The Once and Future Ozeki

The March 2021 Grand Sumo basho is almost upon us, and as it draws near I can’t help but think back to my first basho, the Osaka tournament of March 2017, and the men who made it great. An avid fight sports fan, I’d recently read an article on the Vice property entitled “Sumo: The Art of Six Second Fighting” and found the combination of ceremony, spectacle, and athleticism it described fascinating. I determined to give sumo a whirl and was immediately hooked. Every afternoon I would rush home from work to my single-bedroom apartment in Greensboro, NC, fire up the NHK Highlights (I’d yet to discover the various YouTube sumo giants such as Jason’s All-Sumo Channel and Kintamayama), and sit perched on the edge of my couch, eyes glued to my TV as the day’s top division matches unfolded. It was an incredible tournament from beginning to end, but though I watched every match, to me the many Maegashira bouts were nothing but preamble. New to the sport as I was, Makuuchi’s subplots were lost on me, but that does not mean the tournament wasn’t a memorable one; the opposite, it was the height of intrigue, and all my focus centered around the day’s final bouts and the two men who had taken center stage—Kisenosato and Terunofuji.

With these two men, sumo could not have asked for a better tandem. In the stoic Kisenosato, newly minted Yokozuna and national hero, rested all of Japan’s sumo aspirations, while his counterpart, Terunofuji, was perfectly cast to play his foil. A foreigner (gasp!), enormous and enormously powerful, the Mongolian Ozeki seemed less a man and more a force of nature, his every move upon the dohyo portraying strength and menace. Moreover, his own eventual Yokozuna promotion seemed an inevitability as he tore his way through lower-ranked adversaries. Not even a loss on Day 6 to then-Sekiwake Takayasu (Kisenosato’s teammate who was himself vying for his own promotion to Ozeki) could do anything to lessen the threat that was Terunofuji—he was the hunter, chasing relentlessly after the as-yet-spotless Kisenosato, and it seemed the consensus opinion of the broadcast team that should the Yokozuna slip, the yusho was Terunofuji’s for the taking. One could only hold back the tide for so long.

The inevitable finally happened on Day 13, and it went down with a bang. Wily, athletic Harumafuji, a distinguished Yokozuna in his own right (and Terunofuji’s senior stablemate), not only unseated Kisenosato from his fragile leadership position, he—inadvertently—injured his fellow Yokozuna, and grievously so. Meanwhile, Terunofuji had held serve following his lone Day 6 defeat, and he took full advantage of the opportunity his teammate had given him. When on Day 14 he defeated Sekiwake Kotoshogiku by henka (a move considered dishonorable in any context, but doubly so from a yusho contender, and triply so because this particular loss meant Kotoshogiku’s permanent demotion from Ozeki), Terunofuji made the leap not only to sole yusho leader, but full-blown villain. Kisenosato then went on to lose his Day 14 match against Yokozuna Kakuryu, thus completing the role reversal. Heading into the tournament’s final day, it was now the desperate and ailing Kisenosato chasing Terunofuji.

Luckily for the former, redemption came on that final day through a pair of brilliant matches that placed our hero and villain in direct competition for all the marbles. Kisenosato, torn pectoral and all, did the impossible. Then he did it again, beating the younger, stronger, hungrier Terunofuji twice in spectacular fashion and claiming his second Emperor’s Cup along the way. It was as wild and dramatic a finish as I’ve ever seen in any sport, and it happened in my very first basho.

These then, were the two men who were sumo in my early days. I’d barely been introduced to Hakuho before he pulled out (what’s all the hype about?), and the other two Yokozuna seemed mere spoilers in the grand conflict between Kisenosato and Terunofuji. Theirs was a rivalry for all time, one that would lift the sport to new heights.

The Fall

It was not to be. Following his injury, Kisenosato was never the same, and finally retired in January 2019 having completed only one of the eleven subsequent tournaments since his magical March run. Worse, Terunofuji seemed bound to the same tragic fate. After again placing runner-up in May 2017, a combination of knee injuries, kidney stones, and a diabetes diagnosis crippled the once proud Ozeki. From July 2017 to January 2018, Terunofuji was unable to complete a single tournament, and compiled a mere two wins in four basho. In short order he was stripped of his Ozeki rank and expelled from the top division, and after two frankly hard-to-watch campaigns in Juryo, he was cast from the salaried ranks altogether. One short year removed from the height of his powers, it seemed Terunofuji’s career was over. He vowed to fight on in the lower divisions, but it seemed almost a cruelty to hold out hope. The man’s body was broken. Why not retire with dignity, I wondered of him, thinking only for his health.

