He’s back!

I could talk about Terunofuji the whole year, with no interruption. When I discovered the awesome sumo world, back in 2017, I decided to give myself a (short) background knowledge, and viewed each basho starting from 2015, on our Jason’s great channel. Not long came before I was in awe of Terunofuji’s skills.

The former ozeki is finally back in makuuchi after a long downfall, so this is a great opportunity to look back at his sometimes brillant career.

I would never thank enough Jason Harris’ great videos, from his YouTube channel. Recommending it to all sumo newbies or sumo fans in general is a no brainer.

  1. The rise

He did not enter maezumo following the makushita-tsukedashi, like Ichinojo did (Ichinojo started his career ranked Makushita 15, and, incredibly, was ranked sekiwake five tournaments later!). He went through the ranks, struggled a bit to pass the upper makushita hills (like youngsters Naya, Roga, Hoshoryu, did or have done recently), but once crossed, Terunofuji did not waste much time in juryo, spending just three basho before reaching makuuchi in early 2014.

That year was very respectable for him, not only adjusting to makuuchi’s demands, but slowly rising through the ranks, too. Actually, he produced a single make kochi, in September 2014, before reaching ozeki status.

The beginning of 2015 coincided with the start of a fine ozeki run, even if Terunofuji’s first basho of the year wasn’t that overwhelming – a respectable 8-7 was produced as maegashira 1.

With fellow Mongolian Ichonojo, Terunofuji produced, however, a very rare occurrence in sumo: a water break on the fourth minute of their endless bout! Incredibly, they repeated that very same feat in March.

The never ending bout: Terunofuji v Ichinojo in January 2015

Soon after, Terunofuji proved to be a very resilient rikishi, and pushing him out of the tawara was no easy tasks for his opponents. I recommend you to watch his bouts against Tochiozan and Kotoshogiku, from the Osaka basho. Both opponents’ face at the end of the bout are telling much about how stubborn the Mongolian’s defence was.

A great bout between Terunofuji and ozeki Kotoshogiku (Osaka 2015)

If Terunofuji’s yusho quest fell short in Osaka, he repeated that effort in May, and a final Harumafuji against Hakuho on senshuraku allowed the young Mongolian to leapfrog the dai yokozuna, and clinch his first – and last – yusho (12-3).

Ozeki promotion made no doubt, thanks, notably, to a great win against Hakuho in Osaka:

Zabuton fly! Yokozuna Hakuho v Terunofuji, Osaka 2015

John Gunning predicted Terunofuji to be promoted to yokozuna by 2016, and it was hard to see how this could not happen…

2. A painful ozeki career

Sadly, it appeared the young hope’s yotsu sumo style was too demanding for his body, and his knees soon began to falter.

Well on his way to a second yusho in Aki 2015, he received a first blow at the outcome of a bout against Kisenosato. I do not dare imagine the extend of the damage suffered here:

The first injury. Terunofuji v Kisenosato, Aki 2015

Terunofuji managed to drag yokozuna Kakuryu to a playoff, but the grand champion avoided the embarassment of losing twice on senshuraku, and outclassed the ozeki to clinh the yusho. The year ended for Terunofuji with a somewhat indifferent 9-6 record. Indifferent was not typical for him, but the worst was to come.

2016 was a nightmarish year for the ozeki – not the only one, unfortunately. Basically, Terunofuji was fit every two basho; he ended up kadoban three times, and saved his rank on senshuraku in Nagoya, thanks to an original komatasukui win against Kaisei.

Not looking good. Terunofuji v Kyokushuho, January 2016

The Mongolian ended up the year with a miserable record of just 30 wins, including horrific 2-13 (in May) and 4-11 (in September) records.

Isegahama oyakata’s advice of not pulling out of tournaments at all, in order to keep good ring sense, was questionable – at best.

Again kadoban come March 2017, Terunofuji’s sudden revival came out of the blue, much to the pleasure of his fans.

Many Japanese fans would mostly remember his infamous henka on Kotoshogiku on day 14 in Osaka. Then 8-5, the native of Fukuoka region, then demoted to ozekiwake, was still in contention to regain his ozeki status, with an affordable last bout against Yoshikaze looming.

