Have ozeki forces been expelled from the dohyo ?

Asanoyama has deservedly been promoted to the ozeki rank, right after a solid 11-4 performance in Osaka. Long life the ozeki!

By the way, in terms of roles, what, exactly, is an ozeki?

The ozeki are sumo’s second highest rank, and should provide yokozuna serious competition for the Cup.

However, how often hs this been the case recently?

Recent records show us that ozeki have largely been disappointing. Let’s dig deeper into this topic, knowing that we will look back until 2010:

  1. Who has been an ozeki since then?

Kaio, Kotomitsuki, Harumafuji, Kotooshu, Baruto, Kotoshogiku, Kisenosato, Kakuryu, Goeido, Terunofuji, Takayasu, Tochinoshin and Takakeisho. That’s a total of 13.

Used to lift small cars for training: former ozeki Baruto (left)

2. Since 2010, who has not won a single basho as an ozeki?

Sadly enough, many of them: Kaio, Kotomitsuki, Kotooshu, and the four last of them: Terunofuji, Takayasu, Tochinoshin and Takakeisho. It’s more than the half: 7 out of 13.

On the contrary, Harumafuji has been the most successful, as he collected eight of his nine yusho during that period.

3. How to analyze ozeki records?

To sum up grossly ozeki ranks since 2010, Kaio was in his late career, and Kotomitsuki got dismissed in 2010.

By the end of 2011, an unseen sextet of ozeki took place after Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato’s promotions.

The trademark Kotoshogiku stretch

Harumafuji had won a yusho (Nagoya 2011) as an ozeki right before. He repeated that feat twice in a row in Nagoya and Aki of next year, securing his promotion to yokozuna.

Of the sextet, only Baruto was immediately successful, winning the January 2012 basho. But that was it, for the time being, and the sextet disagregated.

We had to wait until Osaka 2014 to see another ozeki win a yusho, namely Kakuryu – he got promoted to yokozuna right after.

A successful rise to the top: yokozuna Kakuryu

We had to wait almost two years to see more ozeki success. In fact, we could witness twelve months of ozeki bless, with three of them notching a yusho: Kotoshogiku in January 2016, Goeido in September 2016, and Kisenosato in January 2017. His second win in March came as a yokozuna.

And, incredibly, that was it. Ozeki tried, lost twice in a playoff in 2017 (Terunofuji in March, Goeido in September) ; Takayasu came close to meeting Takakeisho in a playoff in November 2018. But they visibly failed to delivered since Kisenosato’s promotion ; their health condition has been a great concern. Terunofuji fell into the abyss, Takayasu and Tochinoshin got definitively demoted. For all three of them, demotion did not came too long after their promotion – about two years. Goeido’s physical condition caused him to retire, but he had quite a long spell – a bit less than six years. Kotoshogiku failed to regain the ozeki rank early in 2017; the final blow was given by a very infamous henka by Terunofuji, and caused great scandal.

What about Takakeisho? Considered a great hope, he already suffered two grave injuries during his younr career, a knee and his chest having been hit. If he did manage to get a spot in a playoff in Aki of 2019, he hasn’t won a yusho as an ozeki yet, and I’m afraid we might not see him lift the Emperor’s Cup ever again, due to his precarious health condition.

A great future already behind him ? Ozeki Takakeisho

Unfortunately, this is truly been the ozeki’s stumbling block.

To sum up:

Only 8 bashos have been won by an ozeki since 2010 : 1 by Baruto, Kakuryu, Kotoshogiku, Goeido and Kisenosato ; 3 by Harumafuji.

Three of them have been promoted to yokozuna after the yusho; the other three have stayed at the rank but failed to deliver again.

  • From 2010 to 2012 included: 4 ozeki yusho (Baruto, Harumafuji thrice)
  • From 2013 to 2015 included: 1 ozeki yusho (Kakuryu)
  • From 2016 to January 2017 included: 3 ozeki yusho (Kotoshogiku, Goeido, Kisenosato)
  • From March 2017 to present: no yusho.
Set to break the curse? Ozeki Asanoyama

Time is ticking, and let’s hope Asanoyama will be able to break that new, worrying ozeki curse…

Update: I got a very interesting question from Abi Fan, which I thank a lot for that. He asked how ozeki fared in the previous decade.

