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What's in a Yusho?

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If Terunofuji lifts the Emperor's Cup, he will be a Yokozuna. The only thing Terunofuji needs to worry about during the upcoming Nagoya basho is winning more than anyone else. As long as he does that, he will attain sumo's highest rank. Since he is an Ozeki and the defending champion, a title will give him the unofficial criteria for promotion: two straight yusho as an Ozeki.

Of course, Terunofuji has won the last two yusho. He won the first of the two as a Sekiwake, which means it doesn't "count" for Yokozuna promotion. The Yokozuna Deliberation Council said Terunofuji needs to do it one more time. To be fair, there has been no precedent for this in the six-basho-a-year era. Terunofuji is the first person to win back-to-back yusho that was not an Ozeki since 1937. Considering he is also coming back from an epic injury layoff, perhaps caution is warranted.

There's one other way in which Terunofuji is unlike previous yusho winner. He's done it with just 12 wins both times. This is not just a low yusho win, but a win total that wouldn't have earned a yusho in 156 of the last 175 basho. Some of why there's been a small measure of hesitancy to promote Terunofuji might just be that his 24 wins over two basho is not necessarily "Yokozuna-level." (He also has a playoff win, but that normally doesn't count in these discussions.)

While contemplating this fact, I decided to look up the win totals for every Makuuchi winner since January 1992. This date was chosen for two reasons: 1992 was the last time there were no Yokozuna on the Banzuke and it gave 175 basho to look at. Just 34 rikishi have won yusho since then. Yokozuna have won the vast majority of the yusho, and most have won many yusho.. Hakuho has 44, Asashoryu won 25, Takanohana won 22, Akebono had 11, Harumafuji won 9, Kakuryu had 6, and Wakanohana won 5. This, too, is a sign of Yokozuna-level sumo and what is expected of someone who wins the rope. A Yokozuna should win any basho they enter, or offer a yusho-worthy performance.

In the last 30 years, the average yusho winner has won 13.58 matches in his championship basho. Obviously, this puts Terunofuji's 12 wins in his two recent yusho behind the curve. 12 wins is not a typical yusho win total, and only twice has less than 12 won a yusho. At Kyushu 1996, Musashimaru won with an 11-4 record only after a 5 way playoff. In September 2017, Harumafuji won with just 11 wins after a playoff with Ozeki Goeido in a basho with the three other Yokozuna absent. 12 is just a bare minimum number where a yusho could possible happen.

Even then, that has only been done just 17 times, just a tenth of the basho since 1992. Terunofuji's consecutive dozen is the second time that has happened in the period, joining Musashimaru's victories in September and November 1999. There have been nearly twice as many zensho yusho than 12 win yusho, as rikishi have won all 15 matches 29 times in the same timeframe.

Another odd thing is that Terunofuji's average yusho win total is just 12.25. This is the lowest number for any multiple-yusho winner. Next is Mitakeumi, who averaged 12.5 wins over his two wins. Unsuprisingly at this point, Musashimaru won an average of 12.83. Everyone else averaged over 13 wins across their yusho. Even among just the one-time winners, only Asanoyama and Kyokutenho won 12. Tellingly, they were both Maegashira when they won.

Terunofuji will not become a Yokozuna based on his performance against past Yokozuna or other previous rikishi. What he must do is perform better than everyone else he faces on the dohyo. It could be that 2021 marks a change in sumo. Right now, halfway through the schedule, the winner has averaged just 12.33 wins. That would be the lowest yusho win average in one year, and only 1999 and 2003 had average win totals below 13. This is also clearly a down period, with Yokozuna fading away and younger rikishi not quite ready to take the mantle.

If Terunofuji gets the rope, it will be a wonderful story. Yet he isn't demolishing his opponents right now, and he might not be able to make it. It certainly seems he will have a short Yokozuna run if he does.


A chart of Yusho winners since 1992, with their number of yusho and average wins in their yusho.

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