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.