Top dogs make an early exit
The general consensus among sumo journalists like yours truly and the fans were that the two Yokozuna grand champions; Hakuho and Kakuryu, are the favorites to win the Emperor's Cup. That perception grew even stronger when I saw them overwhelm most of their foes during practice before the tournament.
But we were struck by disappointing news soon after the tournament began. Hakuho announced on Day 4 he'll exit from the contest due to a sore lower back and leg infection. That was a disappointment for fans, and for Hakuho himself, the winner of the previous tournament in November. Then, a day later, the other Yokozuna, Kakuryu, said he'll no longer compete because his left ankle is hurting and hampering him from what he's capable of doing.
As a result of these withdrawals, the championship race was wide open and presented a chance for any one of the remaining top division wrestlers to win the Emperor's Cup.
Unknown wrestler comes out on top
Making most of the absence of the Yokozunas were a couple of Maegashira rank-and-filers: Shodai and Tokushoryu. Shodai is ranked at Maegashira 4 while Tokushoryu is listed at the very bottom of the top division's official listing of ranks at Maegashira 17.
The two combatants each raced to an impressive 12 wins and 1 loss record after 13 days which set up a huge head-to-head showdown on Day 14. In the bout, Tokushoryu attacked first by pushing Shodai back to the edge, but Shodai recovered and rallied by seizing a decent inside position. But then, Tokushoryu countered and thrust Shodai down to the clay to take the match. The win also allowed Tokushoryu to take sole possession of the lead with only one day remaining. The victory was extra sweet for Tokushoryu, because the match took place with Emperor Naruhito, Empress Masako and Princess Aiko in attendance.
So, heading into the final day, the sole leader Tokushoryu had just 1 loss. Shodai was in second place nipping at Tokushoryu's heels with 2 losses. On Day 15, Shodai took care of business first by beating his opponent and kept his title hopes alive. Now, the pressure was on Tokushoryu. He had to win his final match to clinch the championship. The wrestler he had to beat was Takakeisho, an Ozeki champion. If Tokushoryu was to lose the match, it would force a playoff between him and the man whom he already had beaten on the previous day -- Shodai.
So, with all that pressure on his shoulders, Tokushoryu went into the ring to take on Takakeisho. It turned into a seesaw battle, but Tokushoryu gradually took the upper hand when he seized a firm right hand outside belt grip. He then flexed his muscles and forced Takakeisho back and out of the ring to capture his first top division championship. As soon as the bout was over Tokushoryu was overwhelmed with emotion and shed tears realizing what he had just accomplished.
During the championship interview, Tokushoryu said "Is it really ok that I ended up winning the Emperor's Cup?" His comment revealed his humbleness which instantly won the hearts of many fans. Tokushoryu's incredible accomplishment will no doubt encourage other lower-ranked wrestlers and make them believe that anything is possible and they too can win a top division title someday.
Tokushoryu is the first man from Nara prefecture in western Japan in 98 years to claim the Emperor's Cup. Furthermore, he became the third eldest wrestler to win his first top division title at 33 years and 5 months old. Although he's been around for quite some time, pretty much nobody knew about Tokushoryu up until he won his first title, but now he's quickly become famous and also popular, thanks to his lovable looks and amicable personality. Congratulations Tokushoryu!
New Year Tournament trend
Tokushoryu's triumph was significant in that for the fifth straight year, the New Year Tournament was won by a wrestler contending for his first top division title. The trend started with Kotoshogiku winning his first title in January, 2016, followed by Kisenosato doing the same in January of 2017. Tochinoshin came out on top for the first time in the 2018 January contest and Tamawashi won his first top division championship in the 2019 New Year Tournament. And now, we've just witnessed Tokushoryu getting his first Emperor's Cup. I can't think of any reasons why we're seeing this intriguing trend at the New Year Tournament, but I guess there could be something that brings out the best from those wrestlers who're aiming to start the year on a high note.
Runner-up leaves with regret
Even though Shodai missed out on ultimate victory, he should hold his head up high and be proud of what he was able to accomplish this time. The 28-year-old Kumamoto native says overall he's satisfied with how he performed, but if there's one thing he wishes he could do over it would be his Day 14 clash against Tokushoryu in which he lost. Shodai really wanted to get one more chance to fight Tokushoryu in a playoff but his hopes evaporated when Tokushoryu defeated Takakeisho to seal the deal. Shodai said "It's my fault. I was given a golden opportunity to win the whole thing, but my setback to Tokushoryu on Day 14 is the reason I finished in second place. That loss cost me the championship, period."
As they say there's no points for second place, but let's tip our cap to Shodai for finishing with a very respectable record of 13 wins and 2 losses and hope he gets another opportunity to reel in his first top division championship in the near future.
