Terunofuji - miracle come back to Ozeki

On the second day of the March tournament, Terunofuji tries to break balance of Wakatakakage by throwing with left arm.

Terunofuji - ultrafast promotion to Ozeki

More than ten years have passed since I wrote previous essays about sumo. Towards the end of one of those essays, I wrote "Sumo now faces a crisis of existence" (because of scandals). However, I did not know that the most serious scandal was about to happen.

In February 2011, only four months after I wrote the quoted sentence, match-fixing among no-small number of sumo wrestlers came to light. About twenty sumo wrestlers were judged to be involved in the match-fixing and expelled from the Sumo Association. The tournament in March was cancelled because of scandal for the first time in the history of professional sumo. The subsequent tournament in May was held. However, not as regular tournament, but as expression of apology for scandal; spectators did not have to pay for entry and usual formalities for regular tournament, such as ranking list of wrestlers, were omitted.

In this unusual tournament, a young Mongolian boy, later known as Terunofuji, made his debut as sumo wrestler. He had a huge and strong body, excellent physical ability and guts. He quickly climbed up the ranks and in July 2015, only four years after his debut, Terunofuji became Ozeki, the second highest rank in the sumo world.

Injury and drop-down the ladder of sumo

Makuuchi-Dohyoiri. From right to left: Meisei, Hokutofuji, Takayasu and Terunofuji. Takakeisho is waiting for call.
However, after the early success, Terunofuji suffered terrible blows. He injured during a match his right knee then also left knee. He continued sumo, but the injury worsened. The trouble was not limited to knees, but also to diabetes, kidney stone and hepatitis C and he could not fight as well as before. He lost his Ozeki rank in May 2017, then gradually lost his position. The accumulated physical trouble finally forced him to withdraw completely from playing sumo in June 2018.

When Terunofuji disappeared from the TV broadcasting of sumo tournament, I did not pay much attention to him, thinking he would retire as many other sumo wrestlers did, when they had serious injuries. However, one day I noticed a news article that Terunofuji, after withdrawing from 5 consecutive tournaments, was about to come back to dohyo (sumo wrestling ring) in March 2019 in the second lowest division Jonidan.

Miracle come back

I gathered information what he had been doing in the previous months and why he determined to come back.

In short, he was strongly and persistently persuaded by his stablemaster Isegahama to concentrate first on treating injury and illness, then to try sumo again. Terunofuji changed mind. With the help of his stablemaster and friends, Terunofuji gradually recovered his health and motivation for sumo. He made tremendous efforts to regain his power and improve his fighting technique through hard training. And that efforts bore beautiful fruit. It is easy to say, but extremely difficult to accomplish. In reality, nobody before Terunofuji could ever recover from such a fate. His story almost moved me to tears.

Terunofuji, after winning the March tournament championship, received the champion flag fro his stablemaster Isegayama, former Yokozuna Asahifuji, as chief of referees.
I started to watch his matches. Of course, there is no TV broadcasting for matches of low-ranked divisions. However, many sumo fans seem to pay attention to Terunofuji, and from the very beginning of his come back I could see his match everyday through YouTube. The speed of his come back was beyond everyone's expectation. The result of the first tournament after come back was 7 straight wins. Thereafter, he lost at most 1 match every tournament and next January he came back to Juryo and won the Juryo championship.

In July 2020, Terunofuji returned to Makuuchi and, to everyone's surprise, he immediately won the tournament championship, more than four years after his first championship. Around this time, the media started to pay passionate attention to Terunofuji. Though Terunofuji had still pain with knees, he successively achieved good results. Terunofuji won the third tournament championship in March 2021 and was promoted back to Ozeki.

What made Terunofuji so popular?

Terunofuji formally cerebrated his wedding at Tomioka Hachimangu, which is closely linked to the history of sumo.
Everybody was impressed by his firm and unyielding spirit to overcome adverse circumstances. Terunofuji suddenly gained lots of supporters and became an idol of the sumo world and the sports media. Shortly before the March tournament, Terunofuji formally cerebrated wedding with a beautiful Mongolian woman, who mentally supported him even during the difficult time. This news was also positively received by everybody.

