Having six ozeki in the professional sumo rankings for the first time in modern history may look exciting, but it's no guarantee for good business.
The Japan Sumo Association will have to wait until the grand sumo tournament kicks off on May 6 to see if the six-ozeki lineup will boost ticket sales and improve the battered image of the nation's traditional sport.
“If any of the ozeki drop out of the race to win the tournament early on, we can’t say that it’s a good tournament,” said Stablemaster Hanaregoma, who served as JSA chairman until the end of January.
Hanaregoma added that it’s important for the six ozeki to continue being in the title race until the very end in order for sumo to regain the public trust it lost by the recent bout-rigging and betting scandals.
At the fall tournament 35 years ago, Hanaregoma unintentionally ended the five-ozeki era of that time by being demoted to sekiwake.
“It was hard," he said looking back. "I really struggled with it.”
In the four tourneys of that five-ozeki era--which started with the spring basho of 1977--ozeki suffered more than three losses before the eighth day, the halfway point of the 15-day tournaments, a total of 13 times. Only one of the five ozeki, if any, lasted in the title race until the last days of those four tournaments.
Hanaregoma, who wrestled under the name Kaiketsu, eventually became a stablemaster and trained future yokozuna Onokuni.
“I think wrestlers who struggle with pressures of being an ozeki ... won’t make it to yokozuna. I was that way,” he said about crumbling under the weight of sumo’s second-highest rank.
As a member of the judging panel, stablemaster Onaruto has been considering which matchups would make the title race more entertaining for fans.
“One way is to have the ozeki fight each other early on in the tournament and have them crush each other like they did in the old days," said Onaruto, former ozeki Dejima. "It helps train them to become strong yokozuna.”
But Onaruto said the historic six-ozeki situation isn’t something to blindly celebrate.
“It also means that (yokozuna) Hakuho is way ahead of the pack and going unchallenged," Onaruto said. "It’s not always a positive thing.”
Meanwhile, many fans have been criticizing the cushy rule that allows many ozeki to maintain their status. Lower-ranked rikishi get demoted if they suffer more losses than wins in one tournament, but ozeki can keep their rank despite suffering more losses than wins in one tournament if they get more wins than losses in the next tournament.
None of the ozeki that fought in the five-ozeki era of Dejima, Chiyotaikai, Miyabiyama, Kaio and Musoyama were promoted to yokozuna.
Due to injuries, Dejima was eventually demoted to "hiramaku," the lowest rank among makuuchi wrestlers. But Dejima continued on. He now encourages other wrestlers.
“I especially want the newer ozeki Kakuryu, Kisenosato, and Kotoshogiku to strike while the iron is hot,” he said.
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