Sumo Stomp! The ozeki crisis and a ‘Monster’ waiting in the wings

Grand Sumo returns this weekend with the natsu basho. Here are storylines I'll be tracking once the tournament gets underway.

By: Tim Bissell | 3 weeks ago
Sumo Stomp! The ozeki crisis and a ‘Monster’ waiting in the wings
Sumo yokozuna Terunofuji in 2021. Chris Sumo/YouTube

Sumo’s lone yokozuna returns

For the first time this year sumo fans will get to see a yokozuna perform in the dohyo. After double knee surgery and three tournaments on the sidelines Terunofuji is back.

The 73rd yokozuna comes into the May tournament with seven championships under his belt. The last of which came a year ago, when he went 12-3 at the 2022 natsu basho.

He was a runner-up in the next tournament, losing a play-off to the now retired Ichinojo. He and Ichinojo had travelled to Japan on the same flight from Mongolia, as teenagers. They were then high-school classmates before going their separate ways and becoming rivals.

After that second place finish Terunofuji’s bad knees began to catch up to him.

This month, there’s plenty of excitement for his return (and he’s looked spry and content during exhibition tours). However, one wonders if this could be the last time we see him compete.

Reports out of Japan state that he has already been eyeing his own sumo stable (something only high ranking rikishi can operate on retirement).

Terunofuji is only 31, but his body has experienced extreme wear and tear. By retiring he would be able to seek more surgeries and rehabilitation (without any guilt imposed on him by the Japanese Sumo Association for missing tournaments). Once retired he would also be able to lose weight so his knees no longer have to suffer carrying over 400 lbs.

Sumo’s ozeki crisis

Grand Sumo is in desperate need of more ozeki ranked wrestlers (the position just below yokozuna). Technically there are supposed to be at least two ozeki at all times, one each to represent the east and the west. However, since January there has been only one, Takakeisho, leading Terunofuji to carry the awkward rank of yokozuna-ozeki.

The reason for the lack of ozeki is simple. A number of wrestlers who held that role recently under-performed and were demoted after back-to-back losing records.

In a sport that is built around the concept of dominant champions, the faltering of recent ozeki, and the lack of sekiwake ranked wrestlers performing well enough to take their place, has been a source of embarrassment for the JSA.

However, this could all change in May.

There are four rikishi in the sekiwake ranks who have a chance at clinching ozeki promotion based on their performances at the May tournament.

To gain promotion to ozeki, a sekiwake needs to earn 33 wins over three consecutive tournaments.

Kiribayama, Daieisho, Wakamotoharu and Hoshoryu all have a shot at that.

Kiribayama, who won the March championship, needs 11 wins. And he has a little extra motivation, too. After this tournament his mentor and stablemate Kakuryu , the 71st yokozuna, will have his retirement ceremony. Kiribayama is eager to be ozeki for that ceremony and undertake duties reserved for such a high ranking wrestler.

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Kiribayama celebrating his Emperor’s Cup win in March. 日本相撲協会公式チャンネル/YouTube

Daieisho, runner up to Kiribayama in March, also needs 11 wins. Wakamotoharu, whose brother Wakatakakage was working on his own ozeki run before tearing his ACL in March, needs 13 victories. Hoshoryu will need a perfect 15-0 record to get promoted.

Getting that many wins won’t be easy for anyone, though. The field they are facing this tournament is especially tough.

First they have to contend with each other. Then they have a returning yokozuna who is capable of handing each of them a loss and might be motivated to dominate in what could be his final basho. And don’t forget the current ozeki, Takakeisho. He’s on notice after an injury forced losing record in the last tournament. He’ll need at least eight wins to make sure he doesn’t lose his rank.

Below the sekiwake in the rankings there are also a couple of wrestlers who are looking to prove a point and ruin their rivals’ dreams of ozeki promotion.

Two former ozeki with a point to prove

There are two wrestlers who could take wins off those currently working on ozeki runs. Both are former ozeki and both seem primed for good tournaments this May.

