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 Fightland.com 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.

Quiz! 2020 in sumo

Just like in recent years, 2020 has been quite an eventful year in sumo: surprise winners, stunning comebacks and the Covid pandemic all coloured this year. The dust might settle a bit next year, but still, how much do we remember about sumo highlights this year?

1. 2020 has been a year to forget for the yokozuna, who will both need to get at least ten wins in January. How many wins did they get combined in 2020?

a. 29

b. 33

c. 37

d. 41

2. In how many bouts did Hakuho actually participate in 2020 (during honbasho, of course; not counting fusen losses and torinaoshi)?

a. 25

b. 30

c. 35

d. 40

3. What about Kakuryu? How many times did he fight in 2020?

a. 15

b. 20

c. 25

d. 30

Both yokozuna will face a make or break situation in January 2021.

4. Let’s now focus to 2020’s ozeki. How many times did an ozeki finish with a losing record?

a. Three

b. Four

c. Five

d. Six

5. Going further down the banzuke, Mitakeumi had a (very) disappointing year 2020. How many make koshi did he get?

a. One

b. Two

c. Three

d. Four

Mitakeumi won a yusho in 2018 and 2019, but was less successful this year (Photo Courtesy Rob Donner)

6. Tokushoryu, on the other hand, obviously had a great year 2020, winning the first yusho, then keeping a place in makuuchi. Following his surprise win in January, how many more kachi koshi did he get?

a. None

b. One

c. Two

d. Three

7. Let’s have some fun with names: which one of these pairs of rikishi have shared the same division at some point (1/3)?

a. Hoshoryu – Shohoryu
b. Hoshoryu – Oshoryu
c. Oshoryu – Shohoryu
d. Kaisei – Kaisho

8. Same question: which pair of rikishi has fought together in the same division in 2020 (2/3)?

a. Daieisho – Daishoho

b. Terunofuji – Fujinoteru

c. Tomisakae – Tokisakae

d. All three pairs

9. This time, which pair of rikishi has NOT been together in the same division (3/3)?

a. Chiyonokuni – Chiyonoumi

b. Churanoumi – Chiyonoumi

c. Churanoumi – Chiyonokuni

d. None of the above – they have all shared the same division at some point.

10. Kotoshogiku’s body could not enable him to remain fully fit in 2020. He hasn’t been able, in either tournament, to get more than…

a. Six wins

b. Seven wins

c. Eight wins

d. Nine wins

11. How many newcomers have been welcomed in makuuchi?

a. Six

b. Seven

c. Eight

d. Nine

12. Who got five kachi koshi in makuuchi this year?

a. Nobody

b. Takakeisho

c. Takanosho

d. Takakeisho and Takanosho

13. How many bouts did Ura lose this year?

a. Four

b. Six

c. Eight

d. Ten

Ura produced a stunning comeback this year.

14. Hanakaze is still wrestling, being half a century old! But how many kachi koshi did he get this year?

a. Zero

b. One

c. Two

d. Three

15. Going right to the bottom of the banzuke, how many bouts did Hattorizakura win this year?

a. Zero

b. One

c. Two

d. Three

The answers:

1. 2020 has been a year to forget for the yokozuna, who will both need to get at least ten wins in January. How many wins did they get combined in 2020?

c. 37. 24 for Hakuho, and only 13 for Kakuryu. In my opinion, it comes as no surprise they are facing the risk of having to retire early next year.

2. In how many bouts did Hakuho actually participate in 2020 (during honbasho, of course; not counting fusen losses and torinaoshi)?

b. 30. Three bouts in January, fifteen in March and twelve in July.

3. What about Kakuryu? How many times did he fight in 2020?

b. 20. Four times in January, fifteen in March, and just one in July.

4. Let’s now focus to 2020’s ozeki. How many times did an ozeki finish with a losing record?

b. Four times, by four different sekitori: Asanoyama (1-2-12) and Shodai (3-2-10) in November; Takakeisho (7-8) in March, and let’s not forget Goeido (5-10), in January!

5. Going further down the banzuke, Mitakeumi had a (very) disappointing year 2020. How many make koshi did he get?

b. Two, in January and November. Mitakeumi will start 2021 approximately where he started in 2020: below the rank of sekiwake, no yusho and one more aborted ozeki run. Put it briefly, trademark Mitakeumi.

