Hoping the return of its top wrestlers would provide excitement and restore a sense of stability to a sport tarnished by months of bad publicity, the Japan Sumo Association instead wound up with something new and unexpected.
Although those hopes of stability vanished, and the sport opened the year in a cloud of chaos, a silver lining was found in Georgian No. 3 maegashira Tochinoshin’s surprising championship win on Saturday.
Following a 2017 in which three of the sport’s four yokozuna had repeatedly withdrawn due to injury and the fourth, Harumafuji, retired after assaulting another wrestler, sumo was in need of a boost.
The New Year Basho kicked off Jan. 14 without its senior referee, who announced he would resign for sexually harassing a teenage referee, and things quickly got worse. Within a week, two of the three yokozuna had pulled out hurt, while juryo wrestler Osunaarashi was accused of driving without a license following a minor traffic accident.
The hits kept coming when news broke Thursday that stablemaster Kasugano was being sued by a former wrestler for an assault that occurred in 2014. Three years prior to that, Kasugano had found himself in hot water after using a golf club to discipline three of his charges — including Tochinoshin.
At the time, the stablemaster apologized and Tochinoshin admitted the errors of his ways and vowed to never cause such trouble again.
Tochinoshin rose as high as komusubi before suffering a severe knee injury in 2013. Since returning to the ring, he has lacked consistency but managed to reach the rank of sekiwake for one tournament in 2016.
Over the past two weeks, however, he has wrestled like a force of nature. His only defeat through the first 14 days came in a narrow loss to Mongolian Kakuryu, the only remaining yokozuna in action, who won his first 10 bouts before inexplicably losing the next four.
Tochinoshin became the third European to win a championship in Japan’s ancient sport and was applauded by one of the others, former ozeki Kotooshu.
“To some extent it speaks to poor performances by the yokozuna and ozeki wrestlers,” Kotooshu said. “In my time, luck played a part, and one can say fate had a part for Tochinoshin, but he seized that chance. That, I think, is the interesting thing here.”