• Kyodo

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Asanoyama stepped up to sumo's second-highest rank when he was listed as the sport's west ozeki in the Japan Sumo Association rankings published Monday ahead of May's Summer Grand Sumo Tournament.

The 26-year-old earned the promotion by going 11-4 in March's Spring Basho in Osaka, where the tournament was held behind closed doors for the first time amid efforts to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

"I've achieved one of my goals, which is to become ozeki," Asanoyama said in a telephone interview with reporters. "Seeing the banzuke, reality hit me again. It made me want to become a better leader in the sport and bring excitement to the sumo world."

But in the period since the JSA approved his promotion, the threat from the virus has grown, raising concerns that the 15-day tourney at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan slated to start on May 24 — following a two-week delay due to the public health crisis — might not be held as scheduled. As of Saturday, six wrestlers and one sumo elder had tested positive for the virus, according to the JSA.

If it does go ahead, Asanoyama will fight as an ozeki, the highest of the three sanyaku ranks below yokozuna, after just three tournaments as a komusubi and sekiwake. This ties him with three other wrestlers for the second-fewest tourneys in the sanyaku ranks before becoming an ozeki for the first time.

Asanoyama said he, like other wrestlers, has not been able to take part in drills that require physical contact since his practice is limited to basic exercises such as shiko, a stomping technique to build lower body strength.

"I'll just follow the (JSA's) decision (on the summer meet). I can't aim for the top (rank of yokozuna) if I'm not in contention for the championship. I'm aiming to win the tournament," Asanoyama said.

Takakeisho is in the east ozeki slot, though he will be fighting as a demotion-threatened kadoban ozeki after going 7-8 in Osaka.

Mongolian grappler Terunofuji holds the record for being the fastest to go from the sanyaku ranks to ozeki. He added another record to his resume on Monday when he rejoined the top-tier makuuchi division for the first time in 14 tournaments. Injuries to both knees sent the 192-cm wrestler's career into a tailspin and led to him having surgery in 2018.

After becoming the first former makuuchi champion and first former ozeki to be demoted to the third-tier makushita division, Terunofuji sat out four consecutive tournaments before returning to action as a lowly jonidan-division wrestler in the sport's fifth tier. Since then, the 28-year-old has only lost a handful of bouts.

With his promotion to the east No. 17 maegashira slot, Terunofuji becomes the first wrestler in history to fall as far as the jonidan division and then climb back to the makuuchi division.

He returns to the top flight alongside three other wrestlers from the second-tier juryo division — No. 14 maegashira Wakatakakage, No. 16 Kotoeko and fellow No. 17 Kotoyuki, who takes up the rear on the west side as the lowest-ranked of the 42 makuuchi wrestlers.

Joining them is No. 15 Kotoshoho, a 20-year-old making his top-division debut after going 12-3 in March to win the juryo division title.

There was another comeback story on Monday, as 34-year-old Okinoumi returned to the sanyaku ranks for the first time since November 2016 as the west komusubi. Daieisho takes up the komusubi position on the east.

At the top of the rankings are the east yokozuna Hakuho, who won an unprecedented 44th title in March, and west yokozuna Kakuryu, who lost on the final day to finish runner-up with a 12-3 mark.

"I feel like I gave it my all in March," Hakuho said. "I'm competing with that image in mind. I have to do my best again. I've never done this," he said of the rare telephone interview. "The world is in a crisis, and I hope this ends soon. There's still time (to prepare for the summer meet) so I'll take it slowly."

Shodai occupies the east sekiwake position, while Mitakeumi returns to sumo's third-highest rank as the west sekiwake.

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