Rikishi Strategy Group #1: Slapdown

Sumo is a simple sport. Knock your opponent over or force them out of the ring to win. The only tool available to you is your opponent’s belt. Do you use it? This brings us to the traditional question of Yotsu zumo vs Oshi/Tsuki zumo. When push comes to shove, so to speak, which strategy do you choose? At the tachiai, would you try to lock in on your opponent’s belt and grapple, like Tochinoshin and Asanoyama, or blast away with powerful tsuppari, like Takakeisho and Abi?

Slapdown vs Thrust out

Takakeisho and Abi don’t really have the same strategy, do they, though? Takakeisho’s goal is to blow his opponent away. Before the suspension, Abi wasn’t doing that. He and guys like Aoiyama use those slaps to set their opponent up for the coup-de-grâce, the slapdown. As Abi’s comeback continues…

“Wait, Andy. Gotta stop you there. Abi is now at his highest rank, so I think it’s fair to say it’s not a come back anymore. Abi came back. Now, you may continue.”

Umm…thanks? So, as I was saying. Frankly, I was a bit taken aback by the forcefulness in Abi’s thrusts now. With Abi’s rush into sanyaku, we will get to see whether his strategy has evolved any, along with his strength. For now, I still have him clustered among the “Slapdown” wrestlers, and Takakeisho is in with the Oshi/Tsuki guys…

Wait, Andy. Hold up. Clusters? What are you talking about?”

Oh, right. Sorry. So, I decided to cluster all of the wrestlers according to their apparent strategies. I call it an “apparent” strategy by the prominence of certain kimarite in their wins. I limited the data to bouts over the past two years. And I focused on the wins here, dropping data on their losses for a future analysis on weaknesses.

Since there are few great rivalries in sumo, featuring wrestlers who have battled over and over throughout the years, my attempts to improve predictions are leading me down this path: first classify wrestlers, and then see how they fair against wrestlers of that category rather than strict head-to-head comparisons. For example, if Takakeisho faces Abi, I want to see how Takakeisho does against this broad group of Slapdown wrestlers, and then I see how Abi does against strict oshi-tsuki specialists.

At first, I wanted to divide them into three groups: Oshi/Tsuki, Yotsu, and “Balanced” but while reviewing the Oshi/Tsuki wrestlers I decided there was enough of a difference between guys like Abi to warrant their own grouping, the Slapdown wrestlers. Unfortunately, there were trademark issues around the word SmackdownTM, for some reason, so I couldn’t use that. Lastly, I’ve also identified a small and controversial group of “trippers” among the yotsu-zumo practitioners. In sum, there are five groups and I’ll show the first group, the Slapdown Artists, in this article…the others will follow.

Who are the Slapdown Rikishi?

I’ve decided to filter these groups down to just the sekitori in order to keep it manageable, for now. Those sekitori in the “Slapdown” group are in the chart below. Three of the four main indicators that I’m using for these groupings. As I mentioned, I started with a goal of splitting wrestlers into yotsu-zumo and oshi/tsuki-zumo practitioners.

However, it became apparent that a large number of oshi-tsuki wrestlers featured hatakikomi and similar pulldown kimarite as a dominant tool. Rather than pure strength, these wrestlers main objective is to play the balance game. While several to win a plurality ore a majority of bouts using oshi-tsuki techniques, the sheer prominence of slapdown wins signaled the need for an independent group.

What’s interesting to me is how they’re not all in the Aoiyama mold of massive men. Rather than moving forward, we find these men frequently win while retreating or dancing on the tawara. You’ll also notice that Midorifuji and Takayasu may not belong in this group. They’re definitely on the edge when I plot their kimarite ratios. I might move Takayasu back into the “balanced” category but he’s on the edge there, too. Midorifuji is even more on the edge as he’s actually closer to being a yotsu-zumo grappler. But his katasukashi strategy is like a yotsu-zumo version of the retreating slapdown and I didn’t want to have a category of one.

Mitakeumi Got Robbed

No, I’m not talking about the bout you’re thinking of. He lost that one. As we established, sumo is not strictly about “who touched first.” I’m talking about special prizes. I think Mitakeumi should have picked up a second special prize to go along with his Outstanding Performance prize. He should have got the Gino-sho, or Technique prize. He won using eight distinct kimarite, more than any other wrestler in the July tournament. Terunofuji, who was actually awarded the prize, used five, as did Terutsuyoshi (which included ashitori and an amiuchi).

As with so many things I do lately, I’ve included a visualization to help make my point. This visualization also got me thinking about a possible new feature. What if we weight kimarite based on rarity or flashiness? Izori, for example, would be multiplied by a factor substantially higher than the humdrum yorikiri/oshidashi. This way, we at Tachiai can give an alternative special prize, one based on data.

I’m going to flesh out the details in this week and by next weekend hope to have a methodology. So while Terutsuyoshi may have used only five kimarite, maybe with the bonus factors he’d edge Mitakeumi? I still think Mitakeumi’s throws, especially the uwatenage against Asanoyama, are quality.

By the way, it’s also interesting to check out the other names up here near the top. Tamawashi’s oshi/tsuki/kotenage style is rather versatile. Hakuho, obviously, knows how to win. How’s Ura up here, though, considering he doesn’t even get half the bouts? I’m really looking forward to seeing him compete every day, and even eligible for special prizes.

