Sumo in Kyushu: the lesson of killer instinct

November 26, 2016


Yokozuna Kakuryu clinched the sumo year’s final Emperor Cup tournament in Fukuoka today. Despite high hopes that previous winner ozeki Goeido could pull off a repeat and thus secure his promotion to yokozuna (grand champion), this November championship sizzled in other, unexpected ways.

Just as Goeido’s championship last time highlighted the importance of consistency for sumo wrestlers and entrepreneurs alike — and at the risk of overdoing the metaphor — I submit that this latest tournament offers a different lesson for scaling disruptive tech startups: specifically, the attribute of killer instinct.

First off, this Kyushu sumo basho provided excitement in many ways. A rookie named Ishiura exploded onto the scene with a dominating performance (10 wins as of Saturday). I’m enthusiastic about Ishiura because weighing only 114kg, he is the lightest wrestler in the makuuchi division. He reminds me of another lean and muscular wrestler who I credit to first drawing me into the sport in the 80s: the late great Chiyonofuji (r.i.p. 秋元 貢さん). Yokozuna Harumafuji and recovering ozeki Terunofuji demonstrated strong performances. And finally it was nice to see the somewhat “forgotten” third yokozuna Kakuryu win his second championship since his promotion to the top rank.

On the theme of killer instinct, the importance of this attribute in championship sumo was underscored most by its absence: notably in ozeki wrestler Kisenosato. Kisenosato is the longest-serving active wrestler at the ozeki rank (one notch below yokozuna). He is arguably one of the most consistent and most skillful wrestlers in the sport today, certainly more so than his three fellow ozeki wrestlers (Goeido, Terunofuji, Kotoshogiku).

Unlike the other three, however, Kisenosato has never won a single tournament. Kisenosato epitomized his lack of killer instinct in his day 13 match against rank-and-file wrestler Tochinoshin. The stakes were high for Kisenosato at that late stage of the tournament, for he was still a candidate to win the championship and had already defeated all three yokozuna as well as his three fellow ozeki. Yet under this pressure, Kisenosato crumpled.

In entrepreneurship as in sumo, the traits of diligent work ethic vs. killer instinct are uncorrelated virtues. The very qualities required for an entrepreneur to plod along meticulously do not directly translate into a take-no-prisoners mentality. Diligent perseverance is necessary to be positioned at the right place at the right time. However, on the rare occasions that all the stars line up to disrupt a market, the animal instinct to win at all costs will separate the predator from the prey.

Barring a personal transformation, Kisenosato, for all his talents, will likely go down in history as one of sumo’s good wrestlers but not one of its greatest.

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posted in sumo, venture capital by mark bivens

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