The withdrawal of both yokozuna before the November Grand Sumo Tournament got under way meant that three of the four highest-ranked men fighting on Day 1 came from a university sumo background.
The remaining top-ranker, Takakeisho, also competed in domestic amateur sumo up to the high school level.
It’s a similar story among recent champions. Each of the non-yokozuna winners of the Emperor’s Cup over the past decade and a half — bar two — has come from amateur or university sumo.
It’s a well-known fact that Wajima’s promotion to yokozuna in 1973 remains, to this day, the only instance of a former collegian reaching the top of the professional sumo pyramid, but half a century later that achievement finally looks like it may be matched by not one, but two or more rikishi.
As the Hakuho era draws to a close, many of the main contenders to succeed both him and Kakuryu at the pinnacle of ōzumō are men with a university background.
Looking out a little further into the future that seems to a be trend set to continue — but with an interesting twist.
Traditionally, most rikishi have joined sumo at a young age with the vast majority still being children when entering a stable.
Junior high school graduates continue to make up a large part of the intake, but over the past few decades wrestlers with collegiate experience have become an increasingly common sight in the pro ranks.
That in itself is hardly surprising given a general rise in education levels worldwide, but what is significant is the fact that Japanese amateur sumo recently looks like it’s becoming a pathway into ozumo for that sport’s third demographic — foreigners.
For potential recruits from outside Japan, finding a stablemaster willing to take them in and give them a shot has been by far the most difficult part of the process over the past twenty years. Hakuho — the greatest rikishi of all time — being turned down by every stable in ozumo is a story that rivals Tom Brady being passed over multiple times by every single NFL team. Yet even young men with a history of amateur success at the international level like Tochinoshin or Osunaarashi struggled to find a place in the pro ranks, and several others equally as talented never did so.
The biggest issue has been a lack of willingness on the part of stablemasters to open their doors to foreigners that may not be suited to sumo or life in Japan, and a fear of the problems that could arise as a result.
Such concerns are not without basis, but it goes without saying that it’s inherently unfair to discriminate against one person based on the misdeeds of others. Nevertheless, that has resulted in a situation where conversative attitudes and limited spaces mean foreign recruits have to fight and scrape for months or years to have any hope of getting into the pro ranks, and even then the chance may never come.
Rather than waste precious time on such a long shot, it seems an increasing number of young wrestlers are taking a different — and very smart — approach.
Over the past few years more and more Mongolian names have been cropping up among the sumo teams of powerhouse universities across Japan. Choosing to complete third-level studies in this country while competing on the school sumo team has several benefits.
Apart from the obvious academic advantages, spending several years living in Japan and fighting in collegiate sumo produces wrestlers with near-native language skills and an ability to survive at the sport’s highest levels, making them a far more attractive prospect for stablemasters.
Win one of the major domestic titles and entry into the pro ranks is almost guaranteed as they will be able to start their career near the top of the third-highest division.
The worst case scenario is that a potential recruit discovers he has no aptitude for sumo but still obtains a degree and language abilities.
So attractive is this newly expanding route that even Tuvaadorj Bukhculuun, a Mongolian high school student in Japan who took gold in the 92-kg weight class at a recent national wrestling meet, indicated he will switch to sumo upon entering Nippon Sports Science University next year.
Another Mongolian at the same university, Purevspen Dergerbayar, was crowned university yokozuna this past weekend, while a third, Baasansuren Turbold, won the title of amateur yokozuna and was the first-ever foreign captain of powerhouse Nihon University before turning pro.
It’s not just Mongolians who have started to take the university path.
Turbold’s alma mater, with a Kazakhstani wrestler in its ranks, downed Dergerbayar and his classmates in the final of this year’s team tournament
Yersin Baltagulov also won the east Japan student title this year and is aiming to be just the second-ever winner of the amateur yokozuna title (after Turbold) in December’s All Japan championships, which will be held at the Kokugikan.
Of course, going to university before turning pro can lead to a shorter career overall and lower career earnings. But the advantages of going that route far outweigh the disadvantages, meaning that we could see an increasing number of foreigners starting their sumo career in Japan as college students.
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