Fans pack the stands
On May 8th, Japan's government downgraded COVID-19 from a Category 2 problem to Category 5, the same grouping as seasonal influenza. That reclassification led the Japan Sumo Association to remove almost all the pandemic restrictions on fans. It was what they'd been waiting for. Tickets quickly sold out for all 15 days of the tournament, long before it started on May 14th.
The center of the sumo universe, Kokugikan, was filled with full of joy and energy, day in and day out. Showing enhanced motivation and extra effort, the wrestlers felt the effect.
Long dry spell ends
Last October, Yokozuna Terunofuji underwent surgery on both of his knees and since then had sat out three consecutive competitions. So, his participation this time was the 31-year-old's first tournament appearance since September of last year. He wasted no time in demonstrating he was ready for prime time, winning his first eight bouts and sitting pretty at the top of the standings all by himself. He suffered his first setback on Day 9, but quickly regrouped and got back on track, racking up wins.
After 13 days, Terunofuji still was the sole leader with just one loss. Breathing down his neck was Sekiwake Kiribayama with two losses. On Day 14, they had a date with destiny and with each other. The championship was on the line for Terunofuji. A win for Kiribayama would keep his title hopes alive. Kiribayama fiercely attacked Terunofuji with a high-octane offense, but the Yokozuna held his ground. In the end, Terunofuji outmuscled Kiribayama, forcing him over the strawbales, and clinched the Emperor's Cup. It was his first top division title in a year and eighth overall. On Day 15, he faced off against arch rival Takakeisho and put the icing on his championship by beating the Ozeki with little trouble. A 14-1 record eliminated all doubts: Terunofuji was back.
During the victory ceremony, Terunofuji said winning a championship is no easy task and that he was happy to make a post-surgery comeback. He said his goal is to win more than 10 championships. His immediate plan, however, was to get ready for the next tournament by taking care of his body during June.
To my eyes, Terunofuji's triumph was made possible by his brave and wise decision to sit out three successive tournaments after surgery. If he had competed in January or March, he could've easily reaggravated his injury and, who knows, he might have ended up sitting on the sidelines for good. So, kudos to Terunofuji for his poise, patience. and perseverance.
With the triumph, Terunofuji became the first man in 34 years to win a championship upon returning from three consecutive tournament absences. The last to accomplish that feat was none other than the current Chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, Hakkaku, who did it in 1989 when he was known as Yokozuna Hokutoumi.
Earning a coveted promotion
Kiribayama competed at the third-highest rank of Sekiwake this time, Next time, he'll move up, having been promoted to the second-highest rank of Ozeki. He made a strong case for himself by racking up 34 wins across three tournaments, including a championship performance in March. Sumo elders praised his consistency and had no hesitation pulling him up the ladder.
When I spoke to Kiribayama before the tournament, he sounded pretty confident. He told me that as long as he's able to execute his style of sumo, there should be no problem collecting enough wins to clear the promotion benchmark. And he didn't disappoint. Way to go Kiribayama! I believe he has even more to look forward to. Let's hope the promotion doesn't make him complacent but instead inspires him to maintain his fine work ethic.
In his acceptance speech, Kiribayama said, "I will train even harder so I will not disgrace the rank of Ozeki." However, you won't see Kiribayama in the next banzuke official listing of ranks. He's changing his name to the one his stablemaster used to use: Kirishima. Best of luck to the new Ozeki with the new name.
With the promotion, the 27-year-old becomes the sixth Mongolian to reach the second-highest rank. It's an elite club: Asashoryu, Hakuho, Harumafuji, Kakuryu, and Terunofuji, and now him. Let's see if he can do what all of the others eventually did: make it to the top rank of Yokozuna.
Special Prize Winners
In every grand tournament, there are wrestlers who perform extremely well but come up short of capturing the Emperor's Cup. The sumo association makes sure to recognize their efforts, not letting them go home empty-handed.
The Outstanding Performance Award went to Meisei. The rank-and-filer finished with a modest record of eight wins and seven losses, but one of those wins was an upset victory over Yokozuna Terunofuji. Meisei was the only combatant who could accomplish that feat.
Even though Kiribayama failed to win back-to-back championships, he went home with the Technique Prize. He showed an array of nifty maneuvers to rack up 11 victories.
Wakamotoharu got the Technique Prize too. He won 10 matches, with powerful and dynamic moves. This is his first special prize. He says he still has many things to work on, and he wants to train harder to prepare himself for the next competition.
Now that the books have closed on the May Tournament, let's shift our focus to the next one, in July.
Terunofuji proved his capability in May. In July, he'll be out to show consistency. You have to go back a couple of years to find the last time he won back-to-back titles. As a Yokozuna, Terunofuji surely has that in his sights. If he can make it happen, he'll establish himself as the alpha male of sumo.
Another wrestler in a do-or-die situation in May was Ozeki Takakeisho. He had to win a majority of his bouts to retain his status. He did manage to do it ... barely, with eight wins. But that kind of lukewarm performance didn't do much for his reputation. An Ozeki has the responsibility to be in the mix for the championship in each and every tournament. Takakeisho hasn't been living up to those expectations recently, and fans are starting to lose their patience. July is the time for the 26-year-old to convince us once again that he has what it takes to take on all comers. That's the job description of an Ozeki.
I'd like to mention a top division returnee who made fans very happy with his magnificent performance this time: Asanoyama. Remember him? He's a former Ozeki who many thought would become the next Yokozuna. That road was closed for repairs in 2021, when he received a one-year suspension for breaking the sumo association's coronavirus protocol.
The Asanoyama we saw this time looked like a mature and responsible athlete who draws attention for the right reasons. It's nice to see him back and competing with confidence at a high level. He told me he's grateful for the support of fans and intends to move forward by staying focused. After chatting with him, I got the sense that the former Ozeki is determined to get back to where he was ... and maybe even beyond. The road is open again. It's up to him to make the journey.
Finally, I wanted to give a shout-out to all the fans who came up to greet me at Kokugikan during the tournament. Meeting you is always a great honor and a pleasure. Your support is what keeps my adrenaline flowing. I'm delighted to hear that you enjoy watching GRAND SUMO Preview and GRAND SUMO Highlights on NHK World-Japan. I'll do my best to deliver intriguing and exciting features and updates of Japan's national sport. Please keep watching. Again, thanks for all your support. Arigato!
The July Tournament gets underway on July 9 in Nagoya.