The Sumo Scene / Former Amateur Champion Onosato Draws Eyes in Makuuchi-Division Debut

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Onosato holds the Fighting Spirit Prize following the New Year Tournament on Jan. 28 at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.

The New Year tournament provided no shortage of great storylines, with yokozuna Terunofuji’s return from injuries to win the title in a playoff over Kotonowaka, who earned promotion to ozeki with his strong showing. But what might have seemed more like a footnote was the makuuchi-division debut of Onosato at No. 15 maegashira.

Having established his credentials as a two-time amateur champion while at Nippon Sport Science University, Onosato entered the pro ranks in the third-tier makushita division, and was battling in the highest division four tournaments later. With his hair still not long enough to be styled into a topknot, the 23-year-old was suddenly caught up in a whirlwind of attention.

Standing 192 centimeters and a robust 183 kilograms, Onosato relies on a power style of sumo with a straight-ahead attack. He needed just nine days to achieve a kachikoshi majority of wins — his lone loss up that point coming on the third day — also putting him among the leaders in the championship race.

To find the last time that a wrestler won the title in his makuuchi-division debut, you have to go back more than a century to 1914 in the Taisho era, when Ryogoku triumphed in the Summer tournament. With Onosato sitting on an 8-1 record and looking able to achieve something that had not been done for 110 years, the media attention started to heat up about this colossus who just a year ago was still a college student.

Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku, the former yokozuna Hoku-toumi, paid the youngster his highest compliment. “He’s an imposing figure,” he commented. “I would like to see him keep going and soar up the rankings.”

From the 10th day, focus on the title chase intensified and Onosato was suddenly paired up with opponents from the upper ranks. As could be expected, it was a formidable wall to get over, and he was dealt consecutive losses by Kotonowaka and ozeki Hoshoryu. On the 12th day, he took to the ring in the final bout of the day against yokozuna Teru-nofuji and was dealt a harsh lesson by the top man in the sport. Terunofuji used an overhand belt hold to send him sailing off the raised ring.

“I see why he is a yokozuna,” Onosato said. “I couldn’t budge him at all.”

From that point, Onosato was back facing similarly ranked foes, and reeled off three straight wins over the last three days to finish with an impressive 11-4 record — more than good enough to earn him the Fighting Spirit Prize.

Last year, we saw young, up-and-coming wrestlers like Hakuoho and Atamifuji work their way into the thick of championship races, and the trend looks to continue this year. Right off the bat, a promising prospect has swept into the ring and could be a leader of the next generation.

Including the emergence of a new ozeki, it seems to be a trend symbolizing that the era is surely entering a new order. The start of the Spring tournament in Osaka in March can’t come soon enough.

— Kamimura is a sumo expert.