New hero emerges in challenging contest

The New Year’s Grand Sumo Tournament took place under somewhat strained circumstances amid the resurgence of new coronavirus infections. Fortunately, the battle in the ring proceeded without any major hiccups, concluding its 15-day run on January 24 in Tokyo. And, the race for the championship was settled on the final day with the emergence of a new hero who hoisted the Emperor’s Cup for the very first time.

Coronavirus takes its toll

Prior to the tournament, the Japan Sumo Association conducted PCR testing on all its nearly 900 association members. So, the first tournament of the new year kicked off on January 10 minus 65 wrestlers. They’d either tested positive or came into contact with someone who did. In the Makunouchi top division, six wrestlers were sidelined to COVID-19 related issues, including Yokozuna grand champion Hakuho.

On January 8 – just two days prior to the tournament – the Japanese government declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures. Under related restrictions, the Japan Sumo Association capped spectators to 5,000 per day.

The head of the association, Chairman Hakkaku, apologized for any concerns caused by the infection of multiple wrestlers, and assured fans that the association would continue to take thorough measures so people could comfortably enjoy themselves. He also said that the association would do its best to live up to fans’ expectations for the year’s first tournament.

Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku addresses the crowd on New Year’s Tournament opening day.

Yet, even after kicking off, there was no guarantee that the tournament would make it through to the end. The sumo association made it clear that should the coronavirus situation worsen it would have no choice but to call off the tournament.

The association asked special cooperation from spectators to the Kokugikan arena. They were asked to refrain from cheering, and instead show support by clapping and holding up the names of their favorite wrestlers. Food and drinks were also banned inside the venue.

Although many wrestlers were missing in action, the fans still thrilled at the competition.

These strict conditions didn’t stop the diehard sumo fans from flocking to the arena. And the wrestlers responded in kind by delivering exciting competitions day in and day out.

Daieisho comes out on top

With the absence of the alpha male Hakuho and some other upper echelons, an unexpected wrestler took center stage from the get-go. That man was Daieisho, a rank-and-filer hoping to capture his first top division title. He got off to an electrifying start by defeating three Ozeki champions in succession from the opening day and then followed it up with upset victories over four more upper rankers. After the first week of action, Daieisho was unscathed with 7 wins and no losses.

He suffered a couple of setbacks on Day 9 and Day 11, but entered Day 15 with sole possession of the lead. His final day’s opponent was the wily veteran Okinoumi who had often given Daieisho a hard time in the past. But this day belonged to Daieisho as he rocked Okinoumi with his signature thrusting attack and then blew him out of the ring to clinch his first title with a record of 13 wins and 2 losses.

On Day 15, Daieisho clinches his first title by crushing Okinoumi.

The 27-year-old Daieisho, from Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo, is the first Saitama native to seize the Emperor’s Cup. He is also the first from his Oitekaze stable to claim sumo’s top prize. Known for his humble and gentle manner, he had this to say of his victory, “I’m happy to win the championship, but I feel like I’m still in a dream because I never thought I’d win it myself. I’ll just keep working hard and concentrate on improvement.” The next goal for Daieisho would be to move up to the second highest rank of Ozeki. But for now, he should relish in his triumph, get some well deserving rest and reenergize himself before taking on his next mission.

Takakeisho fails to make Yokozuna

The talk of the town before the tournament was Ozeki champion Takakeisho’s challenge to make the top rank of Yokozuna grand champion. After winning his second title in November Takakeisho entered the new year’s competition as the tournament favorite with many expecting him to make Yokozuna. But things unraveled quickly for Takakeisho as he got off to a demoralizing 0 and 4 start and eventually pulled out of the tournament on Day 10, citing his left ankle injury. The Ozeki ended the contest with 2 wins 8 losses and 5 absences. With this dismal record, he’s now backed into a corner – he’ll be required to score a majority of 8 wins in the next competition to stay at Ozeki. Anything less means a demotion to a lower rank, which is something he absolutely wants to avoid.

