Sumo prodigy achieves improbable triumph at the May Tournament

The fifteen days of the Grand Sumo Tournament ended in Tokyo on May 26. Due to the absence of so many injured top-rankers, the tournament turned into a showcase for new talent. Those who took center stage made things really exciting all the way to the finish. When the final act had ended, a star was born.

Dominoes falling

Heading into the tournament, fans had lofty expectations of performances from the upper echelons. One Yokozuna and four Ozeki were listed on the Banzuke official rankings, and the conventional wisdom was that one of them would wind up with the Emperor's Cup.

However, those expectations were immediately dashed, as all five top rankers bit the dust on Day 1. It was the first time in the modern era for all the rikishi from the top two ranks to go down to defeat on opening day.

Once again, many of the top rankers failed to meet expectations in the May Tournament.

The disappointment continued on Day 2. Yokozuna Terunofuji and Ozeki Takakeisho withdrew from the competition. Terunofuji cited pain in his left rib cage and right knee as the reasons for his withdrawal. Takakeisho had a lingering neck problem.

This was a huge blow to the organizers because a couple of the top division stars already were sitting out the tournament. Asanoyama and Takerufuji both had decided against trying to compete while still recovering from injuries.

Asanoyama is a former Ozeki who's now at the fourth-highest Komusubi rank. His strong and consistent performance against the top rankers in every tournament keeps fans on the edge of their seats. His knee got hurt during a provincial tour in April.

Takerufuji, as you may remember, was the winner of the Osaka tournament in March. He became the first top division rookie in 110 years to win the championship. So, needless to say, fans were looking forward to watching him try to repeat the feat in Tokyo.

Things continued to deteriorate. Ozeki Kirishima also dropped out of the competition on Day 7, citing a neck injury. Sekiwake Wakamotoharu pulled out on the same day too, saying he'd injured his right big toe during his match on the previous day. As a result, one Yokozuna, two Ozeki, one Sekiwake, and one Komusubi were sitting on the sidelines by the half-way point.

Crowded leaderboard

As the saying goes, when the cat's away the mice will play. Well, that's what happened in the sumo ring too. Quite a few rikishi scurried to take advantage of the situation. Those in the first-place group in the home stretch included Kotozakura, Onosato, Mitakeumi, Shonannoumi, Takarafuji and Oshoma. But after 13 days, two wrestlers stood above the rest: Ozeki Kotozakura and Komusubi Onosato, each with 10 wins and 3 losses.

Ozeki Kotozakura on the left, and Komusubi Onosato on the right, became the main contenders in the May Tournament.

On Day 14, fate took a different turn for them. Onosato took care of business and improved his record to 11-3, but Kotozakura lost and slipped to 10-4. So, Onosato took sole possession of the lead with one day to go.

And on Day 15, Onosato was in a match against Sekiwake Abi, who had 10 wins and 4 losses. All he needed to do was defeat Abi to earn his first title. Abi, however, wanted to keep his title hopes alive by defeating Onosato and taking matters into a playoff.

Abi fiercely attacked Onosato with his signature double-arm thrusts, but Onosato calmly fended them off and powerfully drove Abi back and out of the ring to take the match and the Emperor's Cup. Onosato's father was in the stands hoping to catch his son's triumphant moment. He was seen hollering and crying as his boy made sumo history in front of his eyes.

Onosato defeats Abi on Day 15 to claim his first championship.

Onosato became the first newly promoted Komusubi in 67 years to win the top division title. The last wrestler to accomplish the feat was Annenyama, who won as a new Komusubi way back in May 1957. Onosato also became the wrestler with fewest number of tournaments required to win his first title, doing so in his seventh tournament since his pro debut. That broke the previous record held by the March champ Takerufuji, who took ten tournaments to do it.

Winning one for the home team

Areas near the Sea of Japan are still feeling the effects of the massive earthquake that struck on New Year's Day. One of the prefectures hardest hit was Ishikawa, where Onosato hails from. During the championship interview, he said that he's really happy to have been able to show his victory to the people of his home region. I'm sure it made them even more proud of their homegrown hero.

During the victory ceremony, Onosato also talked about being close to winning a championship in January and March but not quite making it. So, he was glad victory didn't slip away this time. He committed himself to diligently following his stablemaster's advice and working hard to keep improving.

I think what propelled Onosato to the championship was his upset victory over Yokozuna Terunofuji on Day 1. Scoring a huge win right out of the gate increased this youngster's confidence so much that he was able to fight with poise the rest of the way. I've spoken with Onosato a number of times. When I asked him about his first match up against the Yokozuna in January, he told me that he was so nervous that his body just froze when the Yokozuna stood in front of him. By his own admission, he got demolished.

