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The Structure of Sumo

Professional sumo consists of approximately 550 rikishi divided into 6 divisions. The top division, called Makuuchi, includes the top 42 wrestlers in the sport. The Makuuchi rank receives the most attention and media coverage. Because Makuuchi showcases the best of the best, Sumotalk.com focuses primarily on the rikishi in this division.

The second highest division is called Juryo. Juryo consists of 28 rikishi. Rikishi in the top two divisions--Makuuchi and Juryo--are called "sekitori." Sekitori are easily distinguished by their colorful mawashi (belts) and the topknot of their hair, which is fanned out into the shape of a ginkgo leaf. Sekitori are also assigned a tsuke-bito, a lower-ranked wrestler that acts as a servant performing such acts as carrying the sekitori's belongings, toweling him off during practice, and answering his every beck and call. Reaching sekitori status is the first major goal of any rikishi.

The third division is called Makushita. This division consists of 120 rikishi all fighting to be promoted to Juryo, thus becoming a sekitori.

The fourth division is Sandanme, which consists of approximately 200 rikishi.

The fifth division is Jonidan, which consists of approximately 260 rikishi.

The sixth and final division is Jonokuchi, which consists of approximately 80 rikishi. When a new rikishi enters professional sumo, he will usually enter the sport at the age of 16 ranked as a low Jonokuchi. Some aspiring rikishi choose not to become professionals at 16, rather they develop their sumo technique during junior high, high school, and college. Once graduating from college, they can begin their professional careers at the Makushita 15 level if their accomplishments during their amateur days prove them worthy of this rank.

There is only one method whereby a rikishi can rise through the sumo ranks: win a majority of his bouts at the major tournaments. Major tournaments, called hon-basho (or basho for short), occur six times a year in the odd months. A hon-basho lasts 15 days spanning the two middle weeks of the month. It begins on a Sunday and ends on the Sunday two weeks later. Rikishi from the top two divisions compete everyday of the tournament; whereas, the rikishi in the four lower divisions compete seven of the 15 days. Rikishi in the four lower divisions will wrestle an opponent who has the same record as himself. For example, if rikishi A is 2-3 after his first five bouts, his next opponent will also have the same record. In this way, a rikishi cannot rise to the top of his division by consistently beating up on lesser opponents.

Each division produces an eventual champion for the tournament. In order to be crowned champion for the four lower ranks, a rikishi usually has to win all seven of his bouts. If two or more rikishi are tied at the end of the tournament, they will have a playoff to determine the winner. As for the two top divisions, the rikishi with the best record at the end of the tournament is crowned the winner. If two or more rikishi are tied at the end of 15 days, they will have a playoff to determine the winner. It is extremely difficult to go 15-0 in the top two divisions, although it has been done.

Makuuchi, the top division in the sport, consists of different levels. The highest level a rikishi can achieve is called Yokozuna, or Grand Champion. In order to attain this rank, a rikishi must win two major tournaments in a row. On the average, only 1 in every 1,000 rikishi will ever achieve this rank. In fact, there have only been 69 rikishi crowned Yokozuna in the entire history of the sport. Yokozuna is the ultimate goal in sumo and is a rank greatly respected by everyone associated with the sport.

Below the Yokozuna are the Ozeki. A general rule in attaining Ozeki status is winning 33 bouts over three consecutive tournaments while ranked from the sanyaku (see graphic below). There are usually 3-5 Ozeki at any given time, and an Ozeki usually has at least one tournament championship under his belt.

Below the Ozeki are the Sekiwake and Komusubi ranks respectively. These two ranks are called the sanyaku, which literally means three upper tiers (the Ozeki have been classified as sanyaku in the past). There are usually 2 Sekiwake and 2 Komusubi each for every major tournament. The remaining rikishi in the Makuuchi division are all called Maegashira and are all ranked from 1 to 15 or 16 depending on their performance at the previous tournament.

It should be noted here that all ranks and divisions in sumo are divided into the East group and the West group. For example, in the Juryo rank there are 28 rikishi. Instead of ranking these rikishi 1 through 28, they are divided into two groups, East and West, and the rikishi in each group are ranked 1 through 14 with the East rank being the most prestigious. The top two rikishi in Juryo will be ranked 1 East and 1 West respectively. The East-West aspect of sumo is rather meaningless; it mainly determines from which side the rikishi will enter the ring before his bout.

Each rikishi belongs to a stable, or sumo-beya. A stable can consist of anywhere from three to 20 rikishi (there is no set rule) of all different ranks. The lower rikishi live at the stable full-time, and here is where they will practice and receive their training. Each stable has a master, or shisho, who is a former rikishi himself. The shisho is in charge of the daily operations of the stable and usually keeps a sharp eye on the progress of each rikishi in his stable. Rikishi who belong to the same stable do not fight each other at major tournaments.

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