The Most Brutal Schedules in Sumo

From Sumo: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National Sport, by David Benjamin (Tuttle, 2010), pp. 177-179:

THE TIGHTROPE: A sekiwake is neither here nor there. He’s better than almost all those maegashira down below. He’s one notch above komusubi — otherwise known as the Meatgrinder. His schedule includes everyone in the upper ranks, and he scores the occasional upset among the Elite [ozeki and yokozuna]. But he’s generally a kachikoshi [winning record (8-7 or better)] kinda guy, just trying to stay where he is. He’s negotiating a crowded tightrope; there are guys approaching from both ends, eager to push him off.

Rikishi reach the Tightrope and stay there for a while, usually because they have a very effective technique, or some physical feature, that makes them tough to beat. Kotogaume, perhaps sumo’s all-time most dangerous Butterball, for instance, was built low to the ground and incredibly dense. He lingered at sekiwake for six straight basho in 1989-90. Terao, a fanatic battler who was able to overwhelm almost anyone for a period of five seconds, established himself in 1990 as a Tightrope level rikishi and spent five basho there. In the 2000’s Baruto … depended on his height to frustrate opponents and cling to the Tightrope.

When a sekiwake like Baruto can’t expand his repertoire in response to the intense demands of the Tightrope, gravity will get him by and by — with a stop (possibly even a recovery) in the Meatgrinder on the way down. Kirishima was the rare tightroper who was still learning and growing when he reached sekiwake. For him, the Tightrope was a one-basho pause on his way to the Elite.

For most, the Tightrope is more likely a place from which to fall. And to fall means into the next lower designation, komusubi — not a pleasant fate. I refer to this detention cell for rising and falling rikishi instructively as…

THE MEATGRINDER. The Sumo Association uses the Meatgrinder for three distinct and practical purposes:

To punish maegashira wrestlers who have succeeded excessively in matches at the lower levels, perhaps by racking up a 10-5 or 11-4 record from some lowly rung like maegashira No. 8. The average number of wins per basho for komusubi is 6.5. The Meatgrinder is the schedule-master’s way of saying, “OK, smartass, you think you’re hot stuff? We have a few large gentlemen we’d like you to meet.”

As an entrance exam for rising stars, to see if they’re ready for prime time….

The Meatgrinder also serves as a safety net for sekiwake on their way down after makekoshi [a losing record (7-8 or worse)]. The schedule is little different, but after losing at sekiwake, komusubi is the falling rikishi‘s second chance before he gets kicked down among the riffraff.

How tough is the Meatgrinder? It means you have to wrestle every rikishi ranked above you before you get a break and fight a few of the guys underneath. This is the sumo version of Hell Week. By the time you get to the lower-ranked wrestlers, your form and self-esteem are so shattered that beating anyone — including your grandmother — is beyond your wildest dreams. The Meatgrinder is as high as most rikishi ever go. In almost every case, it’s a ticket down.

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