Throughout sumo’s long and storied history, there have emerged several men whose exceptional skill on the dohyo has led them to be considered the greatest of all time. Taiho, Chiyonofuji, Takanohana II, Asashoryu, Hakuho. These are all sekitori whose status as the best of the best has been hotly debated even to this day. Yet there is one man from sumo’s distant past who may overshadow them all. A rikishi whose sheer dominance elevated him to the status of legend. The mighty thunderbolt, Raiden Tameemon.
Like many legends, this story has humble beginnings. Born Seki Tarokichi in 1767, the man who would one day be known as Raiden Tameemon grew up in a small village in Shinano province. Even in his youth, Tarokichi’s strength was already considerable, and his father enrolled him in sumo classes in a nearby village when he was fourteen years old. During a 1784 jungyo tour of Shinano, the young Tarokichi impressed the visiting stablemaster of Urakaze beya with both his strength and extraordinary height. Standing over six feet tall he was considered a giant compared to his fellow countrymen. Tarokichi was invited to train at Urakaze stable in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) where he honed his sumo techniques. His time at Urakaze was short-lived, and he soon began training at Isenoumi beya under Tanikaze Kajinosuke, sumo’s fourth Yokozuna and the first to hold the position while still living.
In 1790, Tarokichi would make his professional debut at the winter tournament under his new shikona of Raiden, which roughly translates to “thunderbolt”. He finished his first basho with the best record of all rikishi who had participated, including his teacher Tanikaze and the fifth Yokozuna Onogawa Kisaburo. In 1795 Raiden attained the rank of Ozeki, a position he held for seventeen years. Of the thirty-five tournaments he entered, Raiden emerged victorious on twenty-eight occasions*. Of these victories, seven were won without a single loss**, giving the Thunderbolt a record winning percentage of 96%. His supremacy on the dohyo became so renowned that the Sumo Association began limiting the techniques he could use in an attempt to keep his matches more exciting and less one-sided.
Despite dominating sumo for two decades, Raiden would never attain the prestigious rank of Yokozuna, retiring as an Ozeki in 1811 at the age of 44. There have been many theories as to why he was never awarded the title, the most likely of which involving his strained relationship with the Yoshida clan. At the time, only the Yoshida clan held the authority to issue official Yokozuna licenses. It has been hypothesized that Raiden was denied a license due to his ties to the Tokugawa Shogun, whose regime was deeply opposed by the Yoshida. Despite never being granted the rank of Yokozuna, In 1900 his name was inscribed on the Yokozuna Stone at Tomioka Hachiman Shrine, with the only title befitting his tremendous impact on sumo: “Peerless Rikishi” Raiden Tameemon.
* These are not considered official victories as the current yusho system did not come into effect until 1909.
**Although Raiden did not suffer any defeats during these tournaments, several of his matches ended in draws where the winner could not be decided definitively.