Evaluating Ozeki Careers

Kaio, the gold standard for Ozeki

Commenting on my post about Ozeki runs, SMB asks:

I assume that the people deciding on Ozeki promotions are aiming to promote rikishi who are likely to make long-term Ozeki and potential Yokozuna. You included some examples of the outcomes of Ozeki promotions, but it would be interesting to see more analysis of how successful the Ozeki promotion decisions have turned out to be. In other words, do the decision makers largely get it right, if they are aiming for long-term Ozeki?

https://tachiai.org/2019/02/14/a-brief-history-of-ozeki-runs/#comment-15017

This is a great question. Of course, what counts as a long-term or successful Ozeki is necessarily somewhat subjective, but we can look at the history to get an idea. As usual, I will limit the analysis to the six annual basho era from 1958 to the present. Sixty rikishi were promoted to Ozeki during this time. How have they fared?

Reaching The Top

A clear career goal for Ozeki is making it to Yokozuna, sumo’s highest rank. Of the 60 most recent Ozeki, 26 have made this final ascent. Five who have not are still active, although the chances that Kotoshogiku and Terunofuji regain the rank of Ozeki, much less become Yokozuna, seem exceedingly remote, and I would put the likely expected number of promotions from among Goeido, Takayasu, and Tochinoshin at one. In any case, the odds that an Ozeki takes the next step are close to 50:50.

While it could be argued that making Yokozuna always counts as success, there is one obvious exception: Kitao. He became the 60th Yokozuna, under the shikona Futahaguro, after only four basho as Ozeki and despite not winning a yusho. He failed to do so in his eight more tournaments at the top rank as well, becoming the only Yokozuna not to win a championship, and was forced to leave sumo in disgrace.

Many of the most successful Yokozuna have treated the second-highest rank as a brief waypoint on the climb to the top. The nine Ozeki not named Kitao who spent between 3 and 7 basho at the rank have 191 yusho among them, and seven of them are all-time great Dai-Yokozuna: Taiho, Wajima, Kitanoumi, Chiyonofuji, Akebono, Asashoryu and Hakuho. Of the three other modern Yokozuna with double-digit championships, Takanohana had to wait 11 tournaments (with 5 yusho!) for promotion, Kitanofuji took 21, and Musashimaru is tied for the most tournaments at Ozeki before Yokozuna promotion with 32, as well as the most Ozeki yusho with 5. The average number of basho at Ozeki before promotion is 13.5, or a little over two years.

Interestingly, in light of the oft-discussed “two consecutive yusho or equivalent” guideline for Yokozuna promotion, fully half of the 26 promotions happened with either zero (Kitao and Mienoumi) or one yusho as Ozeki, and only 11 followed consecutive championships. For more on the rather fluid and ever-changing criteria for Yokozuna status, I highly recommend this terrific video by Chris Gould:

You can skip to the part about modern promotion guidelines at 8m 15s, but the whole thing is well worth a watch.

The Terminal Ozeki

What of the 29 (retired) rikishi for whom sumo’s second-highest rank represented the pinnacle of their career? They range from Daiju, who lasted 5 undistinguished basho at the rank in 1973-74, to Kaio, who set the standard for Ozeki longevity and excellence with 65 basho (tied for the most with Chiyotaikai) and 4 yusho, the most among Ozeki who did not become Yokozuna. On average, an Ozeki career has spanned just over 27 basho, or 4.5 years. The time spent at the rank drops to around 21 basho, or 3.5 years, if we include those who vacate it through Yokozuna promotion. Given that there have been 60 Ozeki promotions in just over 60 years, 3.5 also represents the expected number of Ozeki on the banzuke at any one time, so we are a tad below average with three at the moment.

How many of the 29 can we regard as “successful”? Six lasted 12 basho or fewer at the rank, with zero yusho. These are pretty clearly misses, for one reason or another. On the other end of the distribution, there are eight “super-Ozeki” who held the rank for 36 or more basho and won at least one yusho. In addition to the aforementioned Kaio and Chiyotaikai, this group includes such notables as Takanohana I, the father of two future Yokozuna, Konishiki, the first foreign Ozeki, and Kotooshu, the first European to raise the Emperor’s Cup. The other 15 can be regarded as average Ozeki, serving between 2 and 6 years and often picking up a yusho along the way (Wakashimazu managed 2 yusho, and Tochiazuma won 3). So, if we regard these as “successful”, then the decision makers “get it right” almost 90% of the time; if we raise the bar to either lasting longer than average at the rank or being promoted to Yokozuna, this rate drops to a little over 70%.

Does The Quality Of The Ozeki Run Matter?

