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Although diminutive by sumo standards, the makuuchi division’s Tobizaru, whose ring name means “flying monkey,” nearly defied the odds last month to become the first wrestler in 106 years to win the Emperor’s Cup in his top-division debut.

The 28-year-old out of Oitekaze stable made himself one of the main contenders in the championship race at the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament, but it was newly promoted ozeki Shodai who ultimately clinched his maiden makuuchi title in Tokyo.

Tobizaru finished with an 11-4 record in his first tournament under the brightest of sumo’s lights, two wins behind Shodai, but went home with a Fighting Spirit Prize and a giant confidence boost.

“It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my life as a sumo wrestler. I think people might even remember my name,” Tobizaru said after his brush with history.

Of his 11 wins, Tobizaru showed off eight different kimarite winning techniques and ran circles around his opponents in the confined space of the dohyō— a testament to his simian moniker.

Being born in the Year of the Monkey and acknowledging he “moves like a monkey” in the ring led to the creation of his unique sumo name.

Tobizaru thrilled fans at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan by embodying one of the true underdog charms of sumo, a sport where wrestlers face off as equals in the raised ring even if there are huge height, weight or shape disparities.

Standing just 175 cm tall and weighing in on the lighter side of most rikishi at 131 kg, Tobizaru’s fast-paced and versatile fighting style enables him to control opponents both smaller and larger — a trait that is always sure to rouse the crowd at the six grand tournaments held each year.

During his time in the second-tier jūryō division, Tobizaru often tried to dodge his opponent’s initial charge and tended to fight more defensively. But on the top-tier stage at the autumn meet, he accepted his status as a challenger and devoted himself to going all-out on the offensive.

Tobizaru’s bid for the Emperor’s Cup last month lasted until the penultimate day of the 15-day meet, when he was knocked out of contention by ozeki Takakeisho. Tobizaru said the race had been “fun and exciting,” and was lauded as “daring” by Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku.

The up-and-comer said he benefited from the hard training battles fought against his bulkier Oitekaze stablemates, a group that includes sekiwake Daieisho, komusubi Endo and four grapplers in the jūryō division.

“The rikishi at our stable are all huge, so when I got to the tournament I didn’t think my opponents were all that big,” he reflected.

Born in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, Tobizaru started sumo in his first year of elementary school under the watchful eye of his older brother, Hidenoumi, a former makuuchi rank-and-filer currently in jūryō. He also swam and played soccer and baseball.

After graduating from sumo powerhouse Nihon University, Tobizaru made his professional debut at the beginning of 2015.

While wrestlers like Mitakeumi and Hokutofuji, who are roughly the same age as him progressed into the sanyaku ranks, Tobizaru was still toiling at the lower levels, needing two and a half years to reach jūryō and another three years to make it to the top makuuchi division.

The newcomer’s presence permeated the arena at the autumn meet, with his name being greeted with increasingly rapturous applause each day from the socially distanced crowd.

“I felt like no one knew me when I was in jūryō,” Tobizaru said. “It’s amazing how much can change. Fifteen days changed my life.”

With a bump up the rankings from 14th maegashira expected, the grappler said he is well aware he will face a tougher set of opponents at the next grand tournament in November.

“I’m looking forward to it since I’ll be higher on the banzuke. It’s harder if you go out there feeling defensive.”

The November Grand Sumo Tournament kicks off on Nov. 8 in Tokyo at Ryogoku Kokugikan.

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