Returning yokozuna shines in wild contest Returning yokozuna shines in wild contest
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Returning yokozuna shines in wild contest

    NHK World
    Anchor, Play-by-Play Sumo Announcer
    The May grand sumo tournament turned out to be one of the most unpredictable competitions ever, with many upsets and surprises. But in the end, the sport's alpha dog wasn't going to be denied.

    The king returns

    One of the biggest questions heading into the May tournament was whether the one and only yokozuna grand champion Terunofuji would make his return to the ring. He had suffered injuries to his lower body in the previous March tournament and was considered 50-50 for the May meet. When the match-ups for the first two days of the competition were announced two days before the tournament a lot of people were pleasantly surprised to hear Terunofuji's name.

    Now the question shifted from his possible absence to his physical condition. Normally I can find out for myself whether a wrester is in good shape or not by observing their training sessions with my own eyes before the tournament, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has prevented sumo journalists like yours truly from attending their practices in recent years. As a result, we aren't able to get a full grasp of a wrestler's form until he battles in the ring.

    Mayhem at the May tournament

    When we saw Terunofuji get beaten on opening day it was clear to everyone that the yokozuna was nowhere near where he wanted to be physically. And many quickly became skeptical of the yokozuna's ability to compete for the entire two weeks.

    Terunofuji bounced back from his Day 1 setback by winning his next four matches, but again suffered upsets on Day 6 and 8. He had three losses already by the half-way point and it pretty much meant that his quest to capture his 7th title was unlikely to be fulfilled. But from Day 9 onward the yokozuna picked up the pace and began fighting like the Terunofuji we knew in the past.

    Entering the final day, four contenders were still vying for the Emperor's Cup. Both Terunofuji and Takanosho had 3 losses each, and were in a two-way tie for first place. Close behind them were Daieisho and Sadanoumi, with 4 losses each. Unfortunately for the latter two, and for Takanosho as well, they would soon find out that their title hopes were dashed as Terunofuji defeated ozeki Mitakeumi in the final bout. Terunofuji finished with 12 wins and 3 losses to clinch the championship. Takanosho had earlier suffered his fourth loss of the tournament, giving Terunofuji the opportunity to seal the deal by racking up one more win — and that's exactly what the yokozuna did.

    On Day 15, Terunofuji defeats Mitakeumi to clinch his 7th top division championship.

    It was Terunofuji's first championship win since November last year. At the victory ceremony, he said that he was glad the tournament was finally over, because as a yokozuna he feels that he must achieve good results at all times. He also revealed that he was very frustrated with himself for withdrawing from the March tournament with injuries, and was really hoping to redeem himself this time.

    Well, congratulations to Terunofuji. Let's hope he stays healthy and injury-free in competitions to come.

    Woeful ozeki trio

    On the Banzuke official rankings you'll find three ozeki listed near the top just beneath the lone Yokozuna, Terunofuji. The three men at the second-highest rank are Mitakeumi, Shodai and Takakeisho. It turned out to be a very disappointing May tournament for all the three ozeki. Takakeisho barely grasped a winning record, with 8 wins. Mitakeumi had a losing record of 6 wins and 9 losses, and Shodai ended with a demoralizing 5 wins and 10 losses.

    Mitakeumi, Shodai and Takakeisho line up in front row along with yokozuna Terunofuji. The three ozeki once again failed to meet the high standards expected of their respected rank.

    The ozeki trio should be in the mix for the championship every time to uphold their respected rank, but they continue to disappoint. Their poor performance has no doubt contributed to the chaotic circumstances surrounding the May tournament and its outcome. Mitakeumi and Shodai are now in danger of losing their ozeki rank should they fail to secure more wins than losses in the next tournament. Best of luck to both.

    Special prize winners

    Daieisho went home with the Outstanding Performance Award. He defeated a yokozuna and 2 ozeki.

    Takanosho upset a yokozuna and a couple of ozeki as well and was given the same award.

