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.

May Banzuke Prediction Postmortem

The May banzuke is out! While the Crystal Ball is no better than anyone else at telling you when the tournament with this banzuke will be held, it did its finest job yet at forecasting the new rankings.

The first five positions on the banzuke were not difficult to get right: Y1e Hakuho, Y1w Kakuryu, O1e Takakeisho, O1w Asanoyama, S1e Shodai. There was slightly greater uncertainty about the rest of the san’yaku, but the Crystal Ball correctly predicted S1w Mitakeumi, K1e Daieisho, and K1w Okinoumi.

It was clear who would occupy the top two maegashira ranks, but the order was less predictable, and I am especially pleased to have correctly forecast M1e Endo and M1w Yutakayama, who jumped ahead of M2e Takanosho, followed by M2w Onosho. From there, M3e Takarafuji, M3w Kiribayama, and M4e Kagayaki were easy calls.

This is where we come to the first rank the Crystal Ball got wrong: the real banzuke has M4w Aoiyama, M5e Abi, and M5w Hokutofuji, who appears not to have gotten the full deference often given to demoted san’yaku rikishi. My more lenient prediction had him switching ranks with Aoiyama.

After this glitch, the forecast was back on a roll, correctly predicting the next eight banzuke positions, from M6e Enho to M9w Ikioi. And then we hit the messiness of the lower maegashira ranks. Of the last 16 spots on the banzuke, the Crystal Ball called only 6 exactly right, placed two more rikishi at the right rank but on the wrong side, and made 5 one-rank switches affecting the remaining 8 placements. At least it got the identities of all 42 Makuuchi rikishi right, with Nishikigi surviving in the top division (and at a higher-than-expected rank of M16e) and Tobizaru having to wait longer for his top-division debut.

Overall, that’s 30 rikishi placed at the correct rank and side, two more at the right rank, and the remaining 10 off by one rank. I don’t know when the Crystal Ball will next be called into action, but it can rest on its laurels in the meantime.

(Full disclosure: This analysis applies to my final Guess The Banzuke (GTB) entry, not my published prediction. I ended up making three last-minute half-rank switches: Takanosho ahead of Onosho, Myogiryu ahead of Sadanoumi, and Nishikigi ahead of Kotoyuki.)

P.S. This turned out to be the winning GTB entry! I am very happy. I will continue to try my best and do my own brand of sumo forecasting.

Coronavirus Outbreak Devastates Amazumo Tournament Schedule

While we wait on pins and needles for news of Natsu basho, a number of amateur sumo tournaments have already been affected by the Coronavirus outbreak. I feel particularly bad for amateur athletes during these difficult times. Not only top-level Olympic athletes but every day amateurs have had to forgo many athletic pursuits for the foreseeable future while the world awaits a vaccine (or herd immunity). In this age of social distancing and virtual happy hours, there is still some golf and running…but no spectators and no teams, certainly nothing organized. So many amateurs who train for months or even years for these big events are out of luck. Possibly even more tragically, there’s no recreational soccer, kickball, or Frisbee golf.

CANCELLED

  • March 21-22: 71st National High School Invitational
  • April 12: 8th International Women’s Invitational
  • April 29: 37th All Japan University Invitational
  • May 3: 60th National University Invitational
  • May 24: 58th University and Businessperson Invitational
  • May 24: 104th High School Sumo Tournament
  • May 30: 30th University and Adult Invitational
  • June 14: 6th National Women’s Invitational
  • June 28: 49th Western Japan Businessperson Championship

POSTPONED

  • May 9: 71st East Japan Newbie University Championship*
  • May 10: 70th West Japan Newbie University Championship*
  • May 17: 2nd All Japan Individual Weight Class Championship
  • May 31: 99th Eastern Japan University Championship
  • June 7: 94th Western Japan University Championship

*I think it’s kind of cool that sumo n00bs (新人) get their own tournaments.

Parting notes…

The Eastern and Western Japan University Championships, both for n00bs and vets, are postponed until at least July. At least the door is still cracked open for some of these tournaments. It is a definite challenge to find some steady source of recreation with these shelter-in-place orders in effect for so many people. Gyms are closed, parks are closed or under curfew, leagues and camps are postponed/cancelled, and alcohol can now be delivered to the home — so I hope you all are able to find some sort of recreation and socialization. Your correspondent is lucky to have a garden…which will be extremely well-tended this year.

