The Next Yokozuna, Pt. 2
At some point, every Yokozuna was a lower level rikishi trying to just get promoted to the next step up the ladder. No one enters sumo and will be a Yokozuna immediately. They won’t even be a Maegashira immediately. A future Yokozuna is quite possibly buried below Sanyaku right now, and could even be hanging out in Makushita or lower.
The first part of this series looked at what the last 9 Yokozuna had done before promotion and trying to spot trends. The next step is to see what a future Yokozuna looks like before they are in position to be promoted. Being anywhere in the conversation for a Yokozuna promotion is an achievement in and of itself. One of the keys is that a wrestler must be an Ozeki before he can even be considered for Yokozuna promotion.
The typical promotion criteria is that an Ozeki wins back to back tournaments. On the other hand, the only official criteria used by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council is that the wrestler demonstrate the proper power, skill, and grace (品格 hinkaku) to be worthy of Yokozuna. That last one has proved the most problematic for the YDC historically, as it was often thrown around as a more political reason to deny someone a Yokozuna promotion. Recently, especially with the promotions of both Kakuryu and Kisenosato, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council gave them the rope with just one yusho. Kakuryu had two straight 14-1 records, with a playoff loss jun-yusho and a yusho. Kisenosato had a 14-1 yusho that followed up a 12-3 jun-yusho. Although, in fairness, Kisenosato had been an excellent Ozeki for a long time and did win his first basho as a Yokozuna.
In trying to identify a lower-level rikishi who could be a Yokozuna, we need to have a rough sense of who to exclude. The easiest way to do that is find what the profile of actual Yokozuna were when they were far away from sumo’s ultimate rank, then discount anyone who isn’t near that profile. So first, we should start with that profile.
But that leads to another issue. There are really two profiles based off of the most recent 9 Yokozuna. Akebono, Takanohana, Asashoryu, and Hakuho were all quite young when they got the Yokozuna promotion, and the question for their promotions was generally “when” not “if.” Wakanohana, Musashimaru, Harumafuji, Kakuryu, and Kisenosato had to work much harder to get to the top and achieved it at older ages. Let’s consider them the Inevitable Yokozuna and the Eventual Yokozuna.
Before separating the Yokozuna into these two groups, some commonalities need to be pointed out. In the last 9 Yokozuna, there are two Americans, three Japanese, and four Mongolians. They are evenly distributed between the two groups, so nationality is not a determinant. All 9 Yokozuna under consideration also were in sumo as teenagers, with none achieving notable amateur titles. Every single one began in Mae-Zumo and then Jonokuchi. This means neither Yokozuna profile will feature University sumo competitors in any form. It’s bad news for anyone granted special “tsukedashi” status, despite the fact they got to start at elevated levels on the Banzuke.
The Inevitable Yokozuna
The Inevitable Yokozuna is clear and obvious from an early age, and any future Inevitable Yokozuna will be easy to spot. The Inevitable Yokozuna are like meteors streaming across the Banzuke, knocking away all comers as they first hit Juryo, then Makuuchi, then Sanyaku, and finally Ozeki-hood in quick succession. They also all did this at strikingly youthful ages. On their first appearances in Makuuchi, Akebono was 20, Takanohana was not even 18 (a record), Asashoryu was 20, and Hakuho was 19.
They also took little time getting from shin-Maegashira to Yokozuna. Notably, Ozeki was almost a way-station. Akebono and Asashoryu basically got to Ozeki and qualified for Yokozuna promotion, as Akebono’s back-to-back yusho were in his second and third tournament at Ozeki, while Asashoryu did it in his third and fourth. Hakuho took 7 basho, which seems long by comparison, but is still remarkably short. Takanohana’s 11 basho as Ozeki might also seem like a long time, but its less than two years and he did it at the age of 21-22.
Takanohana also got five yusho as an Ozeki, but only put them back-to-back in the 10th and 11th basho. He was fighting like a Yokozuna already, which is another key element of this group. They were racking up Yusho and Jun-Yusho before they got near the top rank.
There is one last note about this category that should be mentioned. These four Yokozuna were stylistically very different. Akebono was one of the most physically impressive sekitori in history and a pure pusher-thruster. Takanohana was regaled as a technical master focused on the mawashi. Asashoryu was considered an unbelievably athletic and quick rikishi. Hakuho had a special combination of athleticism and ability that allowed him to take what he was given.
The Inevitable Yokozuna Profile:
Enter Mae-Zumo as teenager
Make quick progress to Makuuchi
Quickly ascend to Ozeki
Win consistently before Ozeki and Yokozuna promotions
Short time at Ozeki
Have special skills and/or athleticism
The Eventual Yokozuna
Wakanohana was an extremely capable rikishi with a variety of techniques. Musashimaru was an overwhelming physical presence on the dohyo with a good track record. Harumafuji overcame below average size for sumo by being quicker and trickier than his opponents. Kakuryu somehow always found a way to exploit an opponent’s weakness. Kisenosato grabbed his fellow rikishi and worked them out to win. They were all excellent sumo wrestlers, which is why they became Yokozuna eventually, but they never were quite like the Inevitable Yokozuna.
That’s a tough lot, but it also demonstrates how difficult it is to become a Yokozuna. LIke their counterparts, they made relatively short work of the lower divisions. All were in Makuuchi within a few years of joining sumo, while also being relatively young. Kisenosato even made it by the age of 18. Kakuryu was the slowest up to the top division, but he also made it to Makuuchi as a 21 year old. These five Yokozuna were clearly exceptional rikishi, and they all proved they were better than most other wrestlers.
They just weren’t clearly better than every other wrestler. The key thing about the Eventual Yokozuna is that while they continually moved up the Banzuke, they were making steady progress rather than shooting straight up. For most rikishi, about 2-3 years as a Maegashira is extremely brief before hanging out in the Sanyaku ranks, but that comparison changes when all-time greats are under consideration.
Wakanohana and Musashimaru did make quick work of the Maegashira ranks, but were united with Harumafuji, Kakuryu, and Kisenosato by spending a long time as Ozeki. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the five Eventual Yokozuna and the four Inevitable Yokozuna. There was almost a cap on them for a period of a few years because of the dominance of the Yokozuna above them. (Kakuryu’s 12 basho at Ozeki is the odd one out, but he also took much longer to rise up than anyone else. Maybe Kakuryu is the biggest outlier among all these 9 Yokozuna.)
These Yokozuna were also naturally paired with one of the Inevitable Yokozuna. Wakanohana was Takanohana’s older brother. Musashimaru was a Hawaii native, just like Akebono. Harumafuji and Kakuryu were automatically compared to their compatriots Asashoryu and Hakuho. Kisenosato didn’t have an obvious pairing, but as the first Japanese Yokozuna since Wakanohana he had the pressure of living up to both Takanohana and Wakanohana. They all needed to break through the barrier of dominant Yokozuna enough to show they belonged.
But that was rarely a string of sensho yusho. Although they too shot through lower ranks, Eventual Yokozuna never had the sense of waiting for the ultimate promotion. They had to earn it. The Eventual Yokozuna were able to keep improving, never be seriously relegated, and finally made the final jump.
The Eventual Yokozuna Profile:
Enter Mae-Zumo as a teenager
Make quick progress to Makuuchi
Steady, but not instant, progress through Maegashira ranks
Spend a long time at Ozeki
Few tournament wins before promotion
Excellent ability, if not overwhelming
In Part 3, we will consider the men who were not Yokozuna, but could have been. Before we identify who might be the next Yokozuna, we need to examine the Near Yokozuna.