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Terunofuji’s title-winning run in the spring tournament sealed a return to the rank of ozeki for the massive Mongolian.

The Marvel-esque triumphant comeback that has unfolded over the past two years is a tale unparalleled in sumo history.

By any normal measure, the Isegahama stable veteran should have been out of the sport by 2018, with devastating knee injuries taking the career of yet another young hopeful.

Instead, thanks to his intense efforts — and a stubborn stablemaster who refused to let him retire — Terunofuji is back at sumo’s second highest rank, and arguably the rikishi best placed for a shot at becoming the next yokozuna.

It’s a scenario that even his most wildly optimistic supporters could scarcely have imagined in March 2019 when the jonidan-48-ranked former ozeki stepped up onto the ring for his opening-day bout.

In addition to shattered knees, a range of ailments including diabetes, cellulitis and kidney stones had combined to take a heavy toll on Terunofuji’s body.

Twenty-seven years of age but looking a decade older, the Ulaanbaatar native was a shadow of his former self. Muscle tone had been replaced by loose hanging skin and the tentative and defensive sumo he’d displayed during a fall to the sport’s lower reaches — especially against opponents nowhere near his level — was disheartening.

Terunofuji won that opening bout, though. He won again the next day, and the day after that. Taking 112 of 136 fights since his comeback began, he achieved an 82% success rate over the following two years that included double-digit winning records in six of seven tournaments at the sekitori level. Even more encouraging was the fact that, despite repeated injury flare-ups, three missed bouts at the end of the September 2020 meet were Terunofuji’s only absences in that 12-tournament run.

No sooner had ozeki re-promotion been secured, however, than speculation about an even higher goal began.

Terunofuji receives the Emperor's Cup after clinching the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament on Sunday at Ryogoku Kokugikan. | KYODO
Terunofuji receives the Emperor’s Cup after clinching the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament on Sunday at Ryogoku Kokugikan. | KYODO

With Kakuryu bowing to the inevitable, and fellow grand champion Hakuho seemingly holding on solely for one last hurrah in July and a chance to play a role in the Olympics as an active rikishi, the question as to who would replace the veteran pair and become the 73rd yokozuna has moved front and center.

After going 9-2 against ozeki, winning two championships and having an additional pair of runner-up performances in just five tournaments since his top flight return last July, Terunofuji has shot to the head of everyone’s short list for promotion.

There is little doubt that the veteran is the front-runner, but anyone already speculating about what style of rope Terunofuji will choose, or creating Public Enemy-inspired “Welcome to the Teru-Dome” memes would be wise to rein in the enthusiasm.

Reaching yokozuna is considerably more difficult than the rank immediately below it. Despite what some are saying, Terunofuji will start from scratch in May. The title that he has just won has little to no impact on whether or not he will eventually become a grand champion. There is virtually no possibility of a championship next time out (even a 15-0 one) leading to yokozuna promotion for July.

Terunofuji, like Shodai, Asanoyama and Takakeisho, needs two consecutive tournament wins (or the equivalent) while at the rank of ozeki in order to be considered for promotion. The equivalent part of that requirement is the one that most often causes confusion. In reality it probably means making it to a playoff or title-deciding bout against the eventual winner, but the definition is a flexible one.

In Terunofuji’s favor is the fact that he has already lifted the Emperor’s Cup three times. Former ozeki Kaio is the only rikishi, since the championship system was introduced, to win more titles and not receive the white rope. A history of success at the highest level certainly eases any concerns members of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council have about a rikishi living up to the expectations of — and handling the pressure that comes with — the sport’s ultimate rank.

Nothing ever happens in a vacuum either and the loss of one yokozuna, combined with the seemingly imminent demise of the second, brings sumo’s need for a grand champion into sharp focus. While it’s true that there is no requirement to have yokozuna in the banzuke rankings in the same way that there is for ozeki, it’s a scenario those connected to the sport will be keen to avoid.

That essentially means that whatever leeway can be given, will be. The extension of Hakuho’s “warning” rather than any stronger measure being taken is all the proof that is needed of that. If Terunofuji manages to win a title while ranked at ozeki, then any record of 12 wins in the preceding or subsequent basho will probably be sufficient for the YDC.

Of course given his age and injury history, yokozuna promotion is something that would likely hasten the end of the Terunofuji’s time in sumo, but the benefits that come with the rank and the honor of making it into one of the most select groups in all of sport far outweigh the disadvantages — especially for someone in the latter stages of their career.

Had he avoided injury entirely, there is no doubt Terunofuji was on track for far more glory. It’s conceivable that he could already have reached double digits in terms of titles won and be set for a run at a place among the all-time greats. In an attritional sport like sumo, however, could-have-been stories abound.

Even if Terunofuji doesn’t make it to yokozuna, he can comfort himself with the knowledge that although numerous men have achieved greatness, he stands alone in having clawed his way back to the highest reaches of the sport from the depths.

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