A Brief History of Yokozuna Runs

Having broken the ignominious streak of 21 basho without an Ozeki yusho, Takakeisho is officially on a Yokozuna run, and a second-straight yusho in January should get him the rope. The only Yokozuna promotion I’ve seen since I started following sumo is Kisenosato’s, and his came as a result of his long-awaited first championship, which followed a 12-3 jun-yusho, so he wasn’t really on an official run. So I thought I’d take a historical look at how often Yokozuna runs succeed.

In the 6-basho era (1958-present), nearly 80% of runs that started with an Ozeki yusho have failed; only 14 of 66 were converted into a rope. These runs were made by 38 distinct ozeki. There were 27 yokozuna promotions in this time span, so 13 of them came without such a run. To delve deeper, it is useful to separate this time period into two roughly equal halves: 1958-1988, aka “before Futahaguro,” and 1989-present, aka “after Futahaguro.” You can learn more about the 60th Yokozuna here, but the tl;dr is that he is the only Yokozuna to never win a yusho, and promotion standards were tightened after the scandal that ended his career.

The first time period spans 17 Yokozuna debuts, from Asashio (1959) to Onokuni (1987); Hokutoumi and Onokuni were promoted just after Futahaguro but before his forced retirement. Remarkably, only 3 of the 17 came after back-to-back yusho (Taiho, Kitanofuji, and Kotozakura), showing that the standards used to be much more lenient; 7 did not include a yusho at all, with such head-scratching two-tournament lines as 10-5 13-2 playoff loss (Tamanoumi). There were a total of 28 Ozeki yusho by 21 different Ozeki during this time that did not lead to immediate promotion; 6 of them were converted into a promotion after the following basho, 3 with a yusho and 3 with a lesser result. 12 of the 21 eventually became Yokozuna, while 9 topped out at Ozeki.

In the post-Futahaguro period, 18 different ozeki had a total of 38 rope runs starting with a yusho, 8 of which succeeded, all with a second yusho. None of the 10 ozeki who failed to gain promotion via this route reached Yokozuna. The two “non-standard” promotions during this time both came immediately after a yusho. Before that yusho, Kakuryu had a 14-1 playoff loss, while Kisenosato had a 12-3 jun-yusho which followed a string of strong runner-up finishes.

The record for futility is held by Kaio, who failed to get promoted after a yusho on 4 separate occasions, going make-koshi in the next basho 3 times and narrowly missing once with a 12-3 jun-yusho, which likely would have been sufficient before Futahaguro. The persistence prize is shared by Musashimaru and Takanohana, who each failed 3 times before earning promotion in the 4th run with a yusho. Three Yokozuna got there in their very first attempt—Asahifuji, Akebono, and Asashoryu—while 5 missed in their one and only shot, including the recently retired Goeido and Kotoshogiku.

What conclusions relevant for Takakeisho can we draw from this exercise? First, promotion after the next basho is far from guaranteed, with a roughly 1 in 5 chance of success. The odds are even lower for an Ozeki’s first run, especially if his shikona doesn’t start with an “A” (j/k). Second, even eventual promotion is roughly a 50-50 proposition. Finally, over the past three decades, 8 of the 10 promotions came after back-to-back yusho, and the other two came immediately following a yusho, so I’m guessing that in Takakeisho’s case, the NSK means it when they say he’ll have to win the January tournament to ascend to sumo’s highest rank.

33 thoughts on “A Brief History of Yokozuna Runs

  1. Futahaguro is certainly an unfortunate figure in the history of sumo. The Japan Sumo Association made a mistake in promoting him too early – before he had won a yusho. After his promotion, as you note, he never won a yusho either. (He lost a playoff both before and after his promotion.) And then his early and unfortunate expulsion from sumo under nebulous circumstances.

    The result being the JSA overreacted (as organizations often do when they make a mistake). While the standard of “two yusho or the equivalent” was never officially changed, as a matter of practice the JSA insisted upon two consecutive yusho. (Leaving aside the fact that nothing is really the “equivalent” of winning a yusho, is it?) The anticipated consequence of this change was fewer yokozuna; the unanticipated consequence was no Japanese yokozuna. The last Japanese rikishi to win consecutive yusho was Takanohana in 1998.

    The promotion of Kakuryu after a 14-1 playoff defeat followed by a 14-1 yusho broke the de facto, if not de jure, policy of two consecutive yusho. It needed to be broken, both as a matter of “fairness” (whatever that is in sumo) and to make it possible to promote future Japanese sekitori to yokozuna without having to wait another 20 years. And of course Kisenosato was an immediate beneficiary of the relaxation.

