Terunofuji’s lifting of the Emperor’s Cup in the just-finished July tournament completed what may be the most unlikely comeback in the history of sumo.
It’s not so long ago that former ozeki who faced demotion from the sport’s top tier generally opted to retire rather than suffer the ignominy of toiling away in a lower division, while the notion of keeping going after dropping to the unsalaried ranks was something not even worth considering.
Terunofuji though not only fell out of the paid divisions, after a series of injuries and illnesses, but plummeted all the way down to sumo’s second lowest tier.
Having been close to the big Mongolian since he joined the professional ranks, the question I got most often in 2019 was, “Why does he keep going?”
To be honest it’s one I asked myself at various points over the past few years, especially when watching the Isegahama stable man in pain and struggling to deal with the young kids and lifelong journeymen who populate ozumo’s lower reaches.
Similar thoughts went through the mind of Terunofuji as well and he told reporters that he had broached the topic of retirement with his stablemaster on five separate occasions — only for Isegahama to refuse the request each time.
Of course, at the end of the day, every rikishi in sumo is free to leave if he wants and had Terunofuji demanded to be allowed to retire, then that’s what would have happened.
The fact that he allowed himself to be dissuaded so often however — especially when retiring would have put an end to a lot of pain — isn’t all that surprising to those who know him well.
The Ulaanbaatar native has displayed mental fortitude throughout his time in Japan, but the cheery, and at times mischievous, personality that he displayed when younger often served to hide the steel hiding underneath.
Thoughts of quitting the sport that came in the wake of his disastrous plunge from superstardom to obscurity weren’t his first brush with retirement.
Terunofuji originally joined sumo through Magaki Beya — a stable that had been suffering through years of scandal and misfortune, and was in serious decline.
Prior to the stable closing down, things had gotten so bad that Terunofuji on more than one occasion found himself alone in the practice arena without training partners or coaches. Needless to say, his progress stalled and Wakamisho (as he was then known) became so demotivated that one night when just sitting on a park bench near the stable he told me that he was probably going to quit sumo and go back to Mongolia.
He stuck things out, though, and soon found himself in Isegahama stable with yokozuna Harumafuji and several other high level rikishi.
That soldiering on when things look bleak has been a hallmark of Terunofuji’s makeup as long as I’ve known him.
Whether on the dohyō or outside the ring, he has always been able to buckle down and fight back.
His very first fight in sumo’s lowest division ended in an “inadvertent stepout” loss and the then-19-year-old used the embarrassment of that as motivational fuel for a long time.
Just after his promotion to jūryō, I jokingly told him that while he may have moved ahead of me in sumo, I still had the edge in pool. That prompted a showdown at a local bar.
In the first game I broke, potted seven balls and left the black hanging over a pocket. I started trash talking the new sekitori only to have him stroll over and clear the table.
When Osunaarashi evened the pair’s head to head record at 2-2, Terunofuji seemed on the verge of being eclipsed by his close friend and rival, especially as the latter was making his top-division debut, while he was still stuck in sumo’s second tier.
The Egyptian would never win another one of their bouts, however, as a highly motivated Terunofuji ripped off six straight.
Digging deep when the chips are low is something that has defined sumo’s newest champion all throughout his career. The biggest difference from his early days in the sport is the relative scarceness of his trademark smile and playfulness. The Terunofuji of 2020 has the look of a man who knows what it’s like to get knocked down once or twice. Those who hadn’t seen him interviewed in a while were surprised by his low-key reaction to winning a second championship.
That shouldn’t really come as a surprise when you read through the list of injuries he has had to deal with over the past few years. In contrast to the cocky and at times overconfident youngster that stormed to the top of the sumo world five years ago, the new Terunofuji also knows that he can’t do it alone, and he spent a lot of time in post-tournament interviews giving thanks to his oyakata and stablemates for their support through the difficult times.
He’s older, wiser and more weathered but Terunofuji retains what makes him special — an ability to come back stronger from virtually any defeat.
Thoughts turn now to September and a slate that will be filled with opponents from the top of the rankings.
Some people are already writing off Terunofuji’s chances of making it back to ozeki or even managing a winning record in the Autumn tournament.
I’m not one of them.