Will the real ōzeki please stand up?

This Kyushu 2022 tournament has the potential to be the most historically significant basho in living memory, and not in a good way. For much of the last three years, fans, pundits, and coaches have bemoaned the weakness at the top of the sumo pyramid. As the older generation aged out of the sport, everyone expected a fresh crop of capable athletes to take their place, but so far they have failed to live up to expectations. Now, if someone—or even a few someones—don’t step up soon, the banzuke itself could be broken in a way we’ve never seen before.

Why? Because it NEEDS Ozeki. Two of them, in fact, to keep balance on the banzuke, or a honbasho cannot be convened.

Luckily one slot is already insured, at least for the time being. This is because a Yokozuna can “fill in” as Ozeki on the banzuke, should the need arise. We saw this last in March 2020 when Takakeisho was the lone wrestler to officially hold the rank of Ozeki (Goeido had just retired after the January tournament rather than face demotion, while Takayasu, battling from the dreaded “ozeki-wake” position in January, had failed to attain the 10 wins necessary to return to Ozeki proper). In this instance, Yokozuna Kakuryu was officially listed as “Yokozuna/Ozeki” on the banzuke, and by the time the next tournament rolled around in July (the May tournament was cancelled due to the COVID lockdown), the problem had solved itself with the ill-fated promotion of Ozeki Asanoyama.

And that’s where it all started to go wrong. Another Ozeki was promoted that November, but the man in question, Shodai, has failed to inspire, and though he’s managed to maintain the rank for 13 basho now, he has already gone kadoban 5 times, and only recorded 10+ wins twice. His track record has been so mediocre, in fact, that after this most recent Aki basho, the members of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council mused over whether the demotion criteria for Ozeki should be reformed to account for wrestlers who fail to meet the general public’s (admittedly subjective) expectations of how an Ozeki should perform.

Asanoyama, meanwhile, lasted only 7 tournaments at the rank before a year-long suspension for breaking COVID protocols would force him not only from san’yaku but the salaried ranks altogether. Luckily, as his fall began, Terunofuji’s rise was in full swing. The resurrection of Terunofuji’s sumo career, from Jonidan to Yokozuna, has been a notable exception to Makuuchi’s mediocrity and a welcome boon to the sport, but his resurgence has always had an expiration date, and it seems that date is fast approaching. For the first time since his return to the top division, Terunofuji will be kyujo for the full 15 days in November while he recovers from double knee surgery, and it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll miss January as well. Heck, he may never come back, or he may return diminished, unable to fulfill his obligations as sumo’s scion.

This would put the sport in a real pickle, as the aforementioned Shodai is currently kadoban yet again, and the newest inductee to the rank, long-time Ozeki bridesmaid Mitakeumi, performed so dismally upon promotion that he has already been demoted after only 4 tournaments. He now faces the dreaded ozeki-wake 10-win gauntlet if he wishes to return to his career high rank in January. Should both Shodai and Mitakeumi fail in their missions (the most likely scenario, in my pessimistic opinion) that would leave only one Ozeki standing: Takakeisho. Once again, a Yokozuna would be slotted into the “Yokozuna/Ozeki” designation in order to balance the banzuke, but with Terunofuji inactive, it will seem a rather empty gesture. In reality, it will be up to able but limited Takakeisho to uphold the dignity of sumo’s pinnacle.

Is the worst yet to come? Takakeisho seems in no danger of demotion at present, but he’s not been the picture of consistency either with 5 kadoban and 1 temporary “ozeki-wake” demotion to his name. And as we’ve already outlined, the top of the banzuke is like dancing the tango—it takes two. Should Terunofuji’s injuries force him into retirement, we’ll see sumo in uncharted waters. There have been periods without Yokozuna (the last being from May 1992 when Hokutoumi retired until March 1993 when Akebono was promoted) and there have been times without Ozeki (September 1981, which was Chiyonofuji’s first basho as Yokozuna). However, there have never been less than two wrestlers ranked at Yokozuna/Ozeki. Not just in recent history. Not since the institution of the modern 6-basho schedule in 1958. Not since the beginning of the 15-day basho in 1939. Not since the modern system for promotion and demotion was established over 100 years ago. Not ever. NEVER. It is literally against the rules as they’re currently written.