Banzuke Crystal Ball

Who knows when it’s going to be possible to hold the next basho, but at least the rankings chart for it, based on the March results, will be released on schedule on April 27th. Let’s briefly divert ourselves from more weighty matters by speculating how the top-division ranks will be reshuffled.

The top five ranks are pretty much set in stone: East Yokozuna Hakuho, West Yokozuna Kakuryu, East Ozeki Takakeisho, West shin-Ozeki Asanoyama, and East Sekiwake Shodai. The next two ranks, West Sekiwake and East Komusubi, will certainly be occupied by Mitakeumi and Daieisho, in all likelihood in that order. So the real prognostication is for ranks starting at West Komusubi.

I went through my forecasting methodology in the last of these posts. We can divide the rikishi into three lists: those with winning records (kachi-koshi) in the top division, those likely to stay in Makuuchi despite losing records (make-koshi), and those likely to be promoted from Juryo. We first need to establish a pecking order for each list, and then merge the lists.

If we go by rank and record alone, the KK list in order of priority is: Takanosho, Okinoumi, (Yutakayama/Onosho), Takarafuji, (Kagayaki/Kiribayama), Aoiyama, Terutsuyoshi, Ishiura, Chiyotairyu, Ikioi, (Shimanoumi/Kaisei), Kotonowaka, with parentheses indicating ties. Higher up the banzuke, higher rank tends to outweigh extra wins in case of ties, which favors Yutakayama over Onosho. Lower down, it tends to go the other way, likely placing Kiribayama ahead of Kagayaki and Shimanoumi ahead of Kaisei. Also, at the top of the list, Takanosho’s low rank and strength of schedule makes it highly probable that Okinoumi will pass him for the last san’yaku slot, and it’s not out of the question that Yutakayama and even Onosho could end up ahead of him.

The ordered MK list is Endo, Abi, (Hokutofuji/Enho), Ryuden, Tokushoryu, Tamawashi, Tochinoshin, (Myogiryu/Sadanoumi), Kotoshogiku, Shohozan, (Takayasu/Chiyomaru), Nishikigi (assuming he avoids demotion). Hokutofuji’s san’yaku rank should give him the tiebreaker over Enho, and the lenient treatment often afforded those demoted from the named ranks may even place him ahead of Abi. Takayasu should be ranked above Chiyomaru, and could rise even higher—his placement after an 0-5-10 performance at M1 is probably the biggest question mark of the banzuke.

I’m predicting five promotions from Juryo, and I would rank them in the following order: (Wakatakakage/Kotoshoho), (Terunofuji/Kotoeko), Kotoyuki, with Tobizaru just missing out. I would not be surprised if the order ends up being different, and it’s also far from clear where to slot in the second-division men.

Making some reasonable guesses, here’s my predicted down to M9:

I could see different orders among the M1-M2 ranks, Hokutofuji being up to a full rank lower, and some half-rank switches, but otherwise I’m fairly confident down to this point. Here we come to the first tricky placement. By the numbers, the next in line for the M10e slot is Tochinoshin, but with a 6-9 record at M9w, a half-rank-demotion would be extremely generous. This can be solved relatively easily by moving Shimanoumi and Kaisei up past the former Ozeki, and placing him at M11e instead. Myogiryu and Sadanoumi (in either order) then fill the M11w and M12e ranks. And after that?

M12w is a real conundrum. Does Takayasu end up this high with zero wins at M1, when the two previous banzuke saw demotions to Juryo of winless rikishi from M3? Shohozan is the other make-koshi candidate from the upper ranks, but his 4-11 record at M8 also seems to call for a bigger drop. The only remaining kachi-koshi rikishi is Kotonowaka, and 6 ranks is quite a jump for someone who went 9-6 at M18. Or do we slot in the highest of the men promoted from Juryo here, and is that Wakatakakage, Kotoshoho, or even Kotoyuki? And it doesn’t get any easier as we go further down the banzuke. I went with Kotonowaka at M12w, and slotted everyone else in below him, giving preference to Makuuchi incumbents whenever it was a close call. With that, we get the following projection for the lower half of the maegashira ranks:

We’ll find out how the banzuke committee’s rankings differ from my predictions in just about two weeks. In the meantime, let me know what you think in the comments! I hope that everyone in the sumo world, including the writers and readers of this blog, stays safe and healthy, and that we get to see another basho (and the associated reshuffling of the ranks) as soon as it is prudent to hold one.