Comeback Ozeki rallies in sumo's biggest showdown

A wild and exciting championship race in the September Grand Sumo Tournament came down to the final match on the final day. A young up-and-comer commanded center stage for most of the competition, leaving the wrestlers in the upper echelons to play catch-up. With multiple rikishi still in contention entering Day 15, the Emperor's Cup winner was decided in an extended climax. Here's a recap by NHK World's play-by-play sumo announcer Hiro Morita.

Fans pumped for fall tourney

The September Tournament took place in center of sumo universe, Kokugikan in Tokyo. The fervor leading up to the competition was intense, with tickets for the all 15 days selling out way before the tournament began on September 10. I think the feeling that the coronavirus no longer is a threat to daily life had a lot to do with this. For the most part, people didn't seem hesitant to join mass gatherings, such as sumo tournaments.

Twists and turns

With the addition of Mongolian Hoshoryu to the second-highest rank of Ozeki, many fans expected the sanyaku rikishi who compete at Ozeki, Sekiwake, and Komusubi to dominate. I'm leaving Yokozuna Terunofuji out because he didn't compete due to a herniated disc and diabetes.

Once the tournament began, though, constant hiccups by the favorites put them in precarious positions. By the halfway point, all three Ozeki were already behind the eight ball. Kirishima and Takakeisho were barely hanging in with 5 wins and 3 losses. The newest member of the group, Hoshoryu, was in a deeper hole. He'd already lost five times.

On Day 8, newly promoted Ozeki Hoshoryu loses to Ura to suffer his fifth defeat.

Amidst huge struggles by the top-tier wrestlers, the man who took advantage of the situation was a 21-year-old Maegashira rank-and-filer. Atamifuji was competing in the top division for just the second time. He suffered a loss on Day 5, but by the end of Day 10 he was the sole leader, with 9 wins and only that 1 loss. Atamifuji got beat on Day 12, but his 10–2 record was still better than everyone else's. With just three days to go, he was perched at the top of the leaderboard all by himself.

Maegashira rank-and-filer Atamifuji led the charge throughout the competition.

On Day 13, reality bit ... again. Atamifuji faced Ozeki Takakeisho, who had remained at three losses. The showdown gave Takakeisho the opportunity to become a co-leader. The combatants started by exchanging fierce pushes and thrusts. Then, Takakeisho swatted Atamifuji from the side to break the youngster's balance, gained a favorable deep righthand inside position, and forced him out of the ring. As a result, Takakeisho and Atamifuji were tied for the lead with two days remaining.

The very next day though, Takakeisho suffered his fourth defeat, allowing Atamifuji to reclaim first place by himself with only one day to go. All he needed to do was win his regulation bout on the final day to capture his first top division championship.

Day 15 extravaganza

Heading into the final day, four rikishi were nipping at Atamifuji's heels. Takakeisho, Daieisho, Takayasu, and Hokuseiho were only one win behind, at 10 and 4. Atamifuji faced off against Asanoyama, a former Ozeki.

Atamifuji looked nervous and seemed to have a hard time establishing any rhythm in his offense. With nothing to lose, Asanoyama attacked with an all-guns-blazing charge and dispatched the top contender without breaking a sweat. A fourth defeat for Atamifuji gave the waiting quartet the opportunity to muscle their way back into the title race.

On Day 15, Atamifuji loses to Asanoyama to miss out on clinching his first top division title.

After his loss, Atamifuji returned to the dressing room to get prepared for the upcoming playoff. At that point, he didn't know who or how many opponents he was going to face after the completion of the regulation bouts. There were multiple possible playoff scenarios depending on how the others fared.

And as it turned out, Daieisho, Takayasu, and Hokuseiho all lost. The only rikishi among the four to win was Takakeisho, which set up a winner-take-all showdown between him and Atamifuji.

The showdown

Remember, Takakeisho and Atamifuji had already fought against each other on Day 13, with Takakeisho winning that match. Atamifuji was hoping for sweet revenge. Takakeisho had other ideas, wanting to claim his first championship since January.

In spite of all the anticipation, the match was over in the blink of an eye. Atamifuji charged straight on with a full head of steam, planning to knock Takakeisho back to the edge, but nobody was home. The Ozeki just stepped to his left and easily slapped Atamifuji down to the clay. The crowd showed its displeasure with boos, but Takakeisho didn't care. The wily veteran was willing to do whatever it took to come out on top and complete his redemption.