It is true that henka’s timing was not ideal, to say the least. “Outrageous” would be a better word. Without trying to excuse anyone, I’d point out the fact that Terunofuji was on course for his second yusho, and, unfortunately, reopened his knee injury while confronting yokozuna Kakuryu at the tachi-ai, on day 13:

Terunofuji woes continued during his bout against yokozuna Kakuryu. Osaka 2017

The outcome of the basho is known to everyone, gravely injured Kisenosato still managing to defeat Terunofuji twice on senshuraku, and crown up his yokozuna debut. But both men were hurt to the good, and both never recovered.

In fact, Terunofuji’s fine 12-3 record the ensuing tournament was the last tournament he fully completed until… March 2019 – with the exception of a mediocre 6-9 tournament in juryo, in Osaka 2018.

Natsu basho 2017 was the last one where Terunofuji ended up runner up – three wins away from Hakuho’s 15-0 perfect record. Had he managed to seal both yusho in Osaka and Tokyo, the nightmare would have turned into a dream…

3. The fall

Terunofuji’s top career ended up here. His body couldn’t stand the efforts any more – apart from his knees, the Mongolian was reportedly suffering from diabetis and kidney stones.

Terunofuji fell from ozeki heaven, and was promptly demoted to makuuchi altogether. Finally, his oyakata took the decision to give him proper treatment. The Mongolian underwent surgery on both knees, and was allowed to fully recover before competing again.

As a consequence, he resumed his sumo career ranked jonidan 48 (!), in March 2019. Remarkably, it took him just five tournaments to regain the salaried ranks, in juryo – not without losing bouts in the process (three, to be precise), notably against Onojo, where he was fatally caught in a morozashi.

Each step forward inevitably raised questions if it would be the last. But his body hung on.

The real tests came in juryo at the beginning of 2020, though. A perfect start opened the perspectives of an incredible makuuchi return in just one basho, but losses to Nishikigi and Daiamami on days 14 and 15 showed an eventual top division return would be no park walk.

Darker clouds came the next tournament, in Osaka. His knees seemed hurt again mid basho, but Terunofuji showed up afterwards, and managed to secure a sufficient 10-5 record ranked juryo 3, sealing the long dreamed promotion to makuuchi.

Herouth believed his body shape would not guarantee him life in makuuchi. To be fair, Terunofuji is confronted to an unpleasant headhache:

  • He struggles against ochi wrestlers – I have no idea how he would survive to dynamic rikishi like Ishiura
  • He is way more comfortable when yotsu battles occur, but plays with his health doing so.

Which answers will the former ozeki find, on the way to his remarkable comeback? Will he survive in the top division, and perhaps even get close to sanyaku?

What next for Terunofuji?

Next months will provide us decisive answers. But, for once, the horizon is looking a bit brighter.

Who, exactly, is the old guard ?

So, the 2020 Haru basho went through all coronavirus fears, and, fortunately, could go all the way and without incident.

It certainly has been a pretty unusual basho, with no spectators admitted. However, some recurring themes went on appearing; among them, the continuous rise – and, on several occasions, disappointment brought by the new generation of rikishi.

Thirteen’s day musubi no ichiban, which saw Hakuho facing Asanoyama, could have been subtitled as: “Who is going to take the lead of this basho? Young talent Asanoyama, or old guard leader, dai yokozuna Hakuho?”

If it’s not too hard remembering when our youngsters made their makuuchi debuts (guessing the correct year, at least), who, exactly, constitutes the “old guard”?

Let’s divide this topic into two questions:

1. Who made the oldest makuuchi appearance?

2. Who has the longest uninterrupted makuuchi appearance from today?

First of all, let’s spoil things a bit, as the podium can already be determined. Three names spring to mind: both yokozuna, obviously, and former ozeki Kotoshogiku, now 36, who has stayed in makuuchi after his demotion.

Both yokozuna have stayed in makuuchi right from their first appearance (May 2004 for Hakuho, November 2016), whereas Kotoshogiku made one last stint in juryo before establishing himself in makuuchi on the long run (first appearance in January 2005, continuously in makuuchi since May of the same year).

36 and kicking : Kotoshogiku Kazuhiro (left)

So, who are the best of the rest ?

