Whenever the next Grand Sumo Tournament eventually gets underway, Asanoyama will become the third straight debutant ozeki to have come from the ranks of amateur sumo.
That’s not a recent pattern, however, as among the 14 men who have been promoted to sumo’s second-highest rank in the past two decades (excluding those who went on to make yokozuna,) only Takayasu and Kaio joined the sport without any significant experience at an amateur level.
Conversely, Asashoryu’s time at Meitoku Gijuku High School sumo club is the only amateur experience found among the histories of the five most recent yokozuna.
Despite the fact that becoming ozeki without having started sumo at an early age is becoming exceeding rare, making it to the very top of the professional world with a high-level amateur background is still something that only one man has ever managed.
Wajima’s promotion to yokozuna 47 years ago remains the only time a former collegian has attained the white rope.
Why do amateurs with a track record of success at school, university or the international level seem to be able to reach ozeki relatively easy, but fail time and again when it comes to taking the final step?
Each case is different of course, but there are some possible explanations.
First and foremost, it has to be acknowledged that making yokozuna is far harder than attaining ozeki promotion, so the bar is raised for everyone, regardless of background. That doesn’t explain the discrepancy in and of itself, but it does mean than the sample size is a lot smaller and so any theories put forward rely more heavily on speculation.
One that has been rattling around in my mind for a while is the need for sustained excellence, and how that differs from what is required for ozeki promotion or to win an individual amateur or professional tournament. You can lift the Emperor’s Cup with a just a fortnight’s worth of good sumo from any position in the top division, while winning an amateur tournament rarely requires more than a day of solid work.
Reaching ozeki, of course, means doing well for a longer time, but at a much lower level.
Championships with 11-4 records are by far the rarest kind — only three men have lifted the Emperor’s Cup with such a score.
Averaging that record over three tournaments however is good enough for ozeki promotion for sekiwake- or komusubi-ranked wrestlers.
Reaching yokozuna, on the other hand, means not only bettering that by two or three wins in consecutive tournaments, but also winning the title on both occasions (or once and making it to a playoff) while facing the toughest available slate of opponents.
In other words, you need to be the best in the sport over a period of three months — all the while being under intense scrutiny and pressure and the center of attention for the nation’s media. Nothing in any version of amateur sumo comes close.
The focus needed to attain that level almost dictates the person in question joins the highest level of the game as soon as they can. It could be that in the minds of the sport’s elite, amateur or collegiate sumo is a diversion or distraction. They are focused on the ultimate goal and success at any other level carries little weight. The Mongolians (and Hawaiians before them) also came into the sport with just as much power, speed and technique as their Japanese counterparts, but with a keener hunger to do well as, in many cases, sumo was their only shot at success and providing for their families. The mental edge provided by desperation gave them an advantage over rikishi who wanted to succeed but didn’t need to do so.
While it’s a theory that I am partial to, it’s not one that I’m willing to go all in on.
The biggest problem for me in any speculation about why amateurs make ozeki but not yokozuna is time.
International amateur sumo really has only taken off in the past 15 to 20 years. It’s too short of a period to draw far reaching conclusions about the limits of athletes coming from that system as opposed to those who join the pro ranks at an early age.
It’s also overlapped with the back-to-back careers of two of the most dominant rikishi of all time — Asashoryu and Hakuho. The two Mongolians would clearly have ruled the roost in virtually any era of sumo you can name, and the opportunities for all other rikishi (not just former amateurs) have been severely limited in the past 20 years.
Once Hakuho retires (and possibly even before then) I think we will see a change. The number of talented amateurs in the pro ranks, and the seeming lack of another all-time great on the horizon makes it impossible to think otherwise.
For various reasons there also seem to be far fewer rikishi these days joining ozumo without any kind of background at an amateur level. While the sport may not be as common as it once was in schools, its profile is far higher and the opportunities for kids to partake in tournaments significantly easier. Fifteen year olds that have zero prior experience in or contact with sumo, joining the pro ranks is becoming rarer.
For my money the newly promoted Asanoyama has what it takes to finally break the drought and become only the second ever collegian to reach the summit of professional sumo.