    As for Takakeisho, he put in a very solid performance and also showed some (if somewhat limited) ability on the mawashi. But (through no fault of his own) he didn’t face a yokozuna or an ozeki. I doubt he’ll be able to win in Hatsu when all 4 of the other top ranked rikishi will be present and wrestling to preserve their rank or careers. I’m not sure he’ll even be promoted either, as I think Asanoyama is more talented and Shodai may also be. But talent isn’t the only thing that factors into the promotion record – health and some luck do as well. Time will tell.

    • We can ask whether the stricter promotion criteria gave us “better” Yokozuna post-Futahaguro. One way to look at this is to compare the number of yusho won by the two groups of Yokozuna post-promotion. We have 4 Yokozuna with 10+ yusho before, and 3 after. There are two in each group with 6-10 yusho. In the pre-Futahaguro group, there are 6 with 2-5 yusho, 4 with one, and one with zero. In the post-Futahaguro group, the corresponding totals are 2, 2, and one, respectively. So one could argue that the stricter promotion criteria are leading to the same number of “strong” Yokozuna who have no trouble clearing the higher bar, while weeding out some of the “weak” Yokozuna who wouldn’t live up to the standard of the rank, which is to compete for yusho on a regular basis. Small numbers, I know…

  2. I did not know the pre-Futahaguro standard was so different. I’d known they promoted him shockingly early but I think we will find ourselves in another era where it’s difficult for anyone to win twice in a row.

  3. I think a 20% chance sounds about right for Takakeisho: if I was backing him I wouldn’t take less than 4/1. If we have two of the big four back and Terunofuji that’s three other very strong yusho contenders for January and of course after the year we’ve just had, we can’t rule out A. N. Other. You also have to factor in that he isn’t exactly bomb-proof when it comes to injury.

    • Yeah, I started with a handicapping approach. I figure Hakuho, Terunofuji, Asanoyama, Kakuryu, Shodai, and Mitakeumi could be in the mix, plus the rest of the field. Depending on how you weight everyone’s chances, you end up in the 10-20% range. And the historical rate lands you in a similar place.

  4. Let me see if I remember my probability lessons correctly… (I had to redo that subject. 😅)

    So the probability of Takakeisho winning a second consecutive yusho given that he already won a yusho is… basically the probability of him winning a yusho. That’s it. The two yusho are independent of each other. The ones who succeed in stringing two yusho together are the ones who are generally more successful in winning yusho.

    So the way I see it, Takakeisho’s chances of winning this rope run (or any rope run) are slim not based on statistics of past Yokozuna runs, but based on the interval between his yusho, which reflect his probability of winning a yusho in any given competition.

    Arguably, Musashimaru had a thin record before he made Yokozuna and it improved later, so this could happen for Takakeisho, too, but that really requires a crystal ball rather than probability and statistics.

    • You could argue that they’re not quite independent but rather the chance of the second yusho is even slimmer due to the attention the winner gets after their first yusho, and also the pressure of the Yokozuna run itself.

      Hopefully that will be less of an issue at the moment, particularly as Takakeisho seems to have a lot of grit. But still as you say a slim chance overall.

      • I think you could argue every which way. You could argue that the extra attention is mostly when winning the first yusho ever (when you have to tour your home school and the city hall and whatever to announce your yusho and get photo ops with the people there), but less so after a second yusho. You could also argue that a second yusho is easier after a first yusho because the first yusho indicates you are in good shape physically.

        But I think in general they are independent events, and much of the post-yusho fatigue is offset during COVID anyway, because they only have a short period for interaction before the regulations become strict again.

    • Right, probability is pretty much what I do for a living, and while we can quibble about precisely how independent they are, it’s certainly a good place to start. I looked at this, and of the past 16 basho, which I think is a reasonably fair timeframe, Takakeisho won two, which would give him a 12.5% probability. This squared with a more subjective handicapping analysis, and the historical rate wasn’t too far off. I went with that for the post as I think it provides interesting context, and I think saying “Takakeisho is an Ozeki, so a reasonable estimate of his probability is how the average Ozeki has done in the same situation” is a solid empirical approach. To improve on it, we could regress Takakeisho’s yusho win rate to the overall Ozeki rate, but that’s probably overkill. Mainly, in addition to the historical interest, this post is a reaction to all the folks penciling in Yokozuna Takakeisho on the March banzuke already.

      • I certainly agree on that point. I’m amused every tournament at how people depict the yusho winner du jour as “finally showing his true colors” and imagine an up trend when there is a single data point. In Takakeisho’s case, those rose colored glasses are further tinted by the hope for a new yokozuna.

