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Unpacking all that happened in sumo over the past twelve months is no simple task.

Every single basho in 2020 contained what felt like several tournaments worth of storylines, while events outside the ring throughout the year at times came close to overshadowing the relentlessly thrilling action inside it.

The COVID-19 related death of 28-year-old wrestler Shobushi, following the first tournament in history held without fans, was a low, but sumo somehow managed to keep going and provided much-needed distraction in a tough year.

On the dohyō, Terunofuji was the clear front-runner when it came to picking the standout rikishi of 2020.

Takakeisho and Shodai may have had their moments, but the former ozeki’s return from massive injury and crippling illness has to go down as one of the sport’s all-time great comebacks.

After more than a year and a half in sumo’s wilderness, Terunofuji re-appeared in the paid ranks in January and promptly dispelled all doubts about the ability of his shattered knees to handle the rigors of top-class sumo.

With double-digit wins in four of five tournaments, including three 13-2 efforts, the giant Mongolian was outstanding in 2020.

Lifting the Emperor’s Cup for a second time in July and coming within a whisker of doing so again in November, Terunofuji set himself up for a potential return to ozeki early next year and, with few rikishi on the banzuke able to handle his power, a possible shot at what would be the ultimate Hollywood ending — promotion to yokozuna.

Over the summer, as Terunofuji was savoring the rewards of perseverance, former komusubi Abi was suffering the consequences of laxity.

While the Shikoroyama stable man’s previous indiscretions had amounted to little more than childish pranks or immaturity, Abi’s flouting of the Japan Sumo Association’s coronavirus protocols and his putting the lives of others at risk so soon after the death of a rikishi was completely unacceptable. The subsequent harsh punishment that he received was fully deserved.

That three-tournament ban also served as a stark warning to others not to step out of line.

Whether or not you agree with the heavy-handed restrictions imposed on wrestlers, or indeed the social media ban imposed after one of Abi’s earlier lapses, sumo being spared the kind of regular — and frustratingly idiotic — actions and statements of athletes in other sports in regards to the coronavirus is blessed relief.

The Spring Grand Sumo Tournament was held behind closed doors in Osaka in March. | KYODO
The Spring Grand Sumo Tournament was held behind closed doors in Osaka in March. | KYODO

As Abi began his freefall down the banzuke, several stars of the future were climbing those same rankings.

Kotoshoho, a 21-year-old who only joined sumo in 2017, likely flew under the radar of a lot of people, but the Sadogatake beya youngster had one the more impressive showings in 2020.

Despite his age and lack of experience at the highest levels, Kotoshoho continued a streak of winning records that stretches all the way back to his makushita division debut in 2018.

Only once in six tournaments as a sekitori has he entered the final weekend not having already secured the eight wins needed for promotion, and the Chiba native has yet to mount the ring on Day 15 with a losing record — or even the possibility of one.

Things get exponentially tougher for Kotoshoho starting in January but, given that he is 3-0 against sekiwake and komusubi ranked opponents to date, he looks like a good bet to hold his own at the sharper end of the top division.

Regardless of how well he does, though, Kotoshoho would need to stay in sumo for three more decades to equal the mark set by another wrestler in 2020.

Hanakaze, who has never made it out of sumo’s lowest three divisions, celebrated his 50th birthday in May. In a sport where most participants are well into the decline phase by age 30, continuing to get into the ring and fight at the half century mark is an astounding achievement. Hanakaze could well surpass the record for oldest rikishi ever — which was set in the late 1790s!

Kotoshoho would need to compete in 180 more tournaments to equal the number that have already had Hanakaze as a participant.

COVID-19 has dilated time to such an extent that Tokushoryu’s incredible out of the blue victory last January seems much longer ago.

Downing Shodai and Takakeisho over the final two days to lift the Emperor’s Cup while ranked at the very bottom of the makuuchi division placed the Nara native among the ranks of the most surprising champions in sumo history. His emotional speech and demeanor afterwards won Tokushoryu a legion of new fans and gave sumo the best possible start to 2020.

Of course, it all went downhill pretty quickly soon afterwards, but even as things continued to darken outside the ring, the excitement inside it never let up.

March saw sumo performed in silence, but that allowed fans watching at home, especially those who had never been to a live tournament, to experience the sport in an intimate way never before possible.

If anything, hearing each breath and footfall, while listening to the creaking of mawashi and the sound of salt falling on the ring, gave people a new appreciation for sumo, and one that stood it in good stead as the challenges mounted.

No one knows what next year will hold. We all hope for a brighter future, but as 2020 has shown, even in the dark times sumo can function as both a release and a relief.

So, if 2021 doesn’t turn out the way we all hope, at least there will still be sumo.

Happy new year everyone.

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