Turning pro: does amateur sumo success translate?

Perhaps it’s my American sensibility showing (the NFL Draft brought over half a million people to my hometown in 2019), but the amateur-to-pro sumo prospect pipeline has been on my mind for quite some time. After several dark years where four All-Japan Amateur Yokozuna in a row (2017–2020) chose not to join Grand Sumo (one, Hidetora Hanada, is currently trying to make it in the Canadian Football League!), there has been a resurgence of amateur talent joining the pro ranks. In May this trend culminated in the debut of perhaps the most successful amateur wrestler of all time, Daiki Nakamura (now “Onosato”), and so I thought it might be fun to look through the record books and ask, “how does amateur sumo success translate to the professional level?”

In my examination I’ve gone back as far as 2008, because that’s the furthest back one can go and still find an active pro wrestler with a major amateur title (Myogiryu). I used this list from the very helpful sumoforum.net as my principal resource (it’s hard out there for us English-only sumo fans).

First, what do I mean by “amateur success?” There are many amateur tournaments and titles in Japanese sumo, but they are not all created equal. For the purposes of this article, I’m limiting my analysis to only the tournaments that can grant an amateur wrestler a higher debut ranking in Grand Sumo. For the most part, this means university-aged wrestlers and older. There are many prestigious high school titles, and many “high school Yokozuna” enter pro sumo as top prospects, but they must do so from the bottom rung, and for even the best it takes years to reach the salaried ranks from Jonokuchi.

Grand Sumo officially recognizes four in particular as major titles. They are the Kokutai Tournament, the University Championship, the Corporate Sumo Championship, and the most prestigious, the All-Japan Amateur Championship. The University Championship is for college students only, while the Corporate Championship is open only to non-students sponsored by their employer. The Kokutai and the All-Japan Amateurs are open to both, though their qualifying structures are very different (prefectures select their own representatives for the Kokutai, and notably, high school Yokozuna as well as university and corporate stand-outs are given bids to the All-Japan Amateurs). Winning any one of these tournaments (or even coming close) grants you a higher debut rank in Grand Sumo—Makushita 15 for winners, Sandanme 90 for runners up—and winning multiple titles grants you the highest debut rank you can earn: Makushita 10 Tsukedashi.

Since 2008 there have been eighteen men who have won an amateur title and then turned pro, and most have come from the university ranks, where a few powerhouse universities dominate. In particular, rivals Nihon University and Nippon Sport Science University can boast alumni of most of the wrestlers on the list below (for Americans, they are the Alabama and Ohio State of college sumo). There are some notable “corporate” stand-outs as well, however.

Shikona (Amateur titles) — Highest career pro rank as of July 2023

Myogiryu (Kokutai ’08) — Sekiwake

Jokoryu (University ’08) — Komusubi

Chiyotairyu (University ’10 + Kokutai ’10) — Komusubi

Shodai (University ’11) — Ozeki

Daikiho (Kokutai ’11) — Maegashira 16

Endo (All-Japan Amateur ’12 + Kokutai ’12) — Komusubi

Hokutofuji (University ’12 + Kokutai ’13) — Komusubi

Daishomaru (All-Japan Amateur ’13) — Maegashira 5

Ichinojo (Corporate ’13) — Sekiwake

Mitakeumi (All-Japan Amateur ’14 + University ’14) — Ozeki

Daiamami (Corporate ’15) — Maegashira 11

Mitoryu (All-Japan Amateur ’15 + University ’16) — Maegashira 15

Yago (All-Japan Amateur ’16) — Maegashira 10

Tochimusashi (University ’18) — Juryo 7

Oshoma (University ’20) — Juryo 3

Kiho / Kawazoe (University ’21) — Juryo 13

Hakuoho / Ochiai (Corporate ’22) — Maegashira 17

Onosato (All-Japan Amateur ’21, ’22 + University ’19 + Kokutai ’19, ‘22) — Makushita 3

 

At first glance, the answer to our question seems to be, “it depends.” But the base level seems clear. Every man on this list from 2008—2016 has achieved at least a Makuuchi promotion. Of those thirteen, eight (over half) have reached san’yaku, and two, Shodai and Mitakeumi, have attained the coveted title of Ozeki. It is also worth noting that those thirteen men have five top division yusho between them.

