January 2020 served up one of the best sumo tournaments of recent times.
After both yokozuna pulled out in the first few days — having managed just a solitary win apiece — several lower rankers stepped into the breach and took fans on a rollercoaster ride that lasted right through to the final bout of the 15-day meet.
Terutsuyoshi, Kagayaki and Shodai were atop the leaderboard when Hakuho and Kakuryu withdrew, while ozeki Takakeisho and sekiwake Asanoyama were the only non-maegashira among the 16 rikishi with the best records after five days.
In fact, those two young up-and-comers were the only wrestlers ranked komusubi or higher to avoid finishing the two weeks with a losing record.
Fittingly, in a tournament where lower rankers shone, it was the man at the very bottom of the division who came through in the end to deliver arguably the most surprising championship sumo has ever seen.
That might seem hyperbolic in an era when out-of-the-blue title winners are becoming the norm, but while the January tournament may just have crowned its fifth straight debutant champion, and made it three times in the past two years a maegashira has lifted the Emperor’s Cup, none of those facts can hold a candle to Tokushoryu’s eye-opening victory in terms of sheer unlikelihood.
The Nara native won the title from the west maegashira No. 17 slot, which tied Dewaminato’s 1939 mark as the lowest-ever rank to have achieved that feat.
However, 81 years ago, there were three yokozuna on the banzuke rankings, which means that Dewaminato was the 43rd-ranked wrestler in the top division, one place lower than Tokushoryu in January 2020.
A major difference between the two men is the fact that Dewaminato was a former sekiwake who had already downed a yokozuna, and had a winning record in most of his top-division tournaments, whereas Tokushoryu is a 33-year-old journeyman who spent most of the past two years struggling in the sport’s second division and has never had a winning record at a rank higher than maegashira No. 7.
It’s that combination of age and career history that separates Tokushoryu from all the other recent first-time winners and every other hiramaku (maegashira-level) champion.
Thirty men have won a top-division title while ranked at maegashira. Only one didn’t reach at least komusubi at some point during their career, but even that man, May 1926 champion Orochiyama, just barely missed out, getting as far as the maegashira No. 1 rank.
The vast majority of maegashira champions reach sekiwake at some point during their career, with three yokozuna as well as three ozeki also managing the feat on their way to the top.
Tokushoryu is highly likely to find himself at a new career-high rank next basho, but reaching sanyaku (the three ranks below yokozuna) seems like a stretch. Even matching Dewaminato at the maegashira No. 1 rank may not happen. Either way the chances of a rikishi who barely scraped together eight wins in the juryo division in both September and November suddenly turning into a regular title contender are slim to none. The smart money would be on the former Kindai University man finishing his career as the rikishi with the lowest career high, ever to have won a title.
That’s not to take anything away from what Tokushoryu achieved in January.
The Kise stable veteran was magnificent from start to finish and absolutely deserved his championship. The manner of his victory over ozeki Takakeisho on the final day, when Shodai had already won and the pressure was on, should silence all those who claim that a soft schedule and the absence of the top rankers devalues the championship.
Given his age, history and rank, Tokushoryu’s title ranks up there with the sport’s very best.
His tears upon clinching the victory and epic ringside interview also endeared him to fans and made headlines around the world.
After a mostly anonymous decade in sumo, Tokushoryu finally got a chance to put his personality on display, and displayed rare skills on camera. He elicited peals of laughter from the crowd before deftly pivoting into talking about his university coach who had passed away mid-tournament, ensuring there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
That his former mentor missed seeing Tokushoryu’s greatest moment by little over a week added a poignancy to the occasion, but for the most part joy was the overwhelming emotion at the Kokugikan on Jan. 26th.
It would be a surprise if Nara’s first champion in almost a century manages to replicate what he achieved this month, but at least with the next tournament taking place in Osaka, fans in Kansai will have the rare opportunity to see one of their own mount the ring as defending champion.
Sumo’s unique set up and scheduling, combined with the decline of the top rankers as well as the apparent absence of another Takanohana, Asashoryu or Hakuho also means that we may not be finished with the current parade of first-time champions.
At the conclusion of the January tournament there were 11 men in sumo who knew what it’s like to have lifted the Emperor’s Cup.
Traditionally the sport’s popularity has been based around great rivalries between dominant yokozuna, and while the absence of rikishi like Hakuho deprives fans of the opportunity to see sumo of the highest level, nothing comes close to the sheer emotion of seeing a long-serving veteran finally win a title after a decade or more of struggle.
When that veteran is someone as entertaining as Tokushoryu is both inside and outside the ring and the titles won are of such historical significance — well, who can complain?
Now the only question is, who is next?