The Makuuchi Premier League

Brighton loses another. Photo by Nicola, crude photoshop work by the author.

In the holiday lull and with no sumo, let’s have some fun.

It’s always fun to compare sumo to other sports. Giant of sumo punditry John Gunning regularly invokes references to the only NFL team worth a damn in his Japan Times columns (as well as numerous other sporting easter eggs), and sumo comparisons to other sports are doubly fun given that much of the world struggles to recognise rikishi as proper athletes until they are giving of their time to actually watch the sport.

By most measures, the goliath of the sports industry is the Premier League, watched in every corner of the planet, consistently breaking revenue records and whose clubs are the not just the cornerstone of their communities but also often the object of sugar daddy billionaires or countries looking to sportswash their reputation. But like many rikishi, while some of them have similar styles they often have their own unique tactics, approaches to the game, or places within the sport’s cultural framework.

If you are a football fan you will disagree with some of my choices (this is what the comments section is for). If you are a sumo fan who doesn’t care about other sports you will say “I don’t care about this content, tell me more about sumo.” That’s ok too. But I don’t have any more news for you, it’s December. So – and with apologies to the highest placed omission Meisei –  let’s have a go at determining who’s who:

Terunofuji – Manchester City

In terms of pure ability, Terunofuji is the class of makuuchi. Now that he has got to grips with his body, he has a fairly defined style of sumo which is very pleasing on the eye, and is often able to simply overpower his opponents. Like the Citizens, Terunofuji had to wait for the decline of other historic champions to begin his championship run, but is rapidly growing his trophy cabinet.

Mitakeumi  – Chelsea

Hailing from one of the most prestigious stables, the Dewanoumi man has every tool in his locker for success, and with multiple yusho and all manner of special prizes has certainly grown his trophy cabinet. But like the billionaire-owned sack-happy London club, he is prone to moments of self-destruction and turbulence often snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Chelsea have achieved great success in the last two decades but like Mitakeumi, who would be an Ozeki or better but for some consistency, you get the feeling the legacy could be greater.

Takakeisho – Liverpool

It’s a weird one for me as a Liverpool supporter myself to write this, as I don’t really have any kind of emotional attachment to Takakeisho or his sumo. But the full-throttle nature of his sumo is very much in tune with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Much like Liverpool has emerged from the shadow of past legacies, Takakeisho was trained initially by a dai-yokozuna from whose shadow he emerged following Takanohana-beya’s closure. Like the Liverpool of recent years, his relentless attacking style was prone to counter-attacks and his ability to rack up wins in his peak has been disrupted by injury. But as he has matured, controlling the chaos has made him a much more potent force, resulting in multiple championships and coasting to huge numbers of wins when he’s on it.

Takayasu – Manchester United

You might think this is a bit of a weird one given that Man Utd have won 20 league championships and Takayasu has won nothing, but hear me out. This is about the league of today, and Takayasu has possibly the best raw ability of any rikishi in the top division not named Terunofuji. But like the star studded Red Devils, it’s a lack of organisation, fitness, potentially mental issues, and an inability to escape the shadow of a (generational, if not all-time) great that has left Takayasu on the outside of an era where he should very much be in play for major honours when you look at what he brings to the table relative to his competition.

Ichinojo – Everton

“The People’s Club.” Ichinojo is a fascinating figure in sumo. But also, he’s just kind of, you know, there. Not unlike Everton, disliked by very few, ever present in the Premier League since its inception but never really in danger of challenging at the top or bottom end of the table. Like Everton, the competent Ichinojo will have his basho where he’ll elevate himself into the top 6 positions of the banzuke, or very bad tournaments where he performs clearly below his level. And like the Toffees, it’s hard to escape that with the tools at his disposal he could be capable of greater success.

Asanoyama – Tottenham Hotspur 

Again, perhaps this feels a bit odd considering Asanoyama has actually won a yusho and Spurs very famously never win anything, but here’s another club which presses the self-destruct button when it seems easier to win. Perhaps Asanoyama actually should be thankful he hadn’t become the 73rd Yokozuna when his scandal broke, otherwise he certainly wouldn’t be in the sport now. Spurs possess perhaps the sport’s best all-around striker, and you’ll do better to find a better yotsu-zumo technician in the top division (probably just Terunofuji). On his day, he can beat anyone. Like Spurs, he has made some seriously questionable off-dohyo decisions in recent years which have set back his progress on it.

Wakatakakage – Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wolves are a bit of an odd club. Located in the West Midlands but very much with a Portuguese backbone and Chinese ownership, they’ve exhibited slow and steady progress over the past few years to leave themselves just on the fringes outside the truly top teams. Wakatakakage similarly has moved gradually and deliberately up the banzuke, occasionally running into a tough tournament but impressively bouncing back and staying true to his style of sumo, working under the tutelage of sumo’s only Chinese oyakata.

