The First Eleven Men of Makushita

… When you can see over the top of the mountain

Instead of a traditional “Ones to Watch” section this basho, we’ll mix things up with a few lower division storylines. We’ll start by taking a look at what’s going on at the top of Makushita.

This division is an absolute slog. There are 120 men in this division fighting for usually 2 to 4 of the 28 slots in Juryo. As described on a recent NHK World sumo preview, the division between Makushita and Juryo is like “heaven and hell,” given the resources and opportunities provided to rikishi once they reach the professional, sekitori level.

If you’re a college rikishi of good pedigree, usually you will cruise through the bottom 2-3 tiers before meeting your tougher matches here. Rikishi who have left school before college often take several years to reach the level as they get acclimated to the sport and the lifestyle. One of the reasons it’s tough to escape the level is because there’s a crush at the top – but Nagoya 2018 is unique. With respect to Natsu whipping boy Amakaze, usually there are a couple rikishi around the top of the division who have departed Juryo due to injury or performance, not soon to return back, and these guys get beat up by the hot young up-and-comers on the upswing of their career.

This time, however, there’s no filler at the top of the division and it’s going to be an all out melee to reach the professional ranks when sumo returns to Tokyo for the Aki tournament in September. Let’s look at who’s jockeying for position:

The Battle Scarred Veterans

I’m going to put 29 year olds Jokoryu (Ms5E) and Asabenkei (Ms4E) in this category, though their careers have taken different routes to the same location. The former Komusubi Jokoryu spent 4 years as sekitori before dropping down the divisions due to serious injury. He’s been stuck in the wilderness for 2 years, but has fought his way back up to striking distance of promotion. Asabenkei, who has been in sumo since 2007, recently made it back to Juryo after an 18 month hiatus. He then suffered a humiliating 3-win tournament in May, which started 0-7, en route to an immediate demotion back to the third tier.

While these guys have a wildly different pedigree and career accomplishments, it’s probably fair to say they have been operating on a similar talent level and with an ambition to scrape back up and re-establish themselves as professionals.

The Hot Shots

Enho (Ms2W) – the first man to open his career 21-0 since Jokoryu – arrived on the scene earlier than predicted in Osaka, but it was clear he was over-promoted before his time and was swiftly demoted back to Makushita. It’s good news for him that he has such an esteemed some-time sparring partner in Hakuho, however, and the hard work he’s put in has seen him rebound after a solid Natsu to the fourth position on the banzuke. We’ve been hot on Enho so long it’s hard to believe it’s still only his 8th tournament. 5 wins should see him back up.

Meanwhile, fellow “Ones to Watch” honorees and college men Murata (Ms1W) and Ichiyamamoto (Ms3E) reach the division’s summit in just their 9th tournaments (though Ichiyamamoto gets bonus points for having got here just as quickly from Jonokuchi). Murata is a big bopper who loves a good ol’ fashioned oshi-fuelled brawl. Ichiyamamoto mixes it up a little more but is still mostly a pusher-thruster.

The Brother

The youngest of Arashio-beya’s three Onami brothers, Wakatakakage not only made it first to Juryo but then stuck at the level, managing a kachi-koshi in his first trip to the pros. Middle brother Wakamotoharu (Ms4W) now finds himself on the brink – with the third and oldest brother Wakatakamoto not so far behind at Ms10. Having only eked out 3 wins from similar positions on the banzuke in the past, he’ll be looking to improve his record in this part of the sumo world this time, to set up a promotion challenge either this time or next. It’s a sprint between the two remaining brothers to catch Wakatakakage now, but Wakamotoharu is in the pole position.

The Cups of Coffee

27 year old Akua (Ms5W) and 23 year old Hakuyozan (Ms1E) both spent years making the long and winding trek through the lower reaches of the banzuke before managing just a “cup of coffee” in the pros, each returning back to Makushita after one tournament where they both clearly looked overmatched. They’ll be wanting to make sure the chance to establish themselves at a higher level does not go begging again.

