Terunofuji and Takakeisho are both coming off injury but expected to compete. Takakeisho’s kadoban status, though, means that his rank is officially on the line. Recent news of the slow progress of his recovery is starting to trickle out. This is making people nervous because if Takakeisho cannot win eight bouts, he will be demoted. We’re a little more than a week out and he’s doing sumo stomps and contact-free shuffling.
As for the Yokozuna, the hardware that’s usually adorning Terunofuji’s knees means that his status at the top of the banzuke is always a precarious one. As Yokozuna, he won’t need to have a kabu upon retirement, like Kakuryu. He has had more promising news as he participated in the massive sekitori cluster keiko at Tokitsukaze. But, a 15-day honbasho after a six month break? There will be no let up. The guys on his fight card want kinboshi and/or advancement. If Terunofuji is unable to compete at this level, talk of retirement might turn into reality of retirement. But, we really need two Ozeki!
Great question, Nick, I’m glad you asked. Custom says we do, and that if we’re short, we use a reigning Yokozuna to fill in. Let’s take a look at this thing called the banzuke. The banzuke is the ranking sheet which lists wrestlers competing in a honbasho. Gyoji hand-write the characters on versions, like this wooden one that Josh saw in Osaka. They do so in a stylized calligraphy with larger sized text for those wrestlers of higher ranks, like Yokozuna and Ozeki, getting smaller and smaller as you go down the list.
Terunofuji has been listed in this curious Yokozuna-Ozeki category for several tournaments now. Before that, Kakuryu was Yokozuna-Ozeki back in March 2020. Again, Takakeisho was the lone Ozeki at the time, just before Asanoyama was promoted. Since then we have lost a number of Ozeki due to demotion, including Asanoyama, Shodai, and Mitakeumi.
But does this “Yokozuna-Ozeki” ranking somehow demote Kakuryu or Terunofuji on any of these banzuke or diminish their standing? No. Other Yokozuna have held this quirky little rank at times of Ozeki-scarcity: Chiyonofuji, Kitanoumi, etc. The issue here is that if Takakeisho loses his rank or if Terunofuji retires, there’s no Yokozuna to fill-in. If both happens, there’s no one. We had a “No-zeki” situation before, with Chiyonofuji’s promotion. But with three yokozuna, we had two Yokozuna-Ozeki. So, if this eventuality does come to pass where we don’t have enough coverage in the top ranks, what will happen?
Do not fret. There will not be a sumo-apocalypse, though I am rather curious about what would happen. The Kyokai has options available. Let’s see what they are.
Option 1: Business as usual
They can buck tradition and go with Sekiwake at the top of one side of the banzuke (or both, for that matter). All of that written about the custom and tradition would need a bit of an update, or an asterisk, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This sport has necessarily evolved over time, and will continue to do so. Tassels instead of posts at the corners of the dohyo, VAR booth and quality better than any football association, and “get your damn hands down!”…just to name a few of the more prominent changes. “Ozeki? Ozeki? We don’t need no stinking Ozeki.”
But then, I have questions. If the two Ozeki thing really is no big deal, (NBD as the kids say), what was the whole point of the Yokozuna-Ozeki? More than banzuke aesthetics, there was a reason for it, no? I had presumed the origins were to in the yin-yang style balance, or to formalize an ideal senshuraku match-up between the Champion on the East vs the Champion on the West. But that’s presumption. We know reality often doesn’t work out like that but from a PR and marketing perspective, it’s a great highlight.
I’m also a bit curious about the practicality, starting with the dohyo matsuri. Sanyaku wrestlers traditionally take part in this ceremony before honbasho but obviously aren’t in attendance at the ceremony when held at heya without sanyaku wrestlers. Does the presence/absence of fewer than two Ozeki matter in this ceremony, or others? It wouldn’t necessarily change anything about the makuuchi dohyo-iri, or sanyaku-soroibumi but there are other obligations of Yokozuna and Ozeki. On the banzuke, would Sekiwake be written at the usual size for Sekiwake, or will they write it in a large, Ozeki-sized font? There might be some deeper implications but these are admittedly minor quibbles and questions. If the Kyokai goes this way, they go this way.