Sumo Stables For Beginners

If you’re like me, the sumo stables (heya) are a rather daunting mystery. There are so many of them that even after all of these years, beyond a few famous ones, I still can’t tell my Futagoyama from my Nishikido. After all, there are 45 active stables and there have been significant changes in the past couple of years. There are also many former and a few active wrestlers, ready to spread their wings and set up their own new stables.

There are great resources online to help out. First, the Sumo Kyokai’s website has the Sumo Beya Guide with a list of the wrestlers and staff. In a pinch, it’s a great, current roster. Then, of course, the SumoDB has a ton of information on the stables of each wrestler and does a great job tracking the history of changes; wrestlers do move from one heya to another — usually because a stable closes and its wrestlers are absorbed by a second stable, or a new stable opens and rikishi follow their recruiter to his new home.

Excellent Heya Roster and Sumo Reference

Hat-tip to Bruce for this excellent reference book. It has a complete roster with mugshots of all the wrestlers at the time of printing, grouped with their heya. It also has the staff, including coaches, hair dressers, gyoji, and support staff…my go-to reference, especially when watching those lower division matches because it includes the all-important furigana to help me penetrate some of the more bewildering shikona.

To add to these resources, I put together a little dashboard that I hope you will find as helpful as I do. This helps me get even more of a sense of not only which wrestlers are in which stable but also where the stables draw their wrestlers from. I can also drill into the kimarite (or winning techniques) the rikishi prefer, as well as what they fall victim to.

Feel free to click around. You can select a heya from the radio buttons on the right on either tab and the banzuke will filter to only those wrestlers from your selected heya. On the first tab, you can also click on a shusshin to have the banzuke filter to the wrestlers from that shusshin and on the second tab, click on the individual wrestler’s name to filter the kimarite chart. The kimarite includes each wrestlers’ career record — not just Osaka.

Oitekaze: A Southern Stable

As an example, let’s take a look at Oitekaze-beya, home of Endo, Daieisho, and just about everyone else named Dai~~ and Tsurugisho. Curiously, Oitekaze oyakata seems to recruit exclusively from the southern half of Japan. Tatsunami-beya, on the other hand, picks guys from the far north, the far south, and around Kanto…skipping over much in between.

Daiei-oshi

On the second tab, you can see how well each wrestler did in Osaka in the top graph. In the bottom chart, you can discern his strengths and weaknesses. For Endo, we’ve got a clear preference for yotsu techniques while Daieisho prefers an oshi-battle, win or lose. You can get a sense that he will force the issue and not allow anyone near his belt while Endo is not quite as able to assert his preference.

I’m eager to hear what you discover about your favorite stables…or if it helps you find a stable to investigate further. I’ll update this with the current banzuke as we get closer to Nagoya Tokyo.

Takayasu, the Grinder

An Unsteady Start

Unlike many Makuuchi mainstays, Takayasu did not take the express elevator from Jonokuchi to sekitori status. Some men have such physical prowess or talent that after starting from the bottom, they can make it to Juryo in under two years. Goeido climbed to Makushita 2 West in time for his sixth tournament, in January 2006, and joined the salaried ranks by November of that year. Others who had an established and successful college career, like Endo and Ichinojo, get a head start and begin their careers as high as mid-Makushita.

Takayasu’s Career, Visualized

Takayasu, on the other hand, started at the bottom and did not shoot straight up. The graph on the right side of the image above shows how Takayasu was grinding it out in Jonidan for a year and a half, spent another year in Sandanme, and then three in Makushita before earning his silk mawashi. How did he do it? What helped drive him those years, while guys like Aoiyama are in the Makushita joi within a year of their debut?

In July 2005, Takayasu broke out of Jonokuchi, ranked Jonidan 129w. Unlike Shunba, who worked on an oshi-style sumo that year, Takayasu chose a yotsu-style sumo. Neither of them were particularly dominant in their style, however. Shunba won as many bouts to oshidashi as he won, while Takayasu actually lost more to yorikiri than he won. However, of his 38 wins in that division, Takayasu employed 18 different kimarite while continuing to improve his yotsu skills through 2006 and into 2007. He was clearly testing out various throws and trips but was clearly developing his grappling acumen.

Something “Clicks”

In the fall of 2006, it seemed to finally click and he began to win more frequently with yotsu-techniques, especially yorikiri, but with hatakikomi, throws and trips sprinkled in. 2007 was a year of steady improvement in Sandanme with one tournament with a losing record. An interesting thing happened after that setback, though. He began to use oshi techniques and in November he went 5-2 with three wins by oshidashi.

This success brought him to the cusp of makushita but it would be another three years before his Juryo debut in November of 2010. In makushita he further honed his oshi-skills but really the most effective tool ended up being hatakikomi. However, it is very striking to see just how, aside from these old reliable kimarite, he also established a reliable throwing repertoire.

With that impressive bag of tricks, during the tumultuous Spring of 2011, Juryo was a breeze and by July Takayasu made his debut in Makuuchi. Eight years later, and the addition of the third pillar of tsuki- style sumo, Takayasu has become a complete package. If he can stay healthy, he has the skills to beat almost anyone on the dohyo. Will this finally be his basho?

If you want to play around with the Visualizer tool, I’ve finally added the career view on the right-hand side. I tried to make it as helpful as possible so almost all of the charts can act as filters. If you click on a slice of the pie, like for Juryo, the rest of the visualization filters to just Juryo. If you choose a particular tournament, or a few tournaments, you can see the kimarite for just that tournament. Have fun.