The Terunofuji era gets into full swing in the upcoming November Grand Sumo Tournament.
The veteran wrestler made his debut at sumo’s highest rank last time out, but following the retirement of legendary yokozuna Hakuho in September, Terunofuji now finds himself alone atop the banzuke for the first time.
Out of the shadow of arguably the greatest rikishi ever to strap on a mawashi, the Isegahama stable man has a golden chance to cement his own legacy, and figures to do just that by continuing an outstanding recent run of success.
Hakuho remains in sumo as an elder called Magaki, but his attention will be focused on preparing to open his own stable, and training Terunofuji’s future rivals.
The former yokozuna’s presence in the background, however, will have little impact on what happens in the ring in the short term, as it appears as if the man he beat for the title on the final day in July is about to dominate in a manner reminiscent of Hakuho at his peak.
Terunofuji, like Hakuho and Kakuryu before him, has switched to Japanese nationality, meaning he too will eventually walk the same path as his fellow Mongolian-born yokozuna compatriots.
For now, though, the 191-cm, 173-kg yokozuna is without peer in the ring and set to considerably burnish his reputation over the next year or so.
Since returning to the top division in 2020, after what seemed like multiple career-ending injuries and illnesses over the previous few years, Terunofuji has been virtually unstoppable.
Four championships and three runner-up finishes in eight tournaments ensured promotion from the division’s lowest rank to the sport’s highest position in just 12 months.
The manner of Terunofuji’s wins and the way in which he has bossed around sumo’s elite provide little solace to anyone hoping to challenge him over the next year or two.
When it comes to the race for the title this time out, It’s hard to look beyond the yokozuna. Terunofuji is not only head and shoulders above the competition at this stage, but few of his potential rivals are in a good place.
As with Hakuho in his prime, the only thing that may stand between Terunofuji and a sixth Emperors Cup is his own body. Rock solid mentally and with experience, size and stability to his sumo, silverware seems a foregone conclusion for the soon to be 30-year-old — barring an injury knocking him out of the running.
There is a lot of up-and-coming talent in sumo, but it’s difficult to feel confident about the ability of anyone in the top division to pose a challenge to Terunofuji’s title hopes this time out.
Takakeisho is the only currently active rikishi who has consistently been able to go toe-to-toe with Terunofuji in key moments, but the ozeki still doesn’t appear to have fully recovered from a neck injury suffered in July and it’s unclear whether he can follow the example of the yokozuna and adjust his style of sumo to compensate for physical limitations.
If healthy, Takakeisho is the wrestler most likely to stymie Terunofuji’s effort to win a fourth Emperor’s Cup this year. If not, the title race could become a procession from early on.
Hope for something more competitive can be found in the fact that the overall experience level of the top division is quite high. Even with Tokushoryu falling to the second tier again, there are still seven men in makuuchi who already know what it’s like to win a tournament.
Add to that the fact that only three of 41 wrestlers in the top tier have never been M5 or higher and that a full 61% of the rikishi in the division have sanyaku-level experience, and another surprise championship can’t be ruled out. A huge part of winning a title is being able to keep your head when the pressure increases over the final few days and stay in rhythm — something that favors wrestlers who have been around the block numerous times.
Tamawashi, one of those veterans with an out of the blue championship to his name, has occupied 33 of the 36 ranks between sekiwake 1 east and maegashira 16 west at some point in his career. The Ulaanbaatar native, who turns 37 during the first week of the basho, is unlikely to be fazed should he find himself in the hunt for glory during the second week of action.
Ability trumps experience of course and Terunofuji remains the hot favorite, but should the yokozuna falter, the makeup of the top division virtually guarantees a hard-fought, thrilling race.
One dark horse worth keeping an eye on is interesting for more than just a potential championship upset. Abi makes his first appearance in the top division since returning from a three-tournament suspension for violating COVID-19 restrictions.
Abi was a popular figure during his initial rise up the rankings, but a series of scandals and controversies – one of which led to the ongoing ban on rikishi using social media — soured him in the eyes of many. His putting the lives of fellow wrestlers and members of his stable at risk when the coronavirus pandemic was raging looked set to end his career in Japan’s national sport. Suspension however, rather than dismissal, was the surprising outcome — much to the chagrin of a sizable section of sumo’s fanbase.
Abi has been on his best behavior since his return and results inside the ring have been good — albeit against a level of competition he would normally be expected to dominate.
At maegashira 15, the former komusubi figures to continue to do very well. The possibility of the Shikoroyama stable man lifting the Emperor’s Cup on Nov. 28 can’t be ruled out. Given all that has transpired over the past two years, that would be an incredible storyline and redemption arc.
Hoshoryu, also among outside title hopefuls, has been gaining column inches and fans in equal measure. The up-and-coming young wrestler may be the nephew of former yokozuna Asashoryu, but his sumo, physique and record to date much more closely mirrors that of a different yokozuna — Harumafuji.
The current top division now is undoubtedly weaker than when Harumafuji (or Ama, as he was originally known) was on the rise, so Hoshoryu could push on quicker than his Mongolian predecessor and contend for titles and higher ranks at an earlier stage. The 22-year-old undoubtedly has a lot of potential, but whether or not he can develop his sumo (and his body) remains to be seen. Former ozeki Takayasu once had a career path that was very similar to — but a few years behind — Kakuryu, but while the latter man became yokozuna and won six championships, Takayasu stalled at ozeki and has never lifted the Emperor’s Cup.
In a sport as mentally challenging as sumo, comparisons between rikishi when it comes to physique, style or record only go so far. The extreme suddenness of the sport means that the ability to remain focused under pressure is key, and with that pressure ramping up at every level, it’s impossible to know how a young wrestler will do at the top end until he has actually been there in action.
Even so, Hoshoryu looks like a good bet to do well. The ongoing story of the young man having to deal with his uncle’s oftentimes explosive social media posts will get a new twist, as Asashoryu has announced he’ll be in Kyushu to watch his nephew in person.
Hoshoryu finds himself in the unenviable position of having to contend with current and former Mongolian yokozuna inside and outside of the ring in Fukuoka.
That won’t help his title chances, but even sans Asashoryu watching over his shoulder, the young wrestler will, like everyone else in sumo, probably be able to do little more in November than watch Terunofuji march to another title.
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