6. Tokushoryu, on the other hand, obviously had a great year 2020, winning the first yusho, then keeping a place in makuuchi. Following his surprise win in January, how many more kachi koshi did he get?

b. One time only, in November (8-7). He got payback right in March (4-11), but had decent efforts in July and September, barely missing kachi koshi (7-8).

7. Let’s have some fun with names: which one of these pairs of rikishi have shared the same division at some point?

c. Oshoryu – Shohoryu. Hoshoryu has reached juryo in November 2019, whereas Shohoryu is still in makushita. Kaisho got relegated from juryo in November 2019, while Kaisei returned to makuuchi in January 2020. So the only pair having shared the same division is Oshoryu – Shohoryu. Actually, they’re still together in makushita.

Bow twirler Shohoryu

8. Same question: which pair of rikishi has fought together in the same division in 2020 (2/3)?

c. Tomisakae – Tokisakae. Daishoho wasn’t higher than juryo 3, and actually finished the year in makushita. Terunofuji went so low down the banzuke that he chould say hi to Fujinoteru in jonidan, but actually started the year in juryo. Tomisakae and Tokisakae have seen each other in makushita.

9. This time, which pair of rikishi has NOT been together in the same division (3/3)?

d. None of the above – they have all shared the same division at some point. That one was tricky. Churanoumi and Chiyonoumi have been together in juryo thrice, in March, July and November. Churanoumi actually spent the whole year in juryo; therefore, he met Chiyonokuni during his sole basho in juryo, in September. Chiyonoumi sat in makushita in September, and has NOT met Chiyonokuni – but they BOTH were in makushita, in January 2020.

10. Kotoshogiku’s body could not enable him to remain fully fit in 2020. He hasn’t been able, in either tournament, to get more than…

c. Eight wins, in July.

11. How many newcomers have been welcomed in makuuchi?

a. Six: Kiribayama (January), Kotonowaka (March), Kotoshoho (July), Tobizaru, Hoshoryu (September) and Akua (November) have all been new to makuuchi – and will begin 2021 in sumo’s first division.

12. Who got five kachi koshi in makuuchi this year?

a. Nobody. If both mentioned rikishi had a fine 2020 year, both finished 7-8 earlier this year (Takanosho in January, Takakeisho in March).

13. How many bouts did Ura lose this year?

c. Eight. One bout in July, one in September, and six in November. He won back to back yusho in jonidan and sandanme

14. Hanakaze is still wrestling, being half a century old! But how many kachi koshi did he get this year?

b. One, a 4-3 record in March. He’ll be relegated to jonokuchi in January.

15. Going right to the bottom of the banzuke, how many bouts did Hattorizakura win this year?

Hattorizakura has not won a single bout since January 2019.

a. Zero. No big surprise here, unfortunately…

Quiz ! l’année 2020 en sumo

Comme les années précédentes, 2020 a été une année assez mouvementée en sumo: de surprenants vainqueurs, d’improbables retours, et la pandémie liée au Covid-19 ont tous marqué cette année. Nous pourrions avoir un peu de repos l’an prochain ; mais de quoi pouvons-nous nous remémorer de cette année ?

1. 2020 a été une année à oublier pour les yokozuna, qui vont devoir obtenir au moins dix victoires en janvier. Combien de victoires ont-ils obtenu à eux deux en 2020 ?

a. 29

b. 33

c. 37

d. 41

2. A combien de combats Hakuho a-t-il participé en 2020 (en prenant en compte uniquement les honbasho, mais ni les défaites par défaut, ni les torinaoshi) ?

a. 25

b. 30

c. 35

d. 40

3. Et Kakuryu? Combien de fois a-t-il combattu en 2020 ?

 a. 15

b. 20

c. 25

d. 30

Les deux yokozuna auront leur fin de carrière en jeu en janvier 2021

4. Concentrons-nous à présent sur les ozeki. Combien de fois un ozeki a-t-il obtenu un résultat négatif ?

a. Trois

b. Quatre

c. Cinq

d. Six

5. Allons plus bas dans le banzuke. Mitakeumi a eu une année 2020 (très) décevante. Combien de make koshi a-t-il obtenu ?