Shodai – Arsenal

A proud old club and a proud 30-year old rikishi, a little bit set in their way of doing things despite furious critical analysis from the outside world, with a passionate fanbase and no few accolades. Arsenal’s ownership situation has been scrutinised endlessly, not unlike that of the legendary Tokitsukaze-beya. He’s a powerful rikishi, one that if he can recapture title winning form would be a force to be reckoned with. But, as with the recent basho where he wasn’t even paired up with the Yokozuna, like Arsenal he has a lot of work to do to show he belongs at the top table again. And like Arsenal, he has inbuilt advantages as an Ozeki that should keep him elevated among the division’s elite for a long time.

Takanosho – West Ham United

Takanosho has much in common with David Moyes’ impressively developing side. They’ll get pumped every now and again, but as with Takanosho, they have shown the ability to upset opponents of much higher pedigree, even if you wish the overall product were a little more attractive. One to watch over the next couple of years. Can he do more?

Daieisho – Leicester City

A high tempo rikishi with one surprise championship, Daieisho seems like a good fit for the Foxes. And like them, everyone expected him to push on and really challenge for further honours after the surprise yusho, but results have been a little more hit and miss with the Oitekaze beya man bobbing in and out of san’yaku at a time when Leicester are struggling to impose themselves among the historical big clubs.

Kotonowaka – Newcastle United

A big shout, this. Newcastle are now the richest club in the premier league, as Sadogatake are one of sumo’s deepest and most storied stables. Both arguably had some of their best years of recent decades in the late 90s to early 00s, but the past decade has been a bit barren in terms of talent. Both have had serious questions raised over off-field issues (although granted, there’s no obviously comparing the Kotokantetsu situation or past scandals to Khashoggi!). And putting aside the stable’s reputation in latter years as tsukebito farm, it’s hard to get away from the fact that the perennially relegation-endangered club has much in common with Kotonowaka, a rikishi of enormous talent, bloodline and promise who upon establishing himself in the top division has found himself far too often at the wrong end of the table. All of the tools and infrastructure for his success are there, and like Newcastle, we could see a rapid rise in the coming years.

Endo – Brighton & Hove Albion

Pretty straightforward comparison this – both practise lovely versions of their sport that draw wide praise from the purists, and both are hugely profligate when it comes to putting matches away. As a result, both regularly turn in worse winning records than they can otherwise be expected to do, in spite of admiration from most neutrals.

Ura – Brentford

It feels like Ura’s been around for ages but the recent basho was only his 8th in the top division, which makes him a good fit for these unique newcomers. Like Ura, they are run pretty differently to many top flight clubs off the pitch and tend to conjure up some pretty wacky action on it. And also like Ura, when the new banzuke comes out this week, Brentford have tended to find themselves further up the table this season than fans might be accustomed to seeing a club of their stature.

Kiribayama – Aston Villa

I went back and forth for this one with Hoshoryu, but I find Kiribayama a better fit for the famous old club. Like Villa, who have recently installed a Premier League legend as their manager, Kiribayama has been operating under the personal tutelage of the Yokozuna Kakuryu (a less storied but more direct influence as a coach than his aforementioned compatriot), and appears to have the promise and infrastructure for a measured rise up the banzuke once that coaching is properly instilled and more bite is added to his already considerable technique.

Hoshoryu – Leeds United

This was not easy. I waffled on Hoshoryu for Villa (for the above reasons), for Newcastle (a newly combative attitude towards the rest of the league), and even Watford (general overall contradictions), but Leeds seemed to be the best fit. It’s a club with enormous potential that just hasn’t quite seemed to put it all together since their return to the top division, and I think it’s a good analogy for Hoshoryu’s sumo. Many fans were expecting him to storm the sanyaku ranks given the drop-off in top division quality in recent years. Like Leeds in recent years, Hoshoryu’s ascendance has come under the guidance of a mercurial guru (albeit unofficially in his case), with scrutiny far outpacing his position in the division. And like Leeds, whether you like Hoshoryu or not, sumo would be better for his success.

Abi – Burnley

Pretty straightforward here, although there’s an argument to be made for Takarafuji when discussing a team commonly known for “parking the bus.” It’s not totally accurate, but the overwhelming reputation of Burnley is of a team with solidly one way to play, a “route one” forward and backward style, very physical, and a club that seems like it might have a higher ceiling if only it had the nous to just add one or two more abilities. Does this sound like any rikishi we know?

Chiyomaru – Norwich City

Often seen with accented by the colour green, regularly yo-yos up and down between the first and second division, and is famously well fed (Norwich by way of celebrity chef owner, Chiyomaru by way of… most things).

Hokutofuji – Crystal Palace

You might think you know what Hokutofuji is, but as Bruce has detailed, he has been subtly and impressively evolving his style and tactics over the last couple of years to become a much more well rounded rikishi, under the tutelage of one of the sport’s icons. Not unlike a team from south London, who have followed a similar path in 2021, even if the early results are a bit up and down.