I already mentioned that the withdrawal of two Yokozuna grand champions early in the tournament disappointed many fans, but Ozeki champion Goeido's lackluster performance also brought deep sighs from the spectators. After pulling out with a leg injury in November, the Japanese Ozeki had to win a majority of bouts this time in order to retain his Ozeki status. However, he finished the competition with a disastrous 5 wins and 10 losses and was going to be relegated to one rank below at Sekiwake for the next competition. But soon after the tournament Goeido announced that he'll no longer be putting the mawashi belt around his waist anymore. The 33-year-old Ozeki said he's done everything he can and gave everything he had as a professional sumo wrestler and thinks now is as good a time as any to leave the ring.
After an illustrious career in high school, Goeido made his pro debut in January of 2005. He was promoted to Ozeki in the 2014 September tournament and competed at the rank for 33 consecutive tourneys. The Osaka native won his first championship in perfect fashion in the 2016 September tournament going 15 and 0. But since that triumph he pretty much struggled with all sorts of injuries and ended his pro career with just one championship. He'll stay in the sumo association and will become a coach from now on and perhaps one day we'll see him become a master of his own stable. In his retirement press conference, he said he wants to raise a Yokozuna since he himself wasn't able to reach the rank. Thank you Goeido and good luck in raising future stars.
By the way, with Goeido's retirement, for the first time in 38 years there will be only one Ozeki competing in the next tournament in March. The last time we saw only one Ozeki listed on the Banzuke official listing of ranks was Kotokaze in the 1982 New Year Tournament.
If you can recall, not too long ago Tochinoshin and Takayasu both were fighting at the second highest rank but they too lost the status last year after repeatedly finishing with losing records. With no question, sumo needs a new Ozeki. And I mean not just a new Ozeki, but a strong Ozeki who can keep performing at a high level.
Reaching a milestone
One veteran who made his presence felt at the New Year Tournament was Kotoshogiku. The 36-year-old failed to get kachikoshi or score more wins than losses, but his last and 7th win of the competition was his 701st top division victory. This tied with former Yokozuna Takanohana for 9th place on the all-time list. Kotoshogiku says he feels honored and humbled to find his name next to a former great Yokozuna. He also says it motivates him to keep competing as an active wrestler. By the way, the wrestler who sits at the top on the all-time top division win list is none other than Yokozuna Hakuho who currently has 1,053 top division victories.
Special prize recipients
Here are the special prize winners from the New Year Tournament. The championship winner Tokushoryu also went home with the Outstanding Performance Award and the Fighting Spirit Prize. Endo defeated two Yokozuna and an Ozeki and took home the Outstanding Performance Award as well. The tournament runner-up Shodai was given the Fighting Spirit Prize. Rookie Kiribayama won the Fighting Spirit Prize too. He scored 11 victories by outmaneuvering many of his foes using blazing speed and nifty footwork. Hokutofuji received the Technique Prize. He racked up 11 wins by manhandling many of his foes with his relentless pushing and thrusting attacks.
Enho went into the final day with a chance to haul in the Technique Prize, but it didn't happen. Sumo elders had told him he needs to win his final match if he wants to go home with the prize, but he was beaten and failed to meet the criteria. The top division's smallest man gave everything he had on every single day and without a doubt played a huge part in making the tournament very exciting. So, people including myself thought he had already done enough to earn the prize even before he fought his final match, but sumo elders weren't convinced just yet. Enho didn't get a special prize this time, but his fourth consecutive winning record should give him another boost in confidence.
Spring Tournament preview
The New Year Tournament thrilled many fans with an unfamiliar face rising to the occasion and coming out on top. Here's a sneak preview of the upcoming Spring Tournament.
First and foremost, I want to see the two Yokozuna redeeming themselves. That especially goes for Kakuryu who's now sit out each of the past three tournaments. My take is that if you're Yokozuna you either produce or perish. In March, it'll be important for Kakuryu to come out and perform like he's worthy of fighting at the top rank. If he can't, I'm sure a lot of critics will start mentioning about his possible retirement. It's not any exaggeration to say that the Spring tourney could be do-or-die for Kakuryu.
The other Yokozuna, Hakuho, finds himself in a better situation compared to Kakuryu, because Hakuho's January absence comes after he won his 43rd title in November. That said, he too better come back in top form and perform at a level that's expected of a grand champion. He exited the New Year Tournament after losing convincingly on back-to-back days, so he wants to make sure he gets his redemption in strong fashion to prove that he's still the king of the ring.
Finally, it wouldn't be an overstatement to say that there is no other wrestler who'll enter the Spring Tournament with more hype than Asanoyama. The 25-year-old Sekiwake will challenge to make the second-highest rank of Ozeki. For him to rise to the rank, he'll at least need to win in double digits and favorably get 11 or 12 wins. If he can do that, there will be no ifs or buts about Asanoyama's ascension to Ozeki.
The Spring Tournament gets underway on March 8th in Osaka, western Japan.