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.

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.

Ozeki Prediction Contest

We learned the other day that Takakeisho was denied an Ozeki promotion, for now. Obviously, it’s on him to perform well in March with potential promotion for May. In truth, he’s not the only wrestler on an Ozeki run. He’s also not the only wrestler on an Ozeki run with the strength of a yusho on his résumé.

Tamawashi enters the next tournament on 22 wins of the 33 “standard”. 10 wins is likely a bubble number but it would be very difficult to deny promotion with a repeat of 13 wins, however unlikely that may seem. Add Tochinoshin’s kadoban status to the mix and the composition of the Ozeki corps could be very different by summer.

So, how many Ozeki do you think there will be in May? Guess the correct number of ozeki for the May tournament, in banzuke order, and I will select one of the correct answers and send you a T-Shirt of your choice from the Tachiai Shop. My guess is five Ozeki: O1E Goeido (+ Osaka yusho), O1W Tochinoshin, O2E Takayasu, O2W Takakeisho, O3E Tamawashi.