1. Who made the oldest makuuchi appearance?

Several names come to mind but it’s no surprise one of the “seven samurai”, Tochiozan, holds the oldest appearance, back in March 2007! He stayed in makuuchi the whole time since his unfortunate demotion by the end of 2019, which makes an impressive 12 years stint.

An impressive twelve year stint in makuuchi: Tochiozan Yuichiro

His career highlight? The nervous playoff he lost to Kyokutenho, in May 2012.

Tochinoshin is known for his famous comeback from makushita to makuuchi in 2013-2014, after having sustained a serious knee injury. What is less known is that he already had five years in makuuchi behind him, his debut being back in May 2008.

His career highlight? His promotion to ozeki after, notably, clinching the January 2018 yusho.

The year 2008 also saw the first appearance of Tamawashi. He took the lift down to juryo five times – never for more than one basho – from 2008 to 2013, before establishing himself for good.

January 2019’s surprise winner: Tamawashi Ichiro (right)

His career highlight? A nice run at sekiwake, which saw him clinching the January 2019 tournament.

Okinoumi got promoted to makuuchi in March 2010, and after a short period back to juryo, has fought in makuuchi with no exception since the end of that year.

His career highlight? Three runner up performances, and no less than four gold stars (three wins against Harumafuji, one win against Kakuryu).

However, the main core of the old guard belongs to the “2011 promotion”. Let’s pay tribute to these brave fighters. Under brackets, their age and numbers of jun yusho: Kaisei (33 y.o./2 jun yusho), Takayasu (30/4), Takarafuji (33/1), Aoiyama (33/1), Shohozan (36/1) and Myogiryu (33/0).

All of them have reached san’yaku: Takayasu got promoted to ozeki, Shohozan had a career best as komosubi, all the others went as high as sekiwake.

Let’s finally point out Ikioi, who began a makuuchi career in March 2012.

To sum up:

RikishiOldest makuuchi appearance
Hakuho ShoMay 2004
Kotoshogiku KazuhiroJanuary 2005
Kakuryu RikisaburoNovember 2006
Tochiozan YuichiroMarch 2007
Tochinoshin TsuyoshiMay 2008
Tamawashi IchiroSeptember 2008
Okinoumi AyumiMarch 2010
Kaisei IchiroMay 2011
Takayasu AkiraJuly 2011
Takarafuji DaisukeJuly 2011
Aoiyama KosukeNovember 2011
Shohozan YuyaNovember 2011
Myorigyu YasunariNovember 2011
Ikioi ShotaMarch 2012

2. Who has the longest uninterrupted makuuchi appearance from today?

Continuously fighting in makuuchi on the long run is no easy task, as we shall see. We may (and we should) all applause Kotoshogiku for his incredible longevity, as well as we can praise Okinoumi for being around since November 2010, and Takayasu for having not being demoted a single time to juryo, since his first makuuchi appearance in July 2011!

Present since 2010: Okinoumi Ayumi

Several rikishi have unfortunately suffered demotion since their debut, but do hang to makuuchi for quite some time: Tamawashi (present since July 2013), Takarafuji (since July 2013), Tochinoshin (since November 2014), Shohozan (demoted during the year 2015, present since November 2015).

Some of the courageous warriors have unfortunately suffered demotion lately. Myogiryu and Aoiyama came back to makuuchi in March 2018, whereas Ikioi, Tochiozan and Kaisei all stormed back in January 2020.

So, who complete our table? Incredibly, the “new guard”! Shohozan brought Mitakeumi with him, in November 2015. We witnessed, shortly after, Shodai (January 2016), Endo (May 2016) and Kagayaki’s (July 2016) rise.

