The Curious Case of Mitakeumi

I doubt anyone will be celebrating, but this year’s Kyushu basho will be something of a milestone for Omichi Hisashi, better known by his ring name, Mitakeumi. The start of the November 2021 tournament, you see, will mark his 17th at the rank of Sekiwake, and his 27th in san’yaku.

Why is this notable? Because of all the men never to achieve a higher rank, Mitakeumi is now tied for third all-time in appearances at Sekiwake, and with the record set at 21 by both Kotonishiki and Hasegawa, the outright title seems well within his reach. Stay the course, and he’ll own it outright by September of next year.

But is this record something Mitakeumi actually wants to be associated with? On the one hand, it’s a clear sign of a successful career. For his relatively short time as a professional (Mitakeumi joined Grand Sumo post-university at the age of 22), well over half has been spent in san’yaku, the top tier of the top division. He also has two yusho to his name, the first coming in July 2018 and the second in September 2019. On paper, this is a record most of his contemporaries would kill for.

And yet… for most of his decorated career, Mitakeumi has been something of a disappointment, his name short-hand for unfulfilled potential. For rikishi who spend anywhere near this much time in san’yaku, the expectation is inevitably placed on the next rung up, at Ozeki, and as expected Mitakeumi has flirted with promotion. Twice, in fact, he’s achieved at least 30 wins over the course of 3 tournaments, but has always fallen just short of that magical mark of 33.

Out of context, this is understandable. The standard is set where it is for a reason, as most rikishi in san’yaku are hard pressed to put together multiple winning scores, let alone three 11+ win campaigns. The average Makuuchi wrestler’s career usually looks like a yo-yo, riding a wave of wins up the banzuke, stalling out, then crashing back down as their competitors figure them out. Rinse, repeat. Either that, or they prove themselves a higher caliber than their peers and advance quickly to the prestige ranks at the top of the banzuke, there to stay until injury, age, or scandal dethrone them.

What makes Mitakeumi so frustrating is he fits neither of these molds, and as fans we don’t know how to reconcile the talent we see on the dohyo with the trajectory of his career. Mitakeumi has been anything but a yo-yo; he’s only had back-to-back make-koshi once EVER, and those were immediately following his second championship. Instead, kachi-koshi streaks are routine for the 28-year-old. Case in point: he’s currently on a streak of 5 winning records. The problem is that the vast majority of these performances are 9-6 or 8-7. He’s clearly better than those below him… but just barely. Certainly he’s shown flashes of brilliance and superlative skill, but just as often he displays an inexplicable lack of fighting spirit, and his career legacy has suffered for it.

I can think of no better example than the Hatsu tournament of this year, when, ranked at Komusubi 1W, he bested all three Ozeki (Takakeisho, Asanoyama, and Shodai), but fell in lackluster efforts to the rest of san’yaku and even Maegashira 2E Takarafuji, eventually finishing—you guessed it—at 9-6. It’s this kind of result that feels almost like a purposeful tease. “I could compete at this level if I wanted to,” he seems to say, “but I can’t be bothered for the full 15 days.” Though then again, who is the joke really on? All three of the aforementioned Ozeki either started or finished their promotion runs with Mitakeumi straddling that Sekiwake slot, and so too with new Yokozuna Terunofuji. What must it feel like to see all the men you consider your rivals catch and then surpass you? Surely it’s demoralizing, but if the man feels it, he’s yet to show it in a true slump. Rather, he seems content to persist forever at the threshold of glory, as a gatekeeper to this generation’s would-be greats.

Yet hope is not lost. The record books show us many rikishi who have been late bloomers. Perpetual Ozeki Kiao actually recorded 21 tournaments at Sekiwake before achieving promotion and logging another 65 at his career high rank. So too Kotomitsuki, who did Kiao one better with 22 Sekiwake appearances before his promotion. Even recently retired Goeido labored in the Sekiwake mines for 15 total tournaments before at last leveling up. It has been done before, and can be done again. Coming off yet another 9-6 in September, Mitakeumi’s odds of starting a third Ozeki run right now aren’t the best, but for someone of his talents, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The only question is whether he has the drive to achieve what we all know he is capable of.

If not, we may soon see him capture a different, more dubious title—that of the greatest Sekiwake never to achieve more.

