Wakatakakage ACL Surgery Complete: Begins 8+ Months Rehab

Thanks to Herouth for Tweeting out this good/bad news about Wakatakakage. Readers may recall that he was injured entering the final weekend of Haru basho when his knee hit the tawara resulting in an ACL tear. He has had surgery and begins the long road to recovery. He’ll likely drop only to Komusubi for May, but deep into Makuuchi for Nagoya, Juryo for Aki, and Makushita by Kyushu. If he comes back in January, he’ll likely still be in Makushita but maybe Sandanme if recovery takes until Spring. There’s the bad news.

The good news here is in the sentiment expressed by Arashio-oyakata (moto-Sokokurai). “He says he does not want to come back before he is fully healed, and I’m not going to make him.”

Obviously, Terunofuji and his storybook comeback stands as a reference point. His rise culminated in not only multiple yusho but promotion to Yokozuna. Tochinoshin and Ura were also able to come back from serious injuries which resulted in substantial demotions. More recent comeback stories have been of a disciplinary nature as Abi and Ryuden successfully re-established themselves in Makuuchi and Asanoyama is on his way back up. We see here multiple recent examples of rapid, successful comebacks and wonder if there’s been a change in the calculus of how to manage serious injury.

That said, along with Terunofuji’s comeback we have to remember, and question, the wisdom of his slow fall. He was obviously hurt as Ozeki but continued to try to compete, basho after basho. Always the competitor, it’s got to be hard to admit that you have to sit on the sidelines — especially when it’s for multiple tournaments. Even now, with the fact that he is safe from demotion, is a May return too soon? We can’t question Isegahama’s commitment to Terunofuji as he stuck with him through that comeback. But with the statements from Wakatakakage and Arashio-oyakata, we see a stark contrast with the actions of Terunofuji and Isegahama-oyakata and can’t help but wonder whether Terunofuji’s rise may have been faster, and if his Yokozuna reign would have been longer, if they’d shared a similar point-of-view.

There’s certainly risks, though, and we cannot downplay them. Hokuozan’s injury in Naruto-beya was re-aggravated in training and he has fallen completely off the banzuke. Hokuozan, however, never reached the heights of Makuuchi. The real contrast is in Ishiura’s neck injury has taken him from heyagashira and likely ended his career. A neck, though, is not exactly a knee-ligament, though. So there is the chance that Wakatakakage will not be back but it is refreshing to see a commitment from both the wrestler and the oyakata to give this route a try, rather than to tough it out and witness the alternative of another slow, painful decline.

21 thoughts on “Wakatakakage ACL Surgery Complete: Begins 8+ Months Rehab

  1. Ura re-injured his knee in the 3rd basho of his (first) comeback, had another surgery, and took four more tournaments off, dropping to low jonidan before climbing all the way back up. He first got hurt in Sept 2017, and made it back to makuuchi in July of 2021, almost 4 years later.

  2. Thanks Andy for the update on Wakatakakage and your thoughts about comebacks.
    I think it would be best for the injured wrestlers, for us spectators and for sumo in general, if the rikishi were „punished“ with only one 0-15 basho and then their rank was frozen until they come back healthy.

    • It is an interesting idea but I think of it as the way a baseball team will bring back a player from injury by playing him in “the minors”. When coming back from serious injury, as in this case, being thrown right back into a full 15-day schedule with heavyweight competition is a tall task, one that Terunofuji will face in May. Your proposal is interesting for the more minor injuries but then I would think they should just do that now to heal. Ichinojo’s recent suspension kind of allowed him to take care of his back, and he won the Juryo yusho.

    • It is not really so simple that the injured wrestlers keeping their rank would be a good solution. Once they recover from the injury, if their rank is kept higher, it means that they would be facing higher level competition from the start. This in turn would mean that they would have to spend longer time in the recovery process. Having easier opponents first allows return to competition sooner.

      If Wakatakakage is out of competition approximately a year, maybe less, is it necessarily a good idea for him to start in Juryo for example, or is it better for him to start in Sandanme or even Jonidan first?

    • The problem is that if you froze their ranks it would make problems for other wrestlers. Freeze him in the low makuuchi and suddenly there’s less slots available for promotion out of juryo, which means more people sit in juryo, which means less promotions out of makushita.