As noted in my previous post, 18 of the 60 Ozeki reached this rank after recording fewer than 33 victories in the 3 basho before promotion, 14 recorded exactly 33, and 28 recorded more. The average is just over 33 wins. We can ask if the number of wins during the Ozeki run correlates with subsequent success at the rank.

How do we measure success? We can try a couple of ways. First, does the number of wins predict which Ozeki go on to make Yokozuna? The answer is “no”—the correlation is actually slightly negative, with 33 wins for those who eventually make the next level, and 33.4 for those who do not. Ten of the 18 rikishi promoted with fewer than 33 wins reached the highest rank. Next, we can look at the length of the Ozeki career among those top out at the rank. Here, there is a weak positive correlation (0.18) with the number of wins, but it’s not statistically significant.

Interestingly, the one metric that does show a moderate correlation (0.39) with the number of wins during the Ozeki run is career yusho won by those who make Yokozuna. Only two of the 10 Dai-Yokozuna were promoted to Ozeki with fewer than 33 wins, while six recorded more than the target number. The future greats usually have no trouble racking up wins on their way to Ozeki promotion, just like they tend to pass through the rank quickly.

How Do The Active Ozeki Stack Up?

With the historical numbers in hand, I’ll close with a brief look at the active Ozeki (or former Ozeki). Assuming that Kotoshogiku’s Ozeki days are behind him, his 32 basho and 1 yusho would place him somewhat above average among those who never made Yokozuna. Were his career to end today, Goeido, with 27 basho at the rank and one yusho, would already grade out as pretty much exactly an average terminal Ozeki, and of course he will continue to accrue service time, so the scorn often heaped on him is undeserved. With his 14 basho as Ozeki, the sad tale that is Terunofuji falls just outside the bottom six. And we can all hope that the stories of the Ozeki careers of Tochinoshin and Takayasu are far from finished.

Amanishiki Danpatsushiki

Yesterday, news came via the Hakkaku Twitter feed that Amanishiki (海士錦) had his haircutting ceremony. This touches on a discussion we’ve been having about rikishi, fans and social media. Because of social media, we get a deeper glimpse into the lives and careers of wrestlers but that image is carefully controlled by the heya.

Who is Amanishiki? The first challenge was with his shikona. I couldn’t find Kaishinishiki…I could not figure out his shikona. He’s not listed as retired yet on the SumoDB. I knew the “nishiki” was the last character and Amanishiki is the only nishiki listed at Hakkaku beya. I confirmed it by checking his rank on the Japanese banzuke, and sure enough, 海士錦 = Amanishiki.

From the images above, we see several of his stablemates taking part in the private ceremony, cutting a strand of his hair. And below, we see his younger brother, Amanoshima, taking his turn, with Okinoumi waiting in the wings. There is a Shimane connection here between Okinoumi and the Uno brothers.

The Uno brothers hail from Ama on Nakanoshima. It’s a small island among a cluster in the Sea of Japan, the biggest of which being Okinoshima. The younger brother joined the sumo world first, in 2011, with Amanishiki following in 2013.

Okinoumi, topographic Senpai

What kind of fighter was Amanishiki? We can find out by digging into YouTube and the data from the SumoDB. What kind of brother, stablemate, and friend was he? Well, that’s what we would be able to learn if there was more interaction via social media. Maybe one day? In the meantime, we’ll look through what we have and I think we have a character I would love to watch. As YouTube culls content on the basis of IP, some videos have been removed but we’ve got this great one from last summer against a guy whose shikona is a rather long, Ookuniasahi.

Ashitori! I love ashitori. It turns out, that’s a rather reliable tool for Amanikshiki. The youngster is clearly a smaller guy when it comes to the sumo world, so the fact that most of his wins come from hatakikomi should not surprise. What is surprising is that it was about as reliable as ashitori and yorikiri. The wily one likes a belt battle.

Click to go to the kimarite tool

In this bout with Wakaichiro from last year’s Aki tournament, we see the contrast in styles. Wakaichiro comes out with powerful tsuppari, pushing him backwards with straight forward oshi zumo. Amanishiki turns the tables by grabbing Wakaichiro’s belt and asserting his yotsu-style.

We get a clue to a possible reason for the early retirement in this video. He’s got bandaged knees and there’s one point in the bout where it appears his knee may have been about to buckle, or at least was a bit ginger on it. He had a prolonged kyujo for a few tournaments in 2017 but recently had been on a rise with 5 kachi-koshi records in his 6 tournaments since coming back — including two 4-3 records in Sandanme.

I would love to have followed this guy…if I’d known about him. This is where I hope the kyokai and the heya begin to extend their involvement on social media. It could be a great tool for sharing highlights and connecting with fans. Several rikishi do share streams on Instagram. The heyas themselves could cultivate a much closer relationship with fans on these platforms.

