A Brief History of Ozeki Runs: Updated

Our latest Ozeki

I wrote about what it takes to become Ozeki about three years ago, and given that we’ve had several promotions since then, I thought it was time to refresh the post. It’s also timely given the conversation about Wakatakakage’s potential run. 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 65 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 san’yaku rank. How does this standard hold up? Well, among the 65 promoted rikishi, nearly a third (20) achieved fewer than 33 wins, 15 had exactly 33, and 30 had more. Seven of the successful Ozeki runs started from the maegashira ranks (all between M1 and M4). Every single run ended with double-digit wins in the 3rd basho, and only four had 10-5 records in that basho. 45 ended with a yusho or jun-yusho.

What about unsuccessful runs? There have been 18 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). Nine of the 18 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 9 wins in the third basho. That leaves us with seven cases in which a rikishi may have had a legitimate gripe.

To recap: 45 of the 65 rikishi promoted to Ozeki accumulated 33 or more wins in the previous three basho, while 20 did not. There have been 52 runs of 33+ wins over 3 basho starting at M4 or higher, with double-digit wins in in the last basho, seven of which did not lead to immediate promotion.

The Seven Unsuccessful Runs

Is there anything that distinguishes the seven unsuccessful runs from the 45 successful ones? Four of the seven started in the rank and file, whereas only 7 of the 45 successful runs did. The other 3 started at Komusubi, but so did 19 of the successful ones (based on the historical data, starting the run at Sekiwake guarantees promotion). Four 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 (single-digit wins happened 11 times in the first basho of a successful run but only twice in the second). 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 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 san’yaku, 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 Ozeki run 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 he had previously 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 wins against Ozeki opponents (including defeating all five Ozeki in the first basho) and a victory over peak Hakuho (who lost only 4 times in all of 2010, with 5 yusho, 4 of them zensho) in the 3rd basho. Baruto was also a san’yaku regular. He 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.

The final case is 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; he followed in their footsteps and clinched promotion with 10 wins in the very next tournament.

Of the 15 rikishi who did not earn immediate promotion after putting together 33 wins over three basho in the top division (at any rank), 7 were promoted one basho later, and all but one (Yoshikaze) held the rank of Ozeki at some point in their 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 20 promotions with fewer than 33 victories, all but 5 happened in the period from 1959-1985, including all 11 with fewer than 32. Four of the most recent 11 promotions were earned with 32 wins: Kisenosato, Goeido, Asanoyama and Shodai. Kisenosato was promoted at the end of 2011 after 10-5, 12-3, and 10-5 basho at Sekiwake, following frequent san’yaku 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, that streak comes with the asterisk that he twice held onto the rank despite recording only 7 victories, due to a lack of suitable promotion candidates). Asanoyama’s 11-10-11 run was preceded by another 10-win basho, and a yusho two basho prior, while Shodai punctuated his 8-11-13 run with a yusho.

We saw earlier that of the 52 runs with 33+ wins over 3 basho starting at M4 or higher, with double-digit wins in in the last basho, 45 resulted in Ozeki promotion, while 7 did not. When we change the win total to exactly 32, only 9 of 19 such runs led to promotion. With 31 wins, there were 4 promotions in 9 instances between 1958 and 1985, and none in the 11 more recent instances. These observations suggest that Wakatakakage, who is currently on a run of S 12-3 yusho, S 9-6, is quite likely to be promoted with 12+ wins in July, while rather unlikely to get the nod with fewer wins.

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.

10 thoughts on “A Brief History of Ozeki Runs: Updated

  1. Tangential to the general subject, but I take issue with your last statement.

    “10 yusho = Dai Yokozuna” is about as true as “33 wins in 3 basho = Ozeki”

    “Dai-Yokozuna” is a cultural term that refers to a Yokozuna who stands out in his generation. Although obviously none of those named “Dai Yokozuna” have won less than 10 yusho. It’s hard to be considered “outstanding” when you don’t win a lot of yusho. But neither Kitanofuji nor Musashimaru (who also has 10 yusho under his belt) have ever been considered “Dai Yokozuna”.

    There are no objective criteria for a dai-Yokozuna, and it’s not only a matter of public opinion, but also depends a lot on who is around them at a time. If Harumafuji had won his 10th yusho, he would still not have been considered a Dai-Yokozuna, as his generation has been in the huge shadow of Hakuho. Takanohana eclipsed Musashimaru.

    Being promoted in the age of Taiho, Kitanofuji never made the list of Dai-Yokozuna, though if the title would be given for legendary coolness, he’d definitely have earned it twice.

  2. Not just subjective, but kind of ethereal. I think John Gunning’s use of the term is unorthodox.

  3. Kitabayama may have also benefited from having essentially had an actual promotion-quality run by that era’s standards right before. 11/11/9 all-sanyaku hit all the marks except for that ugly single-digit final score. The first Wakanohana got promoted with 28 wins and 2 draws just five years earlier, Asashio got promoted off a run of 12/8/8/8/13 shortly after that. And much like Kitabayama, both guys had been a steady presence in sanyaku (usually as sekiwake) even before the tournaments that got them promoted.

    So I’d argue that that was one big difference-maker before 1970 or so – much more emphasis being placed on track record. If you transplanted those standards to today, Mitakeumi probably would have become ozeki after 9/9/12 in 2019, and Ozumo arguably wouldn’t have been the worse for it. Nowadays it’s not entirely irrelevant, but as your historical breakdown implies, it’s pretty much just a matter of “are we going to promote this guy with 32 or do we want 33+”.

    Also, what may have been of relevance before 1965 – but pretty much impossible to ascertain in hindsight – is that the individual match schedules were much more uneven due to the comprehensive exemptions on which stables’ members could face each other. Somebody whose promotion case may have involved that aspect is Kashiwado, who got to avoid barely any other high-rankers and got promoted after going just 8/9/9/10/11 in his very first five sanyaku appearances. It might have been valued more highly than the same win totals would for rikishi with easier slates.

  4. Don’t have anything to add other than this was a great post (and comment section!). Thanks so much for posting!

    PS: I had no idea Yoshikaze was so close. Would have loved to have seen him up there.

    • To be fair, he wasn’t that close; his “run” in 2015 was M14 10-5, M8 12-3, M1 11-4. He was promoted to Komusubi, went 8-7, then reached his career high of Sekiwake, went 8-7, then posted a 4-11 record. He did reach san’yaku again for 4 basho in 2017, but that’s as close as he got. I just found it an interesting bit of trivia that he’s the only one who accumulated 33 wins over 3 basho at any rank in the top division without ever making Ozeki.

  5. If there’s anyone who I wanted to make Ozeki, it would be Ikioi. He never got close, though. Sanyaku was not kind to him.

    • Yeah, he only managed 3 consecutive kachi-koshi in the top division once. Of the recent generation, now that Mitakeumi has made it, Tochiozan is generally considered to be the best to never make Ozeki.

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