On Day 15, Takakeisho defeats Atamifuji in a playoff to capture his fourth Emperor's Cup.

During the victory ceremony, Takakeisho said that as an Ozeki there was no way he could've allowed the new kid on the block to walk away with the Emperor's Cup. He declared his intention to get back to work the next day, even though the Fall tourney had just come to an end. Reason: he's setting his sights on making Yokozuna in the near future.

One and only

Despite being the leader of the pack almost the entire time, Atamifuji got beaten by Takakeisho not once, but twice. Even so, the young warrior deserves a lot of credit for making the championship race exciting until the final moment.

I had a long conversation with him prior to the tournament and asked him what he was doing to make himself better and stronger these days. He told me he was primarily working on three things. First, putting a lot of emphasis on keeping his hips low so he can attack from a much lower angle to create good leverage on his forward charge. Second, maximizing the acceleration of his forward charge. He said he wanted to use his imposing physique to overwhelm his foes by powering straight ahead. And finally, he told me he was honing his skills in his favorite righthand-inside-and-lefthand-outside position. He said he was feeling more confident in this particular style of offense because he knows he can beat just about anybody once he gets himself in a chest-to-chest grappling match. Atamifuji said all the hard work he's put in is starting to bear fruit, and that's why he's enjoyed a lot of success lately.

For his great performance, the 21-year-old sensation left the competition with the Fighting Spirit Prize. Normally, several rikishi are awarded special prizes, but this time Atamifuji was the only one. Kudos to Atamifuji for his tremendous effort and fighting spirit.

Atamifuji was the only special prize recipient in the September Tournament.

2023 finale

The September Tournament has only just ended, but I'm already looking ahead to the November Tournament, the final contest of the year.

In that regard, the first rikishi I want to bring up is Terunofuji. As I mentioned, the 31-year-old Yokozuna stayed on the sidelines this time around because of a herniated disc and diabetes. It was his second consecutive tournament absence and his 18th overall. In my opinion, he's been missing way too many competitions lately. I know we only have one Yokozuna at the moment, but that doesn't mean he gets a free pass for everything. We need him back in action, leading by example and winning tournaments in dominating fashion. I think he's running out of excuses, and maybe it's time to shape up or ship out.

Yokozuna Terunofuji was a no-show in the September Tournament. Whether he'll return to the ring in November is still a question mark.

The winner of the September contest, Takakeisho, will try to make it two in a row. If he succeeds, he might — I mean only might — earn promotion to Yokozuna. The reason I can't be more definite is that his latest title came with an 11–4 record. That's generally regarded as a low-level championship. It's only happened three times before in the top division. When you're vying to ascend to the sumo's highest and most respected rank, everybody wants to see it happen in convincing fashion with no doubt about strength and ability. For Takakeisho to reach the summit, he might need to go 15–0, or at least, 14–1, in November. It's a tall order. We'll see if he can rise to the challenge.

The other two Ozeki, Kirishima and Hoshoryu, barely managed to stay above water this time. It was Kirishima's second tournament competing at Ozeki and Hoshoryu's first. I know they're still adjusting to competing at that exalted rank. But as Ozeki, the pressure will always be on. That's part of the job. If they don't get their act together quickly and start competing like true champions, they may not keep their positions very long.

Before wrapping up, I want to talk about a couple of promising young rikishi: Atamifuji, of course, and Hakuoho.

Atamifuji left the arena in tears because he was disappointed and angry with himself for failing to come through in a big moment. The fact that his family was there made matters worse. He really felt bad for letting them down. Nonetheless, contending for the championship the entire time was a good learning experience. I believe it will pave the way for more opportunities to win a top division title in the near future. If he keeps grinding away and maintaining a good work ethic, he's got the goods to accomplish the mission.

Hakuoho is the rikishi who almost won the Emperor's Cup in his top division debut in July. This time, though, he was on the sidelines due to a banged-up left shoulder. He underwent surgery recently. His stable master, the great former Yokozuna Hakuho, told us that his disciple is probably doubtful for the November too. He might be back in action in the New Year's Tournament in January, though. Sitting this one out must have been gut-wrenching for the 20-year-old, but it was the right choice. He's got many years ahead of him. Fixing whatever he can now is the way to go. Once he's in top form again, I'm positive he'll come back even stronger — a scary prospect for all those who have to face him.

Twenty-year-old Hakuoho is hoping to recover and return to the ring as soon as possible.

The Kyushu Basho gets underway on Sunday, November 12, in Fukuoka City.