16 yusho were won by ozeki back then:

– Chiyotaikai – 2 (July 2002, March 2003)
– Kaio – 4 (his first yusho came as a komusubi)
– Tochiazuma – 3 (January 2002, November 2003, January 2006)
– Asashoryu – 2 (November 2002 and January 2003)
– Hakuho – 3 (May 2006, Maech and May 2007)
– Harumafuji – 1 (May 2009)
– Kotoosho – 1 (May 2008).

Remarkably, the majority of all yusho winner of that decade is quoted on that list.

Haru Basho – yokozuna’s last fortress ?

2020’s Haru basho gave us a great finale, which a yusho deciding bout on the very last bout of the very last day – senshuraku’s musobi no ichiban – between both grand champions, Hakuho and Kakuryu.

What’s more normal ? Plenty of things, actually. As we know, recent times have provided us a fair amount of surprise winners, unlikely scenarios and crazy bashos.

Some venues have provided more drama than others. Let’s put a diagnosis on each yearly basho. Which ones are still mainly held by the yokozuna ? Which ones are brillantly conqueered by the rest of the field ?

Hatsu basho : complete meltdown

The first basho of the year is probably the most vandalized basho in recent times. Is it worth mentionning Tokushoryu’s improbable win, while sitting in banzuke’s unenviable place of the “makuuchi’s ass” ? Remarkably, a makuuchi spot wasn’t guaranteed to him at all, as he benefited from Tomokaze’s demotion to juryo’s first spot.

In my opinion, of of the craziest basho we could witness in recent times came in Tokyo, in January of last year. My prediction of all yokozuna plus ozeki not getting more than thirty wins combined seemed bold to the great Jason Harris, only for that prophecy to be accumplished fifteen days later. Tochinoshin went kyujo shortly after Kisenosato’s sad but inevitable retirement. Kakuryu did not finish the tournament. The yusho seemed to be given to Hakuho (who at some point had a two win lead), but the dai yokozuna couldn’t stand an injury sustained on the basho’s early days, and did not fight on senshuraku.

The eventual winner ? Sekiwake Tamawashi.

Arguably, the transitional period we’re witnessing began in that very same place. It all started with Tochinoshin’s surprise win, just a couple years ago. It eventually proved to be the first sign of the old guard paving way – before the future ozeki ending up demoted himself.

By the way, when’s the last time a yokozuna won that basho ? Neither in 2017, which saw Kisenosato’s consecration, being promoted from his long time ozeki spotright after the basho. Nor in 2016, where a Japanese won a yusho for the first time in ten years, namely Kotoshogiku.

Always better with Jason’s reactions: ozeki Kotoshogiku (10-0) v yokozuna Hakuho (10-0), Day 11 of Hatsu basho 2016

Hakuho is the last yokozuna to have triumphed there, in 2015. That will make six years, come 2021 !

Natsu basho : contested

Let’s skip Haru basho for now and turn to the May tournament, in Tokyo. It could be named “the contender basho”.

Remember last year’s basho ? It started with Tochinoshin’s apparent revival as an ozekiwake. The Georgian piled up wins before seemingly reinjured himself in the process, and struggling to get his desired ten wins. The story ended with an infamous henka on Kakuryu, which sealed the yusho for Asanoyama, then ranked maegashira 8. Maegashira 8 !

Several awards were presented to Asanoyama – who received instructions on how to collect them, shortly before the ceremony – by no one else than Donald Trump. Has the US president handed several rewards to our next yokozuna ? We will see.

Newly promoted ozeki Asanoyama Hideki

Anyway, another rikishi became an ozeki shortly after winning a yusho in may – namely Terunofuji. Back in 2015, the then man in form benefitted from heya mate Harumafuji’s help to leapfrog Hakuho on quest of the Emperor’s Cup. He was promoted to sport’s second highest rank before July.

