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!