To me these observations are significant and suggest that our expectation for the last five men on the list, who have all been pros for 14 basho or less, should be at least a Maegashira ranking. San’yaku also seems a safe bet, though above that is anyone’s guess. Barring injury or scandal, however, they all have the potential to achieve top division success.

This is quintuply true for the aforementioned Onosato. Keen eyes will have already noted that no wrestlers on the above list have more than two amateur titles to their name—except for one. Onosato, being a 5-time amateur champ, has been heaped with high praise and higher expectations since well before his Ms10TD debut this May, and if he does not rocket up the banzuke it will be considered a colossal bust.

Let’s not worry about that yet, though. So far, our hot prospects have not disappointed. Oshoma, Tochimusashi, and Ochiai (now Hakuoho) already have lower division titles to their names, Kawazoe (now Kiho) just earned his Juryo promotion, and Onosato, with a debut 6-1 record (he won 6 straight after losing his very first bout to wily Ishizaki), is poised for salaried promotion by summer’s end. And these men are just the blue-chip prospects; there are too many young talents to count climbing their way up the banzuke right now. Sumo has been going through a strange transition since the retirement of the last era’s stars, but it seems a bright and competitive future is right around the corner with the next generation. I’m expecting at least one new Ozeki from the names above, and a lot of fun new rivalries besides. In particular, Nishonoseki stable (led by former Yokozuna Kisenosato) seems to be collecting Nippon Sports Science grads like Onosato and Takahashi, while Miyagino (former Yokozuna Hakuho) seems to favor Nihon University stars like Kiho and Otani, as well as some of the top high schoolers such as Hakuoho and Hokuseiho. Let’s hope these amateur-to-pro rivalries take all involved to the next level!

18 thoughts on “Turning pro: does amateur sumo success translate?

  1. Thanks a lot for this interesting report.
    Concerning Onosato I‘d like to know if it took him as long as the other wrestlers to achieve his many titles or did he just stay longer in amateur sumo than, let‘s say Mitakeumi?

    • Great question! Onosato won all 5 of his titles in his 4 years as an undergraduate student at university. And here’s a couple facts that make that even more impressive.
      1) In 2019 he won the University Championship and the Kokutai Tournament as a 1st year / freshman wrestler. Since 2000, there’s only been one other wrestler to win a major as a freshman – Hidetora Hanada, whom I mentioned up top because he quit sumo for American football…
      2) In 2020 and 2021, the Kokutai and Corporate Championship tournaments were cancelled for COVID. Onosato couldn’t have competed for the corporate title anyway, and they both came back in 2022, but that means that for 2 out of 4 of his eligible years as a student wrestler, only 2 of the 4 major titles were even available. So actually he had less opportunity than most of the wrestlers on this list to win titles because only 12 majors were held during his amateur career instead of the usual 16, and he was only eligible for 10 (no Corporate Cups). Of the 10 major tournaments he competed in, he won 5.
      3) It’s my understanding that it’s fairly rare for a wrestler to drop out of college early to “go pro.” They all seem to stick around the whole 4 years, then turn pro upon graduation. Mitakeumi, as an example case, won his two amateur titles as a college senior, then immediately turned pro after his spring graduation and debuted at the rank of Ms10TD, just like Onosato.

      • Thank U very much for your fast and enlightening answer.
        So, if I’ve understood correctly, Mitakeumi had even more than 10 majors to win his two.
        That really generates high hopes for Onosato. A pity he lost his first ever pro fight.
        But obviously Mitakeumi also started with a 6-1, then repeated that from Ms3 and won the Juryo jusho in his third basho.

      • Midorifuji and Nishikifuji are notable recent examples of collegiate wrestlers who left university early, albeit not because of tsukedashi considerations. Much further back, a high-profile case was Miyabiyama. But yeah, it’s definitely uncommon and not at all like the big American sports where drafted players often haven’t exhausted their amateur eligibility years yet, let alone graduated.

  2. Great post! Shodai, as I recall, qualified for TD status early enough in his college career that he would have had to drop out to claim it (I think it had to be within a year, at least before COVID); instead, he stuck around, didn’t qualify again, and entered ozumo at the bottom in 2014. It only took him a year to rise to Ms3, with two titles along the way.