Finally, how not to mention Kyokutenho’s unlikely yusho, back in 2012 ? After a slow start – he was 2-3, the Mongolian benefitted from an incredible drop of form of the upper ranks, most notably Kisenosato, who blew up a two win lead after day 11. It all ended with a nervous playoff against Tochiozan.

Nagoya basho : holding its own

Yokozuna record in Nagoya is pretty good. From 2008 to 2017 included, only Hakuho and Harumafuji (twice as an ozeki) have won it.

I wouldn’t call Nagoya a fortress, though, as the 2018 basho was the first one in a while to be a “nokozuna” : Kisenosato did not compete, while Hakuho, Kakuryu (and ozeki Tochinoshin) had pulled out by day 6. Sadly, that feat would repeat several times since then – so eventual winner, Mitakeumi, definitely opened Pandora’s box.

Triumphant in Nagoya: Mitakeumi Hisashi

Last year’s winner was yokozuna Kakuryu, who got his sixth – and currently last – yusho.

Aki basho : melting down

Why is Aki basho melting down ? Since 2005, it has notably been won by Asashoryu (thrice), Harumafuji (twice), Kakuryu (once), and, of course, Hakuho (seven times).

However, last editions have had a fair share of drama.

Back in 2015, Kakuryu – the sole yokozuna competing – benefitted from Terunofuji’s first grave knee injury to pip him on the yusho race, although he got dragged into a playoff by the ozeki.

The 2016 edition came as an enormous surprise as Goeido, then a kadoban ozeki, not only won the yusho, but with a zensho yusho ! The runner up, in the process, was crowd favorite Endo.

With a famous stare down : yokozuna Harumafuji (10-2) v ozeki Goeido (12-0), Day 13 of Aki basho 2016

In 2017, right before the infamous scandal that prompted his retirement, Harumafuji recovered from a three (!) loss deficit to Goeido, who himself melted down, before defeating him twice on senshuraku – once in regulation, and once in the ensuing playoff.

If 2018 occurred with a fine share of normality – Hakuho the winner -, how not mentionning the 2019 edition ? Another nokozuna, with endless contenders : Meisei, Tsurugisho, Okinoumi (who could have clinched the whole thing with a different scenario on senshuraku) all got in the process.

Eventually, the basho gave way to an original playoff between both sekiwake : Takakeisho and Mitakeumi, the winner.

Kyushu basho : not quite, but almost a fortress

Calendar year’s last basho could have been called “yokozuna’s second fortress”, had two of the last three editions not be so dramatic.

As already mentioned, the 2017 edition saw Harumafuji’s regrettable scanda land subsequent retirement. Hakuho emerged from chaos, not without providing his share of controversy, as he openly contested the shimpan’s decision of not calling a matta on Yoshikaze’s bout.

Should have stayed longer : yokozuna Harumafuji

Next year’s tournament provided a very rare occurrence of a komosubi win. I twas Takakeisho’s landmark ozeki run, thanks to a fine 13-2 record, with a bit of help of Mitakeumi, who defeated Takayasu on senshuraku. The ozeki could have sealed a place in a playoff, had he not succumbed to pressure.

Haru basho : yokozuna’s last fortress

Chiyotaikai won this basho in 2003, as an ozeki. Hakuho won it in 2007, but as an ozeki (that was the tricky part of this basho’s statistics !). From 2008 (with the 2011 edition having been cancelled), this basho has only been won by yokozuna.

One small exception to that: Kakuryu won it as an ozeki in 2014. To be more exact, following a 14-1 playoff loss in January, Kakuryu’s 14-1 win in Osaka cemented his yokozuna promotion.

One could say that the 2014 edition saw a half yokozuna winning it ! We can’t close our discussion without mentionning the 2017 edition, which saw Kisenosato’s yokozuna debut and only yusho at the top rank, despite sustaining a career ending injury.

It all started so well… Kisenosato began his yokozuna career with a yusho

In a sense, the Ibaraki born contributed to establish Osaka as the last yokozuna’s fortress.

