Sumo returns along with the fans

The May grand sumo tournament was cancelled due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. But the sumo association took every possible precautionary measure to prevent and contain the spread of the virus at the July tournament. The 15-day meet concluded without any major problems and the fans were in for a big pleasant surprise.

Spectators back in the stands to watch live action

The opening day of the July grand sumo tournament was delayed for two weeks so the sumo association could get itself fully prepared to deal with any possible corona-related issues.
The tournament venue was also changed from Nagoya to Tokyo to prevent wrestlers and staff becoming infected while traveling to Nagoya and staying there for a month.

The sumo association also created extra dressing rooms to avoid congestion. The wrestlers were asked to disinfect their hands upon entering the arena and wear face masks at all times even when they went through their routine warm-ups.

Fans got to watch live sumo for the first time since the New Year tournament in January. To prevent infection, the arena was limited to just quarter capacity… this meant wrestlers competed in front of a crowd of no more than 2,500 people. Spectators were asked to show support for their favorite wrestlers mainly by clapping their hands and to refrain from shouting their names.

Social distancing measures are put in place for fans watching sumo in the arena.

Rising from the ashes

After 10 days, the man standing alone in first place was none other than the top dog, Yokozuna grand champion Hakuho, with a perfect record. Trailing Hakuho was the new Ozeki champion Asanoyama and Maegashira rank-and-filer Terunofuji who had just returned to the top division for the first time in two and a half years after getting over injuries.

After seeing Hakuho go without a single blemish for 10 straight days, almost everyone thought that it would be no sweat for him to win his 45th top division title, but things suddenly took an unexpected turn. On Day 11, Hakuho got beat, and then on the following Day 12 he was beaten again. So, after 12 days, it was Asanoyama and Terunofuji leading the championship race each with just one loss. Hakuho followed one step behind at two losses. On the very next morning, Hakuho announced his withdrawal saying he hurt his right knee and could no longer compete.

Hakuho's sudden disappearance from the competition was no doubt shocking news for the fans, but their attention was focused more on the huge match up that was scheduled to take place on Day 13… a showdown between the two tournament co-leaders, Terunofujij and Asanoyama. Terunofuji quickly managed to pull off his favorite move – a left hand outside grip – and kept up the pressure on Asanoyama the whole time. The rank-and-filer Terunofuji finished off the Ozeki champion by forcing him out of the ring.

Terunofuji kept sole possession of the lead heading into the final day and clinched the championship by beating Mitakeumi on Day 15, ending the contest with 13 wins and 2 losses. It's his second Emperor's Cup and the first in five years.

July tourney champion Terunofuji receives the Prime Minister’s Cup from sumo association Chairman Hakkaku on Day 15.

Terunofuji won his first top division championship in the 2015 May tournament. The Mongolian was promoted to the second-highest rank of Ozeki in the following 2015 July tournament. Everyone thought that it would be no time before they saw Terunofuji rising to the top rank of Yokozuna, but his days fighting as Ozeki didn't go as quite as he had hoped. He came close to winning another Emperor's Cup a few times but came up short on each occasion.

Then things went from bad to worse for Terunofuji as he was forced to deal with all sorts of injuries and illnesses for the next two years, such as knee injuries, diabetes and intestinal problems. Terunofuji continued to slip down the ranks, all the way down to the second-lowest Jonidan division. He thought about quitting a number of times, but it was his stable master Isegahama who persuaded him to keep believing in himself and persevere with a never-say-die attitude. Thanks to his stable master's advice, Terunofuji battled to earn a fairy tale return to the top division for the first time in more than two years. What a dream comeback for former Ozeki Terunofuji.

New Ozeki Asanoyama makes impact

Heading into the tournament, the man at the center of attention was the newly-promoted Ozeki champion Asanoyama. He had been given the promotion to Ozeki following the March tournament, but had to wait four months to make his debut fighting at the second-highest rank because of the cancellation of the May tournament.

Asanoyama got off to an electric start in the July contest by winning nine straight bouts from opening day, but he ran out of steam late in the tournament winning only three of his final six bouts. The Emperor's Cup slipped out of his hands.

That said, Asanoyama's record of 12 wins and 3 losses in his Ozeki debut should receive nothing but praise. He must be still regretting his loss to Terunofuji on Day 13, because winning on that day would have more than likely enabled him to win his second Emperor's Cup.

Asanoyama on the left impresses many people by racking up 12 wins in his Ozeki debut tournament.

