Sumo's lone Yokozuna makes long-awaited comeback

The biggest question entering the New Year's Tournament was whether sumo’s alpha warrior would be able to battle back after sitting out three previous competitions with injuries. The winner of the previous tournament was set on toppling him and becoming king of the mountain himself. The first tournament of 2024 proved to be a competition for the ages, with possession of the Emperor’s Cup not decided until the final moment.

Offering encouragement and hope

A deadly earthquake struck central Japan's Noto Peninsula on New Year's Day. More than 200 people lost their lives, and many of those who survived have had to make do in evacuation shelters. Full restoration is expected to take months or even years.

The Japan Sumo Association conducted fundraising throughout the entire two-week competition to offer support. In addition, wrestlers from the affected regions went all out to put on their best performances in hopes of offering energy and encouragement to the survivors.

Japan Sumo Association expressed heartfelt condolences for the victims and survivors of the Noto Peninsula earthquake. The Association pledged continuous support to help those affected recover.

The return of the king

After struggling through much of last year with injuries, sumo's number-one man finally returned to action. Yokozuna Terunofuji sat out five of the six tournaments in 2023. Everyone wanted to see if he would be able to maintain his condition and stamina over the entire 15 days.

Yokozuna Terunofuji makes his first appearance in a tournament since July of last year.

Top contenders

Normally, when a Yokozuna competes, he's the top contender for the title. But with so much uncertainty surrounding Terunofuji's physical condition, a lot of people thought Ozeki Kirishima was the man to beat. He won the previous tournament in November.

For the 27-year-old Kirishima, this was a golden opportunity to earn promotion to Yokozuna. When I spoke with him before the tournament, he seemed confident as he shared with me his 2024 resolutions: Become Yokozuna and win all six grand tournaments. Those are really high aspirations, but he said he's mentally and physically ready to move up to the pinnacle of sumo rankings. I had to ask him, though, about his 0-10 record against Yokozuna Terunofuji. His simple answer was “I'll be ready this time.”

The other wrestler I had my eye on was Kotonowaka. He competes at the third-highest rank of Sekiwake but was one of the most consistent performers in 2023. He scored more wins than losses in all six tournaments. The 26-year-old entered the New Year's Tournament with his sights set on winning his first top division title and gaining promotion to the second-highest rank of Ozeki.

Battle for the Emperor's Cup

After ten days, Kotonowaka was the tournament's sole leader with 9 wins and 1 loss. But the next five days would be a test of fire, with Terunofuji and Kirishima just behind at 8 and 2.

With a solid performance, Kotonowaka led for most of the tournament.

Day 13 pitted Kotonowaka, who still was in first place by himself at 11-1, against Terunofuji (10-2). Kotonowaka started the match with a nice frontal charge, but Terunofuji was able to withstand the onslaught, seize a decent inside position, and rally to put Kotonowaka away. As a result, the two of them, along with Kirishima, were tied for the lead at 11-2.

On Day 13, Terunofuji defeats Kotonowaka. The outcome created a three-way tie for first place among Terunofuji, Kirishima, and Kotonowaka with two days to go.

On Day 14, Kotonowaka faced off against another formidable foe, Ozeki Kirishima. Terunofuji, on the other hand, got a day off. His scheduled opponent, Hoshoryu withdrew because of injury, entitling the Yokozuna to a free win.

Getting back to Kotonowaka versus Kirishima, the Ozeki began the match by applying forward pressure on Kotonowaka with a strong pushing attack and a stiff arm to the neck. The Sekiwake held his ground, though, swatting Kirishima from the side to break his balance and forcing the Ozeki out of the ring.

As a result, Terunofuji and Kotonowaka were tied for the lead with just one day to go, while Kirishima remained within striking distance, trailing by just one.

Now, the final day. Kotonowaka was the first to fight. He looked calm and collected as he took care of business by dispatching Tobizaru with a powerful over arm throw to go 13-2. The win added to the pressure on Terunofuji, as he now had to beat Kirishima to punch his ticket to the playoff. The Yokozuna kept his cool, blowing Kirishima away without breaking a sweat.

The final showdown: Terunofuji versus Kotonowaka. Kotonowaka seized an early advantage by getting a double inside grip. However, Terunofuji persevered and drove Kotonowaka back and out of the ring. So, when the dust settled, Terunofuji won his ninth top division championship and his first since May of last year.