Takanoiwa’s Danpatsu-Shiki

Today, Takanoiwa’s danpatsu-shiki, the ceremonial cutting of the top-knot, took place on the dohyo at the Ryogoku Kokugikan. Sumo fans who did not read about the reconciliation between Harumafuji and Takanoiwa, may have been surprised to see this:

Harumafuji, participating as promised in the hair cutting ceremony

And even those who knew about the reconciliation, may have been surprised at another consequence of it:

Yokozuna Hakuho, also cutting a strand

And, perhaps less surprisingly, Kakuryu was there as well:

Kakuryu: “Thanks for the hard work. Let’s see each other again”.

Indeed, it seemed every Mongolian sekitori showed up: Tamawashi, Arawashi, Chiyoshoma and, of course, Ichinojo, all snipped a strand of hair, as did members of Takanoiwa’s own heya:

As has been speculated, Takanoiwa’s original stablemaster, Takanohana, absented himself from this ceremony, and chose, instead, to show up for an assembly of his support group in Nagoya. Comedian Kunihiro Matsumura, known, among others, for his impressions of the former Takanohana, filled in:

Spitting image

About 370 people participated. This may seem a small number for the 12,000 seat Kokugikan, but it should be noted that the tickets sold for this event all included both the ceremony itself and the party that followed it, so the limiting number was the capacity of the banquet hall, not the Kokugikan itself – and the tickets sold out. The other day I reported that only 90 tickets were sold – but in fact, whatever was allotted was sold. Here is a summary of the ceremony:

A quick shave-and-a-hair-cut, and I give you Takanoiwa in his new form:

Adiya Baasandorj, formerly known as Takanoiwa

The party after the ceremony included a Mongolian band:

As well as karaoko! Here is the man of the hour:

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you Chiganoura oyakata’s karaoke, because he is one of the best singers in the Sumo world.

And so, it appears that the reconciliation indeed helped the ceremony become a respectable, well-attended occasion.

But it may have done more than bring Hakuho to softly lay his hands on Takanoiwa’s shoulders.

Meet Takanoiwa’s nephew, Sukhbat

In March 2018, Takanoiwa’s nephew, Sukhbat, son of his second eldest brother (Takanoiwa is the youngest of five siblings) was looking for a heya.

Sukhbat was 19 at the time, graduating at the same time as the famous Naya, and from the same school, Saitama Sakae, which has a very strong sumo program. This is the same school Takakeisho graduated from.

This was before Haru 2018. The boy was practicing with his uncle at Takanohana beya’s Osaka facility, but of course could not join that heya, as Takanoiwa himself occupied the foreigner slot. So he was looking for a heya that was willing to take someone who finished third in the inter-high sumo tournament, in time for the new recruits exams of the haru basho… but there were no takers.

This was in the middle of the Harumafuji scandal. Haru 2018 was the first basho Takanoiwa was to attend after the “incident”. And heya were distancing themselves from the matter, apparently.

But he didn’t find one in Natsu, and in Nagoya, and in Aki… you get the drift. With his uncle’s own retirement, it seemed that the world of sumo was willing to give out on this supposedly talented wrestler.

And then we had the reconciliation. Then suddenly…

Left: Takanoiwa. Right: Sukhbat

Sukhbat is going to join Onoe beya. He will probably undergo the new recruit examination in Haru, but will only be able to do his mae-zumo in Natsu, as is usual for foreign recruits.

So, of course, temporal succession does not necessarily imply causation. But with foreigner slots being a limited resource, and the Japanese natural suspicion of anything foreign, it makes sense that any foreigner wanting to join the world of sumo would need an intercessor or sponsor to speak for him. Apparently the well-oiled Mongolian recruiting machine was not working for Sukhbat until just recently. He is now 20 years old. Let’s hope he has kept himself in shape!

Burying The Hatchet

Takanoiwa and Harumafuji reconcile. Harumafuji to attend Takanoiwa’s danpatsu-shiki.

Riding into the sunshine. From the Smart Flash news site

On the evening of January 17th, shortly after the Day 5 action of the Hatsu basho has ended, two men arrived separately at a fancy Japanese restaurant in Akasaka, Tokyo. The two, known to us as former Yokozuna Harumafuji and former Maegashira Takanoiwa, were there to bury the hatchet. They enjoyed good food and discussed the future.