The Once and Future Ozeki

The March 2021 Grand Sumo basho is almost upon us, and as it draws near I can’t help but think back to my first basho, the Osaka tournament of March 2017, and the men who made it great. An avid fight sports fan, I’d recently read an article on the Vice property entitled “Sumo: The Art of Six Second Fighting” and found the combination of ceremony, spectacle, and athleticism it described fascinating. I determined to give sumo a whirl and was immediately hooked. Every afternoon I would rush home from work to my single-bedroom apartment in Greensboro, NC, fire up the NHK Highlights (I’d yet to discover the various YouTube sumo giants such as Jason’s All-Sumo Channel and Kintamayama), and sit perched on the edge of my couch, eyes glued to my TV as the day’s top division matches unfolded. It was an incredible tournament from beginning to end, but though I watched every match, to me the many Maegashira bouts were nothing but preamble. New to the sport as I was, Makuuchi’s subplots were lost on me, but that does not mean the tournament wasn’t a memorable one; the opposite, it was the height of intrigue, and all my focus centered around the day’s final bouts and the two men who had taken center stage—Kisenosato and Terunofuji.

With these two men, sumo could not have asked for a better tandem. In the stoic Kisenosato, newly minted Yokozuna and national hero, rested all of Japan’s sumo aspirations, while his counterpart, Terunofuji, was perfectly cast to play his foil. A foreigner (gasp!), enormous and enormously powerful, the Mongolian Ozeki seemed less a man and more a force of nature, his every move upon the dohyo portraying strength and menace. Moreover, his own eventual Yokozuna promotion seemed an inevitability as he tore his way through lower-ranked adversaries. Not even a loss on Day 6 to then-Sekiwake Takayasu (Kisenosato’s teammate who was himself vying for his own promotion to Ozeki) could do anything to lessen the threat that was Terunofuji—he was the hunter, chasing relentlessly after the as-yet-spotless Kisenosato, and it seemed the consensus opinion of the broadcast team that should the Yokozuna slip, the yusho was Terunofuji’s for the taking. One could only hold back the tide for so long.

The inevitable finally happened on Day 13, and it went down with a bang. Wily, athletic Harumafuji, a distinguished Yokozuna in his own right (and Terunofuji’s senior stablemate), not only unseated Kisenosato from his fragile leadership position, he—inadvertently—injured his fellow Yokozuna, and grievously so. Meanwhile, Terunofuji had held serve following his lone Day 6 defeat, and he took full advantage of the opportunity his teammate had given him. When on Day 14 he defeated Sekiwake Kotoshogiku by henka (a move considered dishonorable in any context, but doubly so from a yusho contender, and triply so because this particular loss meant Kotoshogiku’s permanent demotion from Ozeki), Terunofuji made the leap not only to sole yusho leader, but full-blown villain. Kisenosato then went on to lose his Day 14 match against Yokozuna Kakuryu, thus completing the role reversal. Heading into the tournament’s final day, it was now the desperate and ailing Kisenosato chasing Terunofuji.

Luckily for the former, redemption came on that final day through a pair of brilliant matches that placed our hero and villain in direct competition for all the marbles. Kisenosato, torn pectoral and all, did the impossible. Then he did it again, beating the younger, stronger, hungrier Terunofuji twice in spectacular fashion and claiming his second Emperor’s Cup along the way. It was as wild and dramatic a finish as I’ve ever seen in any sport, and it happened in my very first basho.

These then, were the two men who were sumo in my early days. I’d barely been introduced to Hakuho before he pulled out (what’s all the hype about?), and the other two Yokozuna seemed mere spoilers in the grand conflict between Kisenosato and Terunofuji. Theirs was a rivalry for all time, one that would lift the sport to new heights.

The Fall

It was not to be. Following his injury, Kisenosato was never the same, and finally retired in January 2019 having completed only one of the eleven subsequent tournaments since his magical March run. Worse, Terunofuji seemed bound to the same tragic fate. After again placing runner-up in May 2017, a combination of knee injuries, kidney stones, and a diabetes diagnosis crippled the once proud Ozeki. From July 2017 to January 2018, Terunofuji was unable to complete a single tournament, and compiled a mere two wins in four basho. In short order he was stripped of his Ozeki rank and expelled from the top division, and after two frankly hard-to-watch campaigns in Juryo, he was cast from the salaried ranks altogether. One short year removed from the height of his powers, it seemed Terunofuji’s career was over. He vowed to fight on in the lower divisions, but it seemed almost a cruelty to hold out hope. The man’s body was broken. Why not retire with dignity, I wondered of him, thinking only for his health.

Terunofuji seemed to be finally thinking of it too. For four straight tournaments, he went kyujo from Day One, his focus on corralling his runaway injuries and illnesses. Occasionally he would post a video of himself bench pressing huge weights in his heya’s gym (personal social media accounts for rikishi were not yet outlawed), but otherwise he kept his head low. Sumo moved on. New stars rose and fell. Many of the old heroes, Kisenosato included, retired, and new contenders rose to vie for new titles.