      The rank system below ozeki is designed around the ranks being in constant flux, and protecting ranks for extended recovery times as a regular thing will break it.

  3. I agree with herbern. I have posted this sentiment before (ad nauseum?) but the Sumo Association’s policy of demotions for injury kyujo is STUPID , plain and simple. No other sport does this. If Lionel Messi had to take off eight months for an ACL, he would not come back playing for some non-league side and have to work his way back to top division football over several months, or even a year.
    Rikishi do not lose their skills because of an injury. So when they come back, in Jonidan, or Sandanme, what results is a series of pointless one-sided bouts that do not benefit either athlete or the audience. Their return to the appropriate level is delayed needlessly, to nobody’s benefit. I am a Japanophile, and value many of their traditions. This isn’t one of those. It’s disrespectful to the skills of the rikishi and the wishes of the audience.

    • I disagree to a certain extent. I think baseball does this. But the fact is, those sports are more cut-throat than we acknowledge. I point to Drew Bledsoe as a case in point. He was starting QB for 9-years in New England, building that team and taking them from the sad sack 2-win team in 1993 to the Playoffs. But then he got injured and a young buck named Tom Brady took his job. Messi plays a quasi-sport that features such characters as Neymar…known more for strategically rolling on the floor than anything else. Messi doesn’t even have to play defense. He spends most of his time taking a little stroll around the grounds, waiting for the action to come his way. But sure, if he takes a game off, he doesn’t play again for another week. Even the World Cup’s accelerated schedule is nothing compared to a sumo tournament but Karim Benzema sat on the sidelines and watched as Mbappe became the toast of France. Even still, he has a whole team to work with. So at Real Madrid he’s played in 10 of the 13 league games they’ve had in 2023. In sumo, you’re on your own, every day, and there are another 600+ deserving guys fighting for the right to have your spot on the banzuke.

      • If you were to ply me with sufficient sake I would suggest a compromise. Any makuuchi rikishi with an extended kyujo come back no lower than makushita 1 or otherwise in the makushita promotion zone. He would thus have to earn promotion back to juryo. If he couldn’t he wouldn’t. This would take note of your points about the conditioning needed for daily bouts.
        But my objections to plunging top rikishi deep into the lower divisions are unshaken.
        Props on your characterization of Neymar, by the way.

        • I think the analogy breaks down because one is an individual sport and the other a team.

          A better comparison might be golf or tennis where your ranking and Tour card relies on you playing. If you miss because you’re injured, you fall down the rankings.

          This analogy breaks down since only 70 rikishi get paid.

          • Actually, bringing in golf supports my case. Will Zalatoris just had surgery and will miss the remainder of the season. When he comes back, he will be lower ranking but still play on the PGA Tour, because his membership is good for at least one year. So he won’t have to go down to a minitour and work his way up. I think sumo would do better for its athletes and fans if it had a similar arrangement.

  4. In a best case scenario, WTK (a married man with, I believe, four kids) will go about a year without getting paid a salary. What is the protocol in a situation like this? Does his supporter group supplement things? Day-to-day, does he go back to cooking meals for and sweeping floors? Very depressing news.

    • Since he was ranked quite high, he’ll still get quite a lot of months where he will still a salary, before dropping out of Juryo. So he won’t have a complete full year of not having a salary.

      Also, you have to see the silverlining. Even without that, a rikishi of this status and popularity probably still receive quite a bit of financial support from his fan group and business sponsor. And perhap a bit of a cut from merch with his name on it sold by the sumo association and such. He will also, like all other rikishi, live in the heya with food and shelter paid. So it’s not like he will be left with absolutely nothing for him and his family. (Perhap his wife also work, i don’t know.)

      It’s sure is not pleasant what he goes through. But i reckon he’ll still do far better than maybe a rikishi who passed 15-20 years in the lower division and never passed higher than sandame.

      • The real shame is that he could’ve held his rank through May with a single additional win somewhere along the way (not saying he should’ve fought the last match, of course).