    • That’s how I recall it as well. Seems like the sort of think that would happen to Shodai haha.

      I’ve heard they’re going to drop the TD status eligibility back from 2 years to 1 year now that the pandemic restrictions have lifted, which would be a shame. Now that Onosato’s a pro, I expect to see a lot more parity in the college ranks and I imagine TD status is a big incentive to go pro. The less time spent as someone’s tsukubito, the better…

  3. Only when I read your post again with better understanding it occurred to me that (now former) Ochiai won Corporate 2022, but Onosato won the the All-Japan Amateur of the same year.
    Did Ochiai happen to be his runner up there?

    • In 2021 Ochiai lost in the Quarterfinals to Onosato, I don’t believe he participated in 2022.

      • Yes Ochiai competed as a high schooler in the All-Japan Amateurs in 2021 and lost in the quarter finals to Ōnosato just as our friend Glacier says. Then in 2022, after winning the Corporate Championship as a recent high school graduate, he was going to compete at the All-Japan, but decided to withdraw last minute and announce that he’d be joining Miyagino stable instead. So he turned pro instead of competing one last time as an amateur.

        Seems like a smart decision, as he still only spent one tournament in Makushita and is now in Makuuchi in only his 4 tournament.

        • I recall he was carrying an injury at the time, and opted to heal up before starting ozumo instead of trying to upgrade his Ms15TD to Ms10TD, which in retrospect was obviously the right call.

  4. Doesn’t Hanada have until he’s 25 to join Grand Sumo? So he may be hoping to get in a couple years of pro football first, then switch back?

    • Yes, and I think I’ve seen this discussed as a possibility if the football thing doesn’t work out

      • He does have until 25, but he’s already lost his TD status. He won the All-Japan Amateur championship as a freshman though, so he likely was never going to get to use it whether he chose to go pro or not. It would be a similar situation to Shodai, where he won as an underclassman and his status expired before he graduated.

    • Well, he’s surely hoping to make it big in the NFL, sumo is at most a fallback option now. I suppose it’s not totally inconceivable, given that he’s a longshot to get there in the first place and even if he does get there it’s not like that guarantees a career of any significant length.

      But if he rides it out until the last moment (September 2026) he’ll be 24, not have done any sumo for four years, and likely have amounts of physical wear and tear no better than guys who stayed in sumo all along. It would be an interesting real-life experiment, for sure.

      • And apparently he’s had to reshape his body a fair bit, as the demands of the two sports are quite different.

        • In many ways, he is the test case for whether NFL teams should expand their scouting to East Asia. Starting age 20 is rather late, but with his excellent physical tools, I imagine any team would’ve loved to get him at 17 or 18. The biggest question I would have is his short-ranged quickness and how explosive he was in his tachi-ai. If both of those are good, then I give him better than 50/50 odds at making an NFL roster as a 3-technique defensive tackle in three years when he’s 24. At 6’1 and 290 lbs, his job there would be to quickly penetrate the B-gap in between the offensive guard and offensive tackle to cause havoc in the backfield. Ideally, he would have sufficient stamina to play all three downs.

          Sometimes I think that if I had the choice to take four sumo wrestlers of my choice from the 2010s-2020s at the age of 19-20, and had them under contract through age 25, that’d be worth a mid/late 1st-round draft pick in value. Three of them are obvious choices though they would need to drop varying amounts of weight for stamina: Tochinoshin at 6’4 and 355 lbs would be a prototype 0-technique two-down nose tackle, able to clog the middle and hold his ground against being hit by two 320-lb men at once. Mitakeumi at 5’11 and 290 lbs is a bit short for a 3-technique, but his quickness plays. Hakuho at 6’4 and 315 lbs could potentially play almost any position on the d-line. Though probably best as a 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4, or a strongside defensive end in a 4-3, it’s easy to see how he could be at replacement starter level at 3-technique or nose tackle as well.

          I should probably stop now. =P

          • On the flip side, I’d love to see how some of the top OL/DL guys would have done in ozumo, but given the salary and prestige disparity, we’ll never know.

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