With a lackluster performance, Takakeisho falls short of earning promotion to Yokozuna.

Laser focused to rise to Ozeki, again

While Takakeisho is now in peril of losing his Ozeki rank, one man is about to win promotion to the same rank. That’s Terunofuji. After finishing as runner-up in November with 13 wins and 2 losses, the Mongolian dynamo continued his strong showing in the new year’s tourney by going 11 and 4. As a third-highest rank Sekiwake, if he can pull another impressive outing in March he will ascend to the second-highest.

If Terunofuji accomplishes the feat, it would be his second time getting promotion to the well-respected rank. He was an Ozeki but had to relinquish the rank after his poor health and numerous injuries prevented him from competing at a high level. Now that he’s in much better shape he’s expected to keep racking up wins and reclaim Ozeki. Terunofuji says he’ll pull out all the stops in the next tournament because he’s been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. I personally have been watching Terunofuji for many years now but recently I’m so impressed with his maturity and poise in addition to his overwhelming physical strength. I think he’s shown massive growth not only as a competitor, but also as a person by overcoming so many adversities. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the 29-year-old Mongolian will return to Ozeki with another outstanding performance in the Spring Tournament.

Terunofuji defeats Meisei on Day 15 to finish the contest with an impressive 11 wins and 4 losses.

Time’s up for the two Yokozuna

One thing that really disappointed the fans again this time was the absence of both Yokozuna grand champions, Hakuho and Kakuryu. As I’ve already mentioned, Hakuho was forced to sit on the sidelines after his pre-tournament coronavirus diagnosis. Kakuryu on the other had sat out with a severe lower back pain – a condition that has long plagued him.

Hakuho (L) and Kakuryu (R) are expected to make a much awaited return to the ring in the upcoming Spring Tournament.

Both Yokozuna have been missing in action in recent tournaments, but they’re expected to take part in the next competition. And when they step into the ring in March, they had better perform at a level expected of their Yokozuna status. If they don’t, the pressure for them to call it quits will only get stronger. Simply put, it’s now do-or-die for Hakuho and Kakuryu.

Special prize winners

The tournament’s top prize is of course the Emperor’s Cup. But there are special prizes given to those who performed at an elite level.

Daieisho left the competition with the Outstanding Performance Award and the Technique Prize, in addition to the coveted Emperor’s Cup.

Terunofuji took the Technique Prize for showing superb offensive and defensive skills in racking up 11 victories.

Midorifuji also was given the Technique Prize. The 171-centimeter-tall little grappler overcame his size disadvantage by winning a majority of his bouts with a nifty technique called katasukashi or under shoulder swing down. He enthralled fans with his lethal weapon katasukashi many times during the competition.

From left; Midorifuji, Daieisho and Terunofuji pose for a photo with special prize trophies.

Expressing gratitude

On the final day, the sumo association Chairman Hakkaku expressed his gratitude to everyone who offered their support in making the 15-day event a huge success. He said “Because of the fans’ understanding and cooperation we were able to successfully complete the New Year’s Tournament. I also want to thank all the wrestlers, the entire members of the association plus the health care workers for working tirelessly to make this possible.”
Yes, it was all-hands-on-deck type of effort by everyone involved that enabled the year’s first sumo tournament to end in a huge success.

Spring tourney outlook

Up next, the Spring Tournament in March...
Every year, the spring tourney usually takes place in Osaka. But on January 28 the sumo association’s board of directors met and decided to take a cautious approach. They’ll keep the wrestlers and the tournament in the capital – just like the past four competitions – to deal with the COVID-19 situation. Citing the possible extension of state of emergency, the association says it’s too risky for its many members to travel and stay in Osaka.

Now that we know that the venue for the Spring Tournament is set, let’s hope that it takes place without a hitch in a safe atmosphere for the wrestlers and the fans, as we saw in the New Year’s Tournament. The Spring Tournament will get underway on March 14 and end on March 28.