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Within an hour of the Japan Sumo Association’s Monday decision to sit Hakuho and all of Miyagino stable for the autumn tournament, the sport’s governing body also posted images on its Twitter account of two young men who may one day replace that yokozuna at the top of the rankings.

Yersin Baltagulov and Purevsuren Delgerbayar passed the JSA’s new recruit entrance examination this week and began their professional lives with a history of success in Japanese collegiate sumo behind them.

Delgerbayar, who is joining Naruto stable (run by former Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu) was student yokozuna in 2020, and has a track record of wins over some of the toughest fighters in the amateur game.

Meanwhile, Baltagulov won the east Japan student title last year and was runner up in the All Japan Championships in 2019. At 191 cm and 165 kg, Kise stable’s newest apprentice is an intimidating presence in the ring.

Baltagulov and Delgerbayar’s achievements at the amateur level mean that they get to start their о̄zumo careers much further up the rankings than regular recruits.

The tsukedashi system, which has been around in one form or another for over a century, currently rewards top-eight or better finishes in Japan’s four main amateur sumo tournaments with more advanced starting points in professional sumo than the average wrestler receives.

This spares top-level athletes in their 20s — who are already familiar with the sport’s culture and practices — from having to spend a year laying waste to 15-year-old kids and journeymen in sumo’s lowest divisions. By dangling the prospect of a quick progression to the paid ranks, it additionally incentivizes sumo as a career choice for college graduates that are eager to start earning.

Yersin Baltagulov trains with Nihon University's sumo club on March 6, 2020. | JOHN GUNNING
Yersin Baltagulov trains with Nihon University’s sumo club on March 6, 2020. | JOHN GUNNING

Baltagulov, without a title win in the aforementioned big four meets over the past year, benefits from a 2015 extension of the tsukedashi system that added a sandanme-division starting point for anyone making the quarterfinals in those tournaments.

Asanoyama and Yutakayama were the first wrestlers to take advantage of that extension in March 2016, while Wakatakakage did the same one year later.

Georgian komusubi Gagamaru’s 2020 retirement opened up a foreigner slot for the big Kazakhstani at Kise Beya and allowed the Nihon University standout to become the 13th former collegian currently active in that stable.

Baltagulov additionally faces a low bar in order become the most successful rikishi ever from Kazakhstan, with former makushita 10-ranked Kazafuzan being the only other wrestler to date from the central Asian nation.

Delgerbayar’s 2020 college yokozuna title earns the Mongolian a starting position at the rank of makushita 15 tsukedashi and puts him within striking distance of the paid divisions. Had he won two of the big four tournaments in the past year, he — like Endo and Mitakeumi — would have been allowed join at makushita 10 tsukedashi.

That five-rank difference is significant because, as was demonstrated in 2006, tsukedashi ranks aren’t considered equal to their corresponding “normal” ranks. In March of that year, tsukedashi entrant Shimoda recorded a 7-0 effort in his о̄zumo debut but wasn’t promoted to the juryo division like everyone else before (and since) that had a perfect record at makushita 15.

Shimoda found himself on the edge of heaven at the makushita 1 rank the following tournament but went 2-5 and never came as close to the salaried divisions again.

Purevsuren Delgerbayar, the 2020 college yokozuna, will enter professional sumo from the makushita 15 tsukedashi rank. | JOHN GUNNING
Purevsuren Delgerbayar, the 2020 college yokozuna, will enter professional sumo from the makushita 15 tsukedashi rank. | JOHN GUNNING

That means it will be the new year at the earliest before Delgerbayar can ascend to sumo’s version of paradise. However, the Nippon Sport Science graduate doesn’t need to wait until he reaches sekitori for a proper ring name.

Unlike many former collegians who keep their given name until reaching juryo or even beyond, Naruto Beya’s newest recruit is to be known as Oshoma from his debut. The name combines a character from his stablemaster’s shikona with those of “victory” and “horse.”

Although Delgerbayar/Oshoma has instantly become the top-ranked rikishi in his stable, expectations for his eventual ceiling are much higher.

Forty years after his retirement, Wajima remains the only tsukedashi entrant or collegian ever to have reached the highest rung of the professional sumo ladder. The late yokozuna was a dominant force in the 1970s and for a brief period was tied for the second-most Emperor’s Cup wins of all time.

For a short spell in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when four former university wrestlers attained the rank of ozeki, it seemed as if Wajima’s successes might be equaled. But by the time they retired, the combined efforts of Miyabiyama, Musoyama, Dejima and Kotomitsuki came nowhere close to what Wajima had achieved.

With Asanoyama’s fall from grace, Mitakeumi is arguably the most successful tsukedashi entrant of modern times. If the sekiwake adds a third championship this time out, he’ll set himself up for ozeki promotion and cement his position as second-greatest tsukedashi rikishi.

The changing face of modern sumo — with an increasing number of former collegians in the sport as well as the lack of another uber-dominant yokozuna in the mold of Hakuho or Asashoryu on the horizon — bodes well for Baltagulov and Delgerbayar.

With many of their future rivals having come from the orthodox-style-heavy Japanese university system, there should be few surprises in the ozumo ring. Former collegian Kotomitsuki, one of the most technically adept ozeki of the past few decades, famously had no end of trouble dealing with the wild and unpredictable nature of yokozuna Asashoryu’s sumo.

Large, powerful frames and wrestling backgrounds should also aid sumo’s two latest hopes in their attempts to break the almost half-century-old wall separating Japan’s elite college talent from the white rope.

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