Yokozuna are the stars of sumo.
Always in the spotlight, they get the lion’s share of column inches.
Rightly so, given that only 72 men have ever attained the rank. And yet, yokozuna wasn’t always the sport’s highest position.
For most of sumo’s history, ozeki was its most prestigious classification.
The title of yokozuna wasn’t even considered a separate grade at first, but simply an honor bestowed on certain ozeki.
Originally the awarding of the title had more to do with political influence than skill in the ring.
That was clearly demonstrated by the fact that the most dominant wrestler of all time never achieved the rank.
Nagano native Raiden had a 96.2 percent win rate over a 21-year span starting in 1790.
So overwhelming was his subjugation of the top division that he was forbidden from using certain techniques simply to give other wrestlers a chance.
Even so, he lost just ten fights in his entire career.
In modern times as well, some of the best wrestlers have never progressed beyond the rank of ozeki.
With five championships, Kaio, who retired in 2011, has more Emperor’s Cups to his name than many yokozuna. The extremely popular wrestler is also second on the all-time career wins list, behind only Hakuho, with 1,047 victories.
Konishiki, the first-ever foreign ozeki, is one of the most famous names in the sport’s history despite never getting to wear the white rope.
As with Kaio, the fact that his championships came spaced out rather than in consecutive tournaments prevented him from getting promoted.
In many ways, however, being an ozeki is better than being a yokozuna. Wrestlers receive most of the privileges granted to the top rank but with far fewer responsibilities.
In fact, the pressure of being the face of the sport and having to retire if you cannot uphold the honor of the rank is so great that at least one former legend considered asking the JSA not to promote him to yokozuna. He feared he would have to retire early and become unable to provide for his family as a result.
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