Universities offer foreign wrestlers new path to pro sumo

Japan Times -- Nov 12
The withdrawal of both yokozuna before the November Grand Sumo Tournament got under way meant that three of the four highest-ranked men fighting on Day 1 came from a university sumo background.

The remaining top-ranker, Takakeisho, also competed in domestic amateur sumo up to the high school level.

It’s a similar story among recent champions. Each of the non-yokozuna winners of the Emperor’s Cup over the past decade and a half — bar two — has come from amateur or university sumo.

It’s a well-known fact that Wajima’s promotion to yokozuna in 1973 remains, to this day, the only instance of a former collegian reaching the top of the professional sumo pyramid, but half a century later that achievement finally looks like it may be matched by not one, but two or more rikishi.

As the Hakuho era draws to a close, many of the main contenders to succeed both him and Kakuryu at the pinnacle of ōzumō are men with a university background.

Looking out a little further into the future that seems to a be trend set to continue — but with an interesting twist.

Traditionally, most rikishi have joined sumo at a young age with the vast majority still being children when entering a stable.

Junior high school graduates continue to make up a large part of the intake, but over the past few decades wrestlers with collegiate experience have become an increasingly common sight in the pro ranks.

That in itself is hardly surprising given a general rise in education levels worldwide, but what is significant is the fact that Japanese amateur sumo recently looks like it’s becoming a pathway into ozumo for that sport’s third demographic — foreigners.

For potential recruits from outside Japan, finding a stablemaster willing to take them in and give them a shot has been by far the most difficult part of the process over the past twenty years. Hakuho — the greatest rikishi of all time — being turned down by every stable in ozumo is a story that rivals Tom Brady being passed over multiple times by every single NFL team. Yet even young men with a history of amateur success at the international level like Tochinoshin or Osunaarashi struggled to find a place in the pro ranks, and several others equally as talented never did so.

- Japan Times