One of sumo's greatest ever comebacks gets even greater

In terms of drama, the outcome of the May grand sumo tournament couldn't have been scripted any better. The battle for the Emperor's Cup went right down to the wire, with two ozeki champions duking it out on the final day. In the end, fortune favored a wrestler who has truly risen from the ashes.

State of emergency still affecting Japan's national sport

This was the first May tournament in two years after last year's was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tokyo remains under a state of emergency, and this time, the action during the first three days of the 15-day contest unfolded without any spectators. After the government relaxed some measures, a maximum of 5,000 were allowed inside the venue. The wrestlers were happy and appreciative to compete in front of fans once again.

Wrestlers competing in empty stadium
Wrestlers competed in an empty stadium for the first three days.

The comeback king keeps on coming

Terunofuji was in the spotlight even before the tournament started. The 29-year-old Mongolian had just returned to the second-highest rank of ozeki after winning the previous contest in March. He hadn't competed as an ozeki for 20 tournaments. All manner of physical ailments saw him demoted right down to the second-lowest jonidan division. But thanks to his never-say-die attitude, Terunofuji miraculously re-entered the top division last July. Ever since, he's been nothing short of spectacular.

By Day 13, Terunofuji had a comfortable two-win lead over ozeki Takakeisho and maegashira rank-and-filer Endo. Terunofuji had the chance to clinch the championship on the penultimate day, but lost to Endo. The Mongolian ozeki still entered the final day as the sole leader, with 12 wins and 2 losses. On Day 15, he squared off against Takakeisho, who had 11 wins and 3 losses. Within a matter of seconds, Takakeisho thrust Terunofuji down to the surface – meaning the two wrestlers were dead even at 12 wins and 3 losses. In the ensuing playoff, Terunofuji came out on top, slapping down his opponent to capture his second consecutive and fourth overall top division title. It was also his first Emperor's Cup as an ozeki.

Terunofuji beating Takakeisho in a playoff on Day 15
Terunofuji defeats Takakeisho in a playoff on Day 15

With back-to-back titles under his belt, Terunofuji now has the chance to become a yokozuna grand champion in July. At his victory ceremony, the wrestler was asked how he feels about his chances. "I'll work hard to prepare for the next tournament, and when it's time to compete, I'll simply do my best. Even if I don't make it to yokozuna, that's ok. I'll keep my head up and continue working hard," he said.

Terunofuji appears to have already adopted a go-for-broke mindset. Even if he comes up short, he's confident he can regroup and try again somewhere down the road.

Assessing the other ozeki champions

Currently, there are four ozeki on the official banzuke ranking list. Terunofuji has shown he's the real deal – but what about the others?

Takakeisho is perhaps the only other ozeki performing at a level befitting his rank. The 24-year-old won the November tournament, and has been in contention in four of the past five meets. It shows consistency, and he deserves a lot of credit. Takakeisho is a grafter, so I expect him to continue getting better and stronger. Perhaps he'll even rise to the top rank of yokozuna in the not-too-distant future.

Shodai, who finished with a losing record in March, entered the May contest as a kadoban, which meant he had to score at least 8 wins to retain his ozeki status. He finished with 9 wins and 6 losses – good enough to keep his rank, but nowhere near enough to contend for the championship. Shodai won last year's September tournament, but hasn't made an impact since. He must now get his act together and prove he's worthy of sumo's second-highest rank.

Ozeki Asanoyama has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. He was forced to sit out from Day 12 after it was reported that he had frequented nightclubs during the current state of emergency. The scandal was compounded when Asanoyama told his sumo elders that the reports were groundless. After a further hearing, he came clean.

On Day 12, Asanoyama withdrew from the competition after he was found to have broken the sumo association's anti-coronavirus guidelines.

After being expelled from the tournament, Asanoyama apparently called his father to apologize. He told his old man that he'll accept whatever penalty comes his way. He also said he will try his best to focus on sumo, not nightlife, if he's allowed to stay part of the association. Asanoyama went on to say that even if he gets demoted to a much lower division, he has no intention of quitting. Rather, he wants to remain active and fight as best as he can. Let's hope he means it – because nobody wants to see this talented wrestler's career end in such a sorry manner. Ultimately, it would be a huge disappointment to the fans.

The board of directors will conduct a further investigation before deciding what to do. The 27-year-old can expect a harsh penalty, because the rank of ozeki carries a great deal of responsibility.

Hakuho to return in July

Yokozuna Hakuho has now been absent for six consecutive tournaments. He missed the May contest due to a knee injury. The grand champ says he's rehabilitating, and will try his best to return in July. Let's hope he does, because he's running out of excuses. I think it's now time for the 44-time champion to shape up or ship out.

Special prize winners

Aside from the Emperor's Cup, each tournament comes with three other special prizes. But this time, the Outstanding Performance Award and the Fighting Spirit Prize weren't given to anyone.

The Technique Prize went to Wakatakakage and Endo. The former defeated two ozeki and racked up a total of 9 wins thanks to his splendid pushing attacks. He's now expected to debut at the fourth-highest rank of komusubi in July. Endo, meanwhile, used a wide range of nifty moves to beat two ozeki, win 11 bouts and stay in contention right until the end.

Special prize winners: Wakatakakage & Endo
The Technique Prize recipients: Wakatakakage on the left, and Endo on the right.

July tourney outlook

The next tournament will take place a week earlier than normal to avoid clashing with the Tokyo Olympics. It will be back in Nagoya for the first time in two years. Last July, it was held in Tokyo to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Without question, all eyes will be on Terunofuji as he guns for promotion to yokozuna. Three straight championships would mean there are no ifs and buts about his top-rank credentials. Even if he fails to claim the title, I believe he could still earn promotion with 13 or 14 wins, considering his elite performances over the past year. I think Terunofuji has a great chance. Right now, he's firing on all cylinders, and it's hard to pick out anybody who can stop him.

Fans will also be anxiously waiting for the return of top dog Hakuho. I hope he returns in blistering form and proves he's far from finished. I would relish the chance to see him lock horns with Terunofuji in what would surely be a blockbuster bout.

Popular wrestler Ura is expected to return to the top division after winning the championship in May's second-tier juryo division. He's been hampered by so many injuries, but is now healthy and on course to make an immediate impact with his acrobatic moves and unconventional techniques. He's been away from the top division for nearly four years, and fans will be thrilled to once again see him dancing with the big boys.

Rest in peace Hibikiryu

Hibikiryu, who was competing in the third-lowest division of sandanme, passed away on April 28 due to acute respiratory failure. He was 28. The wrestler fell unconscious after landing face first during a match in the March tournament. He was taken to a hospital, but never recovered.

The Japan Sumo Association took his death extremely seriously. On May 7, a drill saw about 60 officials re-examine how to care for injured wrestlers, including CPR. Accident response experts provided instructions to stable masters and association members.

Hibikiryu fell unconscious after a match in the March tournament. He passed away on April 28.

Many people have criticized the way the association handled the accident. Stable masters at the scene stood there looking clueless. They eventually called for medical attention, but it took nearly 5 minutes for a doctor to arrive. The yobidashi ring announcers turned Hibikiryu's body over, which is never a good thing when a person is suspected of sustaining an injury to the head or neck.

I earnestly recommend having a medical expert ringside at all times, like we see in other contact sports. That way, whoever gets injured can be seen right away. Right now, this does not happen in sumo. If the association is serious about making health and safety the top priority, then I don't see any reason to not introduce much-improved measures – before anything like this can happen again.

Our thoughts and prayers go to Hibikiryu and his family. Rest in peace.