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A lot of the air was taken out of the upcoming September tournament by the Japan Sumo Association’s decision to sit defending champion yokozuna Hakuho and all members of his Miyagino stable because of COVID-19 infections among lower-ranked wrestlers.

After July produced one of the most thrilling tournament finishes in recent memory, sumo fans were salivating at the prospect of a rematch between the sport’s greatest ever exponent, and Terunofuji, the first true rival Hakuho has faced since the retirement of Kakuryu.

The two yokozuna facing off on the final day of the autumn meet would also have been the first bout between yokozuna in 553 days.

While that titanic clash will not happen, there is still plenty at stake as sumo returns to the capital, and no shortage of intriguing storylines running through the top division.

Terunofuji’s ascension to the summit of the rankings completes the greatest comeback story in the history of sumo. Even with the absence of Hakuho, however, the newly naturalized yokozuna is unlikely to be resting on his laurels, as he seeks to get that all-important first title as a yokozuna.

As inspirational as his journey has been, Terunofuji will be keenly aware that only two of the 28 yokozuna promoted since the six tournament a year system came into existence in 1957 failed to lift the Emperor’s Cup after donning the white rope.

Wakanohana and Futahaguro left sumo for very different reasons but a lack of titles while yokozuna diminishes both of their legacies in the eyes of many.

The good news for Terunofuji is that, while injury is an ever-present specter threatening to derail his efforts, he is so far ahead of all other championship contenders right now that even if not in the best of condition, the Isegahama stable man is the overwhelming favorite heading into the September tournament.

Long-standing issues haven’t prevented the Ulaanbaatar native from putting up the best numbers of his career at age 29, but groans of agony as he bowed and rose during his promotion announcement, and the sight of knee braces at his first ever yokozuna ring entering ceremony, were stark reminders of the fact that Terunofuji must battle his own body every day just to make it into the ring.

It was impossible not to marvel at how Terunofuji fought through the pain and reached the pinnacle of sumo’s violent and harsh world while practically held together with duct tape.

Such admiration, of course, comes with the knowledge that he’ll be paying for those efforts for decades to come, but if anything, that only adds to the appreciation of what he is achieving.

Part of the reason Terunofuji is so heavily favored to lift the Emperor’s Cup in September is that his recent exploits stand in stark contrast to how everyone else in the top division has been performing.

Yokozuna Hakuho will miss the September Basho because of COVID-19 infections among lower-ranked wrestlers in his stable. | KYODO
Yokozuna Hakuho will miss the September Basho because of COVID-19 infections among lower-ranked wrestlers in his stable. | KYODO

Outside of the two yokozuna, only three times in the past 18 months has any rikishi managed to put together 13 wins.

Daieisho, Shodai and Takakeisho all took home silverware with that mark, but the lattermost man is the only one to reach 12 wins in any other tournament in the same period.

Terunofuji, meanwhile, has put together two 12-3, and two 13-2 tournaments since last November before recording a career high 14-1 mark last time out. In fact, his worst effort so far in 2021 was 11-4 in January, a score that Takayasu – one of his supposed challengers for the title – hasn’t managed even once since the start of 2019.

The floor for sumo’s newest yokozuna is similar to the ceiling for most of his championship rivals. With Hakuho not in contention, it seems that Terunofuji could suffer two or even three losses and still likely emerge victorious.

With question marks also hanging over those that have had success against him in the recent past, injury appears to be the only thing that could detail the Terunofuji train this time out.

While the giant yokozuna is clearly a class above everyone else competing in September, he doesn’t quite have the intimidation factor of other recent yokozuna.

Over the years it has often felt like all Hakuho and Asashoryu needed to do was show up at the arena and their opponent on that day was already beaten.

Terunofuji for all his size and power doesn’t strike fear into rivals in the same way.

With an astounding eight men having tasted championship success for the first time in their career since the start of 2018, Hakuho’s absence will be seen by many as a chance to grab glory.

Takakeisho (left) beats Daieisho on the opening day of the Nagoya Basho in July. | KYODO
Takakeisho (left) beats Daieisho on the opening day of the Nagoya Basho in July. | KYODO

Dark horse candidates abound, but it’s an ozeki who went into the previous tournament with his own (slim) possibility of yokozuna promotion that figures to be the main threat to Terunofuji this time out – with one major caveat.

Takakeisho reached sumo’s second highest rank at age 22 and has five runner-up performances to go along with his two Emperor’s Cup wins. The young ozeki has in addition proven himself capable of beating Terunofuji in head-to-head matchups when the title is on the line.

The Tokiwayama stable man has also shown an ability to bounce back from serious injury in the past, but what happened in July could have serious and long-lasting repercussions for his career and quality of life. Takakeisho herniated a disc in his neck during the initial clash of his Day 2 bout in Nagoya. In immediate and obvious pain, he was forced to miss the rest of the tournament.

The ozeki told reporters this week that the injury had healed, and that he had resumed training and would be going all out in September.

Bullish and all as that attitude is, neck injuries have a habit of quickly bringing an end to athletic careers. Anyone involved in sumo, of course, already has the high pain tolerance needed to deal with the brutal physicality of Japan’s national sport, but even if Takakeisho is willing to put himself through the ringer, his style of sumo puts enormous pressure on the body’s natural shock absorbers, and it would be no surprise if similar or worse neck injuries occur again.

Even assuming the 25-year-old was willing to abandon the hard-charging headfirst style that has brought him so much prosperity, Takakeisho lacks the physical tools for sustained success on the belt. Standing just 173 cm tall with relatively short arms and a large chest and stomach, locking up with opponents leads, in most cases, to a positional disadvantage.

Unfortunately for the Kansai native, continuing with his current approach seems like the only option. If luck is on Takakeisho’s side and he avoids further damage, then he is the most obvious threat to Terunofuji’s title hopes. Outside of those two, finding credible championship contenders is a difficult task.

Tamawashi and Tokushoryu have shown that out-of-the-blue Emperor’s Cup wins for veterans are a genuine possibility in an era without significant differences in ability between much of the top division. Daieisho, Shodai and Mitakeumi may have performed better before their title wins, but those victories were also unexpected.

That latter threesome remain in contention for glory – especially should Terunofuji or Takakeisho fail to perform — but the possibility of a veteran like Endo, Meisei, Takayasu or Onosho lifting silverware can’t be ruled out either.

Hoshoryu and Kotonowaka look like a good bet for sustained success over the next few years, but the two rising stars are at career high ranks in September and will be getting the toughest slate of opponents either has faced to date. Managing 12 or 13 wins against the best in the sport the first time out is probably a step too far at this stage.

With Hakuho out, Terunofuji is the odds on favorite to win a third championship in four tournaments, but should the new yokozuna stumble there is a whole host of rikishi waiting to rush in and challenge for the title.

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