Finally setting his sights on ozeki promotion? Mitakeumi Hisashi
RikishiStayed in makuuchi since
Hakuho ShoMay 2004
Kotoshogiku KazuhiroMay 2005
Kakuryu RikisaburoNovember 2006
Okinoumi AyumiNovember 2010
Takayasu AkiraJuly 2011
Tamawashi IchiroJuly 2013
Takarafuji DaisukeJanuary 2013
Tochinoshin TsuyoshiNovember 2014
Shohozan YuyaNovember 2015
Mitakeumi HisashiNovember 2015
Shodai NaoyaJanuary 2016
Endo ShotaMay 2016
Kagayaki TaishiJuly 2016
Myogiryu YasunariMarch 2018
Aoiyama KosukeMarch 2018
Ikioi ShotaJanuary 2020
Tochiozan YuichiroJanuary 2020
Kaisei IchiroJanuary 2020

So what’s the conclusion? Some of the old guard is having a rough time, with Shohozan, Tochiozan or Myogiryu having suffering big make kochi in Osaka, not even mentioning Takayasu’s worrying state.

At the same time, the clock is ticking for the young hopes to shine…

Asanoyama succeeded where others faltered

Upper san’yaku ranks desperately needed a new face, as the presence of just one ozeki required one of the two ageing yokozuna to be recorded as “yokozuna – ozeki” – but how long are Hakuho and Kakuryu last in the sport?

There was a certain amount of expectation surrounding Asanoyama’s ozeki quest, and a lot of pressure – inherent, of course, in such a run.

Other very talented rikishi, unfortunately, failed to meet ozeki standards as they were approaching sumo’s second top rank. Let’s look back at the past decade.

  1. Tochiozan Yuichiro

Tochiozan is certainly a name that springs to mind, as he was dubbed one of the “seven samurai”, alongside with Goeido, Kisenosato, Kotoshogiku, Homasho, Tonoyoshima and Toyohibiki.

Looking as far back as 2010, he could show the extend of his skills. A 9-6 record as maegashira 1, produced during the Nagoya basho, wasn’t really mind blowing, but enough to open some possibilities – he defeated then ozeki Harumafuji and Baruto in the process.

In September, a strong 11-4 ranked sekiwake proved that Tochiozan’s ozeki run was very much on. This time, ozeki Kaio, Kotooshu and Harumafuji were his victims. With twenty wins amassed, and five ozeki wins over both tournaments, Tochiozan definitely had a shot at the ozeki rank, provided he could finish even better at 12-3. Or, worseways, just produce double digits and try his luck again the next tournament.

It started reasonably well in Fukuoka, Tochiozan being 4-1 after the first third of the tournament. Incredibly, the sekiwake lost seven bouts in a row – including everyone ranked above him, and noticeable names like Kisenosato or Aminishiki – to end up the basho with a make kochi (7-8). He could stay in san’yaku right after, but his quest was over.

Arguably, that was Tochiozan’s best spot, and perhaps most natural attempt to reach ozeki rank. Before we could see him performing well in san’yaku again, two other “samurai”, Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato, had long been promoted above him. Apart from seeing his great rivals wrestling well, he had to swallow another big disappointment, too: losing to a playoff to surprise winner Kyokutenho, during the famous May 2012 tournament.

A talented rikishi: Tochiozan Yuichiro

Tochiozan did fare well as a sekiwake – jumping forward to 2014, where he produced 9-6 and 10-5 performances in March and May, defeating Kotoshogiku (twice) and Harumafuji along the way. Sadly, he went kyujo in Nagoya, after getting a precarious 2-5 record. He had a final noticeable stint as a sekiwake, where he stayed during four basho between 2015 and 2016 – he produced double digits one single time. After a 7-8 make kochi, he never reched that rank again.

2. Myogiryu Yasunari

Myogiryu used to produce great sumo; even if he wasn’t really on an ozeki run, I enjoyed watching him on the dohyo, and some fine performances are definitely worth mentioning.

A skilled man: Myogiryu Yasunari

One of his best runs came as early as 2012, where he received the gino sho (the technique prize) three times in a row. For his san’yaku debut in Nagoya, Myogiryu went kachi koshi (8-7) while defeating ozeki Kakuryu and Baruto, to secure a spot as a sekiwake. Remarkably, he produced double digits (10-5) as a shin sekiwake, defeating Kakuryu again. Unfortunately, he couldn’t raise his level further up, ending the next tournament 6-9 to end up an early dream.

3. Mitakeumi Hisashi

It is simply impossible not to mention Mitakeumi’s case. Of the modern era, he’s the only rikishi, alongside Kotonoshiki, to have won the yusho more than once without ending up promoted to ozeki. In fact, it looks a bit awkward to rank a double yusho winner down the maegashira ranks.

