- Fantasy Basho
The Next Yokozuna, Pt. 4
If there is anything this series has uncovered, it is that picking the Next Yokozuna is likely to make someone pick wrong as anything else. Examining the men who made it to Yokozuna, as in Part 1, shows that making Yokozuna is an exceptional achievement. The profile of the Yokozuna, whether Inevitable or Eventual, shows that a Yokozuna is someone who dominates from the beginning of their professional careers. The problem is that, as the examination of Near Yokozuna showed, there are plenty of men who dominate sumo at various times who still don’t make it to Yokozuna.
With all of that in mind, it is time to consider who stands a chance of being the Next Yokozuna. Well, kind of. This is the tough part of spotting possible Next Yokozuna, ruling out the rikishi who are extremely unlikely to become a Yokozuna. It should be noted here that both Goeido and Kotoshogiku were considered in Part Three of this series as Near Yokozuna. That means they have already been ruled out.
Also, everyone mentioned here is (or, sadly, was in some cases) an excellent rikishi. Achieving Yokozuna promotion is extraordinarily difficult, and doing it takes a variety of factors including luck. There are plenty of reasons to exclude men from serious Yokozuna consideration. This analysis will go through the main reasons to discount rikishi as Yokozuna, while listing the rikishi who need to be struck for that reason.
Over the Hill
Sumo is a young man’s game, and even most Yokozuna are relatively young. Historically, many Yokozuna are promoted before the age of 25. The jump from Maegashira to Ozeki usually takes over a year, unless someone has a truly remarkable hot streak. At that point, a rikishi needs to win consistently to get a Yokozuna promotion.
The last Yokozuna to be promoted at age 31 or older was Mienoumi. Mienoumi was promoted to Yokozuna in 1979, and his progress to Yokozuna was the slowest in history at 97 basho. It’s just best to assume that anyone who is 31 or older has a difficult chance to make it to sumo’s ultimate rank. After all, most sekitori face retirement in their early 30s, and usually see a decline in skills after age 30.
That means that we can exclude the following rikishi from a Future Yokozuna list:
Goeido will probably not be an Ozeki, and may not even keep wrestling, once he recovers from his ankle injury. It was bad, and he is 33. As an Ozeki, Goeido could be an elder for three years without a kabu (the official sumo elder license and name). That probably seems much more enticing now than it did in early November. Takayasu is slightly unfair here, as he is not yet quite 30. However, his 30th birthday is on February 28th, and he just lost his Ozeki rank after pulling out of the Kyushu tournament with an injury. By the time he would be back in any shape to make a Yokozuna run, he would be well past the normal age for a promotion candidate.
Tochinoshin is a recent former Ozeki also battling injury issues, and he is also 32 already. Tamawashi is 35, has one career championship, and never made a serious run at Ozeki, much less sniff Yokozuna. Kotoshogiku did win his one yusho as an Ozeki, but he has not been an Ozeki for three years and is the oldest of the bunch.
In the history of sumo, there has been one Yokozuna who competed in University-level sumo. That’s the 54th Yokozuna Wajima. If your only precedent is Wajima, truly a singular rikishi on every level, then it’s a poor one to use as a predictive element. This is a strange exclusionary factor at first glance, because many top competitors are University alumni. The honor of “Amateur Yokozuna,” which can be won in four different tournaments, even allows the best amateur wrestlers to enter as “makushita tsukedashi.” Makushita tsukedashi means these champions start in the upper reaches of the third Makushita division.
Despite that leg up, they rarely get to the very top. (There weren’t even any University Sumo men among the Near Yokozuna considered in part three.) This counterintuitive fact can actually be somewhat explained. Take the example of Wajima, despite his having been elevated to Yokozuna in 1973. He entered Makushita with the tsukedashi tag for the January 1970 tournament as a 22 year old. He got two straight 7-0 Yushos in Makushita to get to Juryo by May of the same year. By January 1971, he was a Maegashira, and one year after that he was in Sanyaku. He made Ozeki for November 1972 and Yokozuna by July 1973.
