An Ikioi Moment of Reflection

As good a time as any to bust out this old edit I did for Andy years ago…

As you may have seen or heard elsewhere, Ikioi retired last week.

This isn’t the post to do a comprehensive post-mortem on his career, I don’t really have the ability to eloquently summarise that right now or the patience to get “whatabouted.” Instead, the retirement of Ikioi instead makes me think about the passing of time with sumo, life, etcetera and so on. So, I want to talk about that. 

Ikioi was my favourite rikishi. I said that many times on this site, in podcasts, in interviews with other folks throughout the sumo world. There was something special and unique about him, even in the beginning, when I started following sumo, before I knew anything. At that point I think he was the only single kanji name in the top division, and he had a strange but powerful, relatable shikona.

Ikioi was all over the place. When I started watching the sport, he could just as soon rattle off 9 wins in a row as he could lose 13 or 14 in a tournament. He was a kinboshi threat, would go crashing into the dizzy heights of the san’yaku and be sent swiftly crashing back out of it.

His sumo was so intense. I always called it heavy metal sumo. For sure, that was partially influenced by my theft of that term from association football and that term’s association with the beloved manager of my beloved club. But it applied here. Ikioi only had one speed, which was all the way on.

A lot of rikishi say that their will is to do “forward moving sumo.” This is the only way that Ikioi ever really operated. From the tachiai he would rush in, grappling or thrusting or with a big right hand to the mawashi, normally with an attempt to just overwhelm the opponent, and dominate. Did he win? More often than not. Well, one time more often than not as his career 546-545 record would indicate. But it was the approach that was the exciting thing.

For sure, some of his mannerisms in the dohyo seemed to be influenced by my other great sumo love, Hakuho (even if his results certainly were not). There’s not really much denying that. As the iron man, he was ever present in the top division, famously never missing a day of work. Our friend Kintamayama described him at times variously as a “walking ambulance” or “walking hospital” owing to the state of the many bandages covering him and the challenges he often seemed to have in his latter years even entering and leaving the dohyo, always gingerly and sometimes with a grimace.

The first time I ever interviewed someone for this site, John Gunning explained the concept of shin-gi-tai: heart, technique, physique – the three qualities you need to be successful at sumo. It’s no good if you just have one or even two of them. To be great you need to have all of them. I’ve watched sumo at this point for many years (not as many as some, longer than others), and no one epitomises heart to me like Ikioi. Of course he had the physique to be successful in the top division and he sometimes displayed the technique to back it up, but it was his heart that kept him in matches he had no business winning, and it was his heart that kept him coming back onto the dohyo when his body clearly didn’t agree.

It has been said that of the three, perhaps that’s the most important quality.

I haven’t been in Japan for a while now. It’s hard to say I miss the basho experience because the experience that exists now isn’t the one that I and so many other readers of this site have had. So it’s not that I miss going to a basho, but I miss moments, like the one I had meeting the follower of Ikioi who showed up to Kokugikan in a Hanshin Tigers jersey and walked around the upper bowl of the arena for an entire afternoon holding up his Ikioi cheer sign.

A well known Ikioi fan graciously allows Tachiai to take his photo at Kokugikan in 2019

I have a deep love for the city of Osaka and there is just no replicating the atmosphere that the fans of that city provide to one of their own during the Haru basho. I was lucky enough to witness this in person several times for Ikioi. The Kansai experience is not for everyone it must be said, but I’ve often said it’s my favourite place to watch sumo and for me, watching this guy in that place was often the best part of all of it.

The worst part for me here isn’t the retirement, it’s the manner of it. And I don’t mean an injured guy dropping into Sandanme while the Kyokai works out a myoseki shuffle before he can retire. It’s that an Ikioi was robbed of that last appearance in front of hometown fans, much like a Kotoshogiku never got to make a final appearance in front of supporters in Kyushu. Those places would have provided the best backgrounds for these long serving veterans to make their final bow, to say nothing of long-serving lower rankers whose most passionate support, perhaps even the support that helped to keep them going, might have come from one of the regional basho.

We recorded some podcast content for Tachiai the other day, and Bruce remarked that much of this incredible class of the 00s has now ridden off into the sunset in their blue jackets as the wave of retirements of that generation of rikishi gathers pace. Just as the sumo world doesn’t stop, that progression through the ranks from rookie to retiree doesn’t happen in isolation – it’s hard not to think how the world has moved and changed around us as well. Of course, there will be another great generation soon, maybe we’re seeing the start of it now. If you’ve got a favourite rikishi, enjoy it. If you haven’t, maybe you and I will find one from this new generation soon. And let’s hope this mad world gets back to normal soon so that we can have special moments in our temples of sumo again.

