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On Makushita Tsukedashi

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The main story of the Hatsu basho in January 2023 was whether Takakeisho could earn a Yokozuna promotion. The Yokozuna Deliberation Council did announce pre-basho that an impressive yusho would get him the rope after his playoff-loss and jun-yusho in November. The usual requirements are two consecutive yusho–or yusho equivalents. Takakeisho did win the yusho for Hatsu with a 12-3 record after being in contention the whole tournament. Very strong jun-yusho are usually considered “yusho equivalent,” but apparently a 12-3 jun-yusho followed by a 12-3 yusho isn’t enough for the YDC. Takakeisho enters Haru with an Ozeki rank and a much more simple path to Yokozuna. WIn the yusho and he gets the Yokozuna rank.

Yet in the future, it is entirely possible January 2023 will not be best remembered for Takakeisho making a Yokozuna run. It could be remembered as the debut of Ochiai. For the unfamiliar, Ochiai is a 19 year old former high school Yokozuna. His final year in high school, he finished in the top 8 of the All Japan Amateur Sumo Championships. That would have made him eligible to start in the Sandanme division had he joined professional sumo after school. Instead, he spent a year working in his father’s firm and competing in corporate sumo. After winning the Corporate Yokozuna title, he joined Miyagino stable for January as a Makushita Tsukedashi.

All he did in his debut basho was win all 7 matches to take the Makushita championship. From the rank of Makushita #15, that proved enough to get Ochiai to Juryo for March. This happened so fast his hair isn’t just not long enough for a chonmage but actually short. He also hasn’t been given a real shikona yet, because his stablemaster (the former Hakuho and maybe forever greatest Yokozuna of all time) wanted to prepare a strong name and think more about it. In the absence of an official ring name, he has been called the “Reiwa monster” by the Japanese press as a reference to his early dominance in the current Reiwa era.

Being called “Reiwa Monster” is also a way of comparing Ochiai to Musoyama, who was dubbed “Heisei Monster” for his early career exploits in the early part of the reign of the previous Emperor. Like Ochiai, Musoyama made it to Juryo without dropping a Makushita match. The only other two men to do that were Wajima and Miyabiyama. Wajima made it to Yokozuna, while both Musoyama and Miyabiyama earned Ozeki promotions in their careers.

That sounds promising for Ochiai, although these probably aren’t the ideal sumo role models despite their obvious success on the dohyo. Miyabiyama’s career is one of sumo’s strangest of modern times, as he lost his Ozeki rank quickly, nearly had another Ozeki promotion, and was suspended for a tournament after betting on baseball. Musoyama had a series of unfortunate injuries at inconvenient times in his career. Wajima was a bundle of singular personality traits and unique sumo skills that never quite delivered on his ultimate promise.

They are also just three examples of men who were able to enter sumo with a Makushita rank because of amateur championships. Ochiai is the 95th man to enter sumo in the Makushita division since 1957, when the six basho a year format began. The standards for qualification as a Makushita Tsukedashi has changed slightly, as has what Makushita rank a Makushita Tsukedashi earns. But the basics are simple enough. Any amateur who wins one of the four major amateur sumo titles (All-Japan, Student, Corporate, and the National Sports Festival) can enter as a Makushita Tsukedashi.

This piece is a look at the career performance of the Makushita Tsukedashi rikishi. None of this should be viewed as some kind of prediction for Ochiai’s career, or any other future Makushita Tsukedashi. Another one is coming in the form of Nakamura Daiki, a five-time amateur champion who will be joining pro sumo in March. They both have a shot at reaching the heights of sumo, not only because of their amateur success but because Makushita Tsukedashi tends to indicate success.

The information in this article was built with a spreadsheet compiled using the invaluable Sumo Reference site. I pulled all rikishi who began their careers in Makushita, then eliminated everyone who began their career before 1957. This showed birthdate, career high rank, debut basho, and final basho. Then I looked up their pages on Sumo Reference to find their University (if applicable), career wins and losses, number of yusho (championships), number of jun-yusho (runner-up in a basho), special prizes (awards given after basho), and kinboshi (victory by a Maegashira over a Yokozuna).

Of the 95 men listed, just one man made it to Yokozuna, the aforementioned Wajima. Seven men made it to Ozeki, however, and 28 men reached the lower Sanyaku ranks. That’s 38 of the 95 men who entered sumo as Makushita Tsukedashi. By contrast, 33 have not made it to the top Makuuchi division. That includes not only Ochiai, but also Oshoma and Kawazoe. Oshoma entered sumo in September 2021, won the Juryo yusho in November 2022, and now sits in upper Juryo. Kawazoe entered the pro ranks in September 2022 and has gone 14-7 in his three tournaments so far. (And is also at MIyagino stable with Ochiai.) That trio should up the percentage of Makushita Tsukedashi who reached Makuuchi very soon.