That’s an astonishingly quick rise, just 21 basho from hatsu basho to Yokozuna promotion. It’s not just a record but a record by a few basho. Compare him to Akebono, Takanohana, Asashoryu, and Hakuho, the Inevitable Yokozuna who were on a rocketship to the rope. Akebono took 30 basho, Takanohana required 41, Asashoryu needed 24, and Hakuho had 38. On the other hand, Wajima became a Yokozuna at age 25; Akebono was 23, Takanohana was 22, Asashoryu was 22, and Hakuho was 22.
Even among the all-time greats, the men who were unstoppable forces on the dohyo, age puts University graduates behind the eight ball. If they don’t get to the pinnacle of sumo as fast as possible, that difference gets bigger. A rikishi who enters as a teenager and stumbles making it to Juryo or Makuuchi or Sanyaku has more growth in their skills and physical abilities when they stumble. They also have a longer timeframe to overcome any stumbles.
This might not be an absolute rule (more on that in Part Five), but the lack of Yokozuna among University wrestlers since the 1970s should maybe rule out a few current top division favorites, such as:
A quick look at each of these men show some of the issues University wrestlers face. Mitakeumi will turn 27 before the end of 2019 and has shown little consistency. True, his best is very good, which is why he has won two yusho. He also would need to be on his best for basically a whole year to make Yokozuna at this point (three basho to make Ozeki and then two yusho as an Ozeki). Relatedly, he hasn’t had back to back ten win basho since the middle of 2016, when he was a lower Maegashira.
Asanoyama might be more striking a candidate to dismiss from future Yokozuna consideration. He is older than Takakeisho, Abi, Meisei, Tomokaze, Onosho, Enho, Takanosho, Kagayaki, Terutsuyoshi, Daishoho, and Wakatakakage. That’s basically a quarter of the rikishi in Makuuchi from November. He also does have a Yusho and a Jun-Yusho, but he too would need to show consistency to make the leap to Ozeki, much less Yokozuna.
Endo is a fan favorite, but even more battling the wrong end of the age curve, turning 30 next year. Hokutofuji is only now comofortably resting in as an occasional Sanyaku wrestler, and he’s already 27, unlikely to reach a new level in his sumo. Tomokaze had been dominant, but he’s 25 and had an awful injury during the Kyushu basho. Enho is fun and technically gifted, but is much smaller than any Yokozuna on record and has a constant struggle because of it. Shodai has had his moments, but is 27 as well, without really coming close to an Ozeki run. These are all University men who have not made challenges to the top two ranks in sumo.
Lack of Lower-Division Dominance
Even among the “Eventual Yokozuna,” the men who worked hard first to make Ozeki and the held on to the rank until they got back-to-back yusho or equivalent, all of sumo’s top ranked wrestlers spent little time competing in the lower divisions. With the notable exception of Kakuryu (who then made quick work of Maegashira), all recent Yokozuna spent less than four years outside Makuuchi. That’s more impressive in general, obviously, but it also speaks to rikishi being in Makuuchi at a younger age.
The rikishi who can be excluded here are not necessarily the people who would be first on the list of “Next Yokozuna” for any sumo follower. While this list is less than inspiring, it is a good demonstration of why any lower level rikishi who isn’t dominating stands basically no chance of being a future Yokozuna.
You probably weren’t considering them future Yokozuna anyway, but here’s who you can rule out:
If anyone was seriously claiming any of these sekitori were future yokozuna, it would be remarkable. Yet ruling them out is instructive. These are all relatively young rikishi who have had good basho in the last year. Maybe, if you squinted, you might want to anoint them. You shouldn’t think about it. Really, it comes down to age again, as well as inability to totally trust the underlying skills. All of these guys are in their mid-twenties, at least, and definitely need to show something else with their sumo. That combination doesn’t work.
The next part of this series will, finally, identify some rikishi who could be the Next Yokozuna.