Aoiyama – Watford

Are they a well run club or is it just their constant sense of chaos that makes Watford a top division club? In any case, just like the Bulgarian, they don’t seem to do things quite like anyone else, they don’t look quite like anyone else, and their team is often populated by signings that seem to come from far flung places. And like Aoiyama, Watford are not always great to watch, win, lose, or draw.

Kagayaki – Southampton

A rikishi of solid fundamentals and immense promise, who’s been in the top division for a long time, and who seems to somehow rescue himself most times when careering towards the top division trap door… Kagayaki has quite a bit in common with the Saints. He’s still young and well regarded, but without all of the requisite pieces to really put it all together. Will it take a reset in the second division to come good? I have a feeling both Kagayaki and Southampton would rather not find out, but the former’s fate will be aired soon enough…

19 thoughts on “The Makuuchi Premier League

  1. what an incredibly descriptive piece… as a kid in Australia i grew up in the 70s watching Match of the Day on an old black and white tv….. the way comparisons b/n rikishi and clubs in 2021 have been made – just love the creativity… and the accuracy!!!

  2. Yup, you know it’s a lull in the sumo calendar when you just wrote 2000 words on a Ozumo-Premier League crossover, and I read them. Bravo.

    • Haha… written over 3 or 4 sessions but had to just get it out… teams change their managers and therefore their identities and styles a lot faster than rikishi do these days!!!! But in most cases there were some things in common. Easy to work from 42 rikishi for 20 teams rather than having to shoehorn a few in….

  3. As a Liverpool native and a proud Evertonian, your comparison of my beloved Toffeemen to Ichinojo is spot on. Everton’s problems of late have to do with piss poor management and ridiculously misguided personnel decisions. Perhaps Ichinojo’s problem is that he doesn’t have the best oyakata?

    • Yep although I think and hope everyone wants to see Rafa succeed… looking forward to my next visit to the great city with some of the best people on earth in the coming days, and seeing my friends the reds and maybe even a few blues! But no matter which side you’re on I think we can all agree we want to see Ichinojo put together a couple consecutive 10 win basho!

  4. As another Evertonian, the Ichinojo shout out is pretty good. As any Ichinojo (and Everton) fan knows it’s the hope that kills you. COYB!

  5. As another Evertonian the Ichinojo shout out is pretty good. As any Ichinojo (and Everton) fan knows it’s the hope that kills you. COYB!

    • I think the one thing we know for sure is Minato oyakata hasn’t spent as much! Rafa will sort you out, but the one thing he will do for Everton that no one can ever do for Ichinojo is make Everton’s squad “compact!”

      • I wasn’t a fan of the Rafa hire, and I don’t think he’s the right man for the job. I’d love to see Moshiri get off his bum and start putting more effort into running the club properly, and a good place to start would be to try to lure David Moyes away from West Ham and bring him back home. He was the ideal fit for the job when he had it 10 years ago, and he’d be a huge improvement over Rafa in my opinion.

        As for Ichinojo, his oyakata needs to tell him to drop 30 kg and work on improving his stamina and agility. He should be no more than 180 kg.

  6. Ha ha.

    Is there any sport other than Sumo? If so I have yet to hear of it (Hammers fan myself). May I therefore as Hakuho is the GOAT (and like all, the greatest West Ham players Greaves, Hurst, Moore, Peters – now retired) nominate him for the Hammers – the only team in the division to win the World Cup.

    • Tokushoryu could be Blackburn Rovers – a surprising and popular one-time champion who’s spent a lot of time outside of the big league. Ryuden is perhaps Bolton Wanderers, once a top division stalwart, but now stuck in the third division after some really bad life choices.

      Thanks for the great article, really enjoyed your reasoning and agree that Hoshoryu was the right fit for Leeds!

      • Thanks for the kind words – love that Tokushoryu as Blackburn reference!

        Ryuden, unlike Bolton, I think, will be back in the top division before long.

    • Meisei was just the odd one out I’m afraid, nothing against him – he’s actually one of my favourite rikishi. But that’s what happens when you get 42 makuuchi rikishi and 20 premier league teams…. someone’s going to be left out. He’s very much a “premier league” rikishi though in my estimation, and I expect him to be competing at the top end of the “table” for several years barring injury.

  7. Jokoryu- Wigan Athletic

    In the Premier League not so long ago. Now flip-flopping between the second and third divisions. Hard to imagine them recapturing their glory days.

    • Does JJB make mawashi??? Andy always seems to have kind words for Jokoryu whenever we get together for a podcast, and he’s been right about weirder things – so you never know….

      It’s also possible his inability to get back to the top division was down to reading Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” – that’s one to suck the happiness out of any situation and until it’s confirmed it’s not behind his drop down the divisions I will not rule it out as a plausible explanation!


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