Terunofuji seemed to be finally thinking of it too. For four straight tournaments, he went kyujo from Day One, his focus on corralling his runaway injuries and illnesses. Occasionally he would post a video of himself bench pressing huge weights in his heya’s gym (personal social media accounts for rikishi were not yet outlawed), but otherwise he kept his head low. Sumo moved on. New stars rose and fell. Many of the old heroes, Kisenosato included, retired, and new contenders rose to vie for new titles.

And all the while, Terunofuji toiled, reforging what had been broken.

When his return was finally announced for March 2019, sumo circles reacted with equal parts excitement and anxiety. Watching his fall had brokered Terunofuji sympathy from many who had rooted against him at his peak, and absence had allowed the heart to grow fonder still. His was now a story of perseverance and fortitude in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Yet, none believed in him. I certainly didn’t. He was still young(ish), yes, but the lower divisions were littered with promising rikishi who’d been bitten one too many times by the injury bug. What hope did a man with two ruined knees have to climb all the way back up the ladder after having fallen nearly to its base? Those first few tournaments back, I watched through my fingers. A 7-0 start in Jonidan looked plenty promising, but a playoff loss to promising newcomer Roga quenched expectations. Knees or no knees, Terunofuji would always be skilled enough to beat the dregs of professional sumo, but his days as that force of nature were over.

Then the jun-yusho in Jonidan was followed by a 6-1 in Sandanme. Then a 6-1 in Makushita. Then another 6-1. In only four tournaments back, Terunofuji had rocketed up the unsalaried mountain and reached its pinnacle. He would be in the “Makushita joi” come November 2019, and within striking distance of regaining his salary. All he had to do was win.

And boy did he. A 7-0 yusho never looked so easy, and now back in the silk mawashi of a sekitori, Terunofuji refused to let off the gas. His first basho back in Juryo saw him rattle off 13 straight wins, locking up a second yusho in as many tournaments before coasting to the finish. One more winning record would do it—with a 10-5 in March 2020, he completed what had seemed like an impossible comeback. The one-time terror of the top division had returned, and woe betide any who might get in his way.

The Return to Makuuchi

Expectations were mixed, but overall the caution was an optimistic flavor when Terunofuji re-debuted at the very bottom of Makuuchi in July of last year, only half a rank from the division’s caboose. Questions like “How long will he last?” and “How high can he climb?” were all over social media. Fans were excited to see him back, but as a novelty, a feel-good story. It was generally agreed that the man was not—and never would be—what he once was, and a simple kachi-koshi would be achievement enough, worthy of celebration.

Big Teru had a different celebration in mind, however. Incredibly, impossibly (how often have I said impossible already?) Terunofuji won the Emperor’s Cup in his return basho to Makuuchi, and he did it looking every bit the titan of old. Immediately the hype train left the station, fueled in no small part by the man’s own words. He was here to do one thing, reclaim his rank, and his conviction was such that it felt almost an insult to doubt him. Who were we to say what he could do? He’d already done everything we said he couldn’t.

His next basho however—contested from the pole position of M1e—had the hype train pumping its breaks. A bare eight wins, followed by a precautionary kyujo, appeared to hint toward all our fears. This was a man running on fumes and willpower. How much could he ask of his battered body before it once again gave out on him?

That question remains, but recently it has seemed irrelevant to the present moment. In November, Komusubi Terunofuji nearly claimed his second yusho in three tournaments, only just falling short in a playoff versus a new rival, Ozeki Takakeisho. Then, with thirteen wins banked, Sekiwake Terunofuji waded through the bedlam of the January “Hatsu” basho to claim his second jun-yusho in a row and another 11 wins. What had started as a whisper has now become a shout. With 24 wins to his credit and a mere 9 more needed to seal the deal (though at least 10 will be expected of him and make his case undeniable), Terunofuji is officially on an Ozeki run, the second of his incredible career.

