The recent promotion of Tochinoshin to sumo’s second-highest rank, the even more recent non-promotion of Takakeisho, and the yusho-winning campaigns by Mitakeumi and Tamawashi have led to a lot of discussions about what it takes to become Ozeki. I’ve touched on the historical criteria in a number of posts and comments, but I wanted to take a more in-depth look and pull everything together in one place. I’ve limited my analysis to the time period from 1958 to the present, when the current system of six basho a year has been in effect.
33 Wins In 3 Basho Is Neither Necessary Nor Sufficient For Promotion
During this time period, there have been 60 Ozeki promotions, or about one a year. So these are not rare events. We’ve heard much about the supposed promotion standard of 33 wins over 3 consecutive basho (with double-digit wins in the last of the 3), sometimes with the qualifier that all 3 tournaments should be at sanyaku rank. How does this standard hold up? Well, among the 60 promoted rikishi, nearly a third (18) achieved fewer than 33 wins, 14 had exactly 33, and 28 had more. Seven of the successful Ozeki runs started from the maegashira ranks (all between M1 and M4), including two of the last three: Terunofuji in 2015 and Tochinoshin last year. Every single run ended with double-digit wins in the 3rd basho, and only three had 10-5 records in that basho. 42 ended with a yusho or jun-yusho.
What about unsuccessful runs? Before Takakeisho, there were 16 instances when a rikishi accumulated 33 or more wins over 3 basho and did not receive an Ozeki promotion immediately after the 3rd tournament. These include three separate cases of overlapping 4-basho stretches by a rikishi (33+ in basho 1-3 and 33+ in basho 2-4). Eight of the 16 started at M5 or lower; these non-promotions are therefore readily explained by the first basho not counting. In two additional cases, promotion was precluded by only 8 or 9 wins in the third basho. That leaves us with six cases, plus Takakeisho’s, in which a rikishi had a legitimate gripe.
To recap: 42 of the 60 rikishi promoted to Ozeki accumulated 33 or more wins in the previous three basho. With the added requirements that the rank in the first basho must be M4 or higher, and that the win total in the last basho must be 10 or more, there have been 49 such runs, and one in seven did not lead to immediate promotion.
The Seven Unsuccessful Runs
Is there anything that distinguishes the seven unsuccessful runs from the 42 successful ones? Four of the seven started in the rank and file, whereas only 7 of the 42 successful runs did. The other 3 started at Komusubi, but so did 17 of the successful ones (based on the historical data, starting the run at Sekiwake guarantees promotion). Three of the non-promotion cases included a 9-6 basho, but a number of the promotion cases also included 9-6 and even 8-7 records. Let’s look at the seven in more detail.
The first was Takanohana I in 1972. His run was M1 10-5, K 11-4 jun-yusho, S 12-3 jun-yusho. Looks pretty good to me. Perhaps his youth was working against him, as this was only his third full year in Makuuchi. In any case, he went 10-5 at Sekiwake the following basho, which proved sufficient for promotion.
The next two cases came during one four-basho run by Wakanohana III. The stretch started with a 9-6 record at M4. Bad banzuke luck saw him move up only one rank to M3, where he went 10-5. He was then promoted to Komusubi and won the yusho with a 14-1 record. Even this achievement did was not enough to make Ozeki, presumably because the first two tournaments were in the rank and file and the third was at Komusubi—every successful Ozeki run has included two basho in sanyaku, with the final one at Sekiwake. Wakanohana went 10-5 at Sekiwake in the 4th basho, giving him 34 wins over 3 basho, and was still not promoted. Once again, we’d have to invoke his youth. He left no doubt the following tournament, accumulating 13 wins and losing the yusho in a playoff, and was promoted with 37 wins in 3 basho, which has him tied with 3 others (most recently, Tochinoshin) for the highest pre-promotion victory count.