Option 2: Early Promotion
Presumably, the Kyokai can summarily promote anyone they want to the rank of Ozeki. Hell, why not just keep Takakeisho at Ozeki until another earns the rank? I mean why demote someone under the old rules while promoting someone else according to new (emergency) rules. Here, my sense of fair play just gets all in a twist. Yes, Mitakeumi and Shodai rather under-performed once they got there — but they earned their promotions. (Curiously, Mitakeumi is not on the Kyokai’s list of Ozeki.)
If the next Ozeki is promoted to anything less than the previous standard, that’s a crying shame. It would also contravene the criteria stated on the Kyokai website, and likely stick in the craw of many a wrestler and fan. Past wrestlers whose Ozeki runs came up just shy would have right to be bitter…as would their supporters.
Oh, Nick, you startled me. You’re still here?
Where was I? Yes, Getting back to the Ozeki promotion…it’s is more than just ephemeral status, it has financial implications and real benefits and obligations — not just the weight of the office. This path of early promotion, though, comes along with the increased likelihood of yet another poor Ozeki reign and rapid demotion. Kotokaze was the solution to the Chiyonofuji/Hokutoumi situation above. He won that tournament at Sekiwake, with a 12-win yusho, and was promoted after 31 wins. He did go on to have a decent stretch at Ozeki. His reign was 5.5 Mitakeumis long. With the current crop of Sekiwake, this might be a very tempting option.
We apologize for the lame gag but Nick Stellino is living, rent-free, in the author’s head. Whenever he thinks, “why?” it’s somehow in Nick Stellino’s voice. We think the author needs therapy, or at least a weekend away from cooking shows.
Option 3: A Rose by Another Name
The Kyokai could also use competition to find the next Ozeki, which could take many forms but I will suggest the most legitimate form here. In May 2011, the Kyokai held a full, 15-day tournament but didn’t call it a hon-basho. As Asashosakari correctly pointed out in the comments of my previous post, that tournament was the first tournament of Kotoshogiku’s Ozeki run (although he did have 11 wins in Jan 2011). The results counted. Kotoshogiku secured his 33-win tournament.
So, Nagoya would go on as planned, everything counts, it’s just not a hon-basho. There’s no law requiring six hon-basho each year, as we learned during COVID. Before 1958, there wasn’t a Nagoya honbasho on the calendar. The issue with this is clear, though. It doesn’t necessarily result in a successful Ozeki promotion, bringing us back to where we started. Although, they could just hold another…and another…and another…until someone is Ozeki. Nothing changes, except the name. However, Asashosakari is right, it could lose its luster and be more sparsely attended if it’s not a “hon-basho” but I discount this since the results will still count. There is no scandal here, just a name change due to a technicality. But yes, it would be, “different.” I just think that difference will be more palatable than a “lesser” Ozeki.
Option 4: Go Completely Off Script
The Kyokai does hold other tournaments, not just honbasho. Often these are one- or two-day affairs during Jungyo. In February, though, there is the FujiTV Tournament. It’s an elimination-style tournament with a decent purse for the winner. The Kyokai could hold a similar competition, possibly just among the sanyaku, with Ozeki rank at the end. Since the result would be an out-of-the-ordinary run, there would understandably be a mental asterisk for whoever earned their promotion through such unconventional means but it would be more legitimate than Option 2. So long as the competition is more rigorous than rock-paper-scissors, there would certainly be some legitimacy on the outcome.
Wrapping Things Up
For those who fret about tradition and the future of sumo — well, there is not really a lot to fret about. Sumo will continue if we have fewer than two Ozeki; the situation is more of a curiosity than anything else. It’s not an existential issue, as in the Kyokai’s mandate as Guardian of Grand Sumo will not end. If it’s even a problem at all, there are workable solutions, no matter how rigid the “two Ozeki rule” actually is. I favor whatever method instills the most legitimacy on those wrestlers who hold the rank of Ozeki. Hopefully, it will be a moot point as this tournament ends in a blockbuster title race between Terunofuji and Takakeisho, and at least one solid Ozeki promotion.
Oh, and Ichinojo will retire. Sorry, that one snuck up on me, too. Apparently his back isn’t up to the competition, despite his recent treatment. We’ll have more on that as news is available. Quite the shock.