Anyway, here’s that video of the main man hawking an iron, if you haven’t seen it. Enjoy. 

24 thoughts on “An Ikioi Moment of Reflection

  1. (Ikioi and Kunio are surely the two most glorious voices in sumo. Wow.) Thanks for this writeup, Josh; Ikioi will certainly be missed on the dohyo, but I wish him every good thing in the next phase of his life.

  2. I guess you could teach any man to sing in some way but ikioi really has a great voice, i was astonished when i heard him the first time.

    • Indeed he does. I hope he starts a second career in the recording studio!

  3. Who is the woman on that bw picture? Looks like Meg White of the White Stripes to me, but that would be… unexpected

    • Oh damn, I didn’t realize it’s photoshopped. Stupid me.
      So it must be Meg White…

  4. Lovely article, thank you. The thought of a favourite rikishi retiring really scares me. I can’t bear to look at danpatsu-shiki photos ’cause they’re so emotional, lol. Even for guys I don’t know anything about.
    Ikioi has a wonderful voice as noted but i don’t think he gets enough credit for his face. A really excellent face.

  5. I wonder what kind of oyakata he will be. That makes me look forward to his second sumo career. He sets a high bar for the SHIN side of the shin-gi-tai you talked about with John.

    • Sadly, it will be hard to discern his influence on the deshi in a heya where he is just one of four oyakata.

      • Do you think he will have his own stable one day? It’s not for everyone, I know (eyes Takamisakari)…but I don’t see him being 1 of 4 for long for some reason.

        • No, he doesn’t have the qualifications. He can theoretically inherit a heya, but there are two oyakata ahead of him in Isenoumi beya, so unless Isenoumi auctions it like old Asashio, or somebody leaves him a heya he has no connection to (e.g. by marriage), he’s going to be a heya-tsuki oyakata for the rest of his career.

        • I think he certainly could inherit Isenoumi eventually, especially because the other two oyakata are only 6 years younger than the shisho (leaving in the worst case scenario 14 years for him to potentially run that stable assuming it doesn’t get passed straight to him in ten years’ time on account of the ages of the other two, their ability to run the heya, agreements that have been made, the resources available to Kasugayama, or other political matters). It often is a political or relationship driven decision and the oldest guy in the pecking order is not necessarily the guy who’s going to inherit it.

          Additionally, he has spoken in the past about his ambition and desire to operate a Kasugayama stable. If his desire to do so is truly that strong (and he’s aware already or a couple years down the line that he will in fact not be the one to inherit Isenoumi), I would not be surprised for him to find a way to make an active heya change either through marriage or by way of doing a deal with another oyakata from a heya where he doesn’t otherwise have a connection. IMHO the latter would be more surprising but on the other hand it comes down to how ambitious he really is.

          Not for nothing, Tokitsukaze is an ichimon that is going to see a considerable amount of change in terms of its composition in the next decade relative to its size (and has seen quite a bit of shuffling in the past couple years anyway), so there may be things that happen that we cannot foresee.

          • Very optimistic, but I don’t think very realistic. Maybe he can inherit Isenoumi, I don’t know, but when he was talking about creating his own heya, he was still going kyujo-less in Makuuchi and had a chance to make the criterion.

            The criterion was purposely created to cut down the number of heya. In Tokitsukaze ichimon, Toyonoshima and Kakuryu will get their own heya as soon as they get a permanent kabu. I doubt the NSK will want to stretch the ichimon even further.

            • What are the criteria? I’ve been having questions, myself, over succession at other stables with a glut of oyakata, like Kasugano and Tomozuna.

              I would presume Goeido and Kotoshogiku would take over at Sakaigawa and Sadogatake since they made Ozeki but there are a lot of former Sekiwake/Komusubi.

              I had presumed Aminishiki would succeed at Isegahama…but it sounds like Terunofuji is the heir apparent. Asahifuji will turn 65 in 2025. Terunofuji may have retired by then. If not, would he have to wait until Aminishiki retires 20+ years down the road?

