Better Know a Rikishi: Shodai Naoya
Sumo matches are usually over in a matter of seconds. Even "marathon" matches usually wrap up in less than a minute. This places an increased importance on the tachiai, or initial charge. If a rikishi steps wrong or gets too high or runs straight into his opponents' gameplan, the match will end immediately in a loss. A smart, and often obvious, analysis of sumo is that you have to win at the tachiai to win at all. A sekitori without a strong initial charge can't go very far.
Shodai seems determined to be the exception that proves the rule. A Shodai match will basically never feature him bowling over his opponent or wrapping the other rikishi in a deadly grip from the start. In fact, they seem to usually begin with Shodai getting shoved backward forcefully. Yet Shodai also has a habit of winning matches where he gets dominated in the first few seconds, because he finds a way to get out of a grip or reverse positions or just make some weird turnaround in the match. Shodai seems to be the answer to the question "How far can a sumo wrestler go without a strong tachiai?"
How far Shodai has gone in sumo is legitimately impressive. There are only 42 men who can be in the top Makuuchi division at any one time, and Shodai has been one of those men for four full years, since January 2016. His highest rank has been Sekiwake, although he reached it once in January 2017, after which he immediately fell right back out of the Sanyaku ranks and never returned so far. Usually, he hangs out in the area of the upper Maegashira. Shodai is comfortably one of the 20 best sumo wrestlers in the world, but he also seems comfortably outside the top 10.
It's hard to know if that is an overachievement or underachievement. Shodai was a standout amateur competitor, representing Tokyo University of Agriculture in university sumo. In fact, he won the University Yokozuna title in his second year. That meant he was entitled to makushita tsukedashi, a rank that allowed him to bypass the bottom levels and go straight into professional sumo at the third-highest level. However, Shodai chose to return to university sumo, where he did not repeat his championship in either his third or fourth year. That meant he had to enter sumo at the lowest levels.
He proved he really should have skipped a few rungs on the ladder. In Shodai's first real basho in May 2014, he notched a 7-0 record to win the Jonokuchi yusho. Over the next two tournaments, he posted 6-1 records in Jonidan and Sandanme, respectively. In his debut Makushita tournament, he posted a good 5-2 record, but got the Makushita yusho with a perfect 7-0 in his fifth pro basho. He didn't even post a losing record in his first eight tournaments, gaining a Juryo promotion by September 2015. Shodai took just two tournaments, where he won 11 and 13 matches, to become a Makuuchi rikishi.
There was still a bit of a sense that Shodai wasn't a future star, even though he had a meteoric rise. He got a reputation for being "negative." (Note: machine translation and cultural differences might make this assertion wrong, but it persistently seems to be what people were saying about Shodai at one point.) He also kept his actual name instead of adopting a special shikona, which is unusual but not uncommon. When sekitori do keep their own names as ring names, there is usually some reason to keep it, like having some extra meaning or being a name already drawing popularity. Shodai's stablemaster, Tokitsukaze oyakata, simply said "It's a good name. Not bad at all."
Shodai was still surging as he entered Makuuchi. By the Hatsu basho of 2017, less than a year into his top division career, Shodai was a Sekiwake. This was the kind of ascent that usually betokens a future Ozeki or Yokozuna. Even though Shodai went 7-8 as a Sekiwake and then 4-11 as a Komusubi in March 2017, he was still primed to be a future Sanyaku mainstay. He just needed to regroup and focus on how to return.
He hasn't returned in nearly three years. Maybe it's that continued issue at the tachiai. Maybe it's a lack of intensity. Maybe it's just that getting to the very top ranks in sumo is extraordinarily difficult. For Kyushu 2019, Shodai had one of his best recent tournaments, achieving 11 wins, a jun-yusho, and a kanto-sho for his efforts. It also came on the heels of one of his worst recent tournaments for Aki, where he only managed 3 wins.
The subsequent demotion definitely helped him perform so well, and yet he might have also found some new tricks. Shodai beat Chiyotairyu, Shohozan, and Sadanoumi, who are all solid Maegashira. He also defeated Asanoyama on the final day, who until then was fighting like an Ozeki in his Komusubi debut. While Shodai still isn't blasting anyone backwards at tachiai, he began almost catching his opponent at the start. He also is still able to switch gears as well as anyone, moving sideways or switching grips seamlessly.
If he does have some new abilities, Shodai isn't out of time to become a Sanyaku staple. He only just turned 28, making him younger than Tochinoshin, Goeido, and Kotomitsuki were when they became Ozeki. Yet Shodai is not on the precipice of a promotion. He would only get there if he does what he did in Kyushu over multiple tournaments at higher ranks, as well as show subtle improvements. That caliber of rikishi has always been in Shodai, he just needs to put it all together. Same as it ever was.