On Day 15, Terunofuji defeats Kotonowaka in a playoff to capture his ninth championship.

During the victory ceremony Terunofuki said despite the struggle to recover from injuries after winning his eighth title last May, he trained hard and kept the faith. That, he said, allowed him to make a strong comeback. He promised to resume strenuous training the following day to get ready for the next tournament.

Special Prize Winners

Only one wrestler can get his hands on the Emperor's Cup, but several are able to claim consolation prizes for making a big impact.

Wakamotoharu won the Outstanding Performance Award. He defeated Yokozuna Terunofuji and Ozeki Takakeisho in strong fashion to finish with 10 victories.

The Fighting Spirit Prize went to Onosato. The top division rookie finished with 11 wins and stayed in contention until the late stage of the tournament.

Kotonowaka took the Technique Prize. He came up short of winning the Emperor's Cup in grabbing 13 victories.

Special Prize Winners. From left: Wakamotoharu, Kotonowaka, and Onosato.

The March Madness

Now that this year's first competition is over and done, let's look ahead to the Spring Tournament.

New Year's Tournament champ Terunofuji will be chasing his tenth top division title. He's always said that winning 10 is his ultimate goal, and now he's knocking at the door. Ten titles would mean that he'd always be referred to as a “Great Yokozuna.” He hasn't won back-to-back championships since 2021. Doing so this next time would be especially sweet.

Ozeki Kirishima kept himself in contention till the last moment but wasn't able to accomplish his mission. That means he'll have to start again on his campaign to become a Yokozuna. He'll have to get back on track right away to stand a chance of making good on his 2024 resolution.

The other two Ozeki, Hoshoryu and Takakeisho, failed to complete the tournament after being sidelined with injuries. Hoshoryu left the contest on Day 14 after gaining more wins than losses, so he has fewer things to worry about than Takakeisho. Takakeisho ended the January meet with 2 wins, 2 losses, and 11 absences. If he can't come up with more wins than losses next time out, he will be relieved of his Ozeki status. He'd better get back in shape as soon as possible to resume training and be ready to compete at the highest level again.

Kotonowaka left the arena in tears after a gut-wrenching loss to Terunofuji in a playoff, but his splendid performance earned him both a special prize and promotion to Ozeki. When I spoke to him in late December, he told me that his goal in the new year would be to keep moving forward. He said he intended to get better and stronger each day by maintaining a good work ethic. He's proven himself to be a man of his word.

When Kotonowaka enters the Spring Tournament, his entire focus will be on winning his first championship, period. Reaching the ultimate goal, promotion to Yokozuna, will require winning two consecutive championships. But one thing at a time. First, March.

On January 31, Kotonowaka receives promotion to Ozeki.

One more wrestler I want to mention is Onosato. The top division rookie left the New Year's Tournament with the Fighting Spirit Prize in hand. The 23-year-old is big and strong, and his technique is sound. Many are already referring to him as a generational talent who'll become the face of sumo in the near future. In my opinion, he still has a long way to go to reach that point, but he seems to have all the right tools and the mental toughness to make a run at it.

With an 11-4 record this time, Onosato will jump up in the rankings. Then we'll see how he fares against more rugged opponents. By the way, he's from Ishikawa Prefecture, one of the regions that was hit by the New Year's Day earthquake. Onosato said he was fighting with a strong determination every day to give hope and encouragement to the quake survivors. I'm sure he and other wrestlers from the area will carry that mindset with them to the Spring Tournament as well, starting on March 10th in Osaka.

Onosato won 11 matches in his top division debut to prove he's a real contender.

Stopping the downward spiral

Last but not least, I wanted to briefly mention a serious concern in sumo circles these days: the continuous decline in the number of young prospects. For the New Year's Tournament, 599 wrestlers were listed on the Banzuke, the official listing of ranks. This is the first time since the 1979 March Tournament for the list to have fewer than 600. By comparison, in 1994 nearly 950 wrestlers appeared in the rankings.

Japan's declining birthrate probably has something to do with it. There aren't as many young people around for any endeavor. I believe the pandemic prohibition on stablemasters visiting various regions to recruit young prospects also had an effect.

Tickets for the New Year's Tournament were sold out even before the tournament began. So, the sport's popularity is not in immediate jeopardy. Nevertheless, sumo's officials and stablemasters need to have a sense of urgency in turning the recruitment situation around. The status of Japan's national sport is at stake.