Asanoyama succeeded where others faltered

Upper san’yaku ranks desperately needed a new face, as the presence of just one ozeki required one of the two ageing yokozuna to be recorded as “yokozuna – ozeki” – but how long are Hakuho and Kakuryu last in the sport?

There was a certain amount of expectation surrounding Asanoyama’s ozeki quest, and a lot of pressure – inherent, of course, in such a run.

Other very talented rikishi, unfortunately, failed to meet ozeki standards as they were approaching sumo’s second top rank. Let’s look back at the past decade.

  1. Tochiozan Yuichiro

Tochiozan is certainly a name that springs to mind, as he was dubbed one of the “seven samurai”, alongside with Goeido, Kisenosato, Kotoshogiku, Homasho, Tonoyoshima and Toyohibiki.

Looking as far back as 2010, he could show the extend of his skills. A 9-6 record as maegashira 1, produced during the Nagoya basho, wasn’t really mind blowing, but enough to open some possibilities – he defeated then ozeki Harumafuji and Baruto in the process.

In September, a strong 11-4 ranked sekiwake proved that Tochiozan’s ozeki run was very much on. This time, ozeki Kaio, Kotooshu and Harumafuji were his victims. With twenty wins amassed, and five ozeki wins over both tournaments, Tochiozan definitely had a shot at the ozeki rank, provided he could finish even better at 12-3. Or, worseways, just produce double digits and try his luck again the next tournament.

It started reasonably well in Fukuoka, Tochiozan being 4-1 after the first third of the tournament. Incredibly, the sekiwake lost seven bouts in a row – including everyone ranked above him, and noticeable names like Kisenosato or Aminishiki – to end up the basho with a make kochi (7-8). He could stay in san’yaku right after, but his quest was over.

Arguably, that was Tochiozan’s best spot, and perhaps most natural attempt to reach ozeki rank. Before we could see him performing well in san’yaku again, two other “samurai”, Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato, had long been promoted above him. Apart from seeing his great rivals wrestling well, he had to swallow another big disappointment, too: losing to a playoff to surprise winner Kyokutenho, during the famous May 2012 tournament.

A talented rikishi: Tochiozan Yuichiro

Tochiozan did fare well as a sekiwake – jumping forward to 2014, where he produced 9-6 and 10-5 performances in March and May, defeating Kotoshogiku (twice) and Harumafuji along the way. Sadly, he went kyujo in Nagoya, after getting a precarious 2-5 record. He had a final noticeable stint as a sekiwake, where he stayed during four basho between 2015 and 2016 – he produced double digits one single time. After a 7-8 make kochi, he never reched that rank again.

2. Myogiryu Yasunari

Myogiryu used to produce great sumo; even if he wasn’t really on an ozeki run, I enjoyed watching him on the dohyo, and some fine performances are definitely worth mentioning.

A skilled man: Myogiryu Yasunari

One of his best runs came as early as 2012, where he received the gino sho (the technique prize) three times in a row. For his san’yaku debut in Nagoya, Myogiryu went kachi koshi (8-7) while defeating ozeki Kakuryu and Baruto, to secure a spot as a sekiwake. Remarkably, he produced double digits (10-5) as a shin sekiwake, defeating Kakuryu again. Unfortunately, he couldn’t raise his level further up, ending the next tournament 6-9 to end up an early dream.

3. Mitakeumi Hisashi

It is simply impossible not to mention Mitakeumi’s case. Of the modern era, he’s the only rikishi, alongside Kotonoshiki, to have won the yusho more than once without ending up promoted to ozeki. In fact, it looks a bit awkward to rank a double yusho winner down the maegashira ranks.

Mitakeumi is a hugely talented boy. He started his career doing ochi zumo, before – unlike Takakeisho – successfully switching to yotsu zumo.

He entered makuuchi at the end of 2015, and produced three double digits records as early as 2016. He began an incredible run in san’yaku after a fine 11-4 performance in January 2017, where he earned two kinboshi. He finally left san’yaku, after seventeen (!) tournaments of uninterrupted presence. In comparison, Goeido’s run – which did not see a single demotion from sekiwake to komusubi – lasted fourteen tournaments, before reaching… ozeki status.

Obviously, Mitakeumi missed two golden opportunities to reach the desired ozeki rank, after each of his two yusho.

Looking back at 2018, Mitakeumi produced a respectable 9-6 record in May, without defeating any ozeki or yokozuna. However, his first yusho, obtained right after in Nagoya, following a career best 13-2 record (including a win against Goeido) meant another fine performance in September would be enough to climb one more step on the banzuke.

Mitakeumi started the Aki basho 5-0 while defeating Tochinoshin. He got some quality wins, he got an impressive san’yaku streak, he almost got the numbers – what could go wrong? After a reasonable loss to Goeido on day 6, Mitakeumi bounced back, defeating then komusubi Takakeisho to move up 6-1.

