A Look at the January Banzuke

Sumo fans got an early Christmas present—the January banzuke just dropped. Let’s take a quick look at where everyone ended up, and how the official rankings compare to my prediction from a week ago.

As expected, there were no surprises in the top two ranks, with the only difference from November being Shodai and Asanoyama exchanging spots. My prediction was also right on the money when it came to the less predictable than usual junior san’yaku ranks. Terunofuji’s 13-2 performance was indeed good enough to vault him into the East Sekiwake slot over the incumbent West Sekiwake Takanosho. And, at the rank we were all waiting for with baited breath, there are only two Komusubi—Takayasu, moving over from West to East, and Mitakeumi, dropping from Sekiwake but remaining in san’yaku after a 7-8 performance.

The decision not to create extra slots means that Hokutofuji and Daieisho had to settle for the top maegashira rank, as predicted, though I had them on the wrong sides. There were also no big surprises elsewhere in the rank-and-file. Of the 33 rikishi ranked at maegashira, my forecast had 13 in the exact spot, 8 at the right rank but on the wrong side, 9 off by half a rank (as in exchanging M11w and M12e), and only 3 off by a full rank.

What were these 3 misses? I did not expect Takarafuji to be ranked all the way up at M2e, ahead of Onosho and Wakatakakage. Onosho has a claim for the GSB snub-of-the-banzuke award, being over-demoted from M2e to M3w after a 7-8 record. Kagayaki (M6e) yet again seems to have benefited from very good banzuke luck, dropping only 3.5 ranks after a 5-10 performance, especially since ranking him that high meant splitting Ryuden and Meisei, who posted identical records at the same rank in November (for good measure, the banzuke committee also split Yutakayama and Kaisei, who were in the same situation).

As expected, Enho (J3e) and Kotoyuki (J9w) dropped out of the top division, and were replaced by Midorifuji and Akiseyama, whose placements at M14w and M16w, respectively, I correctly predicted. So, although its overall precision was hurt by the 17 half-rank misses, the crystal ball fared well in getting the big picture right.

What do you think of the banzuke? Let me know in the comments. And you can look forward to lots of coverage from Tachiai in the run-up to the Hatsu basho, which will be chock-full of exciting, high-stakes storylines.

January Banzuke Crystal Ball

It’s a week to go before the official rankings chart for the January basho drops on Christmas Eve! Time to take a guess at what the new banzuke will look like. Remember, the point here is not to argue what the rankings should be, or what is and isn’t fair, but rather to try to anticipate the thinking of the shimpan department that makes the decisions.

At the top of the banzuke, we will once again have East Yokozuna Hakuho and West Yokozuna Kakuryu for at least one more tournament. This will be a record-extending 55th appearance by Hakuho at the highest rank. They’ll be followed by East Ozeki Takakeisho, West Ozeki Shodai, and East Ozeki 2 Asanoyama.

At the third rank of Sekiwake, I am predicting that the West side incumbent, Takanosho, will stay at his rank after his 8-7 performance, while November runner-up East Komusubi Terunofuji, who went 13-2, will leapfrog him to occupy the more prestigious East side. This could easily go the other way, and there are not many precedents that meet the conditions of a demoted East Sekiwake, a West Sekiwake with a modest kochi-koshi record, and a Komusubi with a high win total. I am going with the most recent example I could find, Hatsu 2003, when Takanowaka jumped ahead of Kotomitsuki following their 11-4 and 8-7 performances at West Komusubi and West Sekiwake, respectively.

The big wildcard for this banzuke is the 4th rank of Komusubi. There’s no question that West Komusubi Takayasu will keep his rank after his 8-7 performance, and little doubt that he should occupy the top East slot. East Sekiwake Mitakeumi, 7-8, should drop no lower than Komusubi according to recent precedent (and we do have many examples to draw on here). And Daieisho (M2w, 10-5) and Hokutofuji (M4e, 11-4) put up the kinds of performances that would be rewarded with a san’yaku rank on almost any banzuke. However, unlike the most recent instance a little over a year ago in which extra Komusubi ranks were created, the banzuke committee’s hand isn’t forced, and I’m going to predict that they will choose the conventional path of dropping Mitakeumi to K1w and leaving the two high-performing upper maegashira under-ranked at M1.

