When many people think of sumo, they imagine two large men locked in a vice-like grip straining to force each other out of a ring.
The common English-language naming of the sport as “sumo wrestling” also reinforces that grappling image.
Go to almost any stable and watch a practice, however, and you’ll soon discover that belt techniques are only acceptable to coaches and stablemasters as a secondary option.
Pushing and thrusting is where sumo starts.
The ideal is densha michi (“railroad sumo”), in which an opponent is blasted backward at the initial charge and driven over the bales.
The first few months — at least — for all new recruits is spent on developing a strong tsuki-oshi (pushing-thrusting) attack.
That’s doubly the case if the man in question comes from a college or amateur background and favors belt sumo.
There are very practical reasons for this.
First and foremost, it’s much easier to learn to push than it is to develop wrestling techniques, giving raw recruits at least some chance of picking up a few wins at the start of their careers.
More importantly, though, the risks of injury increase significantly once you are locked up with an opponent.
That’s especially true for those that haven’t yet learned break-falls.
Pusher-thrusters, particularly those gifted with size, often progress rapidly up through the lower divisions.
Such wrestlers usually hit the wall hard in the upper half of the top division.
Belt men have at least some pushing ability, but pusher-thrusters are often clueless on the mawashi.
It’s similar to stand-up fighters in mixed martial arts. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool Brazilian jiu-jitsu adherents can still throw a punch, but boxers and karateka normally struggle to master the ground game.
Tamawashi and Takakeisho’s recent championships are all the more remarkable for that fact.
For such rikishi, the timing for pushing and thrusting is almost like a golf swing. A little bit off and everything falls apart.
It’s the reason why Tamawashi may win more titles and even make ozeki, but the chances of him staying on-form long enough to reach yokozuna are slim.