        Asanoyama had a similar fate at ozeki with his suspension, and obviously (and deservedly) got less sympathy for that. But one win is just cruel in a long-term demotion situation.

        • At Sekiwake, though, that one win would have saved his rank but he’d still face a steep drop in Nagoya. I’m not sure how much that would have saved him. Outside of sanyaku, it’s actually possible that 7 wins would preserve his rank.

  5. Sad news, but at the same time, we have to acknoledge it’s for the best. For him.

    Sometime, it’s like this. As much as you want, when you have a career ending injury like this, you think that you have a choice, by either try to stave of the injury, doing minimal rest and try to fight through it but in reality, you don’t.

    We all have still fresh in mind what happened to Kisenosato. Who litteraly killed his starting new Yokozuna career by not doing what was necessary to heal his body.

    Beside, those guys have to realise also that such career ending injuries does not only threaten the short span of their sumo career, but also the long rest of their life and second career. At one point, they have to make that decision. Try to fight through it, and scrap of few more diminished years of sumo career. While jeopadizing perhaps the rest of their life by ending crippled and disabled. (if not also, shortening a great deal their lifespan)

    Or….doing what must be done(and perhap the wiser thing), hanging their mawashi and saving their future by resting their body and going through medical treatement to heal themselve. Even if it make us sad a bit.

  6. It is not for the non-Japanese to tell the JSA how things should be arranged even though to my eyes the abysal drop to Sandanme or thereabouts seems absurd. Such comebacks (as in the March Juryo in its two-horse race between two recent Emperor’s Cup champions) are simply unfair on the other twenty-six Juryo Sekitori.

    After surgery will Waka ever be what he once was? I am not a medic but my little brother broke his collar bone on two occasions before the age of ten. As a teenager he was a Rugby full-back with a trial for eastern counties so he was good and fearlessly brave but a further collar-bone breakage on the pitch ended his playing career. It worries me that from now on Waka will always be conscious of his ankle’s weakness and the greater likelihood of injury repetition and that this may affect his performance.

  7. I think japanese people would share these concerns, maybe even feel more strongly about them regardless of who ‘has a say’. I’ve always thought that slowing the fall down the banzuke for serious injury kyujo would have an immense positive effect on the quality of sumo. The pressure to come back to save rank is what causes people to make bad decisions about their health. The rikishi is told to harden up, but the wrestlers are the jsa’s most valuable asset and should be protected. Too many examples of rikishi who could have had great careers if they had only been able to follow medical advice as modern as the tech industry. I hope Waka takes his time and heals properly and sets an example to follow. I know from personal experience in sports that eventually just being able to walk properly seems pretty cool. cheers

  8. The weird thing about sumo is that it is not a sport. Some say it is a lifstyle. Perhaps. Is it a ‘religious practice’? ls the stuff they bury in the dohyo during the dohyo-building shinto ritual supposed to be imbued with some special protective power against injury? Then, the salt, you often see rikishi sprinkling parts of their bodies that are either already injured or thought to be susceptible to injury . Western and Mongolian rikishi joining the ‘sport’ maybe brought in different attitudes, plus times change. The original sumo ideology appears to be that you numb yourself to your pain and valiantly carry on. Watching Ikioi fight was a painful experience for me, I could see and fell his pain. But the samurai marches on. Then there are the Terunofujis in this world, people with a mix of dedication and ambition in their genes that requires their traines restraining them from doing harm to themselves. Which is of course valid for a large number of sportspeople outside sumo. I have no idea of how the ‘sumo grandees’ fell about these matters, I would love to be a fly on the wall in their meetings.
    I assume it was a tough world in the old days and once you suffered a severe injury you were out. It is still tough now and watching young talent injured and deprived if the opportunity to blossom makes me sad, but c’est la vie, isn’t it?

    • There’s definitely a whole lot more than just, “the sport” when it comes to Ōzumo, but it can be stripped down to just the sport and the rules governing it because we can see it in the amateur realm. And there are differences between heya and different eras, as the sport evolves. But yeah, the lifestyle is totally different. You mention samurai and I think that is a good distinction. Those who enter the 角界, or the Ozumo world, are essentially dedicating their lives to it. We sometimes say that, here, but rarely take it quite so far.


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