              • How did you get at Terunofuji being the hair apparent? Aminishiki is still Asahifuji’s cousin’s son. That much hasn’t changed. Even if Terunofuji is currently joining the Suginomori clan, he’ll probably open his own heya.

                The criteria to be allowed to open your own heya is one of the following:

                1. Yokozuna or Ozeki
                2. 25 basho or more in san-yaku
                3. 60 basho or more in Makuuchi

                So while you can become oyakata with less than that, you’ll be a heya-tsuki oyakata, unless you’re inheriting a heya.

                To inherit a heya you have criteria which are even easier than just becoming a heya-tsuki oyakata – 12 basho and above in Makuuchi or 20 in Juryo or above.

                Goeido and Kotoshogiku are likely to open their own heya unless they have been expected to inherit. I believe Sadogatake will probably go to Kotonowaka Jr. unless he doesn’t manage to stick to his sekitori status for another year (and that depends on injury). So Kotoshogiku is very likely to open his own heya. Not sure what the Sakaigawa status is.

              • The “joining the Suginomori clan” part. I’d been thinking Ajigawa but bringing Terunofuji into the actual family may bring him closer than a cousin’s son…but I may have watched The Godfather too much. Anyway, with this criteria, Ajigawa’s got to be eligible to start his own, too, without waiting for Asahifuji to retire. 82 basho in Makuuchi. That would be a pretty powerful legacy, Ajigawa-beya AND Isegahama-beya.

              • Of course he is eligible, but he has no reason to go on his own. He is actual family – a genuine Suginomori. He also has some sort of nephew in the works. You don’t see him collecting any uchi-deshi.

                And while Terunofuji is probably going to take the Suginomori name, it doesn’t mean he actually joins the family. He will not be the first naturalized rikishi who takes his oyakata’s surname – Kyokutenho did the same thing. Kyokutenho’s Wikipedia mentions that although there was gossip that he was adopted by his former shisho, in truth he did it out of respect for him. He also didn’t inherit Oshima beya and it got closed while he was still active.

            • The Isenoumi thing seems pretty straightforward. There aren’t really any other logical folks to take it over at that stage although 15 years is a long time. The question is more does he want to wait until his 50s? To your point he doesn’t have a lot of choice. But one would think at this stage it seems certainly he’d get it in 2031 or 2037 depending whether it’s been promised or not. He does seem to have a close affinity for his own heya, which not everyone does.

              I agree the rest of it is more of a long shot and I’m certainly not suggesting any kind of exemption for a new heya, but the framework is there to take over an existing one and there are a bunch of examples of active transfers for various personal/political reasons across really every ichimon. If he really is that ambitious and that’s the question – there’s an argument that he can make an active change to Kagamiyama beya within the ichimon as there’s no one to inherit that heya over the long term and the shisho will be retiring in the next 2 years (to your point, Toyonoshima, who could also branch out although I’ve seen some question over his resources, could also do this… I don’t know that it’s as certain that Toyonoshima will branch out, whereas most sane folks agree Kakuryu absolutely will unless he has some seriously unlikely arrangement to assume Michinoku in a couple years, but I imagine that goes to Shikishima).

              But there’s some question as others have raised about whether the Kyokai would even allow that since Kagamiyama as a heya is essentially dead. Unlike some other heya though in the ichimon, it does at least have some real history with Isenoumi given that it was founded by Kashiwado, and I could see a narrative there for an Isenoumi guy to revive it (either under the Kasugayama name or Kagamiyama itself). These types of moves are all political, so you could see a scenario where someone’s able to do that by agreeing to buy the premises off the current guy, and Ikioi probably has the resources to make that happen.

  6. We all knew this day was coming, but it still hits hard. Ikioi was also my favorite rikishi. I am glad he has the kabu and will be staying in the sumo world as an oyakata. There’s that consolation.

    I always thought that if one were describing what a rikishi should look like physically, and how he should comport himself on and off the dohyo, you could do a lot worse than to choose Ikioi as your model. He just always seemed to enjoy the total experience of being a rikishi.

  7. Great post! Couldn’t have said it better myself. I also loved his marching stomp ritual before entering the ring and then looking like a coiled spring at the tachiai. Thanks also for the ironing vid. that was awesome

  8. My favourite part of Ikioi was how the Osaka crowd would come to life whenever he was on the clay. He was one of those guys who seemed to feed on that sort of thing too. It was great.

    That, and his manners were always impeccable.


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