Mongolian sumo hero rises to the challenge and captures his second top division championship

This year's final Grand Sumo competition, the November Tournament, concluded on Sunday, November 26, in Fukuoka. Without the presence of the sport's alpha male, the Emperor's Cup was up for grabs. In the end, a wrestler who's in line to become the new king of the ring took center stage in dominating fashion.

Number one absent again

Sumo's lone Yokozuna, Terunofuji, once again was nowhere to be seen when the 15-day tournament began. He said he was dealing with severe pain in his lower back and could not compete in Fukuoka. Fans were really disappointed by his consecutive tournament absence. More and more of them are asking how long they have to wait until he returns in top form.

The pressure is on Yokozuna Terunofuji to either show up for work or hang up his mawashi.

In 2023, Terunofuji only secured one championship. That was in the May Tournament, and — in fact — that was the only tournament he participated in for the full 15 days. He's been dealing with an array of challenges, including knee injuries, lower back pain, and diabetes. As a result, he was either partially or completely absent from the other five tournaments. Whatever the reason, he couldn't fulfill his responsibilities as a Yokozuna this year to say the least. And with all the difficulties, there's growing concern that 2024 may not bring much improvement.

The absence of a Yokozuna means fans will miss out on highly anticipated matches and the Yokozuna dohyo-iri ring-entering ceremony. Leaving them disappointed is bad for the sport. Terunofuji is standing at a critical juncture, with no certainty as to whether he'll be able to take to road to resuming his career.

Yokozuna hope falters

Takakeisho, who secured a tournament victory in September, was vying for promotion to the top rank of Yokozuna this time. In order to become a Yokozuna, an Ozeki must win back-to-back tournaments. He seemed confident, but things didn't play out as he'd hoped. The 27-year-old never seemed to be able to build any momentum in Fukuoka. He finished the contest with just 9 wins and 6 losses. That's nowhere near what an Ozeki needs to move up.

Overall, Takakeisho secured tournament victories twice this year, fulfilling his responsibilities as an Ozeki. However, he faltered in March and November, when the opportunity for promotion was there for the taking.

Ozeki Takakeisho on the left once again fell short of gaining promotion to Yokozuna.

He may yet make it, just not right away. At his age, he still has ample time. Multiple tournament victories next year are not at out of the realm of possibility. If he can pull that off, he will get the call he's been coveting.

The title race

The two other Ozeki, Kirishima and Hoshoryu are both from Mongolia. Fans were also expecting them to throw their weight around in the absence of Yokozuna Terunofuji. The one who did was Kirishima. He suffered losses on Day 4 and 6, but from Day 7 the 27-year-old performed like a world beater.

Kirishima's main challenger for the Emperor's Cup was a Maegashira rank-and-filer Atamifuji. He's the wrestler who came tantalizingly close to winning a championship in September. As the competition entered its home stretch, the 21-year-old was the only rikishi matching Kirishima. With 11-2 records, they came up against each other on Day 14.

After locking up in the middle of the dohyo, Kirishima managed to gain an advantageous double inside grip. He flexed his muscles and forced the young hope back and out of the ring. It was a convincing victory by Kirishima. With just one day to go, he had claimed the top spot in the standings: 12 wins and 2 losses.

On Day 14, Kirishima on the left defeats Atamifuji to take sole possession of the lead.

Despite the defeat, Atamifuji still had a chance to win the title on Day 15. He needed three things to happen. First, he had to beat his opponent Kotonowaka. Second, Kirishima had to lose his match for a third loss. And if that happened, Atamifuji would have to defeat Kirishima in a playoff. Well, as it turned out, none of those things happened. Atamifuji lost to Kotonowaka, handing the championship to Kirishima before the Ozeki even entered the ring.

Nevertheless, Kirishima was still all business against his rival, Ozeki Takakeisho. With a laser focus, he dispatched his opponent without breaking a sweat. Kirishima finished the contest with 9 consecutive wins to capture his second Emperor's Cup with a final record of 13 wins and 2 losses. Congratulations to Kirishima!

Settling for second, again

The man who had to settle for second place, yet again, was Atamifuji. He's now come up short in each of the past two tournaments. Why does he flinch in clutch moments? First and foremost, he's young and lacks experience. So, whenever he enters the home stretch with a chance to win the whole thing, he gets nervous and becomes stiff. In future tournaments, he has to control his emotions and keep his poise whatever the situation may be.

