A strong 13-2 title winning performance in the September tournament was enough to convince the Japan Sumo Association’s judging department to make Shodai the sport’s 251st ozeki.
Although he could still climb one more rank, the Kumamoto native has now reached what was, for much of sumo’s history, the sport’s highest peak.
As many fans know, yokozuna was initially a kind of honorary title — generally bestowed on ozeki with powerful patrons — before officially morphing into sumo’s highest rank only in the early 1900s.
Ozeki, conversely, is a rank that has been around since at least the 1750s and, while no longer preeminent, still holds a special importance in sumo.
In fact, while it’s possible for there to be no yokozuna on the banzuke rankings at any given time, there must always be at least two ozeki.
If, due to retirements, there is only one wrestler at the ozeki rank, then a yokozuna will be designated yokozuna-ozeki and have both positions written above his name on the official ranking sheet — something that occurred for the first time in almost three decades earlier this year.
As well as being of historical importance, ozeki is a rank where one receives many of the same privileges given to yokozuna.
Included among those perks is being allowed to book first-class seats when flying abroad, and use of the Green Car when traveling on the shinkansen.
Those who reach the second-highest rung on sumo’s ladder also receive a significant bump in salary and, unlike the nearly 700 men below them, can enter Ryogoku Kokugikan via an underground parking lot, which frees them of the need to walk through crowds on the way into and out of the arena.
Despite the attractiveness of the ozeki rank for rikishi, and the high regard in which men at the rank are normally held, recent incumbents have arguably failed to maintain the standards expected.
The almost four-year-long drought since an ozeki last lifted the Emperor’s Cup has been widely reported, but even more incredibly it has been almost 15 years since someone managed more than a single title while at sumo’s second-highest rank.
Tochiazuma’s victory in January 2006 was also the last of the 11 Emperor’s Cups won in the space of seven years by a powerful triumvirate that included Kaio and Chiyotaikai.
It has taken the 11 men subsequently promoted to ozeki (not including those who later went on to become yokozuna) a decade and a half to match that championship total.
Nine of those 11 have just a single title their name, with Terunofuji winning twice and Takayasu with none at all.
Ozeki translates as “great barrier,” but given the underwhelming performances of those who have held the rank in recent times it’s fair to ask how long it will be before someone comes along and makes that barrier great again.
Could Shodai be the one to do it? His first few years at the sharp end of sumo were nothing to write home about, but the Tokyo University of Agriculture graduate has been a man possessed over the past 12 months.
With Hakuho and Kakuryu both looking increasingly shaky these days, there are more frequent opportunities for the rikishi just below them to lift silverware.
Of course, in a perfect world the ozeki would be challenging for titles even in the presence of strong yokozuna, but there is an argument to be made such a world is more idealistic than ideal. After all, when Kakuryu is considered a below-average yokozuna with six titles but Kaio one of the greatest ozeki of all time with five, it’s clear that truly capable ozeki almost always earn the white rope eventually.
Truth be told, given the current state of sumo the three extant ozeki probably all harbor serious hopes of being promoted.
Asanoyama is the most likely to see that dream come true, but the idea of either Takakeisho and Shodai — or both — as yokozuna isn’t as outlandish as it might have seemed just a year or two ago.
In the meantime, the odds are good that one of the aforementioned rikishi will become the first ozeki since Kisenosato in January 2017 to take home the Emperor’s Cup in November.
For those keeping score at home, Goeido was the last man to win a championship while ranked at ozeki who didn’t go on to make yokozuna. The Osaka native is also the only ozeki since Tochiazuma to retire at the rank without having been dismissed or demoted — though the latter was certain had he remained active.
For Shodai, Asanoyama and Takakeisho, the bar(rier) has been set low. Within the next four weeks any of those three men could become one of the most successful ozeki in recent sumo history.
Two more titles would see them ranked among the best ozeki of all time — not consecutive titles, of course, as that would lead to promotion to yokozuna and elimination from consideration.
The chances of either man replicating ozeki Takanohana’s mind-boggling seventh championship before earning the white rope are virtually nil, as are those of being classed as the greatest ozeki ever.
Raiden holds that honor. With a total of 10 losses over 21 years — even while being prohibited from using certain moves — he long ago guaranteed that no matter how well any yokozuna does in the future, the title of the most dominant rikishi in sumo history will always belong to an ozeki.