The Sumo Scene / 2023 Saw End of Long Run of Years with at Least 1 Maegashira-Ranked Champion

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Ozeki Kirishima’s victory at the year-ending Kyushu tournament in November meant that no maegashira- ranked wrestlers won a tourney title this year.

It can be said that the current year has been one in which a new world order emerged in sumo. Not one of the six grand tournaments in 2023 was won by a maegashira-ranked wrestler, which might not sound surprising, but in fact it is the first time in six years for this to occur.

Given absences by yokozuna and ozeki due to injury or lapses in their form, it has not been rare in recent years for a tournament to see one of the “foot soldiers” of the top division break out of the bunch and make a run at the title.

Memories are still fresh of the 2020 New Year tournament, when Tokushoryu pulled off the momentous feat of winning the championship as a lowly No. 17 maegashira — the bottom-most spot in makuuchi division rankings called the “makujiri,” or the makuuchi’s rump.

Then there was the run in 2022 when, starting with the Nagoya tournament, Ichinojo, Tamawashi and Abi each took home the Emperor’s Cup in succession, marking the first time in history that three straight tournaments were won by maegashira-ranked wrestlers.

However, a look at the tournament champions this year paints a very different picture. Ozeki Takakeisho started things off by winning the New Year title, and sekiwake Kiribayama — now ozeki Kirishima — followed by triumphing at the Spring tourney.

Oft-injured yokozuna Terunofuji showed the pride of the top rank by winning the Summer title, sekiwake Hoshoryu prevailed in Nagoya, and Takakeisho added the Autumn crown despite compiling an uninspiring 11-4 record. Kirishima capped the year at the Kyushu tournament by capturing his first title after being promoted to ozeki.

Following his triumph in Nagoya, Hoshoryu also was promoted to ozeki, meaning that if we look at it from the perspective of the current rankings, every champion in 2023 holds the rank of ozeki or higher.

Having a large number of mae- gashira-ranked champions can be said to be a sign of a changing of the guard. Surely the recent rush could be linked to the retirements of strong wrestlers like Hakuho, Kakuryu and Kisenosato, and the fact that the lone remaining yokozuna Terunofuji had missed so many tournaments due to injury.

This year saw a step forward from that, providing a sense that sumo is back on a path toward stabilization in the rankings. Kirishima and Hoshoryu earned promotion to ozeki in succession this year, and after winning in Kyushu, Kirishima will get a chance to make yokozuna by taking the New Year title.

Asked about his expectations for the upcoming year, Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku minced no words, stating, “I want to see new yokozuna and new ozeki.”

The yokozuna and ozeki are expected to always be in the middle of the title fray, and it would be best to return to the days when once every few years a maegashira wrestler pulls a surprise and upsets the applecart. We’ll see what happens in the ring in the new year.

— Kamimura is a sumo expert.