Mitakeumi is a hugely talented boy. He started his career doing ochi zumo, before – unlike Takakeisho – successfully switching to yotsu zumo.

He entered makuuchi at the end of 2015, and produced three double digits records as early as 2016. He began an incredible run in san’yaku after a fine 11-4 performance in January 2017, where he earned two kinboshi. He finally left san’yaku, after seventeen (!) tournaments of uninterrupted presence. In comparison, Goeido’s run – which did not see a single demotion from sekiwake to komusubi – lasted fourteen tournaments, before reaching… ozeki status.

Obviously, Mitakeumi missed two golden opportunities to reach the desired ozeki rank, after each of his two yusho.

Looking back at 2018, Mitakeumi produced a respectable 9-6 record in May, without defeating any ozeki or yokozuna. However, his first yusho, obtained right after in Nagoya, following a career best 13-2 record (including a win against Goeido) meant another fine performance in September would be enough to climb one more step on the banzuke.

Mitakeumi started the Aki basho 5-0 while defeating Tochinoshin. He got some quality wins, he got an impressive san’yaku streak, he almost got the numbers – what could go wrong? After a reasonable loss to Goeido on day 6, Mitakeumi bounced back, defeating then komusubi Takakeisho to move up 6-1.

Did pressure prove too heavy for his shoulders? Mitakeumi litterally crumbled, losing in succession to Ikioi, Hakuho, Kakuryu, Kaisei and Kisenosato (yes, that make or break basho where Kisenosato came from nowhere). Scratch these unnecessary losses to both maegashira, send a 8-3 Mitakeumi against an obivously not 100% fit Kisenosato, and get him a 9-3 record. He’s almost there!

Two time yusho winner, and maegashira in January 2020: Mitakeumi Hisashi (left)

Obviously, things – could have, but – didn’t happen that way, and his five defeat streak did not impress any one. Ozeki run over.

Story kind of repeated one year later. After a respectable, albeit a bit slack 9-6 performance in Nagoya, Mitakeumi clinched his second yusho in a playoff, after having amassed twelwe wins. He defeated ozeki Tochinoshin and Goeido, although nobody was impressed by the henka produced on the latter.

In Fukuoka, nobody was talking about ozeki run any more, after four losses over the first six days. Just like Tochiozan, Mitakeumi’s first attempt to reach ozeki rank was arguably the most serious. Can he prove us wrong in the coming months?

4. Tamawashi Ichiro

Tamawashi has been around for quite some time. After a somewhat indifferent career – with a few juryo drops, the Mongolian has had a great later career.

2017 has been remarkable for him, spending almost the entire year in san’yaku (he ended up as maegashira 1 in Fukuoka). Tamawashi produced 9, 8, 10, and 7 wins as a sekiwake. Pretty decent, but not enough for a clear ozeki run.

That quest came after his stunning yusho, won in January of 2019. Tamawashi has beaten, along the way, everybody ranked above him who showed up on his path: Tochinoshin, Takayasu, Goeido and Hakuho!

Irresistible in Hatsu 2019: Tamawashi Ichiro

Prior to that, Tamawashi had a reasonable 9-6 tournament in Kyushu, where he defeated Tochinoshin (and won by default against Kisenosato). Twenty one wins amassed and a yusho in his belt meant Tamawashi needed a strong performance in Osaka to reach, in incredible fashion, the rank of ozeki.

The dream did not last long, however. After a win on shonichi, three defeats in a row burried Tamawashi’s late hopes of success.

Have ozeki forces been expelled from the dohyo ?

Asanoyama has deservedly been promoted to the ozeki rank, right after a solid 11-4 performance in Osaka. Long life the ozeki!

By the way, in terms of roles, what, exactly, is an ozeki?

The ozeki are sumo’s second highest rank, and should provide yokozuna serious competition for the Cup.

However, how often hs this been the case recently?

Recent records show us that ozeki have largely been disappointing. Let’s dig deeper into this topic, knowing that we will look back until 2010:

  1. Who has been an ozeki since then?

Kaio, Kotomitsuki, Harumafuji, Kotooshu, Baruto, Kotoshogiku, Kisenosato, Kakuryu, Goeido, Terunofuji, Takayasu, Tochinoshin and Takakeisho. That’s a total of 13.

