for a guy destined for a long-time Maegashira slot. He also took long enough in Makushita that it would make sense he would need time to adjust to the top division. Instead, he came out with an 11-4 record and a Kanto-Sho.

The rookie Kiribayama’s sumo was not a thing of beauty. He had a weird habit of getting behind another rikishi, or, more problematically, finding another rikishi behind him. His Maegashira debut featured four wins by okuridashi, the rear push out. He didn’t lack for size, although he still looked skinny for a rikishi. He just had a habit of going to the side against fellow Maegashira. That was a great signal that he was athletic on the dohyo, but maybe also showed he couldn’t take Makuuchi wrestlers head on.

Kiribayama did not take his debut form straight to Sanyaku in 2020, but he did get a 9-6 in his second top division basho to give himself a firm Maegashira slot. In 2020 and 2021, he climbed up the rankings in a two steps forward, one step back fashion. After an 8-7, he went 7-8, but he also followed up a 6-9 with a 9-6. That progression got him to Komusubi by November 2021. That tournament saw him earn a 6-9 in his Sanyaku debut.

That’s not embarrassing by any stretch, but it once again was not a signal that here was a shooting star blowing away all competitors. Over his first four basho of 2022, Kiribayama had a 34-10 record. That put him back to Komusubi in September. He went 9-6, then followed it up with an 8-7 record at another Komusubi basho in November. That showed he was ready for a Sanyaku run.

He still did not necessarily have the profile of a future Ozeki or possible Yokozuna. He was a 26 year old with back-to-back Komusubi basho. Abi was a Komusubi at 25. Meisei made a small Sanyaku run as a 26 year old. Takanosho began his Sanyaku stretch at 26. Right before turning 26, Myogiryu went 10-5 as a Sekiwake. That’s the active Maegashira who were roughly comparable. None of them made Ozeki or even came that close.

Kiribayama had to improve from his late 2022 form to make Ozeki. He did that over the first three basho of 2023. Then he arguably improved again once he was the Ozeki Kirishima. He missed his first three matches as an Ozeki, but has gone 28-14 since. In Kyushu 2023, he earned a career best 13 wins while casting aside his nearest rivals on the Banzuke and in the yusho race. He dominated.

Kirishima’s sumo is different to the sumo he used on his Makuuchi debut. He has added bulk to be a remarkably powerful rikishi now, which means he can take most opponents head on. Four of his wins in his second yusho were by yorikiri (and one was yoritaoshi–the frontal crush out–an emphatic yorikiri.) He can also take advantage of other rikishi’s mistakes. He had three hatakikomi wins.

Those slap-downs are reminiscent of former Yokozuna and Kirishima’s former stablemate Kakuryu. Kakuryu was a good rikishi with decent size, but what made him stand out was his patience and consistent ability to never beat himself. The sumo that is most thrilling to the crowd is the wild throw or explosive spin move. The sumo that dominates most is the heavy tachiai or powerful yorikiri. 

Taking someone’s best, standing it up, and turning the match around is a little boring by comparison. It is also highly effective and much tougher than it seems. Especially at the highest level, these are well-trained rikishi with incredible size and strength. Taking their best involves finding a way to stand tall against Takakeisho’s charge, Hoshoryu’s leg trips, and Kotonowaka’s mawashi grip. You can add Daieisho’s powerful thrusts, Ura’s tricky maneuvers, Abi’s tsuppari windmill, Hokutofuji’s nodowa, and much, much more to that list. This requires planting your feet, keeping your arms wide, and finding the opening in everyone’s style.

Kirishima is showing that ability now. Like Kakuryu, he made his Ozeki run in his mid-20s after a good but not dominant early career. Also like Kakuryu, he didn’t have the profile of a traditional Yokozuna. Now he could be like Kakuryu and become a Yokozuna. Nothing is guaranteed, but he is an Ozeki sitting on a yusho. Even if he doesn’t earn the rope, he’s joined a select group of sumotori. He has certainly had a one-of-a-kind career already.

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