Shodai, who may have the strongest grip in sumo, was one of the ozeki whose demotion contributed to the current crisis. He has admitted that he struggled to perform as an ozeki, due to the pressure placed on the position.

While ozeki, a rank he earned at the end of 2020, Shodai recorded seven losing records and seven winning records and only managed to get 10 or more wins in two tournaments.

His demotion from ozeki was confirmed in the January banzuke, after back to back 4-11 and 6-9 records. In January, as a sekiwake, he went 6-9 and was denoted from the san’yaku (upper ranks) entirely.

However, in March Shodai looked like a new wrestler. As a rank-and-filer he scored an impressive 10-5 record with wins over Kiribayama, Hoshoryu, Wakaktakakage and Wakamotoharu. It will be interesting to see if the more relaxed Shodai will do something similar this month.

Asanoyama is the other former ozeki looking to make waves. He lost his rank due to a year long suspension, which saw him relegated to sumo’s fourth division. The suspension was due to multiple visits to nightclubs during a time wrestlers were supposed to be under COVID-19 lock down protocols.

Asanoyama’s attempts to cover up the violations, through conspiring with a journalist and destroying evidence, caused the suspension to be especially harsh.

All he’s done is win in the lower divisions since then. He won the second division championship in January and finished runner up to Ichinojo in March to earn his place back in the makuuchi.

A wildly popular character in Japan, Asanoyama should perform well against the lower end of the first division, which would set up matches with those looking to claim his former position.

Was Midorifuji’s March a fluke?

The 5’7″ Midorifuji was one of the stories of the March tournament. The 26 year old maegashira wrestler got off to a 10-0 start during that competition. However, once he was exclusively matched up with san’yaku opponents his record started to fall. He lost his last five bouts, which took him out of championship running and cost him the Fighting Spirit award (after a loss to Shodai, specifically).

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Midorifuji (green) took a tough loss to Hoshoryu on Day 14 in March.

For May he’s been ranked maegashira #1. So he can expect many more matches with the upper ranked wrestlers (some of whom need wins for their ozeki run). So it will be interesting to see if Midorifuji can hang with the competition and collect a winning record or whether this tournament will show that, at this stage of his career, he’s not yet championship material.

Will Ochiai win juryo?

Hakuho protégé Ochiai will compete in his second juryo tournament this month (only his third ever senior sumo tournament).

The 19-year-old, who won the makushita championship, in his debut tournament in January has looked frightening at times, earning him the nickname ‘Monster’.

His sumo features raw physical gifts (an uncanny combination of muscle and speed), complimented by some technical grappling skill.

Sumo wrestlers Ochiai and Hakuho.
Ochiai with his mentor and coach Hakuho. 日本相撲協会公式チャンネル/YouTube

In his juryo debut last month, Ochiai went 10-5. Two of those losses were to Ichinojo and Asanoyama, who are no longer in the division.

His losses in March appeared to come through bad decision-making. His aggressive rushing and all-or-nothing throw attempts were countered on those occasions, leading to losses that saw him face first in the dirt or tossed off the dohyo.

Oshiai’s sumo IQ is likely to raise, though. His mentor Hakuho, the sports’ GOAT, has one of the greatest minds sumo has ever seen. He’s almost certainly identified what went wrong in March and I wouldn’t bet against his Monster making the required adjustments this time around.

So there you have it; five compelling reasons to tune in to the May tournament. If you don’t want to stay up past 3 a.m ET for 15 nights straight, just hang out here. I’ll have daily results, replays and analysis so you won’t miss a thing.

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About the author
Tim Bissell
Tim Bissell

Tim Bissell is a writer, editor and deputy site manager for Bloody Elbow. He has covered combat sports since 2015. Tim covers news and events and has also written longform and investigative pieces. Among Tim's specialties are the intersections between crime and combat sports. Tim has also covered head trauma, concussions and CTE in great detail.

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