        • Kind of like how some people were pencilling the likes of Torakio and Shoji into future makuuchi banzuke based on how they did in jonokuchi and jonidan…

  5. When the other O’s and the Y’s return it doesn’t reduce Takakeisho’s chances any more than any of their chances are lowered. Hakuho has pushed further into the sunset of his career than he likely ever intended to, and Kakuryu has not been the same since his stable change. The other champions have to fight each other, as well as Takakeisho, so it’s not like they are only fighting Takakeisho and not each other as well.

    Saying Asanoyama and Shodai are more skilled than Takakeisho does him as much injustice as has always been done to him throughout his career and it’s frankly a shortsighted comment to make.

    • Imagine a situation in which on day 10, The leaderboard contains, say, Hakuho, Takakeisho, and Shodai with 9-1 and Asanoyama and Terunofuji with 8-2. Does that sound like it’s as likely that Takakeisho will take it as a leaderboard having basically only Takakeisho and Terunofuji?

      The more strong contenders are in the lead, the less likely any particular one of them is to win the yusho, it’s true – and it’s true of Takakeisho unless he is a lot better than the others. Which, based on his record so far, isn’t really true.

  6. Takakeisho has a small advantage though, which goes by the name of Takanosho. He will fight most of the top ranks and surely will earn some scalps while Takakeisho would only face his stablemate in a playoff. Like Terutsuyoshi did all he could to enable terunofuji to win his yusho, Takanosho will surely do the same if Takakeisho is in a leading position.

  7. Tamanoumi’s run makes somewhat more sense across three basho, which as far as I’m aware was a perfectly normal way to judge yokozuna candidacies pre-Futahaguro. Just not the only way, hence back-to-back yusho with nothing else before = also acceptable. It’s just the temporary insistence on consecutive yusho which made looking at more than two tournaments impractical after the mid-1980s. They’ve been walking that back for at least 15 years now, but the likes of Kaio and Tochiazuma weren’t able to take advantage of it the way Kisenosato finally was.

  8. This isn’t about this post specifically, but how many wins do you think Hakuho and Kakuryu have to get for the committee to not ‘strongly recommend’ their end? 10?

      • The bar may be weighted more toward finishing the 15 days than the number of wins. Hakuho’s 10 win kyujo didn’t seem to appease the YDC so I’m leaning toward 8-9 wins and a completed tournament. If either have 10-11 wins but pull out with the title on the line…hoooo boy.

        • 8-7 is very rare for a yokozuna—it’s only happened 12 times since 1958, and the last time was January 1999 (can you guess who did it?).

          • Big T? I was right with my first guess!

            It’s probably very rare because they go kyujo/intai with 3-4 week one losses. There’s a huge constraint on Kakuryu that Takanohana never had to contend with: citizenship. Takanohana had several more yusho after his 8-7 tournament and did go kyujo after that 8-7. I have no idea what the YDC is looking for: participation or winning.

            • Both. The guys need to show up for the whole 15 days. But if they show up and their performance is not Yokozuna-worthy, they will face the same unfriendly YDC. Yano’s words: “I want them to be a wall” – which is the usual phrasing for “Make the others work hard for the yusho”. This is usually interpreted as being in the yusho race themselves for a significant part of the tournament.

              Which I interpret as the “Yokozuna kachi-koshi”, and LK interprets as 9 wins.

      • I wonder whether the committee looks at yokozuna as sort of an ozeki-plus for keeping their rank- ozeki can go kyujo twice before having to get 10 wins at ozekiwake to be back to their rank. Maybe they think yokozuna get three bad tournaments before having to hit 10 in the fourth to “maintain” their rank; anything less and it’s strongly suggested they retire?

        • A reasonable theory strongly contradicted by the fact that Kisenosato did this without a peep from the YDC: 2017.05 Y1e 6-5-4 2017.07 Y2e 2-4-9 2017.09 Y2e 0-0-15 2017.11 Y2e 4-6-5 2018.01 Y1w 1-5-9 2018.03 Y2e 0-0-15 2018.05 Y2e 0-0-15 2018.07 Y2e 0-0-15

          • After that, he had a good 10-5 tournament in September, had to withdraw in November after starting 0-4, only then received an “encouragement” from the YDC, which is milder than a “warning,” started January 0-3, and finally retired.

  9. Hatsu basho has ben won by a first timer for the last five years, so I am concerned about Takakeisho’s chance. Everything is possible in January.

  10. So, who’s the first-timer who’s most likely to win this time? Takayasu? Daieisho? Hokutofuji? Or one of the young guns lower down the banzuke? I like all those choices, but I like Kotoshoho the most. He seems healthy, will be on the fringes of the joi meat grinder, facing higher rankers who are less healthy and with more to lose during week 1. Survive that, and with the eventual withdrawals, he’s got a decent shot.


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