Used to lift small cars for training: former ozeki Baruto (left)

2. Since 2010, who has not won a single basho as an ozeki?

Sadly enough, many of them: Kaio, Kotomitsuki, Kotooshu, and the four last of them: Terunofuji, Takayasu, Tochinoshin and Takakeisho. It’s more than the half: 7 out of 13.

On the contrary, Harumafuji has been the most successful, as he collected eight of his nine yusho during that period.

3. How to analyze ozeki records?

To sum up grossly ozeki ranks since 2010, Kaio was in his late career, and Kotomitsuki got dismissed in 2010.

By the end of 2011, an unseen sextet of ozeki took place after Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato’s promotions.

The trademark Kotoshogiku stretch

Harumafuji had won a yusho (Nagoya 2011) as an ozeki right before. He repeated that feat twice in a row in Nagoya and Aki of next year, securing his promotion to yokozuna.

Of the sextet, only Baruto was immediately successful, winning the January 2012 basho. But that was it, for the time being, and the sextet disagregated.

We had to wait until Osaka 2014 to see another ozeki win a yusho, namely Kakuryu – he got promoted to yokozuna right after.

A successful rise to the top: yokozuna Kakuryu

We had to wait almost two years to see more ozeki success. In fact, we could witness twelve months of ozeki bless, with three of them notching a yusho: Kotoshogiku in January 2016, Goeido in September 2016, and Kisenosato in January 2017. His second win in March came as a yokozuna.

And, incredibly, that was it. Ozeki tried, lost twice in a playoff in 2017 (Terunofuji in March, Goeido in September) ; Takayasu came close to meeting Takakeisho in a playoff in November 2018. But they visibly failed to delivered since Kisenosato’s promotion ; their health condition has been a great concern. Terunofuji fell into the abyss, Takayasu and Tochinoshin got definitively demoted. For all three of them, demotion did not came too long after their promotion – about two years. Goeido’s physical condition caused him to retire, but he had quite a long spell – a bit less than six years. Kotoshogiku failed to regain the ozeki rank early in 2017; the final blow was given by a very infamous henka by Terunofuji, and caused great scandal.

What about Takakeisho? Considered a great hope, he already suffered two grave injuries during his younr career, a knee and his chest having been hit. If he did manage to get a spot in a playoff in Aki of 2019, he hasn’t won a yusho as an ozeki yet, and I’m afraid we might not see him lift the Emperor’s Cup ever again, due to his precarious health condition.

A great future already behind him ? Ozeki Takakeisho

Unfortunately, this is truly been the ozeki’s stumbling block.

To sum up:

Only 8 bashos have been won by an ozeki since 2010 : 1 by Baruto, Kakuryu, Kotoshogiku, Goeido and Kisenosato ; 3 by Harumafuji.

Three of them have been promoted to yokozuna after the yusho; the other three have stayed at the rank but failed to deliver again.

  • From 2010 to 2012 included: 4 ozeki yusho (Baruto, Harumafuji thrice)
  • From 2013 to 2015 included: 1 ozeki yusho (Kakuryu)
  • From 2016 to January 2017 included: 3 ozeki yusho (Kotoshogiku, Goeido, Kisenosato)
  • From March 2017 to present: no yusho.
Set to break the curse? Ozeki Asanoyama

Time is ticking, and let’s hope Asanoyama will be able to break that new, worrying ozeki curse…

Update: I got a very interesting question from Abi Fan, which I thank a lot for that. He asked how ozeki fared in the previous decade.

16 yusho were won by ozeki back then:

– Chiyotaikai – 2 (July 2002, March 2003)
– Kaio – 4 (his first yusho came as a komusubi)
– Tochiazuma – 3 (January 2002, November 2003, January 2006)
– Asashoryu – 2 (November 2002 and January 2003)
– Hakuho – 3 (May 2006, Maech and May 2007)
– Harumafuji – 1 (May 2009)
– Kotoosho – 1 (May 2008).

Remarkably, the majority of all yusho winner of that decade is quoted on that list.