The meeting was a success. Following dinner, the former Yokozuna entered a black luxury car, and was soon followed by his fellow Mongolian, and the two were driven to Ginza, where they spent the rest of the evening having drinks together.

The news outlets reporting this meeting added that Harumafuji is to attend Takanoiwa’s danpatsu-shiki (ceremonial cutting of his top-knot) which will be held on February 2nd. The following day this has been confirmed by Chiganoura oyakata, who is in charge of Takanoiwa’s former heya, and is holding the ceremony for him. (Danpatsu-shiki are not given by the NSK, but rather by the individual heya, usually paid for by the heya’s koen-kai).

This finally puts the Harumafuji saga to rest.

A sad saga

The story began, as our readers may recall, on the night of October 25th, 2017, the night before the Aki Jungyo event at Tottori city. You can find the full details of the fateful after-party in previous posts. Harumafuji, annoyed with Takanoiwa for checking his phone while Hakuho was speaking to him, proceeded to beat him with bare hands and karaoke remote control, lacerating his skull to the degree that it required stapling. The whole affair would probably have gone under the radar, if word of it did not somehow get to the ears of Takanohana oyakata, Takanoiwa’s stablemaster, and at the time, the head of the Jungyo department.

The news broke out on the third day of the following Kyushu basho. Harumafuji went kyujo, and at the end of that tournament, took responsibility and retired. But what should have ended pretty much like the Asashoryu saga: a retirement, a settlement out-of-court, and that’s it, developed into a holy war between Takanohana and the NSK.

Harumafuji’s retirement press conference

In particular, Takanohana refused to allow Harumafuji to settle this matter with Takanoiwa. In the absence of an out-of-court settlement, Harumafuji faced a summary indictment and paid a fine. Furthermore, Takanoiwa was prevented from showing up to Jungyo events and honbasho for quite a while following the incident, ending up at the bottom of Juryo. After making his first appearance in honbasho eventually (Haru 2018), he was once again absent from Jungyo, handing in a doctor’s certificate for PTSD – which apparently healed in time for the next honbasho (Natsu 2018).

A civil suit

How did an injury whose original medical certificate was for less than two weeks of rest, and which should not have prevented Takanoiwa from participating in any honbasho following the incident, develop into several months of absences, it’s hard to say for certain. My guess was that a big lawsuit was in the works.

But that civil suit took its time in materializing. In the meantime, Takanohana was demoted to the bottom rung of the NSK ranks. He filed a complaint about the NSK for that with the Government Office (the NSK is a tax-exempt organization and as such its governance is subject to government scrutiny). But when his young deshi, Takayoshitoshi (now Takanofuji), unwisely decided to beat up his tsukebito right in front of dozens of people in the shitaku-beya during the Haru 2018 tournament, Takanohana was forced to pull that complaint, to allow his deshi to keep his career.

Takanoiwa responding to reporters under the watchful eye of Takanohana

Then one day at the end of September 2018, right after the end of the Aki basho, Takanohana announced that he is resigning the NSK, saying that he was “being forced to declare that the complaint to the government was unjustified, which he does not believe it was”. This was yet another media circus, which ended in the Takanohana beya being closed up, all its deshi being transferred to the care of a very surprised Chiganoura oyakata, and Takanohana leaving the NSK, getting a divorce and putting what was both his home and his heya out on the real-estate market. However, he did not let go of the Takanoiwa saga.

On October 3rd, 2018, Takanoiwa filed a civil suit against Harumafuji. That civil suit included all those lengthy medical expenses, damages, loss of income, etc., for the long absences I have mentioned above, to the tune of nearly ¥25,000,000. His new oyakata, Chiganoura, was not aware of this. The law firm behind the suit was the same law firm Takanohana (now back to his family name of Hanada) was using for his own affairs.

The lawyers on the Harumafuji side reacted with indignation, calling this an extortionist sum and declaring that they will fight it in court, as it was way above and beyond the real damages accrued by their client.

Once again, attempts at settlement out of court were blocked.