The Wild Cards

22 year olds Gokushindo (Ms2E) and Kiribayama (Ms3W) have different origin stories and routes to this point, but what they have in common is a certain inconsistency. Kiribayama at times has looked utterly dominant in this division, and is the current yusho holder. Gokushindo has tended to take 2 steps forward followed by one step back as he adjust to the differences in quality in what is a Makushita tier which effectively has divisions within the division, such is the gulf in class between various areas of the ranks. Having posted a 6-1 record last time out, it would seemingly stand to reason he would need an adjustment period again this time, but he will face familiar foes having beaten Ichiyamamoto, Murata and Wakamotoharu in May (the latter two using a style best described as “Ichinojo” – a ponderously lengthy wait-out of a grapple in the centre of the dohyo followed by an escort over the bales and a throw respectively), losing only to Kiribayama.

The Terunofuji

At the time of writing, it appears to be unclear whether we’re going to see Terunofuji (Ms6E) in Nagoya. The man has undergone plenty of work on both knees, and suffered a less than fruitful spell in Juryo, which was also apparently hindered at times by diabetes related treatment. What his tournament ability is, at this point in the game, is still unclear. While it’s possible and even likely he may drop further (either due to performance or kyujo-status), the very presence of a former Ozeki in this part of the banzuke should give pause to each of the other names listed here – if he does show up, it’s obviously to compete and to win.

11 thoughts on “The First Eleven Men of Makushita

  1. Terunofuji in the state he was in Natsu is not fit to win anything above Sandanme other than a thoroughly injured opponent, I’m sorry to say.

    He’s had another surgery on both knees on June 25th, and his oyakata said clearly before the operation that he will be kyujo from Nagoya – but then became more opaque after the surgery. I think if Terunofuji shows up at this stage, he should be committed to a whole different hospital. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

    And how much can those knees hold if he keeps his current weight? And what about that diabetes and the Hepatitis C that suddenly surfaced a few weeks back? Having the label “former Ozeki” is not going to help him much if he body is not ship-shape.

    • It would be good of them to be more decisive – I know it is is a situation that is so different from Ura’s situation for so many reasons but I think it would be good to be totally clear about the expectation.

      Another thing John Gunning reiterated from his Tachiai interview in his recent keiko article is that “doing sumo” is more than the tournaments, it’s showing up and putting in the work everyday in training and living that lifestyle. Even if he’s not participating in the tournament, Terunofuji can still show up and “do sumo” to the extent that his body allows while working towards the comeback. But as John also said, top class athletes who hate to lose aren’t thinking about 6 months from now, they want to win now. I wonder if that factors into the narrative around his participation/non-participation?

    • Oops – thanks, I must have had 14 on the brain and forgot how to multiply. Stay in school, kids!

  2. Great to read a little bit about guys we don’t see in the highlights. Thanks for this.

    • You got it – Now let’s see how they get on! I tend to think 4 of them will make enough of a case to go up, depending of course what happens in Juryo

  3. I have a question for those guys who made it to Juryo and got demoted back to Makushita. Does that means they go back to doing the grind works at their stables? Literally being back to ‘hell’ after a stint in ‘heaven’ must be quite difficult on the psyche of these rikishi. Probably even more so for a ‘former Ozeki’.

  4. Is that Enho peeking over the mountain top? Much as a love Enho’s speed, skills, attitude and increasing strength, I do wonder how far his 169 cm can carry him.

    Are there recent examples of rikishi below 170 cm, that have made a mark in the upper division?

    Even Ishiura is taller at 173, and Takekaze is listed as 172.

  5. Very interesting, Thank you. Kiribayama has been a pet prospect interest of mine, looking forward to see if he can reach his potential and give Michinoku a sekitori wrestler once again.

  6. Don’t forget former sekewakie Toyonoshima at 34 fighting to get back into the paid ranks at ms7 … Been a rocky road for him.


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