Mongolian sumo star Hoshoryu wins first title to become Ozeki

The July Grand Sumo Tournament took place July 9th through the 23rd. Heading into the competition, excitement was bubbling over. All 42 rikishi in the top Makunouchi division were expected to show up fit and ready to fight. It wasn't long before those expectations were dashed, though. Several of the wrestlers dropped out due to physical ailments. That cleared the way, though, for some others to show their stuff. And in the end, one of them hoisted the Emperor's Cup for the first time.

Making early exits

Two days before the tournament started, Ozeki Takakeisho announced his withdrawal. The 26-year-old said his knees were just too painful to compete.

And then, on the opening day, the other Ozeki — Kirishima — decided to sit the tourney out too. The newly promoted Ozeki said his ribs were banged up and hurting so much that he didn't want to risk aggravating the injury.

The two Ozekis' absences put a lot of pressure on Yokozuna Terunofuji to do his duty. The 31-year-old had won the previous competition in May and was the undisputed favorite. Terunofuji felt great about his pre-tournament workouts in June and early July and seemed poised to win back-to-back championships — something he hadn't accomplished in nearly two years.

The eight-time champ started the tournament auspiciously with a convincing victory on Day 1. But who could've imagined that would be his only win? On Day 2, Terunofuji got dumped to the clay by Nishikigi. He tried to rebound the following day, but Tobizaru outmaneuvered him with blazing speed and nifty footwork. After the match, Terunofuji hobbled down and slowly walked back to the dressing room with a grimace. The next day, he announced he was pulling out due to a herniated disc in his back.

On Day 3, Terunofuji loses to Tobizaru. The Yokozuna announced his withdrawal from the competition the next day.

This isn't the first time Terunofuji has withdrawn due to injury, but the problem up to now has been his knees. Seeing him leave with a sore back makes me worry about his future. The Yokozuna is in his 13th year as a pro, and I know he's contended with aches and pains from head to toe. Problems in his lower back, though, could prevent him from exerting the necessary pressure from the entire lower part of his body. That's a major issue because when he needs to make his offensive charge or resist an opponent's onslaught, he might not be able to fight the way he really wants. Let's hope the pain goes away quickly and the problem turns out not to be too serious.

Too soon?

After sitting out the first three matches, Kirishima decided to see what he could do over the remaining 12 days. He said his ribs were feeling better, and you've got to give him credit for bravery. However, he just wasn't ready to chase the Emperor's Cup. Kirishima ended his Ozeki debut with an awkward record of 6 wins, 7 losses, and 2 absences. One of those losses was assessed against him for the first match, for withdrawing from the tournament on short notice.

Filling the gap

So, who took advantage of the opportunity? Nishikigi, for one. After 11 days, the rank-and-file wrestler held sole possession of the lead with 10 wins and 1 loss, including a victory over Yokozuna Terunofuji. With four days remaining, all he needed to do was hang on.

Easier said than done. On Day 12, the veteran suffered his second defeat, an upset loss to a top division rookie, Shonannoumi. But Nishikigi was still one of two co-leaders, along with another rank-and-filer, Hokutofuji. Just behind them were Hoshoryu and Hakuoho, at 9 and 3.

All that was a prelude to the final three days. Nishikigi never recovered from his second loss and dropped his next three matches to finish at 10-5. The record is still impressive but not good enough for a championship.

The other three contenders, Hoshoryu, Hokutofuji and Hakuoho held their own. They entered the final day as co-leaders, each with 11 wins and 3 losses.

On Day 15, Hokutofuji fought first and won. That secured him a spot in a playoff. He would meet the winner of the match between Hoshoryu and Hakuoho. It turned out to be Hoshoryu, who slammed the rookie to the clay with a powerful overarm throw.

Hoshoryu and Hokutofuji had already faced each other on Day 12. Hokutofuji won that match with a strong pushing attack. Hoshoryu was out for revenge. Hokutofuji launched a relentless pushing attack, but Hoshoryu held his ground and then rallied to shove Hokutofuji back and out of the ring. Match and tournament to Hoshoryu.

On Day 15, Hoshoryu defeats Hokutofuji in a playoff to capture his first top division title.

In the victory ceremony, the 24-year-old Mongolian said he was so happy he couldn't stop crying. He explained that he was determined to rise to the occasion because having made that far, he didn't want to waste the golden opportunity.

One of the first persons to celebrate Hoshoryu's victory was his uncle, former Yokozuna Asashoryu. Hoshoryu said that Asashoryu was crying too when they spoke. Asashoryu won 25 championships during his career. Let's see how close his nephew can come. With the triumph, Hoshoryu also set himself up for promotion to the second-highest rank of Ozeki.