In the meantime, I’m going to pay closer attention to his brother. Amanoshima also likes ashitori but he seems to be about as reliable on the belt as he is with oshi-zumo. He’s cracked makushita a few times but will slip back a little deeper into sandanme in Osaka.

A Brief History of Ozeki Runs

Takakeisho vs. Tochinoshin

The recent promotion of Tochinoshin to sumo’s second-highest rank, the even more recent non-promotion of Takakeisho, and the yusho-winning campaigns by Mitakeumi and Tamawashi have led to a lot of discussions about what it takes to become Ozeki. I’ve touched on the historical criteria in a number of posts and comments, but I wanted to take a more in-depth look and pull everything together in one place. I’ve limited my analysis to the time period from 1958 to the present, when the current system of six basho a year has been in effect.

33 Wins In 3 Basho Is Neither Necessary Nor Sufficient For Promotion

During this time period, there have been 60 Ozeki promotions, or about one a year. So these are not rare events. We’ve heard much about the supposed promotion standard of 33 wins over 3 consecutive basho (with double-digit wins in the last of the 3), sometimes with the qualifier that all 3 tournaments should be at sanyaku rank. How does this standard hold up? Well, among the 60 promoted rikishi, nearly a third (18) achieved fewer than 33 wins, 14 had exactly 33, and 28 had more. Seven of the successful Ozeki runs started from the maegashira ranks (all between M1 and M4), including two of the last three: Terunofuji in 2015 and Tochinoshin last year. Every single run ended with double-digit wins in the 3rd basho, and only three had 10-5 records in that basho. 42 ended with a yusho or jun-yusho.

What about unsuccessful runs? Before Takakeisho, there were 16 instances when a rikishi accumulated 33 or more wins over 3 basho and did not receive an Ozeki promotion immediately after the 3rd tournament. These include three separate cases of overlapping 4-basho stretches by a rikishi (33+ in basho 1-3 and 33+ in basho 2-4). Eight of the 16 started at M5 or lower; these non-promotions are therefore readily explained by the first basho not counting. In two additional cases, promotion was precluded by only 8 or 9 wins in the third basho. That leaves us with six cases, plus Takakeisho’s, in which a rikishi had a legitimate gripe.

To recap: 42 of the 60 rikishi promoted to Ozeki accumulated 33 or more wins in the previous three basho. With the added requirements that the rank in the first basho must be M4 or higher, and that the win total in the last basho must be 10 or more, there have been 49 such runs, and one in seven did not lead to immediate promotion.

The Seven Unsuccessful Runs

Is there anything that distinguishes the seven unsuccessful runs from the 42 successful ones? Four of the seven started in the rank and file, whereas only 7 of the 42 successful runs did. The other 3 started at Komusubi, but so did 17 of the successful ones (based on the historical data, starting the run at Sekiwake guarantees promotion). Three of the non-promotion cases included a 9-6 basho, but a number of the promotion cases also included 9-6 and even 8-7 records. Let’s look at the seven in more detail.

The first was Takanohana I in 1972. His run was M1 10-5, K 11-4 jun-yusho, S 12-3 jun-yusho. Looks pretty good to me. Perhaps his youth was working against him, as this was only his third full year in Makuuchi. In any case, he went 10-5 at Sekiwake the following basho, which proved sufficient for promotion.

The next two cases came during one four-basho run by Wakanohana III. The stretch started with a 9-6 record at M4. Bad banzuke luck saw him move up only one rank to M3, where he went 10-5. He was then promoted to Komusubi and won the yusho with a 14-1 record. Even this achievement did was not enough to make Ozeki, presumably because the first two tournaments were in the rank and file and the third was at Komusubi—every successful Ozeki run has included two basho in sanyaku, with the final one at Sekiwake. Wakanohana went 10-5 at Sekiwake in the 4th basho, giving him 34 wins over 3 basho, and was still not promoted. Once again, we’d have to invoke his youth. He left no doubt the following tournament, accumulating 13 wins and losing the yusho in a playoff, and was promoted with 37 wins in 3 basho, which has him tied with 3 others (most recently, Tochinoshin) for the highest pre-promotion victory count.

In 2001-2002, Kotomitsuki did not earn promotion with a 3-basho run of M2 13-2 yusho, S 9-6, S 12-3 (that’s 34 wins if you’re counting). He faltered after that, and it would be over five years before he finally made Ozeki. In 2006, Miyabiyama also failed to get promoted despite accumulating 34 wins, all in sanyaku: K 10-4, S 14-1 playoff loss, S 10-5. His case is usually explained by the fact that had held the rank of Ozeki for eight basho in 2000-2001, and was therefore held to a higher standard, although perhaps the last 10-5 record was just not viewed as sufficiently impressive. He never did regain his Ozeki rank.

