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Pint-size Enho could shake up banzuke in Reiwa Era

by John Gunning

The first banzuke (ranking) of the Reiwa Era was released on Tuesday with newly minted ozeki Takakeisho the standout promotion.

It’s been a fantastic 12 months in the ring for the stocky wrestler from Chiganoura Stable. Double-digit wins in five of the last six tournaments, a championship in November, four special prizes and now elevation to sumo’s second highest rank.

Things only get harder from here on out for the 22-year-old, however.

While his slate of opponents won’t significantly change, there is additional pressure and expectation that comes with being an ozeki.

In particular, promotees rarely contend for the title in their first tournament at the rank.

A lack of proper training as a result of endless parties and events following promotion often takes too great a toll.

As a result, most new ozeki look totally drained about halfway through their debut tournament at the rank.

History suggests Takakeisho will struggle in May, so sumo fans will likely have to look elsewhere for excitement in the upcoming meet.

Luckily the Natsu Basho marks the top-division debut of arguably the most electrifying rikishi in the sport.

Despite standing just 169-cm tall and weighing in at a paltry 95 kg, Enho has rocketed up the banzuke in the two years since his debut.

To put his size in perspective, Enho is about 50 kg lighter and 15 cm shorter, on average, than most of the opponents he will face this month.

Being undersized doesn’t faze the Ishikawa Prefecture native, however, as he has been taking on larger opponents for the better part of two decades. The 24-year-old started sumo when he was just five, and racked up numerous titles at every stage of his amateur career.

As a middle school student he took gold in the lightweight division at the Junior World Championships in 2012. That was the first time I saw him fight in person, and his all-action, high-speed style was so mesmerizing, that it briefly made me forget about my own upcoming bouts — I was in the openweight division with future makuuchi stalwarts Endo and Ichinojo.

The first-ever sekitori (wrestler in the top two divisions) from Kanazawa Gakuin University, Enho has thrilled fans in arenas around the country over the past couple of years.

Yet promotion to the top division is certain to bring his fame to a whole new level.

The makuuchi division receives the lion’s share of media coverage and very few wrestlers outside it have name recognition among the general public.

Win or lose, Enho’s fights are rarely boring. Like most small rikishi, he mostly uses speed and technique to defeat larger opponents.

Unsurprisingly, he normally comes in low at the initial charge and, if given an opening, will grab the belt with his left hand and shift to that side.

The latter tendency is often his undoing against wrestlers who study their opponents closely.

His small size also means that top rikishi, many of whom bench press twice Enho’s body weight, can easily execute throws — even from bad positions — or send him flying from the ring with a shove.

Enho is coming off four straight winning records in the juryo division, but there wasn’t much breathing room in any of them. It’s going to be difficult for him to survive in the top division unless he puts on more weight, but that of course can adversely affect speed and a small rikishi’s natural style.

At this stage it’s difficult to predict whether Enho will thrive and become a latter-day Mainoumi, or go straight back down to juryo, but either way his fanbase is about to increase dramatically.

Enho is the sole sub-100-kg rikishi on the Reiwa Era’s first banzuke.

Kyokudozan had the same honor in 1989 when the first rankings of the Heisei Era were released. Interestingly, there were fewer short rikishi 30 years ago, with only three men in the top division under 180 cm.

Things were very different when the first banzuke of the Showa Era was released. The makuuchi division in 1927 had several rikishi comparable in size to Enho.

The average weight back then was about 108 kg, with the majority of the rikishi between 173-177 cm in height.

There were of course no foreign sekitori in those days, but ex-collegians were also a rare sight. Osaka native Yamanishiki, who graduated from Kansai University, was the only rikishi with a degree.

Things hadn’t changed much 72 years later with Konishiki being the sole foreigner in the top two divisions when the Heisei era began and makuuchi having only three former college wrestlers in total.

The second-highest ranked foreigner on that 1989 banzuke, by the way, was Taylor Wily, who modern audiences probably know better from his role as Kamekona Tupuola on “Hawaii Five-0.”

Northern Japan was preeminent at the start of the previous era, with all three yokozuna and one ozeki hailing from Hokkaido and another ozeki a native of Aomori.

The “King in the North” these days in Takarafuji, all the way down at maegashira No. 6 east.

Another big difference as the new era begins is that foreign-born rikishi and former collegians currently comprise almost sixty percent of sumo’s top division.

Takakeisho is neither, but he was the Heisei Era’s last ozeki.

Now the question is, will he become the first Reiwa Yokozuna?