Both Yokozuna underachieve again

With the four month downtime created by the cancellation of the May tournament, almost all the wrestlers were expected to enter the July tournament injury-free and compete in tip top shape. But for the two veteran Yokozuna grand champions their bodies failed to hold up for the entire tournament.

First, it was Kakuryu announcing his withdrawal on Day 2. He said he reinjured his right elbow during his opening-day match.
Next, it was Hakuho to announce, on Day 13, that he was pulling out of the tournament because he had been competing with a damaged right knee and he was unable to continue competing any longer because it was so painful.

Both Hakuho and Kakuryu fail to live up to expectations in the July tournament.

Needless to say, their absence took some sizzle out of the tournament. Let's hope that their injuries are not that serious and we see them compete in good shape soon.

Takakeisho hangs on to Ozeki rank

Takakeisho competed with his Ozeki rank on the line this time. He finished the previous tournament in March with a losing record of 7 wins and 8 losses which meant that he had to score more wins than losses in the July competition to keep his Ozeki rank. And when the dust settled, he did score 8 wins but that was all he was able to muster this time. After racking up his 8th win on Day 11, he quickly announced his withdrawal from the competition citing pain in his left knee. So, he barely squeaked by this time, ending the contest with 8 wins, 4 losses and 3 absences.

Takakeisho, on the left, pushes out Mitakeumi on Day 11 to score his 8th win.

Special prize winners

Quite a few special prizes were given this time for those who were able to make their presence felt with some splendid showings in the ring.

The Emperor's Cup winner Terunofuji left the contest with two additional prizes: the Outstanding Performance Award and the Technique Prize.

The Outstanding Performance Award also went to Mitakeumi and Daieisho. They both upset Hakuho and left the contest with 11 wins and 4 losses each.

Shodai received the Fighting Spirit Prize for beating the eventual champion Terunofuji and staying in the title race till the last moment by going 11 and 4.

The special prize winners: from left; Mitakeumi, Terunofuji, Daieisho and Shodai.

Abi gets another chance

As the sumo association fights to contain the spread of coronavirus infections in the sumo world, it was revealed that top division wrestler Abi had gone to nightclubs before and during the July tournament -- something the wrestlers were banned from doing to prevent infections. After being informed that his disciple had broken the rules on Day 7, Abi's stable master Shikoroyama ordered Abi to sit out the remainder of the competition.

Later, Abi submitted a letter of resignation to the sumo association to take responsibility for his selfish and irresponsible behavior. But, instead of dismissing Abi from the sumo world, the board of directors handed him three tournament suspensions plus a 50 percent pay cut for five months. Abi says he's grateful to be allowed to remain as a professional sumo wrestler and pledged not make the same type of mistake again. Sumo elders treated Abi with leniency this time, but they say if he does something stupid again there will be no mercy.

As a penalty for his misbehavior, Abi will be sidelined for the next 3 tournaments.

Up next; the autumn tournament!

Finally, let's talk about the next competition which will be the autumn tournament.

First, will the two Yokozuna grand champions, Hakuho and Kakuryu, return to action? Both Hakuho and Kakuryu are 35 years old and some people say the clock is ticking. Whether they will retire soon or not, the two top dogs better comeback with much more impressive performances next time and silence the critics. Otherwise, the rumors of their possible retirement are going to start to sound increasingly real.

For Ozeki Asanoyama, I can already see him licking his lips to get his payback and beat Terunofuji. Again, the loss to the Mongolian on Day 13 cost him the championship this time. So, there's no doubt it will be a huge showdown once again when Asanoyama and Terunofuji square off in the autumn tourney.

In the July tournament, Terunofuji was at the bottom of the barrel at Maegashira 17, but he'll receive a quantum leap after winning his second championship. It will be interesting to see how he performs going up against the upper echelons on a daily basis in September. The Mongolian dynamo wants to put on another impressive showing to prove that his triumph in July was no fluke.

I'm making all these projections for the upcoming tournament assuming that the competition will be held as planned. But to be honest, there are still so many uncertainties about whether it's going to be held or, in the worst case scenario, cancelled. It all depends on the situation surrounding the coronavirus. In that sense, the sumo association must not lower its guard and should do everything it can to control and contain the virus from spreading among its members, particularly the wrestlers who take center stage in the 15-day grand tournament.

The autumn tournament is scheduled to get underway on Sunday, September 13th in Tokyo.