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Terunofuji could be sumo’s next yokozuna

by Mark Buckton

On the back of his first ever Emperor’s Cup victory on Sunday, Wednesday morning saw sekiwake Terunofuji promoted to sumo’s second rank of ozeki.

Aged just 23, and in just his 25th career tournament to date he is the first sekitori born in the current Heisei-era (1989 — ) to be promoted to ozeki, and third fastest winner of a top flight trophy after former yokozuna Takanohana and Asashoryu who both recorded their first yusho after 23 career tourneys.

Unlike both Takanohana in 1992, (then still fighting under the name of Takahanada) and Asashoryu a decade later, however, Terunofuji notched his first yusho in a tournament that saw a trio of healthy yokozuna and ozeki all pushing for the title into the final weekend.

By comparison, Takahanada in his own 23rd tournament, faced neither of the yokozuna active at the time — both failing to complete the basho — and met a largely lackluster set of sanyaku men.

In a similarly weakened field that helped Mongolia’s first yokozuna win his first title, none of the four ozeki or yokozuna ranked above Asashoryu at the time completed the tournament.

History of course now tells us that Takahanada as Takanohana, and Asashoryu went on to become two of the best yokozuna the sport has ever seen with a combined 47 championships between them.

The question on many lips in the sumo following world this week therefore, is whether or not Terunofuji will follow in the footsteps of Takahanada, Asashoryu, or perhaps even the greatest ever — Hakuho — in the years ahead.

Size and form are on his side, as is the fact that in open competition during a tournament he will never have to face stablemate yokozuna Harumafuji; rikishi in the same stable are only ever allowed to fight in play-offs after securing an equal record during a basho.

He does have a slight disadvantage in as far as age goes in that he is approaching his 24th birthday. Takahanada was 19 when he won his first yusho, Asashoryu, barely 22, and Hakuho just 21.

Unlike his predecessors though, winning his first Emperor’s Cup in just his eighth outing in the makunouchi division — faster than any of the aforementioned greats — he appears to have already reached a level from which he can go on to feature as one of the top division’s strongest rikishi for the foreseeable future.

Hakuho is approaching the end of an unparalleled career. Harumafuji and Kakuryu, despite their yokozuna rank have been hit-and-miss at best in recent years, and the three ozeki, Kisenosato, Kotoshogiku, and Goeido are all unlikely ever to put together the numbers to earn the tsuna belt worn by yokozuna.

For most fans and a few insiders speaking off the record, this leads to one conclusion; Terunofuji’s only credible threat in the years ahead, post-Hakuho’s dominance of the sport, will be current komusubi Ichinojo.

Like Terunofuji, Ichinojo is Mongolian. Both are of similar height, just over 190 cm, but Ichinojo is a full 25 kg heavier than Terunofuji.

And there is nothing sumo fans like better than a ‘comparatively’ little and large rivalry at the top.

Whatever happens in the months and years ahead, for now the man delivered of the news by Tomozuna and Kiriyama Oyakata (former sekiwake Kaiki and former komusubi Kurosegawa) on Wednesday morning will be off celebrating, doing the rounds of TV shows and being asked to do more TV commercials than he can shake a stick at.

Come July 12th down in the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium though, the pressure will really be on when the next tournament starts.

Fans around the world will be watching to see if he has what it takes to one day make the rank of yokozuna as only 71 men in the past 258 years have achieved.

For now, barring major injury I think he will.