Atamifuji left Fukuoka with a sour taste in his mouth, but one thing you notice is his growth in every tournament. I expect him to continue to make improvements, and his championship drought is likely to end in the not-too-distant future. Atamifuji ended 2023 with four consecutive double-digit winning records, and that's no small achievement. Don't be surprised to see the 21-year-old stalwart in the mix for the championship again in the New Year's Tournament.

Contributors rewarded

In many sports, those who don't win go home empty-handed, but not in sumo. Those who compete at a high level throughout the competition are rewarded with special prizes.

The Fighting Spirit Prize went to Atamifuji for staying in contention 'til the end. This is the second consecutive tournament in which he's received the award. He's hoping to get his hands on the sport's top prize next time.

The same prize also went to Kotonowaka for defeating two Ozeki and finishing with an impressive 11 and 4 record. With his splendid performance, he's set himself up for a possible promotion to the second highest rank of Ozeki in January. We'll see if he can make the case for himself in the New Year's Tournament.

Ichiyamamoto also took home the Fighting Spirit Prize. A hard pusher-thruster, he too racked up 11 wins and kept his name on the leaderboard for most of the tournament. It's his first special prize, and he was on cloud nine with the trophy in his hands when he left the arena on the final day.

The November Tournament's special prize winners. From left: Ichiyamamoto, Kotonowaka, and Atamifuji.

January Preview

The next grand tournament is still more than a month away, but it's never too early for a sneak preview.

The overwhelming question: Will Yokozuna Terunofuji compete? As I said earlier, he's running out of room for excuses. So, he'd better prove he still has what it takes to compete at a level expected of a Yokozuna. If Terunofuji fails to show up in the next competition, he'll have a hard time ignoring rumblings for retirement. The only way he can silence them is to return to the ring in strong fashion, period. In that sense, 2024 will be do-or-die year for the 32-year-old Yokozuna. Let's hope he can regain his health and make an impressive comeback.

One of the leading candidates to become the next Yokozuna is undoubtedly Kirishima. He won his first championship in the March Tournament and gained the rank of Ozeki in the July contest. The 27-year-old secured his second championship in the November meet. Earlier this year, he told me that with an increase in weight and a good work ethic, he feels he's become more dominating in recent competitions. There's no question that he's competing with a lot of confidence these days. Among the three Ozeki, he's considered the most consistent. Kirishima will be looking to gain Yokozuna promotion after the New Year's Tournament. Another championship would make his case compelling. Good luck Kirishima!

Now, in my opinion, the wrestler who showed the most growth in 2023 is Kotonowaka. He spent all six tournaments in the upper echelon sanyaku ranks, achieving a winning record in each of them. He's become formidable, consistently overpowering opponents regardless of their rank or status. His improvement is evident in every aspect — solid stance, forward pressure, sharp techniques, and speed. Looking ahead to 2024, I anticipate his promotion to Ozeki and foresee the day when he inherits the shikona, the ring name of his grandfather, the former Yokozuna Kotozakura.

Atamifuji fell short of winning his first title in Fukuoka, but you can expect him to make another run at the championship in the New Year's Tournament. He'll be competing in his 20th tournament since his pro debut, and if he wins it, he'll eclipse a record held by Takahanada (later Yokozuna Takanohana) and Asashoryu. Both of those legends won their first top division title in their 24th tournaments.
Atamifuji possesses an impressive physique and fights in a solid right hand inside and left hand outside position. With a substantial amount of training and consistent improvement in each tournament, he turned in four consecutive double-digit winning performances from the May Tournament onward. I anticipate Atamifuji training even harder in December to ring in the new year with a flourish.

Finally, as we look ahead to 2024, the rikishi I'm most excited about is the 31-year-old Ura. He scored an 8-7 record in the November contest. His dream has been to rise to the fourth-highest rank of Komusubi, and it looks like he'll get his wish. Fans love watching Ura because he fights with spectacular esoteric techniques. When I talked to him in late October, he was oozing with confidence. He said to me that his versatility and unpredictability make him really tough to beat. I'm sure his opponents are already bracing themselves to expect the unexpected. Keep your eye on this guy.

Ura on the left is expected to rise to the fourth-highest rank of Komusubi and make his presence felt.

The New Year's Tournament gets underway on January 14th in the Kokugikan arena, known as the home of sumo, in Tokyo.