Sumo enters new era with new yokozuna

2021 saw the retirement of two yokozuna grand champions; Kakuryu in March and Hakuho in September. Then, another Mongolian dynamo emerged to take center stage for pretty much the entire year.

2021 sumo finale in Fukuoka

The November tournament is normally held in Fukuoka, but due to COVID-19, last year it was held in Tokyo instead. So, the fans in Fukuoka were happy to see live grand sumo for the first time in 2 years. Although we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of coronavirus infections in the country prior to the tournament, the Japan Sumo Association remained vigilant and, as in previous tournaments, asked the spectators to wear masks at all times, not cheer vocally and refrain from eating in their seats.

The November Tournament is held in Fukuoka for the first time in two years.

The lone yokozuna shows supremacy

The winner of the previous tournament in September, Terunofuji, entered the November contest as the man to beat. Terunofuji was the only yokozuna competing in the November meet, following the retirement of rival yokozuna Hakuho in September.

From the onset of the tournament, Terunofuji was head and shoulders above the rest of the top division combatants. He fought with great confidence and patience, and never seemed fazed, even when his opponents came out with all guns blazing.

The highlight match of the competition took place on Day 14. The undefeated leader, Terunofuji, faced off against Abi, who came into the day with just one loss. Going into the match, a victory for Terunofuji would guarantee him the championship, so everything was on the line.

Abi gave his best shot, taking the yokozuna to the edge, but Terunofuji gathered himself and rallied to beat the rank and filer to go 14 and 0. With the win, Terunofuji clinched his second consecutive and sixth overall title before entering the final day.

On Day 15, ozeki champion Takakeisho tried his best to put a blemish on Terunofuji’s spotless record, but Terunofuji once again refused to be taken down. Terunofuji beat his ozeki foe to finish the contest with a perfect record of 15 wins and no losses. It was his first championship without a single loss on his resume and proof that he can truly claim to be the king of the ring. Furthermore, Terunofuji has become the first yokozuna in 59 years to win two consecutive titles since making his debut at the top rank. The last yokozuna to accomplish the feat was Taiho in 1962.

On Day 15, Terunofuji defeats Takakeisho to finish the tournament with a perfect 15 and 0 record.

Special prize winners

Abi won the Fighting Spirit Prize. The returnee to the top division was praised for competing at a very high level throughout the tournament and contending for the championship until the last moment. I know there are no ifs, ands, or buts in sumo, but he no doubt wishes he could have another go at his Day 14 match against Terunofuji. Again, Abi had the yokozuna on the ropes, but came up just short of scoring the biggest upset of his life. Maybe next time.

Takanosho also received the Fighting Spirit Prize. The former sekiwake racked up 11 wins and reemerged as one of the legitimate candidates to become an ozeki.

The Technique Prize was given to Ura who finished with 10 wins and 5 losses. The rare techniques he used such as Ashitori (leg pick), Katasukashi (under shoulder swing down), Tottari (arm bar throw) all enthralled the fans. We expect Ura to continue to make sumo more exciting with his unpredictable moves.

The Outstanding Performance Award was not awarded to anybody this time as no one was able to defeat the tournament champion Terunofuji.

The special prize winners. From left: Abi, Takanosho and Ura

Looking back at 2021

2021 sumo is now in the books. Six grand tournaments were held as scheduled, and at every venue, all sorts of protocols and measures were put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The fans never seemed to complain though, because they knew they were just fortunate to even get a chance to watch live sumo. The wrestlers on the other hand tried their best to perform at the highest level to bring excitement on a daily basis.

This year started, right out of the gate, with a big surprise as Daieisho came out of nowhere to capture his first top division title in the New Year Tournament in January.
Then, Terunofuji started to show his prowess by winning two consecutive titles in March and May.
In the July contest, two undefeated contenders, Hakuho and Terunofuji, fought for all the marbles on the final day. In the end, Hakuho defeated Terunofuji to capture his 45th -- and the last -- championship of his career.
Terunofuji was promoted to yokozuna upon completion of the July tournament and wasted no time proving why he’s worthy of competing at the top rank. He won two consecutive tournaments in September and November to finish the year on a high note and secure his place at the top. Terunofuji finished 2021 with 4 top division titles, a promotion to Yokozuna, and, out of the 90 matches he fought in the year, a total of 77 wins.

To sum it up, it was a year dominated by Terunofuji, period. The way he rose through the ranks was amazing. If you remember, he was still competing at the third-highest rank of sekiwake in the first two tournaments of the year. He then fought at the second-highest rank of ozeki in May and July, and then finished the year by competing as a yokozuna in September and November. Terunofuji turned 30 one day after the completion of the November tournament and said he’s motivated to compete at a much higher level in the new year. You can expect the Mongolian alpha dog to reign supreme for some time to come, providing he stays injury-free.

2022 outlook

Next comes the New Year Tournament in January. Will Terunofuji win his third straight title since becoming yokozuna in September? If he does, he’ll become only the third yokozuna to accomplish the feat. The last man to win three titles in a row from his yokozuna debut was Tochigiyama in 1919, which was 102 years ago. If Terunofuji can pull it off it will add another feather to his cap for sure.

Now, having said all of that, the million-dollar question is who’s tough enough to legitimately challenge the new undisputed champ, Terunofuji. Also, are we going to see the birth of a new yokozuna in 2022? Sumo is always more competitive and exciting when you have two yokozuna battling for the Emperor’s Cup in every tournament. A possible emergence of a second yokozuna in the new year will no doubt elevate the excitement to an even higher level and that’s what fans are hoping to see.

I must also not forget to mention the two ozeki, Takakeisho and Shodai, both of whom failed to win a single championship in 2021. Takakeisho came close a few times, but Terunofuji was always standing in the way, crushing his title hopes. The level of concern is more serious with Shodai because, in 2021, he managed to score a double-digit winning record on only one occasion. Let’s hope the two highly-anticipated wrestlers will step up and fight like true ozeki heavyweights by consistently getting involved in the championship race and being a real threat to Terunofuji in upcoming competitions.

I’m also hoping to see more positive results from Mitakeumi. The two-time champ has been struggling to make ozeki for the last few years. The sekiwake finished the November contest with 11 wins and 4 losses which gives him good momentum heading into the new year. I honestly believe he has what it takes to make ozeki, so I expect him to rise to the rank within 2022.

Finally, I want to talk about these up-and-comers: Meisei, Hoshoryu, Takanosho, Wakatakakage, Kiribayama, Kotonowaka, Ura and Abi. Each one is unique in his own way and they each have a good skill set, and high aspirations. These highly motivated wrestlers always fight with an aggressive mindset against the upper echelons and I can see one of these feisty combatants winning a tournament championship in 2022. So, keep your eye on them.

The New Year Tournament gets underway on January 9 at the home of sumo, the Kokugikan, in Tokyo.