In fact, when Terunofuji was struggling with his injury as Ozeki and thereafter, he was not much popular. He was thought to resort to any dirty means just to get a win. But now everybody feels that Terunofuji has changed. Having done tremendous efforts and overcome the physical and mental adversity, Terunofuji has become a thoughtful and respectful person and taken an intelligent sumo wrestling style. Many people say, Terunofuji is an excellent model for other sumo wrestlers.

By the end of March tournament, he won altogether 36 matches in three successive tournaments and this result exceeded the generally accepted benchmark of 33 wins for becoming Ozeki. To a question of an interviewer, he answered "I knew that 33 wins were a benchmark. But my stablemaster (Isegahama) is the chief of referees and responsible for proposing my promotion to the Board of Directors. If I barely fulfill the conditions, people might say that he proposed my promotion, because I am in his stable. I should not daub my stablemaster’s face with mud. Therefore, I had to achieve the result that allows no objection."

This is only an example. In any interview, he expresses his thanks to the stablemaster, fellow sumo wrestlers, his beloved wife, supporters and fans and says that his come back is not possible without the support of those people. Such words enchant every Japanese person and now Terunofuji is loved and respected by everybody.

Reception of non-Japanese sumo wrestlers

I must confess, such a popularity of a non-Japanese sumo wrestler is unusual. Although, the Japanese professional sumo Association invited foreign wrestlers first in 1964 and "gaijin rikishi" (foreign sumo wrestler) are now indispensable for sumo, many fans are narrow minded and favor Japanese rikishi. They want Japanese rikishi to win tournaments and become Ozeki and Yokozuna and they are usually indifferent to good performance of non-Japanese rikishi.

I see that Japanese sumo fans like gaijin rikishi when they behave friendly and gentlemanlike and are adaptive to the traditional Japanese manner.

Takamiyama, the first gaijin rikishi coming from Hawai, was very popular indeed. He had a charming character and was as rikishi not too strong to disturb the feeling of sumo fans who favored Japanese rikishi. He once won the championship. However, the strongest champions were Japanese rikishi at the time and people could watch and enjoy big Takamiyama defeated by smaller Japanese rikishi.

When Kotooushu came up, Japanese fans, in particular female fans, were enchanted by the handsome European wrestler. His soft and gentle manner also attracted people. As rikishi he tended to be very nervous at crucial moments and often could not display his real power. He won one tournament championship and became Ozeki. But after relatively short period, he had to retire due to numerous injuries.

The reaction of the Japanese fans was different, when many Mongolians came to show good tournament results. The criticism centered on the behavior of some Mongolian rikishi. Asashoryu was a typical case. He was a strong Yokozuna and many fans, including me, were fascinated by his speed, technique and guts. But, his outburst of emotion on the dohyo and tendency to disregard rules and authority were not welcome by many fans.

Dohyoiri by Hakuho on the second day of March tournament. He withdrew from the tournament next day because of injury with meniscus. He went through operation, and now wants to skip the May tournament and resume sumo after rehabilitation in July.
Another wrestler from Mongolia, Hakuho, is the strongest Yokozuna in the recent sumo history. He has achieved many splendid records such as 44 tournament championships. However, he is not as popular as his records should deserve. Of course, everybody admits that Hakuho has long been the main pillar of professional sumo. At the same time, many people feel that Hakuho does not respect the important value of the Japanese sumo tradition and behaves arrogantly.

Terunofuji - a new sumo idol

Maybe Japanese sumo fans were frustrated as Yokozuna position was occupied only by Mongolian rikishi between 2003 and 2017 and only Mongolian (and two other non-Japanese) rikishi won tournament championship between 2003 and 2016.

The situation has not substantially changed by now. There are no strong Japanese rikishi yet. Unfortunately, the only one Yokozuna we have now, namely Hakuho has more and more physical trouble and withdraws more often from regular tournaments.

In this moment, Terunofuji has come back. In the recent tournaments, Terunofuji won almost all matches with the three Japanese Ozeki and impressed that he is stronger. But his wins have not provoked any bitter reaction from Japanese sumo fans, but increased his supporters. People are attracted to his personality. Terunofuji symbolizes the fortitude under adverse circumstances. It perfectly fits to the aera of COVID19!. A new sumo idol was born.