So what are our options? There are of course several wrestlers who might step up to save sumo. Perhaps the current Ozeki crop shape up. Perhaps the next generation of young guns lay claim to the rank before the old guard is forced to abdicate. Or perhaps Asanoyama comes flying up the rankings as Terunofuji did in 2020/2021 and we all welcome him back with open arms and a sigh of relief.

…Or, perhaps no one fills the void in time.

If you’re asking me what happens then, the answer is “I don’t know.” I’m not sure anyone does. It’s never come up! But in order to hold a honbasho, there must be at least two Ozeki, so something must be done. My best guess—they promote the most promising current san’yaku wrestler (Wakatakakage would seem to be the betting favorite) to salvage the banzuke and pray he’s up to the task. He’ll need to keep winning, however. Otherwise, the banzuke committee will be forced to pick whichever san’yaku wrestler manages the best kachi-koshi. Talk about setting a precedent. An Ozeki hasn’t been promoted in this way since the 1800s! Another theory involves holding some sort of supplemental “ranking tournament” with Ozeki promotion as the prize.

Hopefully none of these doomsday scenarios come to pass, but then again, won’t it be interesting if they do?

15 thoughts on “No-zeki

    • I agree with you, but also it’s worth pointing out those precedents in your query aren’t exactly the worst thing: with 8 of those 11 going on to become Yokozuna and the other 3 all winning Yusho (2 of them after their “early” promotion). There’s probably an argument that the right talents will step up to meet the moment.

      I’m not especially worried, for these reasons:

      A) the doomsday scenario where Mitakeumi doesn’t get repromoted, then Shodai fails to get 8 wins this time then fails to get 10 next time, AND Takakeisho goes kadoban and drops out OR Terunofuji is forced into retirement before a second Ozeki is found, just feels very unlikely. Individually those events all seem plausible but together they seem unlikely, and;
      B) even if the doomsday scenario did happen, they would promote someone early, and;
      C) the person who they promoted early probably couldn’t perform any worse in the role than Shodai and Mitakeumi did

      So in that sense, even a stopgap solution wouldn’t leave us any worse off, it could serve to supercharge a young talent (e.g. the 74th Yokozuna Tobizaru ;) ), but it might just be depressing. It might even be the manner in which the next dci-yokozuna gets a fast-track, who knows.

      • TBH I agree, altogether it feels unlikely to happen. However, two of the three essential elements could easily happen this very tournament. Mitakeumi and Shodai are both in big trouble, but I don’t see Terunofuji retiring unless he gets injured again, and severely. He knows the stakes and will hang around until he feels sumo can make do without him, just like Hakuho waited to retire until he was sure Terunofuji was ready to take his place.

        All of this is very WHAT IF on my part, but it was a lot of fun to speculate!

        • Yeah I think that anything that gets people talking about sumo and the situation is a positive!!

          That said, I think right now (Day 4) everyone’s on course to come through it, so I’m taking an optimistic view. Mitakeumi is trending on/ahead of his target at 3-1, and with Shodai and Takakeisho at 2-2 it doesn’t look great but each of the three of them have to face 6 san’yaku from their last 11 matches including 3 matches against each other (Shodai/Mitakeumi, TKK/Shodai, TKK/Mitakeumi) which will guarantee some wins to that group.

          I felt early that Takakeisho would be the presumptive yusho favourite for this basho but I certainly agree it is a bit depressing that now it’s a case of “can you please not be kadoban”

      • “C) the person who they promoted early probably couldn’t perform any worse in the role than Shodai and Mitakeumi did” truer words have not been spoken!

