In the run-up to the 2015 Nagoya Basho, on June 20 it was announced in the domestic media that former ozeki Takanonami had passed away at age 43.
Incredibly popular in his day, the Aomori-born wrestler first entered professional sumo as a teen in 1987.
At the time he was known by his real name of Namioka. Greats such as Chiyonofuji, Hokutoumi and Konoshiki were making most of the headlines.
Brothers Wakanohana, and Takanohana — both later stable mates of “Nami,” as he was affectionately known by fans — were to join the same stable within the year under the fighting names of Wakahanada and Takahanada.
It took Nami just four years in the company of Waka and Taka to make his way to the salaried ranks, with a brief four-basho spell in juryo needed before he made it to the uppermost makunouchi division.
Thirteen years of mostly ups and a few downs followed at the pointy end of the sport, including 36 tournaments as an ozeki.
He won two championships in 76 top-flight tourneys, oftentimes thwarted in his bid to add to his tally by the presence of the now legendary “Waka-Taka” brothers
Nami never again went back to juryo unlike many more modern-day high-flyers determined to last as long as possible on the dohyo by accepting the relative humiliation of dropping back to the second-rank division later in their careers.
Instead, aware that he had health issues, he retired in May 2004.
In the years after his retirement and before his death, he worked tirelessly in the Japan Sumo Association, promoting the sport all over the country and in a handful of official posts.
Yet, while Takanonami, as was, will be dearly missed by all connected to the sport, sadness is tinged with optimism. That optimism comes by way of the first appearance of sumo’s newest ozeki slated for around 5 p.m. on Sunday at the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium.
That man is, of course, Terunofuji.
Winner of May’s Natsu Basho in sumo’s spiritual home, the Ryogoku Kokugikan, Terunofuji is a 23-year-old Mongolian fighting out of Isegahama-beya.
In just his ninth tourney as a makunouchi man, expect many of the TV close-ups over the next two weeks of action to focus on the man from Ulan Bator, albeit interspersed with reruns of the career of Takanonami.
Few new ozeki ever perform to the best of their ability the first time out. Social commitments increase dramatically following promotion from sekiwake.
Flesh-pressing sessions and photos with kids become the norm in the fortnight ahead of shonichi.
Actual training time is oftentimes imposed upon by interviews, and TV appearances.
Terunofuji’s ascent to the rank has been no different to many of his predecessors in this regard.
If anything, the fact that he actually won the Natsu Basho on his way to promotion, downing a pair of (then) senior-ranking ozeki in the process, has only added to the expectations on the shoulders of the man almost exactly the same height and weight of yokozuna Hakuho.
And, while a barely passable 8-7/9-6 or even “acceptable as ozeki” 10-5 result come the end of the tournament on July 26 would rank him alongside the vast majority of those who have gone before in sumo’s second rank, I think we can expect a little more from Terunofuji.
A 12-3 runner-up result identical to that posted by Takanonami 21 years ago in his own ozeki debut basho would be fantastic. Anything better — incredible.
Look for the “incredible” in Terunofuji. It might just happen.