    The Fighting Sprit Prize went to Sadanoumi for maintaining his aggressive attacking style and racking up 11 wins.

    The special prize winners. From left; Daieisho, Takanosho and Sadanoumi.

    Next tournament outlook and the future

    With three competitions in the books there are just three more grand tournaments to go in 2022. The first two contests were claimed by sekiwake wrestlers; Miakeumi in January and Wakatakakage in March. Terunofuji won in May, showing once again who the boss is.

    As we head into the latter half of year, it will be interesting to see who can step up and challenge Terunofuji. As they say, you have to beat the best to be the best, but I just can't find anyone strong enough or consistent enough to dethrone the king anytime soon. In my opinion, sumo needs another star wrestler to rise up to ozeki and through to yokozuna to heighten the level of competition and reignite the sport's popularity. Yes, Terunofuji won the championship this time but his triumph wasn't as impressive as those in other tournaments he'd won in the past. To me, it seems he won his 7th title not due to his true dominance, but rather because the other upper rankers were unable to legitimately challenge the yokozuna.

    As I mentioned, the three ozeki are inconsistent and I just can't imagine any one of them making yokozuna. Remember, in order to become a yokozuna one has to win two consecutive tournaments or perform at a level something close to that. And, I just don't see that happening from the three current ozeki we have.

    Then, the question becomes… "Who?". I'd have to say the one man we can bet our money on right now is Wakatakakage. The sekiwake finished with 9 wins and 6 losses in the May contest and just came up short of realizing a promotion to ozeki. However, I have a strong feeling that he'll regroup, improve and find his way to rise to the second-highest rank in the near future. He doesn't have an imposing physique like the rest of the top division combatants, but his work ethic is second to none and he seems to be getting better and stronger every time he steps into the ring. So, don't be surprised to see Wakatakakage winning another title in the second half of this year, making ozeki and becoming the face of the organization.

    And speaking of Wakatakakage, don't sleep on his older brother Wakamotoharu who also competes in the top division. Since joining the highest league in January, Wakamotoharu has recorded three consecutive 9-6 records and continues to climb up the ranks. In the next tournament we'll get to see his true potential when he goes up against the sport's top dogs for the first time in his career. I feel confident he'll hold his own and make an impact.

    Brothers Wakamotoharu on the left and Wakatakakage on the right are poised to become the sport's next juggernauts.

    The other possible future stars I'm keeping my eye on are Abi, Daieisho and Kotonowaka, but they still need to work on their consistency. Among the three, Kotonowaka is the youngest and seems to have a lot of room for growth. That said, his performance in May won't get him near anywhere he wants to be. Kotonowaka did finish with a nice 9 and 6 record, but he racked up many of those wins by utilizing his slick moves at the edge instead of dominating his foes by charging forward. I had a chance to speak with his father and stable master Sadogatake who told me that he's very impressed with his son's recent vast improvements. That said, he told me that Kotonowaka must hone his skills more, especially fighting on his opponent's belt. Sadogatake also said that Kotonowaka must concentrate on moving forward and attacking much more aggressively to take advantage of his imposing body.

    Kotonowaka's grandfather, by the way, was former yokozuna Kotozakura, so he grew up in a sumo family and I know there is a lot of pressure on him to succeed, but I honestly think the youngster has what it takes to become sumo's next big thing. Let's hope he keeps making progress and meets these big expectations.

    Kotonowaka — another promising hope aiming to rise to stardom.

    Finally, for the first time in a long time, we're going to see the wrestlers compete in front of a packed stadium next time they step into the ring. Due to the coronavirus, recent grand tournaments were held with a cap on the number of spectators allowed into the arena per day. But that measure will be scrapped from next time and I'm sure the fans are excited about this. So too are the wrestlers themselves, no doubt, as they will be more motivated to compete because more eyes will be glued to the center of the ring.

    The July tournament gets underway in Nagoya on July 10.