  1. My theory is that if Shōdai gets demoted and Mitakeumi doesn’t make it back, Wakatakakage could end up getting promoted to Ōzeki as early as January, especially if he takes another title…

  2. I’ve been wondering about that myself!

    As long as Terunofuji hasn’t retired yet, he can still be on the banzuke even if he goes kyujo just before each basho starts, right? For a while, anyway.

    We still need at least one other guy as Ozeki. Hang in there, Takakeisho and Shodai! (Shodai procrastinates on winning but seems to come through under ultimate kadoban pressure.) Keep at it, Mitakeumi! Come on up, Wakatakakage! Lookin’ at you there, Hoshoryu!

  3. Thank you for this article! It practically confirms what I have been saying for about 6 months now, that since I have been following sumo (1996-1997) I have never seen such a weak makuuchi field.

    • On the contrary: the fact that strong sumotori like Takakeisho, Shodai and Mitakeumi struggle to get their eight, proves how strong the sanyaku and upper maegashira ranks are!
      I think that Wakatakakage, Hoshoryu, Tamawashi, Kiribayama, Ichinojo and Takayasu all have ozeki potential. And then there Asanoyama, Katanowaka and the ever increasing Tobizaru.

      • You think 38 year old Tamawashi has Ozeki potential? Takayasu was already Ozeki, started fighting like a moron and collected multiple injuries at least partially as a result of it. Oh, I’m a fan of him and with how weak Makuuchi is atm, I wouldn’t completely call it impossible for him to regain Ozeki or finally a Yusho, but he is certainly past his prime.

        Ichinojo is too soft and too big for his own good. He just can’t stay consistently healthy. Unless the ghost of Hakuho suddenly possess his body, he will never be an Ozeki contender. He is around for too long and even in this weakened Makuuchi state he isn’t really making big strides.
        Tobizaru just had his first double digit result in the joiin. He still has to get even a kachikoshi in Sanyaku. He sure is entertaining, but his style of sumo is also risky. Since he came to Makuuchi he has 5 kachikoshi and 8 makekoshi. Can he improve? Sure, but calling him an Ozeki candidate is a bit premature. The only reason he is in Sanyaku at all is, that after July he got promoted from M6W to M1E on an 8-7 record.
        Kotonowaka has actually been more steady than Tobizaru, but still needs to prove himself as well.
        For Asanoyama we will see if and when he makes his comeback to the upper Makuuchi. I certainly hope so. He has been by far the most promising of the recent Ozekis.
        Wakatakakage, Kiribayama and Hoshoryu have established themselves as Sanyaku material. Waka needs more consistency and the other two a break out basho from Sanyaku. Certainly the 3 most prepared candidates for that next step.

  4. Is it really a weak field or is this just a feature of the zero-sum nature of sumo? If there is no truly dominant force(s) at the top of the banzuke gobbling up the available wins as there has been in recent years, it’s only natural that there will be a flattening of the curve so to speak, giving us the appearance of a lack of quality when it’s just really a lack of dominant performers.

    I’m not a maths guy, but it would be interesting to see the stats on average wins at each position in Makuuchi (from 1-42) and see how this era compares to recent years. I’d wager that the deviation will have lessened in the last 2 years.

    • U‘ve spoken my mind, AdoTornado. Thanks a lot.
      Here‘s yet the shortest possible version of our feeling: great sanyaku and joy make poor ozeki and interesting bashos!

  5. If there are not two Ozeki on the banzuke I expect all of the beyas will close their doors and all the rekishi will go home. Or maybe the two Ozeki rule will be “forgotten” for a few basho. For me myself, having 14 wrestlers on day 4 with 3-1 records is more than exciting than it being down to one or two leaders by day five. My greatest disappointment this basho is Chiyotairu shaving his sideburns again.

  6. I’ve only just started watching again after a hiatus, and it looks like numbers in the stands still aren’t to their pre-Covid levels, so I doubt the NSK has the stomach not to have honbasho because of the lack of Yokozuna/Ozeki.


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