Just prior to the 2018 September Tournament, while sitting in a sweltering Ryogoku Kokugikan and watching the Yokozuna Deliberation Council practice session, I grabbed a quick selfie with a couple of rikishi standing over my right shoulder.
Tochinoshin and Mitakeumi were the two wrestlers in that photo. Both had lifted the Emperor’s Cup for the first time that year, and looking at the picture I wondered who in the room would repeat the feat in the near future.
I certainly didn’t expect it to be the man over my other shoulder, who was going into great detail about flans, cakes and desserts with NHK commentator Hiro Morita.
Tamawashi, the most unlikely tournament winner since fellow Mongolian Kyokutenho, this month became the second-oldest wrestler to win a debut championship, behind only his aforementioned countryman.
With his second son being born on the day that he clinched the title, the 34-year-old had himself quite a weekend.
I first encountered Tamawashi in August 2006, when he was visiting Magaki stable for a training session.
Going toe-to-toe with fast-rising Russian Wakanoho, Tamawashi engaged in a series of spirited bouts that neither man was willing to put to an end. Eventually a senior wrestler had to tell them to finish — a sight you don’t often see in sumo stables.
Looking back this week at the video I shot that day, what shines clear through the grainy footage is Tamawashi’s fierce fighting spirit and willingness to push through the pain.
It’s no surprise that he hasn’t missed a single fight in 15 years. Tamawashi’s streak of 1,151 consecutive bouts is the longest among active wrestlers.
It should be noted, though, that his pushing style, as well as being unusual for a Mongolian wrestler, lends itself towards injury avoidance.
Getting into a belt battle with an opponent increases the chances of falling or being thrown to the ground awkwardly, or of crashing off the raised ring while locked up with that adversary — all of which are major causes of the knee and joint injuries that force rikishi to miss bouts.
A straightforward attack like the one Tamawashi employs (his 49 percent push-out win rate is more than double the average) helps keep him healthy.
Being so one-dimensional, however, is a drawback when it comes to overall sumo success.
There are fewer pusher-thrusters than mawashi specialists at the sport’s highest ranks for one simple reason.
Tsuki-oshi is a style so reliant on timing that even slight dips in form or condition dramatically reduce its potency.
When working well, however, it can be very effective, and if a pushing or thrusting wrestler gets on a hot streak he can be virtually impossible to stop.
I’ve written in the past about “heart” being the most important element of the three traits (heart, technique, physique) that sumo wrestlers are said to require.
Heart of course can be taken to mean self-belief and when a pusher-thruster has absolute confidence in his timing and technique the results are dramatic.
Takatoriki built up such a head of steam from his maegashira No. 14 slot in March 2000, that by the time the powers that be realized they needed to throw the big guns at him it was already too late. Despite back-to-back losses to yokozuna on Days 13 and 14, Takatoriki was able his clinch his first and only title.
Witness Hokutoriki in the May 2004 meet. A solid but limited rikishi; the Tochigi native got his pushing attack working so well that he was able to overwhelm a peak-career Asashoryu and almost grab the championship.
It took Hakuho (making his top division debut) sidestepping Hokutoriki on the final day to drop the sekiwake into a playoff with Asashoryu and the legendary yokozuna didn’t make the same mistake twice, getting inside quickly and winning his seventh title.
That “catch lightning in a bottle” element though is one of the aspects that makes sumo so fascinating. Even in a sport with dominant champions, every so often someone comes out of nowhere to take a title.
It’s not something you find in many sports.
European soccer leagues are so top heavy that most have no more than four of five serious contenders year in, year out. For some, like Spain or Scotland, the drama is limited to wondering which of two sides will emerge victorious.
Five thousand-to-one outsider Leicester City created a fairytale ending to the Premier League in 2016, but the odds of something like that happening again are astronomical.
American sports, with drafts and salary caps, are structured in such a way that weaker sides have a clear path to success so even when you have a “worst-to-first” team it’s not really all that shocking.
Men’s tennis over the past 15 years probably comes closest. In the “Big Three” era, Grand Slam titles for players like Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic are surprising, but even then both men have been ranked as high as No. 3 in the world so their wins don’t have the same wow factor as those of Kyokutenho, Kotonishiki or Takatoriki.
Tamawashi’s lifting of the Emperor’s Cup was not only great for the man himself but also exciting for the sport as a whole and part of sumo’s long history of producing out of the blue unlikely heroes.