 a. Un

b. Deux

c. Trois

d. Quatre

Mitakeumi a remporté un tournoi en 2018, et en 2019. Mais il n’a pas été aussi décisif cette année (Photo Courtesy Rob Donner)

6. Tokushoryu, de son côté, a de toute évidence eu une belle année 2020, remportant le premier tournoi, puis conservant sa place en makuuchi. Après sa victoire surprise en janvier, combien d’autres kashi koshi a-t-il obtenu ?

 a. None

b. One

c. Two

d. Three

7. Amusons-nous à présent avec les noms: laquelle de ces paires de lutteurs a été dans la même division, à un moment quelconque de l’année 2020 ? (1/3)?

a. Hoshoryu – Shohoryu
b. Hoshoryu – Oshoryu
c. Oshoryu – Shohoryu
d. Kaisei – Kaisho

8. Même question: laquelle de ces paires de lutteurs a combattu dans la même division en 2020 (2/3)?

a. Daieisho – Daishoho

b. Terunofuji – Fujinoteru

c. Tomisakae – Tokisakae

d. Toutes ces trois paires

9. Cette fois, laquelle de ces paires n’a PAS combattu dans la même division (3/3)?

a. Chiyonokuni – Chiyonoumi

b. Churanoumi – Chiyonoumi

c. Churanoumi – Chiyonokuni

d. Aucune de ces paires – ils ont tous partagé la même division à un moment donné

10. Kotoshogiku n’était pas suffisamment rétabli pour combattre à 100 % en 2020. Dans aucun tournoi, il n’a pu engranger plus de…

a. Six victoires

b. Sept victoires

c. Huit victoires

d. Neuf victoires

11. Combien de lutteurs ont découvert le makuuchi en 2020 ?

a. Six

b. Sept

c. Huit

d. Neuf

12. Qui a obtenu cinq kashi koshi en makuuchi, cette année ?

a. Personne

b. Takakeisho

c. Takanosho

d. Takakeisho et Takanosho

13. Combien de combats Ura a-t-il perdu cette année ?

a. Quatre

b. Six

c. Huit

d. Dix

Ura a réalité un superbe retour cette année

14. Hanakaze combat toujours, âgé d’un demi-siècle ! Mais combien de kashi koshi a-t-il obtenu cette année ?

a. Zero

b. Un

c. Deux

d. Trois

15. Allons tout en bas du banzuke. Combien de victoires Hattorizakura a-t-il remporté cette année ?

a. Zéro

b. Une

c. Deux

d. Trois

Les réponses :

1. 2020 a été une année à oublier pour les yokozuna, qui vont devoir obtenir au moins dix victoires en janvier. Combien de victoires ont-ils obtenu à eux deux en 2020 ?

c. 37. 24 pour Hakuho, et seulement 13 pour Kakuryu. Ce n’est à mon avis pas une surprise si tous deux risquent d’être contraints à la retraite, début 2021.

2. A combien de combats Hakuho a-t-il participé en 2020 (en prenant en compte uniquement les honbasho, mais ni les défaites par défaut, ni les torinaoshi) ?

b. 30. Trois combats en janvier, quinze en mars et douze en juillet.

3. Et Kakuryu? Combien de fois a-t-il combattu en 2020 ?

b. 20. Quatre combats en janvier, quinze en mars, et un seul en juillet.

4. Concentrons-nous à présent sur les ozeki. Combien de fois un ozeki a-t-il obtenu un résultat négatif ?

b. Quatre fois, et par quatre lutteurs différents: Asanoyama (1-2-12) et Shodai (3-2-10) en novembre ; Takakeisho (7-8) en mars, et n’oublions pas Goeido (5-10), en janvier !

5. Allons plus bas dans le banzuke. Mitakeumi a eu une année 2020 (très) décevante. Combien de make koshi a-t-il obtenu ?

b. Deux, en janvier et en novembre. Mitakeumi va débuter l’année 2021 tout comme il a débuté 2020 : en-dessous du rang de sekiwake, pas de yusho, et une campagne d’ozeki avortée. En un mot, typique de Mitakeumi.