Here’s the full prediction for the maegashira ranks. Note that should my Komusubi prediction prove wrong, it isn’t simply a matter of sliding everyone up one rank, as (for example) my M2 choices cannot occupy the corresponding M1 ranks instead, as that would mean promotion after a losing record.

A Brief History of Yokozuna Runs

Having broken the ignominious streak of 21 basho without an Ozeki yusho, Takakeisho is officially on a Yokozuna run, and a second-straight yusho in January should get him the rope. The only Yokozuna promotion I’ve seen since I started following sumo is Kisenosato’s, and his came as a result of his long-awaited first championship, which followed a 12-3 jun-yusho, so he wasn’t really on an official run. So I thought I’d take a historical look at how often Yokozuna runs succeed.

In the 6-basho era (1958-present), nearly 80% of runs that started with an Ozeki yusho have failed; only 14 of 66 were converted into a rope. These runs were made by 38 distinct ozeki. There were 27 yokozuna promotions in this time span, so 13 of them came without such a run. To delve deeper, it is useful to separate this time period into two roughly equal halves: 1958-1988, aka “before Futahaguro,” and 1989-present, aka “after Futahaguro.” You can learn more about the 60th Yokozuna here, but the tl;dr is that he is the only Yokozuna to never win a yusho, and promotion standards were tightened after the scandal that ended his career.

The first time period spans 17 Yokozuna debuts, from Asashio (1959) to Onokuni (1987); Hokutoumi and Onokuni were promoted just after Futahaguro but before his forced retirement. Remarkably, only 3 of the 17 came after back-to-back yusho (Taiho, Kitanofuji, and Kotozakura), showing that the standards used to be much more lenient; 7 did not include a yusho at all, with such head-scratching two-tournament lines as 10-5 13-2 playoff loss (Tamanoumi). There were a total of 28 Ozeki yusho by 21 different Ozeki during this time that did not lead to immediate promotion; 6 of them were converted into a promotion after the following basho, 3 with a yusho and 3 with a lesser result. 12 of the 21 eventually became Yokozuna, while 9 topped out at Ozeki.

In the post-Futahaguro period, 18 different ozeki had a total of 38 rope runs starting with a yusho, 8 of which succeeded, all with a second yusho. None of the 10 ozeki who failed to gain promotion via this route reached Yokozuna. The two “non-standard” promotions during this time both came immediately after a yusho. Before that yusho, Kakuryu had a 14-1 playoff loss, while Kisenosato had a 12-3 jun-yusho which followed a string of strong runner-up finishes.

The record for futility is held by Kaio, who failed to get promoted after a yusho on 4 separate occasions, going make-koshi in the next basho 3 times and narrowly missing once with a 12-3 jun-yusho, which likely would have been sufficient before Futahaguro. The persistence prize is shared by Musashimaru and Takanohana, who each failed 3 times before earning promotion in the 4th run with a yusho. Three Yokozuna got there in their very first attempt—Asahifuji, Akebono, and Asashoryu—while 5 missed in their one and only shot, including the recently retired Goeido and Kotoshogiku.

What conclusions relevant for Takakeisho can we draw from this exercise? First, promotion after the next basho is far from guaranteed, with a roughly 1 in 5 chance of success. The odds are even lower for an Ozeki’s first run, especially if his shikona doesn’t start with an “A” (j/k). Second, even eventual promotion is roughly a 50-50 proposition. Finally, over the past three decades, 8 of the 10 promotions came after back-to-back yusho, and the other two came immediately following a yusho, so I’m guessing that in Takakeisho’s case, the NSK means it when they say he’ll have to win the January tournament to ascend to sumo’s highest rank.

November Basho Wrap-Up

Long-time readers of Tachiai will know that the yusho is relatively recent concept, and a secondary one to the real purpose of a honbasho—determining the rankings for the next tournament. So, what are the November results likely to mean for the Hatsu basho scheduled for January? The new banzuke will be drawn up on Wednesday, but it won’t be made public (with the exception of promotions to Juryo) until December 24 as an early Christmas present to sumo fans. In the meantime, we can speculate.

A big story of the final day was that every single endangered incumbent—in lower san’yaku, in lower Makuuchi, and in lower Juryo—won. This neatly resolved the division exchange picture, but created a logjam near the top of the banzuke.

