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?