Did pressure prove too heavy for his shoulders? Mitakeumi litterally crumbled, losing in succession to Ikioi, Hakuho, Kakuryu, Kaisei and Kisenosato (yes, that make or break basho where Kisenosato came from nowhere). Scratch these unnecessary losses to both maegashira, send a 8-3 Mitakeumi against an obivously not 100% fit Kisenosato, and get him a 9-3 record. He’s almost there!

Two time yusho winner, and maegashira in January 2020: Mitakeumi Hisashi (left)

Obviously, things – could have, but – didn’t happen that way, and his five defeat streak did not impress any one. Ozeki run over.

Story kind of repeated one year later. After a respectable, albeit a bit slack 9-6 performance in Nagoya, Mitakeumi clinched his second yusho in a playoff, after having amassed twelwe wins. He defeated ozeki Tochinoshin and Goeido, although nobody was impressed by the henka produced on the latter.

In Fukuoka, nobody was talking about ozeki run any more, after four losses over the first six days. Just like Tochiozan, Mitakeumi’s first attempt to reach ozeki rank was arguably the most serious. Can he prove us wrong in the coming months?

4. Tamawashi Ichiro

Tamawashi has been around for quite some time. After a somewhat indifferent career – with a few juryo drops, the Mongolian has had a great later career.

2017 has been remarkable for him, spending almost the entire year in san’yaku (he ended up as maegashira 1 in Fukuoka). Tamawashi produced 9, 8, 10, and 7 wins as a sekiwake. Pretty decent, but not enough for a clear ozeki run.

That quest came after his stunning yusho, won in January of 2019. Tamawashi has beaten, along the way, everybody ranked above him who showed up on his path: Tochinoshin, Takayasu, Goeido and Hakuho!

Irresistible in Hatsu 2019: Tamawashi Ichiro

Prior to that, Tamawashi had a reasonable 9-6 tournament in Kyushu, where he defeated Tochinoshin (and won by default against Kisenosato). Twenty one wins amassed and a yusho in his belt meant Tamawashi needed a strong performance in Osaka to reach, in incredible fashion, the rank of ozeki.

The dream did not last long, however. After a win on shonichi, three defeats in a row burried Tamawashi’s late hopes of success.

6 thoughts on “Asanoyama succeeded where others faltered

  1. Tochiozan (once, in 2014) and Mitakeumi (twice) are the only recent rikishi who haven’t reached Ozeki to amass even 20 wins in san’yaku over 2 consecutive tournaments, with winning records in both. Nobody’s managed consecutive double digits. So not a lot of true near misses…

    • Yeah, Mitakeumi has come much closer than anybody did since everybody’s favourite “shoulda been an ozeki” example from back in the day, Wakanosato, but even Mitakeumi’s case is uncomfortably carried by those two sekiwake yusho, with no further double-digit records in his 16 other sanyaku appearances. The falling apart of the old guard may yet result in him getting to ozeki, but time is no longer on his side. At some point not too far off he’s gonna start losing more ground to younger rikishi than he’s gaining on older ones.

      Wakanosato’s best run in sanyaku was a very creditable 11-9-9-10-11 series, at a time when Kaio and Chiyotaikai were still going strong (and Asashoryu had just become yokozuna). That isn’t that far off from what Asanoyama did over the past year, but them’s the breaks when you can only demonstrate borderline ozeki qualities. I suppose he could have been at least a Goeido-level ozeki for a little while at that point, so in that sense he’s somebody who definitely lost out by not having been given the ball to run with it. I don’t recall ever thinking that about Tochiozan or Myogiryu.

      Of course, in the real world Wakanosato suffered a serious knee injury only two years after that run which left him somewhat diminished, and then he injured the same knee again less than a year later which ended his top-level effectiveness altogether at only 30 years of age, so who knows how hypothetical ozeki Wakanosato would have done.

      • Wakanosato actually managed S 10 S 11 on two separate occasions, but then went MK in the third basho.

        • FWIW, he had a bit of a headcase reputation for not dealing well with pressure, similar to Kisenosato. Might have made it to ozeki eventually with more than those two opportunities, perhaps, but the injuries put an end to that possibility.

      • I remember 2015 when Tochiozan and Miyogiryu were Sanyaku stables (I think even holding both sekiwake for a few tournaments in a row, but didn’t check). Both had been showing strong sumo at that time and I was wondering, if they could do the next step. Didn’t seem impossible at the time (obviously fell apart in 2016). At that time of course there were 3 Yokozuna and 4 Ozeki with Terunofuji just having leapfrogged both of them.
        Mitakeumi is just a huge dissapointment. It’s not so much the fact that he loses, but how he loses. He can look very strong the previous tournament or even the previous day and be totally lackluster the next. Most other rikishi in this article at least put up a fight every day, even if they may end up coming short.

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