Whether he can complete the feat remains to be seen, but if he does, it will truly put the Mongolian mountain in rare company. Excluding the “ozeki-wake” cases such as Tochinoshin and Takakeisho who have immediately regained their lost Ozeki rank after a single ten-win effort at Sekiwake, only one other Ozeki in the modern era has ever dropped lower than Sekiwake and regained his former position (Kaiketsu, who was first promoted in 1975, demoted in 1976, fell as far as M6w, then repromoted to Ozeki in 1977). Most simply lapse into retirement before they drop out of the top division. Many, such as the recent ex-Ozeki Goeido, retire before the banzuke committee even gets the chance to demote them. For Terunofuji to do it after not only losing his rank but dropping to Division 5 would be nothing sort of unthinkable…

And yet here we are, on the precipice of it. Come March 14, 2021, four years exactly after I began watching this great sport, I will once again be at the edge of my seat, waiting for the day’s final bouts and wondering not who will win, but if anyone at all has the might to stop the once and future Ozeki.

18 thoughts on “The Once and Future Ozeki

  1. If that´s not a loveletter to Terunofuji, I don´t know what is. boththumbsup

    I´m with you on this one – I don´t care who lift the cup, gets a kk or a mk, I only care for the Kaiju to reclaim what is rightfully his. And as John Gunning wrote, I too am not betting against Terunofuji.

  2. Love your style! Haru 2017 was my first one as well, though I was introduced to Sumo years earlier, but couldn’t watch it on a regular basis or do any research about it.

    I started watching that basho because I saw the news about Kisenosato’s promotion to Yokozuna on NHK World News and thought it would be interesting to see what this new Yokozuna looked like (from previous news reports I knew about Asashoryu and Hakuho, never heard about Harumafuji and Kakuryu, and I was quite surprised to hear that the first two were not Japanese).

    And while watching the very impressive new Yokozuna, I pretty much gained the same opinion as you of Terunofuji. He was awesome. The Kotoshogiku thing slipped straight over my head, other than a “um, that wasn’t very exciting” feeling. But the “beast” part certainly made an impression.

    Of course, there were things where the TV screen doesn’t tell all, and you learn later.

    One of those is that Harumafuji didn’t really injure Kisenosato, inadvertently or otherwise. According to his own words, he was applying pressure and his muscle simply snapped. When Harumafuji pushed him over the edge he was already injured.

    Another was that Terunofuji’s knee issues were nowhere near OK. In a recent documentary it was revealed that he consulted with Shunba before the Kotoshogiku match and they decided on that henka in advance. Usually one would think of a henka as a spur-of-the-moment thing, because for it to succeed it requires your opponent not to be looking. Anyway, he said he had no choice because the yusho was on line. I’m sure no Kotoshogiku fan will buy into that, of course. But it also explains his poor performance against the injured Kisenosato.

    When he came back I was sure he was going to be parked in Juryo for the rest of his career, maybe with the occasional excursion into Makuuchi. “Well, at least he can make a living now”, I thought.

    And here we are, and I just hope we are not jinxing the man to death.

    • I have never heard that about the Kisenosato injury! I always found it a strange injury though because he didn’t catch himself with that arm, he simply toppled backward. As a Harumafuji fanboy, I’m very willing to accept this new wrinkle as canon haha

      • I used to be a Harumafuji fangirl, too, until the Tottori business. I’m now holding a “There are more evil people out there, but I can’t forgive him for slapping Terunofuji” stance.

        • Yeah considering what a sweetheart Teru turned out to be, it’s hard to stomach. I partially blame the culture but at the end of the day that’s no real excuse. But that whole business was definitely the beginning of my attitude change toward Teru. He went from scary beast to something much more sympathetic.

          • There was a change of attitude on his part – abstaining from alcohol had a lot to do with it, though I don’t think that was already the case in Tottori. He definitely stopped drinking when the doctor told him if he keeps up his lifestyle he’s not only going to lose his ability to do sumo, but also be dead within a few months. That would shake a man to the core, I guess.

            P.S. You missed the Hepatitis C on the list of his illnesses…

        • I fell in love with the sport because of Harumafuji, so what went down was mortifying. However anyone can fall from grace. I always considered him to be the gentlemen of the ring. When he escorted an opponent across the tawara, but not completely he braced then from falling off the ring onto a judge. Unlike fellow Yokozuna Hakuko who would unnecessarily give an extra shove followed by an arrogant wry grin. Ultimately it didn’t matter as his act if violent assault almost negated any of that to me.

