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Eighteen months ago, in the face of rising COVID-19 numbers and under a nationwide state of emergency, the Japan Sumo Association decided to cancel its annual summer tournament.

That move delayed — by two months — the top-division return of a former ozeki who, due to injury and illness, had previously plummeted to a historically low rank for a wrestler of his status.

Terunofuji’s 10-5 record in the 2020 spring meet at the rank of juryo 4 east fortunately coincided with several poor performances in the top tier, and earned the giant Mongolian, along with four other men, promotion to the sport’s highest division.

Yet those five losses — mostly to journeyman opponents — had few expecting Terunofuji to do well upon his return to makuuchi.

Indeed, many commentators felt that even if he managed to avoid a recurrence of the catastrophic issues that had stymied his initial rise, the Isegahama stable man’s obvious struggles when on put the defensive would be a weakness ruthlessly exposed by higher-level wrestlers.

Simply making it back to the paid ranks — when his career had appeared all but over only a few years earlier — was considered an incredible achievement, but a year or two (at most) bouncing between the juryo and makuuchi divisions before calling it a day seemed to be the most likely third act for Terunofuji.

Instead, just 18 months later, the veteran sits alone atop the sumo world, a newly crowned yokozuna with six Emperor’s Cups under his belt, and heads into 2022 with an opportunity to become the third-most-decorated foreign-born wrestler in history.

Terunofuji (right) defeats maegashira Abi to clinch the Kyushu Basho and his sixth Emperor's Cup overall in Fukuoka on Saturday. | KYODO
Terunofuji (right) defeats maegashira Abi to clinch the Kyushu Basho and his sixth Emperor’s Cup overall in Fukuoka on Saturday. | KYODO

It’s been a stunning turnaround for the Ulaanbaatar native.

Any returning sumo fans —those who might have tuned out at the start of the pandemic to focus on more pressing matters — must feel shock akin to that of Rick Grimes waking up to a whole new world at the start of the TV series “The Walking Dead.”

Hakuho, long the dominant figure in the sport, is gone. In his place is a man who was competing in the unpaid divisions as recently as when the 2019 Rugby World Cup was taking place.

Terunofuji, of course, has always had the size and ability to succeed, but the speed of his ascension to sumo’s summit since making it back to the top tier has been head-spinning.

Many rikishi experience a late-career resurgence, but going from losing to the likes of Kotoeko and Kyokushuho in the second division, to capping off a run of four championships in five tournaments with a perfect 15-0 record, is stunning to say the least.

Terunofuji now has more titles than legendary ozeki Kaio, as many championships as yokozuna Kakuryu, and by July could surpass Harumafuji to reach the ten Emperor’s Cups that normally mark when rikishi begins to be referred to as a Dai-Yokozuna or “great champion.”

Kyushu Basho champion Terunofuji conducts an interview following the tournament's final day on Sunday at Fukuoka Kokusai Center. | KYODO
Kyushu Basho champion Terunofuji conducts an interview following the tournament’s final day on Sunday at Fukuoka Kokusai Center. | KYODO

That best-case scenario in terms of championships isn’t even all that outlandish a prospect. Terunofuji is clearly superior to everyone else in the top division right now, and his most obvious challenger, Takakeisho, is both inconsistent and limited technically.

It’s possible that up-and-comers like Hoshoryu might pose a threat to the yokozuna in the longer term, but for 2022, there seems little to be little standing in the way of an even more dominant year for Terunofuji.

Daieisho and Shodai have lifted the Emperor’s Cup since Terunofuji made it back to makuuchi and, as predicted, Abi made a title charge this time out from the bottom of the division. Since last March, though, it’s been all Terunofuji, with Hakuho’s mic-dropping exit in July the only interruption to the new yokozuna’s dominant run.

If sumo’s newest grand champion manages a clean sweep in the coming year, then he’ll join Musashimaru at 12 championships — a mark that was the best ever for a foreign-born rikishi when set by the yokozuna from American Samoa.

Although it may not seem obvious, Terunofuji has much in common with late-career Musashimaru. Both stand 192-cm tall and although the older man was considerably heavier, there is an “immoveable object” aspect to their sumo that is similar.

Musashimaru, of course, never had to endure the lows that Terunofuji did in the ring. In 58 tournaments from joining sumo to his promotion to yokozuna, Musashimaru had a winning record in 57.

The giant Hawaiian-raised wrestler did have to wrestle in the shadow of Akebono and Takanohana for much of his career, though, and it wasn’t until the tail end of their reigns that he fully emerged to become a great champion in his own right.

Terunofuji receives his prize money after defeating Abi on Day 14 of the Kyushu Basho at Fukuoka Kokusai Center on Saturday. | KYODO
Terunofuji receives his prize money after defeating Abi on Day 14 of the Kyushu Basho at Fukuoka Kokusai Center on Saturday. | KYODO

Terunofuji right now is in a similar position to Musashimaru two decades ago and could significantly increase his overall numbers and further burnish his already incredible reputation over the next 12 months.

In fact, with arguably no opponents of the caliber of men that Musashimaru had to face such as Kaio, Chiyotaikai and Tochiazuma, Terunofuji could well become the third-best foreign-born rikishi of all time within the next 18 months.

The two men he has little-to-no chance of catching on that list, Hakuho and Asashoryu, reunited in Fukuoka, when the fiery former yokozuna paid a visit to Japan to watch the November tournament.

As they hammed it up on social media, there was little sign of the animosity and heat that often defined their clashes inside the ring. Anyone unfamiliar with the sport would have no idea that the pair of men mugging for the camera were two of the most dominant fighters in the history of combat sport with a mind-blowing 70 Emperor’s Cups between them.

Terunofuji isn’t of that level, but the 73rd yokozuna has blazed a historic trail of his own, and as he enters his 30s the most glorious days may be yet to come.

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