And all the while, Terunofuji toiled, reforging what had been broken.

When his return was finally announced for March 2019, sumo circles reacted with equal parts excitement and anxiety. Watching his fall had brokered Terunofuji sympathy from many who had rooted against him at his peak, and absence had allowed the heart to grow fonder still. His was now a story of perseverance and fortitude in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Yet, none believed in him. I certainly didn’t. He was still young(ish), yes, but the lower divisions were littered with promising rikishi who’d been bitten one too many times by the injury bug. What hope did a man with two ruined knees have to climb all the way back up the ladder after having fallen nearly to its base? Those first few tournaments back, I watched through my fingers. A 7-0 start in Jonidan looked plenty promising, but a playoff loss to promising newcomer Roga quenched expectations. Knees or no knees, Terunofuji would always be skilled enough to beat the dregs of professional sumo, but his days as that force of nature were over.

Then the jun-yusho in Jonidan was followed by a 6-1 in Sandanme. Then a 6-1 in Makushita. Then another 6-1. In only four tournaments back, Terunofuji had rocketed up the unsalaried mountain and reached its pinnacle. He would be in the “Makushita joi” come November 2019, and within striking distance of regaining his salary. All he had to do was win.

And boy did he. A 7-0 yusho never looked so easy, and now back in the silk mawashi of a sekitori, Terunofuji refused to let off the gas. His first basho back in Juryo saw him rattle off 13 straight wins, locking up a second yusho in as many tournaments before coasting to the finish. One more winning record would do it—with a 10-5 in March 2020, he completed what had seemed like an impossible comeback. The one-time terror of the top division had returned, and woe betide any who might get in his way.

The Return to Makuuchi

Expectations were mixed, but overall the caution was an optimistic flavor when Terunofuji re-debuted at the very bottom of Makuuchi in July of last year, only half a rank from the division’s caboose. Questions like “How long will he last?” and “How high can he climb?” were all over social media. Fans were excited to see him back, but as a novelty, a feel-good story. It was generally agreed that the man was not—and never would be—what he once was, and a simple kachi-koshi would be achievement enough, worthy of celebration.

Big Teru had a different celebration in mind, however. Incredibly, impossibly (how often have I said impossible already?) Terunofuji won the Emperor’s Cup in his return basho to Makuuchi, and he did it looking every bit the titan of old. Immediately the hype train left the station, fueled in no small part by the man’s own words. He was here to do one thing, reclaim his rank, and his conviction was such that it felt almost an insult to doubt him. Who were we to say what he could do? He’d already done everything we said he couldn’t.

His next basho however—contested from the pole position of M1e—had the hype train pumping its breaks. A bare eight wins, followed by a precautionary kyujo, appeared to hint toward all our fears. This was a man running on fumes and willpower. How much could he ask of his battered body before it once again gave out on him?

That question remains, but recently it has seemed irrelevant to the present moment. In November, Komusubi Terunofuji nearly claimed his second yusho in three tournaments, only just falling short in a playoff versus a new rival, Ozeki Takakeisho. Then, with thirteen wins banked, Sekiwake Terunofuji waded through the bedlam of the January “Hatsu” basho to claim his second jun-yusho in a row and another 11 wins. What had started as a whisper has now become a shout. With 24 wins to his credit and a mere 9 more needed to seal the deal (though at least 10 will be expected of him and make his case undeniable), Terunofuji is officially on an Ozeki run, the second of his incredible career.

Whether he can complete the feat remains to be seen, but if he does, it will truly put the Mongolian mountain in rare company. Excluding the “ozeki-wake” cases such as Tochinoshin and Takakeisho who have immediately regained their lost Ozeki rank after a single ten-win effort at Sekiwake, only one other Ozeki in the modern era has ever dropped lower than Sekiwake and regained his former position (Kaiketsu, who was first promoted in 1975, demoted in 1976, fell as far as M6w, then repromoted to Ozeki in 1977). Most simply lapse into retirement before they drop out of the top division. Many, such as the recent ex-Ozeki Goeido, retire before the banzuke committee even gets the chance to demote them. For Terunofuji to do it after not only losing his rank but dropping to Division 5 would be nothing sort of unthinkable…

And yet here we are, on the precipice of it. Come March 14, 2021, four years exactly after I began watching this great sport, I will once again be at the edge of my seat, waiting for the day’s final bouts and wondering not who will win, but if anyone at all has the might to stop the once and future Ozeki.