6. Tokushoryu, de son côté, a de toute évidence eu une belle année 2020, remportant le premier tournoi, puis conservant sa place en makuuchi. Après sa victoire surprise en janvier, combien d’autres kashi koshi a-t-il obtenu ?

b. Une seule fois, en novembre (8-7). Il a eu un retour de bâton en mars (4-11), mais a obtenu des résultats corrects en juillet et septembre, ratant le kashi koshi de peu (7-8).

7. Amusons-nous à présent avec les noms: laquelle de ces paires de lutteurs a été dans la même division, à un moment quelconque de l’année 2020 ? (1/3)?

c. Oshoryu – Shohoryu. Hoshoryu a atteint le juryo en novembre 2019, alors que Shohoryu est toujours en makushita. Kaisho a été relégué du juryo en novembre 2019, tandis que Kaisei est revenu en makuuchi en janvier 2020. Ainsi, la seule paire à avoir partagé la même division est Oshoryu – Shohoryu. En réalité, ils se trouvent toujours tous les deux en makushita.

Le yumitori shiki : Shohoryu

8. Même question: laquelle de ces paires de lutteurs a combattu dans la même division en 2020 (2/3)?

c. Tomisakae – Tokisakae. Daishoho n’a jamais été mieux classé que juryo 3, et a terminé l’année en makushita. Terunofuji est descendu si bas dans le banzuke qu’il a pu saluer Fujinoteru, mais il a débuté l’année en juryo. Tomisakae et Tokisakae ont été ensemble en makushita.

9. Cette fois, laquelle de ces paires n’a PAS combattu dans la même division (3/3)?

d. Aucune de ces paires – ils ont tous partagé la même division à un moment donné. C’était une question piège ! Churanoumi et Chiyonoumi ont été trois fois ensemble en juryo, en mars, en juillet et en novembre. Churanoumi a finalement passé toute l’année en juryo ; ainsi, il a rencontré Chiyonokuni lors de son seul tournoi en juryo, en septembre. Chiyonoumi était en makushita en septembre, et n’y a donc PAS rencontré Chiyonokuni – mais les DEUX étaient en makushita, en janvier 2020.

10. Kotoshogiku n’était pas suffisamment rétabli pour combattre à 100 % en 2020. Dans aucun tournoi, il n’a pu engranger plus de…

c. Huit victoires, en juillet

11. Combien de lutteurs ont découvert le makuuchi en 2020 ?

a. Six : Kiribayama (janvier), Kotonowaka (mars), Kotoshoho (juillet), Tobizaru, Hoshoryu (septembre) and Akua (novembre) sont les nouveaux venus de 2020 – et ils débuteront tous l’année 2021 en makuuchi.

12. Qui a obtenu cinq kashi koshi en makuuchi, cette année ?

a. Personne. Si les deux lutteurs mentionnés ont eu une belle année 2020, tous deux ont eu un résultat négatif de sept victoires pour huit défaites, plus tôt cette année (Takanosho en janvier, Takakeisho en mars).

13. Combien de combats Ura a-t-il perdu cette année ?

c. Huit. Un match en juillet, un en septembre, et six en novembre. Il a remporté deux yusho consécutifs en jonidan et sandanme.

14. Hanakaze combat toujours, âgé d’un demi-siècle ! Mais combien de kashi koshi a-t-il obtenu cette année ? b. Un seul, 4-3 en mars. Il va être relégué en jonokuchi pour le tournoi de janvier.

15. Allons tout en bas du banzuke. Combien de victoires Hattorizakura a-t-il remporté cette année ?

Hattorizakura n’a plus remporté le moindre match depuis janvier 2019

a. Zéro. Pas une grosse surprise, malheureusement…

Tokyo November basho post analysis. Playoff is cool, but cruel – just ask Terunofuji

I think it’s fair to say all of us like playoffs. It brings a fun, dramatic, sudden death situation, where involved rikishi go all in. We even prefer multiple playoffs, which can contain original rules.

Former ozeki Terunofuji, on the other hand, probably does not want to hear the word “playoff” any more. Last Sunday, the Mongolian succumbed to Takakeisho’s thrusts, meaning that he has now lost all three playoffs where he participated – prior to that, he faced two yokozuna, Kakuryu in Aki 2015, and Kisenosato in Osaka 2017. The object of this article will be to see if somebody else holds such a miserable record.