The named ranks

Barring any retirements, the Yokozuna ranks won’t change. We should see a slight reshuffle of the Ozeki order, with Shodai (three wins) moving ahead of Asanoyama (one win). The two Sekiwake are also clear: Terunofuji and Takanosho, though the order is up for debate: does the kachi-koshi incumbent move over to the East side, or do Terunofuji’s 5 extra wins allow him to leapfrog Takanosho?

The real action is at Komusubi. Takayasu (8-7) successfully defended his rank. Mitakeumi‘s 7-8 at Sekiwake has been a guarantee of demotion to no lower than Komusubi for the past 27 years. Will this continue to hold in the face of two very strong contenders for promotion, M2w Daieisho (10-5) and M4e Hokutofuji (11-4)? If Mitakeumi were to get bumped, which would get the nod? Could we once again see the creation of one or even two extra Komusubi slots?

The new joi

In addition to the 11 men above, who else will be joining the melee in the top 16? M1w Wakatakakage and M2e Onosho, both 7-8, have done enough to stay in the “meat grinder.” Rising up to join them will be M6e Takarafuji (9-6), M5w Kotoshoho (8-7), and M7e Tochinoshin (9-6). Just outside the top 16, ready to step up in case of withdrawals and same-heya conflicts, will be M6w Tamawashi (8-7), M3w Okinoumi (6-9), and M7w Endo (8-7). His 3 losses in the final 3 days mean that the low maegashira yusho contender du jour Shimanoumi (11-4) will get a sensible promotion to something like M9, instead of being launched all the way up the banzuke.

Makuuchi-Juryo exchanges

Final-day victories by Yutakayama and Sadanoumi, coupled with losses by Ishiura and Chiyomaru, made this cut-and-dried—we will have only two exchanges for the first time in over 5 years. Going down are absent Kotoyuki and Enho. Taking their place are J2e Midorifuji (10-5), the Juryo yusho winner, who’ll make his long-awaited top-division debut, and veteran journeyman J1e Akiseyama (9-6). The line between M11e Sadanoumi (5-10) and J3e Ishiura (8-7) is very clear, though the latter may be able to console himself with being at the very top of Juryo next time, where another 8-7 record should guarantee promotion.

Juryo-Makushita exchanges

Once again, any uncertainties here were resolved by final-day victories by endangered Takagenji and Ikioi. We will see three demotions: absent Abi, Nishikifuji, and winless Fujiazuma (I can’t let Andy forget that he predicted Fujiazuma would go 12-3). We hadn’t seen an 0-15 record since 2005 until Oki “accomplished” this feat in September, and now we get two in consecutive tournaments—thanks, 2020.

The three slots vacated by demotions, plus a 4th opened up by Kotoshogiku’s intai will go to Ms1w Naya (6-1), Makushita yusho winner Ms15w Ryuko (7-0), Ms2e Yago (4-3) and Ms2w Shiraishi (4-3). Naya and Shiraishi are highly touted prospects who’ll be making their sekitori debuts. Missing out despite winning records in the Makushita top 5 promotion zone will be Ms3e Kitaharima (4-3), Ms4e Bushozan (4-3), and Ms5w Kotokuzan (4-3).

Bonus: Makushita joi

The January top 5 promotion zone will include the 3 kachi-koshi holdovers listed above, along with Daishoho, who just missed promotion by going 3-4 at Ms1e. Unusually, none of the three Juryo dropouts will be joining them, as their records are bad enough to drop them deeper into Makushita. Instead, my guess is that the other 6 spots will go to Ms6 Takakento (4-3), Ms8 Tochimaru (4-3), Ms8 Ichiyamamoto (5-2), Ms9 Nakazono (5-2), Ms12 Roga (6-1), and Ms15 Hokutenkai (5-2). The last two have been on our “ones to watch list” for a while, and they faced off head-to-head in their 7th bout, so it will be exciting to see them battle it out for a shot at sekitori promotion.

And here’s a wild-card: Hakuho’s recruit Hokuseiho, who is now 21-0 with three lower-division yusho at just 19, should be ranked in the top 15, with a chance of promotion if he can put up another 7-0, though his first basho at this level is more likely to be a learning experience.

And that’s a wrap. Let me know in the comments if you’re curious about the likely banzuke position of anyone I didn’t discuss, and I’ll do my best to answer.