Back on top and aiming high

Maegashira rank-and-file combatants had been throwing their weight around, winning the Emperor's Cup in the past three competitions in 2022. The New Year's Tournament was about time for those in the upper echelons to make their presence felt. This year's first championship wasn't decided until the final match on the final day. Another maegashira was trying to steal the limelight, but one of the sport's elites was itching to end his long dry spell.

Big stars dimming

With the relegation of Mitakeumi and Shodai from the second-highest rank of ozeki, only two rikishi in the top two ranks were listed on the banzuke. One was yokozuna Terunofuji; the other was ozeki Takakeisho. It was the first time in 125 years for only one rikishi in each rank to be in the lineup. The pressure was on both of them to deliver high level performances.

Top man drops out

Fans were hoping Terunofuji would make a strong return after being sidelined in the past two competitions. However, that was not to be. The 31-year-old yokozuna decided to stay out, due to a slow recovery from the knee operation he had in October.

Yokozuna grand champion Terunofuji was sidelined for a third consecutive tournament. Fans are hoping for his recovery.

The news was demoralizing for his supporters, but I think the decision was wise. He's still dealing with knee pain, and he easily could have reaggravated his injury. Everyone wants to see Terunofuji back, but we're willing to wait until he's 100 percent.

Lone ozeki shines under bright lights

The yokozuna's absence meant that number-two Takakeisho needed to step up. The 26-year-old ozeki came agonizingly close to winning a championship in November competition, but he lost in a playoff. Prior to the New Year's Tournament, Takakeisho told me he was focused on moving up to yokozuna. That added to his determination to get the job done and win his first title in more than two years.

Takakeisho stumbled early and suffered his first defeat on Day 2. He bounced back though and won his next 8 matches to lead the pack. Back-to-back setbacks on days 11 and 12 allowed his longtime rival Onosho to take sole possession of the lead.

Then came the showdown on Day 13: Onosho versus Takakeisho. The match reflected what was at stake, with the two trading fierce thrusts. In the end, Takakeisho shoved Onosho out of the ring to reclaim a share of the lead. That put him in a tie with Onosho and another rank-and-filer, Kotoshoho. The victory also gave Takakeisho his confidence back with two days left to show it.

On Day 14, Takakeisho and Kotoshoho won their bouts, but Onosho suffered his fourth loss. So, heading into the final day, Takakeisho and Kotoshoho were tied at 11-3.

Day 15: Takakeisho against Kotoshoho. Kotoshoho attacked with a fierce frontal charge, but the ozeki firmly held his ground. He then quickly seized a deep left hand upper body grip on the young up-and-comer and with no hesitation swung Kotoshoho down to the clay. Takakeisho claimed his third top division title.

On Day 15, Takakeisho defeats Kotoshoho to win the New Year's Tournament championship.

During the victory ceremony, Takakeisho said he had been frustrated with his recent performances, but he felt his efforts were finally paying off. An ozeki is expected to win every time he steps into the ring, he observed. Nevertheless, he said he embraces the pressure because it kept him motivated as he struggled during the past two years.

Congratulations to Takakeisho for hoisting the Emperor's Cup again after more than two years.

Youth shows potential

Although Takakeisho came through, Kotoshoho deserves a lot of credit for going toe to toe with him. Kotoshoho wasn't on anyone's radar as a contender for the championship. He had posted a losing record in each of the past four tournaments. This time, he kept his foot on the gas and sped ahead to an impressive collection of wins. I'm sure it was a good learning experience. Afterwards, the 23-year-old said he was able to compete at a high level throughout the 15 days because he was in great shape. He also cited the ability to stay focused, which enabled him to get the upper hand at the onset of his bouts. Kudos to Kotoshoho for proving his doubters wrong. His next challenge is to show he can go the distance and win at the end.

Special prize winners

Runner-up Kotoshoho received the Fighting Spirit Prize. The sumo elders praised his grit in remaining in contention all the way.

26-year-old Mongolian Kiribayama took home the Technique Prize. He used eight different winning techniques to score a total of 11 wins. Kiribayama competed at komusubi, the fourth-highest rank. He's expected to be promoted to sekiwake for the next competition.

Special prize winners: Kiribayama on the left, Kotoshoho on the right.

Looking ahead

It's never too early to talk about the next competition -- in this case, the Spring Tournament.

Takakeisho will be on a mission to earn promotion to the top rank of yokozuna. Winning another title in March would leave no doubt about his qualifications. Even if he doesn't win the Emperor's Cup in Osaka, I believe he can make a case for himself by scoring 13 wins. He's racked up a double-digit winning record in each of the past four tournaments, and I suppose the sumo elders value his consistency. Once again, Takakeisho personally told me that he wants to make the rank badly. Let's see whether he can rise to the occasion.

Of course, we'll also be keeping an eye on Terunofuji. After a three-tournament hiatus, will he be back to yokozuna strength? We'll find out in March.

I'm also watching Wakamotoharu. Making his debut competing at the fourth-highest rank of komusubi this time, he posted an impressive 9-6 record. He stands a chance of being promoted to sekiwake. If that happens, the brother duo of Wakamotoharu and Wakatakakage will be competing at sekiwake together in the same tournament. You don't see that very often. I have the feeling Wakamotoharu is about to make a big statement.

Kiribayama went 11 wins and 4 losses and put the other combatants on notice to watch out. He's learning from former yokozuna Kakuryu. No wonder he's getting better quick. Kakuryu told me that Kiribayama has a good work ethic and could even take home the Emperor's Cup someday. Might it be in March?

Don't ignore Asanoyama either. The 28-year-old rejoined the second-tier juryo division this time and promptly won the championship there. He's expected to come back to the top makuuchi division in March. All I can say is "look out!" The former ozeki wants to prove he belongs in the big leagues.

Former ozeki Asanoyama wins the Juryo division title. He's hoping to return to the top division in March and make a statement.

With a bunch of young up-and-comers all ready to take some big steps, the March Tournament should be really exciting. It's called the "Areru Haru-basho," the stormy spring tournament, because it often turns into a blustery contest. March madness in Osaka will be a dandy, so mark your calendar for March 12th, when the wild wind starts blowing.