Perhaps the most puzzling case is that of Baruto, who in 2009-2010 went K 12-3, S 9-6, S 12-3 jun-yusho. 33 victories? Check. All 3 basho in sanyaku? Check. A strong 3rd basho? Check. Impressive victories? The run included 10 victories over Ozeki opponents (including defeating all five Ozeki in the first basho) and a victory over peak Hakuho (who only lost 4 times in 2010, with 5 yusho, 4 of them zensho) in the 3rd basho. He was also a sanyaku regular. Baruto was given a target of 13 wins for the 2010 Haru basho, and despite fighting with an injured thumb, racked up 14 wins, finishing second to Hakuho and making an emphatic case for promotion, which he then received.

And that brings us to Takakeisho, who was not promoted despite a 3-basho run of K 9-6, K 13-2 yusho, S 11-4 jun-yusho. His case seems most similar to those of Takanohana and Wakanohana, with his track record not being deemed long enough, and we’ll see if he can follow in their footsteps and clinch promotion in the very next tournament.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Of the 13 rikishi denied immediate promotion, 6 were promoted one basho later, 11 reached the rank of Ozeki at a later date, and one had held the rank earlier in his career. Who is the only man in modern sumo history to put together a run of 33 victories and not reach Ozeki? None other than Tachiai favorite Yoshikaze! His career-best stretch came in 2015, when he put up 10, 12, and 11 wins while ranked M14, M8, and M1. Not exactly an Ozeki run, but still! Yoshikaze was promoted to Komusubi for the following tournament, in which he went 8-7 and reached his highest career rank of Sekiwake in January 2016. He lasted two basho at this rank, and despite a subsequent four-basho sanyaku stint in 2017, never made a serious push for Ozeki (and sadly seems unlikely to do so this late in his career).

Promotions With Low Victory Totals

The flip side of rikishi failing to earn promotion with 33 or more victories are those who were promoted with as few as 28! How did this happen? Changing historical standards could be at play. Of the 18 promotions with fewer than 33 victories, all but 3 happened in the period from 1959-1985, including all 11 with fewer than 32. The two most recent ones with 32 wins? None other than Kisenosato and Goeido. Kisenosato was promoted at the end of 2011 after 10-5, 12-3, and 10-5 basho at Sekiwake, following frequent sanyaku appearances over a six-year period. Goeido was promoted in 2014 with a three-basho record of 12-3 jun-yusho, 8-7, 12-3 jun-yusho, all at Sekiwake. The 32 victories and the 8-7 basho were compensated for by multiple defeats of Ozeki and Yokozuna opponents, as well as by the fact that he set the modern record with 14 consecutive tournaments at Sekiwake (of course, this being Goeido, the streak comes with the asterisk that he twice held onto that rank despite recording only 7 victories, due to a lack of suitable promotion candidates).

What does it take to get promoted with 28 wins, as happened twice in the 1960’s? Apparently, a lack of healthy Ozeki and Yokozuna. The first with this dubious achievement was Kitabayama in 1961, who got promoted after three basho at Sekiwake with 8, 9, and 11 victories, an unremarkable stretch. Quoting Wikipedia, “there were only two Ozeki at the time, and two ageing Yokozuna and so the standard was lowered slightly [emphasis added].” Despite the lax promotion, Kitabayama didn’t fare badly, holding the rank for 5 years and even winning a yusho. The other man to get promoted with 28 wins? The 52nd Yokozuna, Kitanofuji. Once again, the deciding factor seems to have been the presence of only one Ozeki on the banzuke at the time of his promotion following 8-7, 10-5, and 10-5 tournaments. Whatever the merits of the promotion case, they obviously got the big picture right: Kitanofuji retired with 10 top-division championships, securing Dai-Yokozuna status.

Sumo Tournament: Takayasu Yusho

There were a couple of sumo events over the weekend. First of all, there was a 相撲トーナメント, sponsored by Fuji TV, involving many of the top wrestlers in an elimination-style tournament. The final bout featured Takayasu vs. Yoshikaze with Takayasu victorious by yorikiri (below).

Hakuho and Kakuryu were unsurprisingly eliminated in their first round bouts. Injuries are still hampering our champions and are a major concern going into March. But Yoshikaze was the surprise of the tournament, following up a disappointing Hatsubasho by channeling the kyujo Tochinoshin, and lifting Shohozan* before beating Abi in the semi-final.

I had hoped to provide a bigger update on injury status for wrestlers like Chiyonokuni, Arawashi, and Kotoyuki but one of the only tweets I could find was of Chiyonokuni in what appears to be a hospital room. Since none of them appeared in the Fuji TV tournament, let’s keep our fingers crossed that they’re taking it easy and will be ready to go in March!

*Edit: I originally said Tochiozan but I can’t read kanji well this early in the morning.