Terunofuji’s incredible championship-capped comeback wasn’t the only good news to come out of the July tournament for Isegahama stable.
Twenty-four-year-old Nishikifuji’s 5-2 record at the rank of makushita 3 east was good enough to earn the Aomori native promotion to sumo’s second highest (jūryō) division.
While that’s an achievement that pales in overall significance to his stablemate’s Emperor’s Cup win, Nishikifuji making it to the paid ranks will remain among the most memorable moments of his sumo life long after retirement — no matter how well the Kindai University graduate does from here on out.
That’s not hyperbole.
Ask any retired sekitori about their happiest memory in sumo and many, if not most, will say it was when they earned promotion to jūryō.
Reaching the second tier utterly changes a wrestler’s life in the sport. Even becoming a yokozuna doesn’t lead to the kind of immediate and radical difference in day-to-day existence that first-time jūryō promotees experience.
It’s not for nothing that the single rank difference between the lowest rung of jūryō and the highest position in makushita is often compared to the gap between heaven and hell.
Despite the ongoing pandemic and wrestlers being under orders to show restraint and limit excursions, Nishikifuji’s promotion was noteworthy enough for both he and his stablemaster to take a trip north and report the good news to the mayor of his hometown, and at his old high school.
Such visits aren’t perfunctory, however. As a sekitori-ranked wrestler Nishikifuji will have many new expenses. He will, of course, for the first time in his sumo life, receive a salary, but that won’t kick in for a month or two. In the meantime, the shimekomi (silk belt), formal kimono and other accoutrements worn by wrestlers in the top two divisions have to be bought and paid for.
Reaching the higher levels of sumo brings many changes and obligations. Were a freshly promoted jūryō wrestler to pay for everything himself, he’d soon find his new salary disappearing almost as soon as it came in. Supporters’ groups are vital in order to keep the whole machinery running smoothly. Schools and hometowns, especially those in smaller rural districts, are often keen to support their local heroes and bask in the reflected glory.
On cue, the city of Towada announced the setting up of a kōenkai (supporters’ group) for Nishikifuji, with the mayor as chairman.
Life isn’t going to be all milk and honey for Towada’s new favorite son, however.
While promotion to jūryō comes with a salary, personal assistants and a level of freedom hitherto unknown, all of those perks could disappear in a matter of months if Nishikifuji struggles to get the number of wins needed to stay in the division.
Being in sumo’s second tier is akin to fighting each day with the sword of Damocles hanging over the ring.
Injury-forced withdrawals by men in the top tier can lead to, at worst, a drop to jūryō and small decrease in salary, but little else of substance changes for the wrestler in question.
The same thing happening to someone in the jūryō division can have catastrophic consequences, particularly for older wrestlers with young families and mortgages.
Veterans fighting tooth and nail to hold on to what they have, battling with up-and-coming stars that haven’t yet reached their full potential, make jūryō one of the more fascinating divisions to watch.
That’s not a mix of rikishi that lends itself to domination of the sort seen in the top division. Whereas yokozuna Hakuho alone has managed a perfect 15-0 score on 15 occasions, in the jūryō division the same record has occurred only five times in total.
It took 43 years before Kitanofuji’s unbeaten jūryō outing in 1963 was matched by Estonian Baruto in 2006.
Meisei took the second-tier title last time out after managing just ten wins, but emerging victorious after barely scraping into double digits is a common occurrence in jūryō.
The same thing has never happened in the top division since the switch to a 15-day schedule, and even an 11-win title has taken place just once in the 2000s (Harumafuji in September 2017).
Meisei’s victory in July came after a playoff involving five other wrestlers. Heading into that decider there was no clear favorite with any of the men involved being equally likely to emerge as champion. Top to bottom, the jūryō division enjoys the kind of parity that other sports have to employ drafts and salary caps to ensure.
The unpredictability of sumo’s second tier is reflected in an English language online game that has been running since 2002. The Juryo Game tests a player’s ability to not only predict which eight wrestlers will have the best tournament, but also who will be falling back into the division from makuuchi and ascending from makushita. The gameplay is extremely simple — doing well on a consistent basis is anything but.
Back on the real dohyō meanwhile, once the afterglow of promotion, and the novelty of wearing a white mawashi in training has worn off, Nishikifuji will soon discover that, however fierce the battles in the ring were in the lower divisions, the intensity is kicked up several notches in jūryō, as veterans and up and comers battle it out in sumo’s ultimate “the floor is lava” division.