Mitakeumi primed to shed 'inconsistent' image with historic ozeki promotion – The Japan Times

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9
SUNNY

Contributing Writer
Who is the most successful ozeki of the past decade?
As of 10:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, the answer to that question is Mitakeumi.

In fact, not counting rikishi who subsequently went on to reach yokozuna, legendary wrestler Kaio is the only ozeki in modern times with more Emperor’s Cups than sumo’s newest champion.
By virtue of his final day victory over Terunofuji, Mitakeumi went from historical curiosity — one of only two non-yokozuna or ozeki with multiple championships — to a prominent position on the all-time list.
The 29-year-old’s achievements now rank alongside those of acclaimed ozeki trio Konishiki, Chiyotaikai, and Tochiazuma.
This latest championship, and subsequent promotion, are a testament to the ability of sumo’s ultimate opportunist to time his title runs to perfection.
Many, if not most rikishi who attain one of the two highest ranks in Japan’s national sport, or lift the Emperor’s Cup, do so only after several near misses and gradual progress over the course of several years.
Mitakeumi conversely has been in sumo’s top two divisions since 2015 without ever once finishing as runner-up in a title race.
Notoriously ineffectual in training, where he is consistently overpowered by regular practice partners Tochinoshin and Aoiyama, 21 of Mitakeumi’s last 29 tournaments have seen him finish in the seven-to-nine-win range.
And yet somehow the stocky Toyo university graduate now finds himself the second most decorated man currently active in the sport, and the subject of debate about the prospect of him becoming the next yokozuna.
Such discussion isn’t limited to barely moderated subreddits or Discord servers where die-hard sumo fans compile their speculation. Kasugano stablemaster, former Dewanoumi stablemaster and numerous other members of the sumo world connected to Mitakeumi, when interviewed in the wake of his promotion to ozeki, spoke of their hope and expectation that the Nagano native would push on and reach sumo’s highest rank.

Mitakeumi (center) accepts his promotion to the sport's second-highest rank of ozeki during a ceremony at the Dewanoumi stable in Tokyo on Wednesday. | KYODO
Mitakeumi (center) accepts his promotion to the sport’s second-highest rank of ozeki during a ceremony at the Dewanoumi stable in Tokyo on Wednesday. | KYODO

The past four months have been an incredible turnaround for a rikishi that managed just a solitary double digit winning record in seven tournaments between September 2020 and September 2021.
Finding parallels to Mitakeumi’s career arc requires looking to other sports.
Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff once said of Italian striker Filippo Inzaghi, "Look, actually he can't play football at all. He's just always in the right position.”
Inzaghi had limited technical ability and often seemed to do very little for most of a game, but almost invariably popped up at the right moment to score crucial goals.
What he lacked in skill, Inzaghi more than made up for in positional awareness and sense of timing. The former Juventus and AC Milan standout maximized those abilities and finished his highly decorated career as one of the top goal scorers in Italian and European soccer history.
Mitakeumi is arguably sumo’s version of Inzaghi — an extreme opportunist. His previous titles (in July 2018 and September 2019) came in tournaments with two and three yokozuna respectively pulling out because of injury.
While Terunofuji may have competed to the end in the recently-finished January meet, the yokozuna was in poor condition at its conclusion. Had Mitakeumi been scheduled to face him in the first week rather than on the final day, the outcome would almost certainly have been different.
Such facts shouldn’t be taken as criticism of sumo’s newest ozeki, however.
Good timing isn’t the same as good luck. Mitakeumi may have been fortunate in having his hot streaks coincide with weakened fields, but the veteran, for all his inconsistency is one of the best exponents of his sport who is currently active.
In recent times Tamawashi and Tokushoryu have shown that winning the Emperor’s Cup isn’t out of reach for journeymen who hit a rich vein of form at just the right time.
Repeating that feat on multiple occasions, however, is something only the best can do.
Prior to the start of his professional career Mitakeumi was also one of very few wrestlers to earn both the college yokozuna and amateur yokozuna titles.
The man from Agematsu has been a highly accomplished sumo wrestler since early childhood. Rather than solely benefiting from good timing and a weakened top division, Mitakeumi is arguably just now fulfilling the potential he has always had.
He’s also no stranger to making history.
Mitakeumi’s promotion to ozeki makes him the first man from Nagano to reach sumo’s second highest rank since Raiden in 1795.
He’s also the first rikishi from Dewanoumi Beya to make ozeki since Mienoumi in 1976.
Dewanoumi is one of the oldest and most prestigious stables in sumo, having produced 12 yokozuna and ten ozeki since its founding in the 19th century.
The recruitment of Mitakeumi was vitally important to Dewanoumi, as it had fallen on hard times prior to his decision to join. Following the July 2010 tournament, the stable was left without a sekitori level wrestler for the first time since 1898.
Mitakeumi’s first championship in 2018 also broke a 38 year title drought for the heya.
Speaking to the media following the ozeki promotion ceremony, his okamisan called Mitakeumi “The savior of Dewanoumi Beya,” while Takasaki, oyakata of the Japan Sumo Association’s public relations department — a former wrestler at the stable who was born the same year Mienoumi was promoted to ozeki — said it was the first time in a long time that Dewanoumi could feel proud of its tradition.
Mitakeumi’s age and tendency to run hot and cold makes it difficult to imagine him going a step further to become just the second ever college graduate to make yokozuna.
Given his ability to rewrite history though, who’d bet against him?
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