Having no fun during playoffs: Terunofujji Haruo

Prior to that, a few words about playoffs themselves:

  • Playoffs aim to decide between rikishi tied for first place. The outcome of the bout between them during the regular phase – should it exist – is NOT taken into account. Taking Terunofuji’s example, the Mongolian defeated Kakuryu in 2015, lost to Kisenosato in 2017, and defeated Takakeisho one week ago – each time on day 15. But he wasn’t declared winner in any of these basho – he had to face his opponents once again, and lost thrice.
  • The rules are:

a) For a two-way playoff: one bout is scheduled, and the winner takes it all. Straightforward.

b) For a three-way playoff: the wrestler A faces the wrestler B. Let’s say A wins. A faces the wrestler C. If A wins, he’s the champion. If C wins, he faces B. If C wins, he’s the champion. If B wins, he faces A, and so on, until someone wins twice in a row.

Three- way playoffs rarely occur, but it actually took place in March 1990, between Konishiki, Kirishima and Hokutoumi (the eventual winner, who actually lost the first bout!)

c) For a four-way playoff: two semi-finals (A vs B, C vs D) and a final are scheduled.

d) For a five-way playoff: lots are drawn. A faces B, C faces D, and E – banzuke’s highest ranked rikishi – goes directly to the final stages. A/B, C/D and E then meet in a three-way playoff.

Incredibly, such a playoff occured in Kyushu 1996, where Akebono, Wakanohana, Takanonami, Kaio and Musashimaru (the eventual winner) were all tied with a noticeable 11-4 record. Takanonami defeated Kaio; Musashimaru defeated Wakanohana; Akebono directly qualified for the three-way playoff. Musashimaru defeated Akebono, then Takanonami.

e) For a six-way playoff: the aim is to reduce the number of rikishi to three, in order to set up a three-way playoff. Therefore, A faces B in a single bout, whereas C faces D, and E confronts F. Losers are eliminated.

Such a configuration seems impossible to get, but juryo is more prone to bring such a tied lead, when there’s no clear favorite at the beginning of the basho. It actually took place this year in July: Kyokutaisei, Hoshoryu, Akua, Chiyonoo, Mitoryu and Meisei (the eventual winner) were all tied with a 10-5 record. Remarkably, all three finalists (Akua, Hoshoryu and Meisei) came from the same stable (Tatsunami beya).

So, does anybody else holds a “minus three” record in playoffs?

It comes to no surprise that Hakuho holds the record of playoff participations – alongside Takanohana. The dai yokozuna has been top of the chart for an uncountable number of times – and he sometimes had to face stern opposition.

His first participation came as early as in May 2006, where he defeated Miyabiyama; his last one occured in January 2014, where he defeated Kakuryu (who actually got promoted to yokozuna after a yusho the following tournament). Overall, Hakuho has a “plus two” score: six wins to four losses.

In a way, Hakuho did worse than Terunofuji, as the yokozuna lost no less than three playoffs in 2009! Asashoryu (twice) and Harumafuji were the winners. Apart from Asashoryu, Harumafuji (including one playoff where he was still named “Ama”) and Kakuryu, Hakuho also faced… Toyonoshima (in November 2010)!

As mentioned, Takanohana also participated in ten playoffs – and his record is even, five wins to five losses.

With even records: former yokozuna Takanohana

Interestingly, Futahaguro has participated in two playoffs. But as we know, he’s the only yokozuna ever who never won a single yusho during his entire career – it goes therefore without saying that he lost both… but there’s better – or, rather, worse.

Kitanoumi has a noteworthy record, that might inspire Terunofuji. Indeed, the yokozuna participated in eight playoffs, won three of them, and actually got a “minus four” record, after his first four playoffs!

Actually, another great man from the past, Musashimaru, holds the most terrible record: one win (during the afore-mentionned Kyusho basho 1996) in six tries!

Deadly during playoffs: former yokozuna Chiyonofuji

Meanwhile, Chiyonofuji has been the true playoff-killer: six wins, and no loss…