  3. Great read. Thanks for that.

    I consider Kisenosato to be a great Yokozuna because he happened to be Yokozuna at such a difficult time, having the goat as a rival is a pain in the ass. He made the most out of it. Winning the tournament you speak of, while dealing with a career ending injury was about as epic as it can get. Also from a skill set standpoint, kisenosato was great, dude had all the moves and was very smart. If the other Yokozuna of his time hadnt been hakuho and if he hadn’t been injured, things would have been very different.

    • He may have managed to be an average Yokozuna, had he dropped out of the tournament immediately after being injured and gotten it fixed via surgery. Instead he was one of the worse. His accomplishments as an Ozeki are far more impressive. His greatest accomplishment was having a weak promotion to Yokozuna as Japanese. Which I find sad given his potential.

      • Well I respectfully disagree, while he obviously didnt live up to his potential he shone brightly for as little as it lasted. Obviously it was a dissapointed Yokozuna career, no one wants to retire right away after getting there but that tournament he won is one of the most memorable (if not the most) in recent memory, so I am content with that.

  4. Great piece. The March 2017 was also the first tournament I watched from start to finish (the highlights at least) and the first time I actually started to learn the names of the rikishi and the traditions of sumo. I don’t know if I would have gotten into the sport as much if that tournament hadn’t been so riveting. Kisenosato’s win must rank as one of the best victories in any sport ever.

  5. Super story! What a pleasure to read it! I became a devoted sumo fan at just about the same time. I first saw a sumo bout on the TV above the check-out line in Seattle’s Japanese grocery and other-stuff store. I had been a fan of cycling but became disillusioned because of the nasty behaviors going on in the sport. So much for time trials and mountain climbs. The dohyo has totally absorbed my interest. I’m s psychiatrist at a large county hospital but as large as the hospital might be, there isn’t anyone with whom I can share my enthusiasm.Oh well. It’s OK. I’ll just keep on enjoying and rooting for my favorites including Enho. (I’m a small person so liking Enho is easy to do.) But I’m also hoping and wishing for Terunofuji to shine! Was glad to see the young woman in the preview program. Maybe that will catch the attention of others who recognize that sumo is super cool! …..Sharon

  6. I think you’d have to be pretty foolish to bet against him at this point. The only thing that will stop him is is own knees. If they hold up I really don’t see what can stop him from rolling along for a little while yet, that’s my hope anyway.

  7. I am following sumo since 2000. Between 2000 and 2006 I was not able to see highlights or on-line streaming, just spare eurosport tv coverage one month late after the torunament. After 2006 (internet connection etc) I found Kintamayama and sumodb and here we go. I am an Asashoryu fanboy (nobody can argue that there is a bigger rikishi then him :D joking). At one moment I discovered Wakamisho (first shikona for Terunofuji). I was not too impressed of him in lower divisions. Power and just power. At that moment I was in love with Ama (Harumafuji). But then I have see him jumping over the banzuke with style, skill, power and proud (Asa is back :D). March 2017 and that insane and painful last day for me ….because I was for Teru. I never liked Kisenosato, never. I didnt like his style of sumo. Not on my taste (like Kotooshu also, bleah). That day I considered a black day. Teru went down to the hell pit no5. and Kisenosato never came back. There was a curse for sure. Now I am rooting for Teru again. I wanna see him Yokozuna, I am dreaming for that. In all these years after Asa retired I never felt something like that. Never. Even I liked Ama and Kak (Kakuryu) also and I enjoied their sumo a lot. But here is something more. Asa, Hak, Ama, Kak ….and Teru (why not). Now I have another two insanely nice weeks. Wake up in the late morning (living in Ireland) watching the highlights Natosumo first then to “absorb” Kintamayama. In the evening waiting for highlights and of course for the next day matches post. I am so sorry that my English is no the best otherwise I should be involved in a web-site like yours, describing the most best fights I ever seen and the most thrilling tournaments what I followed. I hope in one day to be there in Ryogoku Kokugikan at least for one day. Sumo is the single sport I am following, and is with passion and love. Thank you guys. A very nice and warm article about my boy: Terunofuji (Garnedene Gantulga).

    • Sumo is the only sport I follow, too. I don’t think you should worry about your English, because the meaning is clear, and you are writing with “passion and love”.


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