He told me, though, that even though he got crushed by Terunofuji, he learned a great deal from fighting against sumo's alpha male. He felt that he could become mentally and physically stronger and put up a better fight when he faced Terunofuji again. Well, that's exactly what happened. Way to go Onosato for working hard and growing fast by learning from a bittersweet experience.

Onosato on the right, scores a huge upset by defeating Yokozuna Terunofuji on opening day.

At 192 centimeters and 181 kilograms, Onosato is pretty intimidating himself. Adversaries have to be worrying about how much he can improve, because he was already overwhelming many of them this time. I have a feeling the best is yet to come from this 23-year-old standout.

Special prize winners

Onosato walked away with the Emperor's Cup as well as the Outstanding Performance Award and the Technique Prize. Sumo elders praised his ability to defeat higher ranked opponents on a regular basis with sound technique.

The other rikishi who received a special prize was rookie Oshoma from Mongolia. Oshoma remained in contention for a majority of the competition and made his presence felt by racking up 10 victories with nifty footwork, splendid technique, and blazing speed. Oshoma came to Japan on the same flight as Ozeki Hoshoryu, so he's hankering to catch up with his fellow Mongolian in the near future.

Special Prize Winners: Onosato on the left, Oshoma on the right.

Changing of the guard

For the past two tournaments, we've seen fresh faces winning the championship: Takerufuji in March and Onosato this time. Are we seeing a changing of the guard?

Yokozuna Terunofuji has been out of five of the past six tournaments due to injuries, partially or completely, due to injuries. Ozeki Takakeisho's absence this time is his third in a row. Ozeki Kirishima bowed out in the middle of the May Tournament with a neck injury; he'll be relegated to Sekiwake in the next tournament.

There's no question that those who ruled the sport with dominant presence and performance over the past several years have lost much of their mojo. Younger wrestlers are constantly challenging them these days, and the sad fact is that the top-rankers have been largely unable to respond. It's their job to show the upstarts that they still are better and stronger.

If they can't, as I said in my previous Backstories report, it's time to ship out. Sumo fans buy tickets expecting to watch the Yokozuna and Ozeki compete at high levels. It's not right to keep disappointing them.

July outlook

The July Tournament will be a good measuring stick to find out whether the old guard remains able to stand tall.

Yokozuna Terunofuji has to demonstrate he's worthy of competing with that status. The 32-year-old finds himself in a crucial moment. Fans would be hard-pressed to accept another absence.

Ozeki Takakeisho had better get healthy too, because he'll have to score at least eight wins to retain his Ozeki status. If he can't, he'll suffer the same fate as Kirishima, who got dropped down to Sekiwake for July. Kirishima will get one more chance to return to Ozeki but it won't be easy. He'll need to rack up 10 wins to get the job done.

Onosato will be aiming to win back-to-back championships to solidify himself as the number one candidate for Yokozuna. Yes, you read that right, Yokozuna! Finishing with 12 wins and 3 losses this time while competing at the fourth-highest rank of Komusubi, Onosato has set himself up in line for promotion to Ozeki within the year. Unless some major injury derails him, I can see him earning promotion to the second-highest rank with no problem and then making his way to the top rank in 2025. After watching his dominating performance in the May Tournament, I have enormous confidence in him. But, first things first. He needs to demonstrate May was no fluke and duplicate the type of performance he demonstrated this time.

One man who could be the spoiler for Onosato is Kotozakura. The 26-year-old Ozeki fell short of capturing his first title in May, but his consistent performance since becoming an Ozeki in March shows great promise. After defeating his fellow Ozeki Hoshoryu on the final day to finish the May contest with 11 wins and 4 losses, he looked dejected at allowing Onosato to walk away with the ultimate prize. When asked about it, he simply said "I have to train harder and become stronger." Don't count him out as a contender in July.

Ozeki Hoshoryu finished with 10 wins and 5 losses this time, which is way below what fans expected. His challenge is to get totally focused from the get-go. He started the May Tournament 0-2. If the Mongolian Ozeki can begin with some wins in July, look out!

One more wrestler to mention is Takerufuji, who won the championship in March. He showed his grit by winning the title then, despite severely injuring his right ankle on Day 14. Recovering from that injury is taking much longer than expected. I'd love to see him return to the ring in the next contest, but I feel it would be wise for the 25-year-old to stay on the sidelines for as many competitions as he needs to get back to full strength. He's a rising star who shouldn't spoil his career by returning too soon. He's someone worth waiting for.

Takerufuji is still recovering from an ankle injury. Fans are hoping it will be fully healed soon.

The July Tournament gets underway on Sunday, July 14, in Nagoya.