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!


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?

Here Comes Gen Z

The previous few years of sumo have been strange, no? Like it or not, we’re in a transitionary period. For the last decade and more, professional sumo has been dominated by wrestlers of the “Millennial” generation, men born in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s been an incredible era, and it is by no means over, but with more and more of these Millennials calling it quits each year, and with the retirement of Dai-Yokozuna Hakuho in particular, fans have started to actively speculate over what our beloved Grand Sumo will look like in the future. With our heroes aging before our eyes, it’s only natural to ask, “What’s next?”

First, a short acknowledgement of the Now generation. Men like Terunofuji, Mitakeumi, Shodai, Daiesho, Ichinojo, Takanosho, and Takayasu continue to be relevant at the top of the sport, and a few, such as Abi and reigning champion Wakatakakage, seem only now to be peaking in their late 20s. Many of them will no doubt continue to compete at a high level for much of the next decade, but that’s not the point. The point is that one day soon, this group will no longer be competing exclusively against their peers. Gen Z is coming of age. They are the future.


They are also, arguably, the present. It’s easy to forget because he achieved so much so early, but Ozeki Takakeisho is still only 25 years old! He and Onosho (25) shot up the banzuke in their early 20s and established themselves as contenders, but at long last their classmates are catching up. Komusubi Hoshoryu (22), fresh off his first successful campaign in san’yaku, has been an early bright star, and with his electric arsenal of throws and trips he’s already being saddled with high expectations as sumo’s next “chosen one.” So too are we expecting great things from M2w Kotonowaka (24) and M9e Kotoshoho (22), two stablemates with formidable size and strength who are right behind Hoshoryu, making strides up the rankings chart. Last but not least, M14e Oho (21), now a Makuuchi sophomore, completes the quartet of young rivals that fans have been watching eagle-eyed for the last several years. All four have displayed great promise at an early age, and I can’t wait for the many battles between them in the years to come.


I’ve always thought of sumo’s second division as something of a waystation, a checkpoint where promising young wrestlers stop off to hone their raw talent until they pass up and through, and where aging veterans get one last hurrah on their way down and, eventually, out of the sport. Recently, Juryo has been flooded with the former kind of wrestler, and I think there are two in particular who should be on everyone’s radar. J5e Kitanowaka (21), a former high school Yokozuna, more than impressed in his second Juryo campaign, and with his size (190cm tall) and already mature yotsu style, we shouldn’t expect him to loiter at the rank. His counterpart, J12w Atamifuji, is only 19(!) years old, but he too seems to have all the physical metrics for success, as well as a maturity and skill level which is hard to reconcile with that baby face. Both young men will be top division players before year’s end, or I’m Hoshoryu’s uncle.

Makushita and Below

Set to join them are a host of budding talents—there are too many to name, but let’s try anyway. Literal giant Ms2e Hokuseiho (20), Hakuho’s protégé, and Ms1w Nishikawa (23), a university standout and ex-Ozeki Goeido’s protégé, will sit in pole position come Natsu. A 4-3 kachi-koshi should be enough to earn them both their salaries (Hokuseiho would likely still have his, if not for a knee injury in his Juryo debut last September). Close on their heels will be several of Nishikawa’s university teammates and rivals who had near misses for promotion in Osaka, including top-heavy Ms6e Kanno (23) and a pair of foreign-born powerhouses, 2020 College Yokozuna Ms8e Oshoma (24), and Kazakhstani sensation Ms4w Kinbozan (24), March’s Makushita champion. These last two are getting started slightly later than the rest in terms of age, but have exceptional university pedigrees and seem to be making light work of the lower divisions so far. Both seem to favor an overpowering oshi style, and both are ranked near Makushita’s pinnacle for May. I for one will be crossing my fingers to see their first professional showdown.

I would be remiss not to mention Ms4e Roga, also in the Makushita joi, who most should remember for besting the one and only Terunofuji in a Jonidan championship playoff during the Yokozuna’s first tournament back from injury. Roga has since stalled out in Makushita, but is still only 23, and shows great potential, if he can put it all together. Finally, watch out for these youngsters: Ms47w Yoshii (18), a former Hakuho Cup winner; Ms59e Kanzaki (22), another college standout who won the Sandanme yusho in his Grand Sumo debut; and a fresh-faced pair of stablemates, Jd21e Kototebakari and Jd21w Kotokenryu (both 18), who needed a playoff between them in March to sort out the Jonokuchi yusho. Kototebakari in particular we should watch with interest—not only did he win that playoff, but he is the kid brother of the aforementioned Kotoshoho, and it may not be long before the siblings are reunited in the top division.

The list goes on and on, but if there’s one thing left to say, it’s that sumo’s future looks bright. These kids are big (you can say that twice for Hokuseiho), strong, skilled, and hungry. So watch out world—here comes Gen Z.

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.