These percentages are remarkable. Making Makuuchi is something most rikishi do not achieve. There are only 42 wrestlers in Makuuchi at any one time. The presence of a Yokozuna and multiple Ozeki on the list can make capping out at Maegashira seem unimpressive. But that’s the guys who can fight for an Emperor’s Cup, and they get special privileges for a reason. If Ochiai, Oshoma, and Kawazoe flame out unexpectedly, then 65% of Makushita Tsukedashi have made it to Makuuchi in their careers. 40% have made at least Sanyaku. Those are pretty good numbers, and it shows Makushita Tsukedashi portends a level of success.

What may be more underwhelming at first is that the career winning percentage for all 95 is 51.11%. However, the vast majority of rikishi will have career losing records. This is a phenomenon that happens in other individual sports and in career records of baseball pitchers, hockey goalies, and coaches of all kinds. When one person always has to win and one person will always lose, the ones who keep winning stick around. The ones who aren’t dominant get beat more often and are more common.

As an example, look at the recently retired Chiyotairyu. He entered sumo from Nippon Sport Science University in May 2011 and needed just four basho to go from Makushita to Juryo. Then he was in Makuuchi after two more basho, spending most of the next decade as a Maegashira. He had two brief appearances as a Komusubi and twice went down to Juryo, but he was a top division wrestler for basically ten years. And his career record is 463-483-50. The man who entered sumo at Makushita with the longest career, by far, is Tosanoumi. He competed for 17 years, making it to Sekiwake, and only spending his first 4 basho outside the sekitori ranks. He went 732-735-16. The 7-8s add up, especially if they are more often accompanied by 5-10s than yushos and jun-yushos.

The number of championships and runner-up performances is also not as strong as may be expected. In total, Makushita Tsukedashi have 22 yusho and 61 jun-yusho. But 14 of those yusho belong to Wajima, while Mitakeumi has contributed 3. Just 5 other Makushita Tsukedashi wrestlers have a yusho to their names, and each has just one. They are Asashio, Dejima, Musoyama, Kotomitsuki, and Ichinojo. Clearly, being an amateur champion does not automatically lead to professional championships.

20 Makushita Tsukedashi have won a jun-yusho, by contrast. Interestingly, Mitakeumi never has despite his multiple yusho. The jun-yusho winners are mostly rikishi who made it to Sanyaku, showing the usual dominance of the top of the banzuke in sumo. Once again, Wajima leads the way with 14. In second place is a tie between Kotomitsuki and 1960s Ozeki Yutakayama Katsuo with 8. That Yutakayama holds the modern record for most jun-yusho without ever winning a yusho. Most bashos historically come down to the Yokozuna and Ozeki, with the recent spate of championships by Maegashira being an outlier historically.

Again, Makushita Tsukedashi have been more likely to be strong Makuuchi rikishi, rather than dominant forces. This is also indicated by considering their Special Prizes and Kinboshi. The Makushita Tsukedashi cohort has won 182 Special Prizes and 123 Kinboshi. Here Wajima can’t dominate as much, since he made it to Ozeki and Yokozuna so fast that he wasn’t earning either prizes or kinboshi very much. (Wajima earned 0 kinboshi, in fact.) But 38 Makushita Tsukedashi rikishi have won Special Prizes and 31 have won a gold star from a kinboshi.

13 different Universities have produced Makushita Tsukedashi. By far the most successful has been Nihon University. 37 Makushita Tsukedashi are former Nihon University students, including Wajima and Kotomitsuki. The group of Makushita Tsukedashi wrestlers tend to have some similar characteristics. They enter sumo slightly older, with a good sense of what they are doing, and a wealth of competitive experience.

Yet Ochiai doesn’t totally fit this bill, because he did not attend University. That isn’t completely unprecedented, but it is quite rare. 14 wrestlers started in Makushita without first attending University. Largely, this group has not been as impressive as their peers who competed in University sumo. They also have been getting increasingly rare over the last few decades. The last one was Ichinojo, who joined pro sumo in 2013. Before that, no one had done it since Tochitaiki in 1995. Ichinojo is by far the best parallel to Ochiai. Like Ochiai, he was a high school standout who decided to delay his professional career by a year to garner more amateur accolades. He also dominated his first professional basho.

No one should really want Ichinojo’s very odd career, which has seen poorly timed injuries, scandals, and a recent suspension that took him back to Juryo again. He also made it to Sekiwake within a year of his professional debut, and has a yusho and jun-yusho to his name. Ichinojo is much bigger than Ochiai, but he’s much bigger than almost every other sekitori who ever got on the dohyo. Looking strictly at his path to professional sumo and early success, Ochiai could do a lot worse than mimicking Ichinojo’s early rise.

Ochiai’s ultimate ceiling is still to be determined, although penciling him in for Yokozuna or Ozeki is probably foolish. Very few rikishi reach those heights in any group. He should be a very good pro for a long time at the very least, and the same is true for Oshoma, Kawazoe, and Nakamura (when he actually starts.) Injuries could also rear their head for any rikishi, and that is a common theme for the Makushita Tsukedashi who didn’t get above Makushita.

But when you see someone join pro sumo at Makushita, it’s fine to expect them to be a presence as a Maegashira for a while. That’s what Makushita Tsukedashi wrestlers tend to do.

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