In 2001-2002, Kotomitsuki did not earn promotion with a 3-basho run of M2 13-2 yusho, S 9-6, S 12-3 (that’s 34 wins if you’re counting). He faltered after that, and it would be over five years before he finally made Ozeki. In 2006, Miyabiyama also failed to get promoted despite accumulating 34 wins, all in sanyaku: K 10-4, S 14-1 playoff loss, S 10-5. His case is usually explained by the fact that had held the rank of Ozeki for eight basho in 2000-2001, and was therefore held to a higher standard, although perhaps the last 10-5 record was just not viewed as sufficiently impressive. He never did regain his Ozeki rank.
Perhaps the most puzzling case is that of Baruto, who in 2009-2010 went K 12-3, S 9-6, S 12-3 jun-yusho. 33 victories? Check. All 3 basho in sanyaku? Check. A strong 3rd basho? Check. Impressive victories? The run included 10 victories over Ozeki opponents (including defeating all five Ozeki in the first basho) and a victory over peak Hakuho (who only lost 4 times in 2010, with 5 yusho, 4 of them zensho) in the 3rd basho. He was also a sanyaku regular. Baruto was given a target of 13 wins for the 2010 Haru basho, and despite fighting with an injured thumb, racked up 14 wins, finishing second to Hakuho and making an emphatic case for promotion, which he then received.
And that brings us to Takakeisho, who was not promoted despite a 3-basho run of K 9-6, K 13-2 yusho, S 11-4 jun-yusho. His case seems most similar to those of Takanohana and Wakanohana, with his track record not being deemed long enough, and we’ll see if he can follow in their footsteps and clinch promotion in the very next tournament.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
Of the 13 rikishi denied immediate promotion, 6 were promoted one basho later, 11 reached the rank of Ozeki at a later date, and one had held the rank earlier in his career. Who is the only man in modern sumo history to put together a run of 33 victories and not reach Ozeki? None other than Tachiai favorite Yoshikaze! His career-best stretch came in 2015, when he put up 10, 12, and 11 wins while ranked M14, M8, and M1. Not exactly an Ozeki run, but still! Yoshikaze was promoted to Komusubi for the following tournament, in which he went 8-7 and reached his highest career rank of Sekiwake in January 2016. He lasted two basho at this rank, and despite a subsequent four-basho sanyaku stint in 2017, never made a serious push for Ozeki (and sadly seems unlikely to do so this late in his career).
Promotions With Low Victory Totals
The flip side of rikishi failing to earn promotion with 33 or more victories are those who were promoted with as few as 28! How did this happen? Changing historical standards could be at play. Of the 18 promotions with fewer than 33 victories, all but 3 happened in the period from 1959-1985, including all 11 with fewer than 32. The two most recent ones with 32 wins? None other than Kisenosato and Goeido. Kisenosato was promoted at the end of 2011 after 10-5, 12-3, and 10-5 basho at Sekiwake, following frequent sanyaku appearances over a six-year period. Goeido was promoted in 2014 with a three-basho record of 12-3 jun-yusho, 8-7, 12-3 jun-yusho, all at Sekiwake. The 32 victories and the 8-7 basho were compensated for by multiple defeats of Ozeki and Yokozuna opponents, as well as by the fact that he set the modern record with 14 consecutive tournaments at Sekiwake (of course, this being Goeido, the streak comes with the asterisk that he twice held onto that rank despite recording only 7 victories, due to a lack of suitable promotion candidates).
What does it take to get promoted with 28 wins, as happened twice in the 1960’s? Apparently, a lack of healthy Ozeki and Yokozuna. The first with this dubious achievement was Kitabayama in 1961, who got promoted after three basho at Sekiwake with 8, 9, and 11 victories, an unremarkable stretch. Quoting Wikipedia, “there were only two Ozeki at the time, and two ageing Yokozuna and so the standard was lowered slightly [emphasis added].” Despite the lax promotion, Kitabayama didn’t fare badly, holding the rank for 5 years and even winning a yusho. The other man to get promoted with 28 wins? The 52nd Yokozuna, Kitanofuji. Once again, the deciding factor seems to have been the presence of only one Ozeki on the banzuke at the time of his promotion following 8-7, 10-5, and 10-5 tournaments. Whatever the merits of the promotion case, they obviously got the big picture right: Kitanofuji retired with 10 top-division championships, securing Dai-Yokozuna status.