Public Shaming In Mongolia

It seems that Takanohana and his lawyers failed to predict all the consequences of that civil action. Back in Mongolia, people were outraged. Harumafuji is held in much respect by many in Mongolia, due to his philanthropic activities there. In particular, he recently established a school in Ulan-Baatar which is supposed to give young Mongolians a Japanese-style education. He invested about $12,000,000 in the establishment of that school of his own money, and also raised donations from others. His fans in his home land took a dim view of Takanoiwa’s “preposterous” law suit, and some of them started publicly shaming and physically harassing Takanoiwa’s family. It should be noted that neither of Takanoiwa’s parents is alive, and his family consists of siblings and their own families. They called him often to express their distress, and he couldn’t bear it any longer.

On October 30th, Takanoiwa announced that he will be pulling the suit. “I will pay for my own medical expenses… I want the harassment of my family to stop”, he said.

The reaction from the Harumafuji side was that it was “unthinkable that Mongolian Society would act in such a deplorable way towards the victim side”. While a bit cryptic, the reaction from the Takanohana side was much more dramatic. According to Takanoiwa’s koen-kai, the former oyakata immediately severed ties with his former deshi.

The next day, Harumafuji’s lawyers hinted that they think “perhaps Takanoiwa’s legal representatives were obstructing negotiations and misrepresenting their own offers”, and suggested that direct talks should take place between the sides.

The victim turns aggressor

Whether or not such direct talks indeed started at this point, we will probably never know. But we do know that shortly afterwards, during the 2018 Fuyu Jungyo, Takanoiwa, angry with his assigned tsukebito, Takataisho, for forgetting his purse in the previous Jungyo location, beat him up. When the attending oyakata found out, Takanoiwa was sent off to Tokyo, questioned together with his new oyakata, and sent off to await judgement at his heya. This was all too much for the victim-turned-aggressor, and he decided to leave the world of Sumo.

Takanoiwa’s retirement press conference

No red carpets were waiting for him out the door. The RIZIN pro-wrestling association, following the embarrassing Osunaarashi second scandal, announced that it wasn’t a dumping ground for sumo criminals (or something more polite but to the same effect). There was no invitation waiting for him there. Without education, without a civil profession, with burnt bridges in his home land, and now also without the support of his former oyakata (who made a public announcement that he will not allow Takanoiwa within his presence before he does 10 years of penitence), Takanoiwa was in a serious pinch.

A lonely danpatsu-shiki

His recent oyakata, Chiganoura, was acting very decently – appearing by his side in his news conference and bowing in apology together, appealing to the Chiganoura koen-kai to be kind to his short-time deshi in his new life, and arranging for that danpatsu-shiki at the Ryogoku Kokugikan to give him a respectable farewell. Chiganoura also invited Takanohana, as Takanoiwa’s former stablemaster. However, no indication was given that Takanohana was going to accept the invitation, and given the above, the likelihood that this would happen was very low indeed.

This ceremony, unlike Harumafuji’s (and the one planned for Kisenosato next September) is not going to include hana-zumo (a day of sumo, jinku, shokkiri etc). Hana-zumo requires the cooperation of the rikishi-kai, and is an expensive affair. It includes only the ceremony itself and an after-party. At the moment, only 90 tickets have been sold.

With Takanohana not attending, and an ongoing feud with the Harumafuji camp in the Mongolian community, news outlets were speculating that the event would turn out to be not just low-key, but a rather lonely affair.

So perhaps it is Takanohana absenting himself from the scene. Perhaps it was the prospect of a lonely farewell ceremony. And perhaps the reason was the new state of unemployment Takanoiwa found himself in. Whatever the reason, the overtures from Harumafuji’s side, long rejected, found an ear this time, and the two sides finally found a way to put one of the saddest, ugliest affairs in the world of Sumo in recent years to rest, and smoke the pipe of peace.

And the danpatsu-shiki? Harumafuji will attend it. Gossip columns tell us that Takanohana’s ex-wife, Takanoiwa’s former Okami-san, Keiko Kono, will also attend it. Whether ticket sales will increase as a result, and whether Harumafuji’s attendance will draw in more of the Mongolian community, we will learn in a few days.