Wishing on a star

People in Japan celebrate Tanabata, the Star Festival, in early July. They write their wishes on pieces of paper and hang them on bamboo trees. Doing so is said to increase the chances of the wishes coming true. There was a bamboo tree at the main gate of the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, and I happened to find Hoshoryu's paper with his wish written on it: "Winning my first championship!" It worked!

Before the tournament, I asked Hoshoryu what his immediate goal was: winning his first title or becoming Ozeki? Without hesitation, he said "winning my first title." But then he added, "my next goal is to make Ozeki." Well, the title winner will have to set some new goals because next time he steps into the ring, he'll be introduced as Ozeki Hoshoryu.

On July 26, Hoshoryu accepts promotion to Ozeki.

Rookie sensation

One name I haven't said much about yet is Hakuoho. The 19-year-old sensation kept himself in contention 'til the final day, vying to become the first top division rookie in 109 years to win the Emperor's Cup. His performance awed fans from start to finish. Hakuoho promises to get better and stronger, with the benefit of daily training by his stablemaster, the former Yokozuna Hakuho. Hakuho holds the record for top division titles: 45. You couldn't ask for a better teacher.

Many expect Hakuoho to become one of sumo's biggest stars.

I've spoken to this young man a number of times, and he's as mature and modest a human being as you'll ever meet. I'm impressed with his politeness and his respect for his elders. He told me his credo is to be the strongest man inside the ring, but once he steps outside, to treat people with kindness and respect. I hope he maintains that mindset throughout his career and makes his stablemaster, and the sport, proud.

Special prize winners

Only one wrestler walks away with the Emperor's Cup, but those who make their presence felt don't go home empty handed.

The Outstanding Performance Award went to Nishikigi. He defeated Yokozuna Terunofuji and led the championship race for most of the tournament.

The Fighting Spirit Prize was given to top division rookie Shonannoumi. Sumo elders praised his aggressive style, which enabled him to rack up 10 wins.

Another top division rookie left Nagoya with the Fighting Spirit Prize too. Gonoyama impressed a lot of people. His pushing and thrusting attacks led to 10 victories.

Komusubi Kotonowaka also received the Fighting Spirit Prize. He won 11 matches in commanding fashion. The 25-year-old is expected to move up to Sekiwake in the next tournament.

Runner-up Hokutofuji didn't get what he came for. Nevertheless, he earned the Fighting Spirit Prize as well. Hokutofuji deserves accolades for a valiant effort.

And the tournament champion Hoshoryu received a Fighting Spirit Prize too. Hoshoryu's feistiness and never-give-up mentality led him to come out on top in Nagoya.

Yet another Fighting Spirit Prize went to Hakuoho along with the Technique Prize. The 19-year-old sensation won 11 matches with magnificent techniques.

7 special prize recipients. Front row from left: Shonannoumi, Kotonowaka, and Gonoyama. Back row from left: Nishikigi, Hoshoryu, Hakuoho, and Hokutofuji.

Fall tourney preview

It's never too early to look ahead to the next competition. That'll be the fall tourney in September.

We're hearing reports that Yokozuna Terunofuji is recovering quickly from his painful back and is looking forward to making a strong return. That's a relief. He'll be out to reclaim his role as the alpha male of sumo.

With the addition of Hoshoryu, three wrestlers will be competing at the second-highest rank. The other two, Takakeisho and Kirishima, didn't make much noise in Nagoya. One of them needs to break away from the pack and make the leap to Yokozuna. I'm excited to see which one it will be.

The talk of the town before the July Tournament was which of three Sekiwake would earn promotion to Ozeki. The answer should come as no surprise: Hoshoryu. What about Daieisho and Wakamotoharu? Both were doing really well early on, but they faltered in the second week, suffering four losses each in the home stretch. If they expect to rise to Ozeki, they'll have to build stamina, stay focused, and avoid hiccups.

Finally, I want to talk about the top division rookie trio from the July contest: Gonoyama, Shonannoumi, and Hakuoho. I can't say enough about these newcomers. Each left Nagoya with a special prize, and Hakuoho got two. I expect them to keep improving. They have great work ethics and hunger for even bigger success.

With all this young blood, the next competition promises to be an extravaganza. Those in the upper echelons are out to reassert themselves, but the up-and-comers feel it's time for a changing of the guard.

The tournament will get underway on September 10th in Kokugikan, the home of sumo in Tokyo.