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The New Rivalry: Takerufuji and Onosato

The Natsu basho is almost here! And you can still sign up to play Fantasy Basho on Fantasizr.


The Haru 2024 Basho was historic. You have probably heard this already. Takerufuji made his Makuuchi debut, appearing at the very bottom of the Banzuke at Maegashira #17 East. Then, he won his first 11 matches to kick off the tournament. On Day Nine, he beat Komusubi Abi, and on Day Eleven he knocked off an Ozeki in Kotonowaka. After losing to Hoshoryu on Day Twelve, he bounced back against Sekiwake Wakamotoharu. He lost on Day Fourteen to Asanoyama, and he injured his ankle. Despite that, he mounted the dohyo for Day Fifteen, toppled Gonoyama, and won himself the yusho.

That made Takerufuji the first debutant yusho winner since 1914. Ryogoku won that yusho with a 9-0-1 mark, so Takerufuji was the first debutant to win a yusho in sumo’s modern form. He also was the first rikishi since 1960 to win his first 11 Makuuchi matches, equalling a record set by the legendary Yokozuna Taiho. Takerufuji is also now the fastest rikishi to win his first yusho from starting at the bottom in Jonokuchi (9 basho.) He is also, according to a JSA statement, the only man to ever win a yusho without being able to put his hair in a proper, official oichomage (the ginkgo-leaf top knot rikishi have their styled into.)

But wait. There’s more. Takerufuji is the first rikishi to win all three special prizes in a single basho in 24 years. He is also the first rikishi from Aomori prefecture since November 1997. Compared to all-time historic levels of performance, those seem mundane. It’s a reminder that his performance was so good that the add-on descriptors were things that hadn’t happened in more than a generation.

And Onosato may have a better future than Takerufuji. The two seem to be inevitably linked. Onosato made his debut in January, and finished runner-up to Takerufuji. After the Haru basho, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council compared them to the Tiger and the Dragon. This is a traditional Japanese pairing, referring to two rivals of equal strength and speed, The YDC did not say which sekitori should be seen as the Dragon and which one should be the Tiger. Onosato is clearly seen as near equal to the man who just won the record-setting yusho.

This is not to dismiss Takerufuji’s career ceiling. Instead, it’s to show how impressive Onosato is. He won a Jun-Yusho, after getting his second consecutive 11 win performance. Those are also his only two Makuuchi basho. This was after Onosato went from Makushita-Tsukedashi to Makuuchi in just four basho. All he did before joining professional sumo was have the best amateur record of anyone ever. He didn’t just qualify as a Makushita Tsukedashi, but did so five times. In total, he won 13 amateur titles, lapping any other amazumo record.

Onosato also passes the eye test better than Takerufuji. Onosato is 192 cm and 177 kgs (6’3” and 388 lbs.) More importantly, he carries it all. He’s built like a star NFL Nose Tackle and moves well. He also deploys pushing and grappling in somewhat equal measure. The only thing stopping him from looking like how the Yokozuna Deliberation Council would draw their perfect rikishi is that he cannot yet get his hair into a proper top-knot. 

Takerufuji is only small in comparison to Onosato and other big sumo wrestlers. He clocks in at 183 cm and 141 kg (6’0” and 310 pounds). Takerufuji’s also strong as an ox, with the kind of traps and biceps that show he can pick up or shove aside anyone. What he also showed in March was an ability to be that crucial step quicker at the tachiai in match after match. It’s the kind of thing that can’t even really be planned against, even if an opponent has watched tape and knows Takerufuji will come out like a thunderbolt.

The real thing that sets Onosato’s future apart from Takerufuji’s is age. Since his record-setting yusho, Takerufuji had his 25th birthday. Onosato is over a year younger than Takerufuji, which means he’s got an extra year of development ahead of him compared to Takerufuji. In fact, Hoshoryu, Atamifuji, Hiradoumi, Oho, and Kotoshoho are all also younger than Takerufuji. Hoshoryu, Onsosato, Atamifuji, and Hiradoumi are all also ranked higher than Takerufuji for March. That’s a small argument they all have brighter futures.

Hoshoryu is an Ozeki with a yusho under his belt. Obviously, Hoshoryu made his Makuuchi debut, made his Sanyaku debut, earned his first Special Prize, got promoted to Ozeki, and won his first yusho at a younger age than Takerufuji. Hoshoryu is probably still a better bet to make Yokozuna in the future than Takerufuji and probably Onosato, too. He is just one step away and basically the same age.

Of course, all of these guys in the 24-25 year old bracket are about to be entering their primes. (Atamifuji is a few years away from that, which speaks to HIS insane future possibilities.) These guys are all in position to dominate sumo in the next few years. Betting on any one rikishi to make Yokozuna is a recipe to look foolish, and I should know. I’ve been making that prediction every January since 2019

Takerufuji was not listed in the most recent edition. Onosato was given a special carve out. There is a special logic to this. No Yokozuna promoted since Akebono participated in college sumo. The only Yokozuna to graduate college is Wajima, who is an unusual case in many ways

He is also instructive about where the careers of Takerufuji and Onosato may end up. Wajima entered sumo as a Makushita Tsukedashi, like Onosato. He then quickly went up the ranks, making Sanyaku in two years and Ozeki in just under three. He then spent just four tournaments at Ozeki before earning the rope. When he got the Yokozuna promotion in May 1973, he was 25. 

So Takerufuji and Onosato aren’t quite behind the curve yet, but it’s coming up on them. If they had made their Makuuchi debuts at the same time and gotten a nice kachi-koshi or two, they’d be well behind it already. This is the challenge facing any rikishi who graduated from University. They need to be advancing up the Banzuke extremely swiftly to make it to Yokozuna.

That’s the most exciting part of what Takerufuji and Onosato have done. They could rewrite how sumo works. University sumo has been steadily advancing in recent decades, with more men making the top division after participating in University competition. Recent Ozeki Asanoyama, Shodai, and Mitakeumi were all University men. None of them came close to becoming Yokozuna, yet they all had the ability. Injuries derailed Shodai and Mitakeumi, while Asanoyama sent his own career off track with poor decision making. In other circumstances, they could have made it.

But they didn’t, largely thanks to one setback. When you join sumo and, more significantly, the top division at a later age than other top competitors, everything should go right. Arguably, Takerufuji has already had his first setback. He mounted the dohyo for Day Fifteen to get his yusho, but since then has done almost no sumo because of his ankle injury. He missed the Jungyo tour, barely practiced, and looks like someone who might not participate in May.

He likely will be working to go for Natsu, but even a 5-10 or 4-7-4 because of injury gets him off course. That might get one more nod to Onosato. Yet the real hope is they can become the new tiger and dragon. Or dragon and tiger. Or possibly some other metaphor.

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