Terunofuji caps remarkable return to ozeki with Spring tourney title

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sekiwake Terunofuji, left, shoves ozeki Takakeisho to win their bout at the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament on Sunday at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Call it the ultimate bonus. Aiming just for enough wins to earn promotion back to ozeki, sekiwake Terunofuji not only achieved that, but walked off with his third career tournament title as well.

Terunofuji defeated ozeki Takakeisho on the final day of the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament on Sunday at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan to capture the championship with a 12-3 record.

Soon after, it was decided that a special meeting of the board of directors of the Japan Sumo Association will be held Wednesday at which Terunofuji will be officially promoted to ozeki for the next tournament in May.

“This is the result of always looking forward each and every day,” Terunofuji said in a post-tournament interview before the crowd, when told of the decision. “I kept believing that this day would come.”

The promotion completes a remarkable return to the rank for the 29-year-old Mongolian after four injury-plagued years that included an unprecedented plunge to the sport’s second-lowest division.

No other wrestler has ever risen back so high after dropping so far. In fact, since the start of the “kadoban” system in 1969 in which an ozeki needs two consecutive losing records to be demoted, only one other wrestler — Kaiketsu in 1977 — has regained the ozeki rank after dropping out of the uppermost makuuchi division completely.

The fact that Terunofuji fell four divisions — during which most any other wrestler would have called it quits — before working his way back up pays tribute to the dedication and determination he displayed.

With a combined 24 wins in the two previous tournaments, Terunofuji had already surpassed the accepted criteria of 33 wins in three tournaments for promotion to ozeki as he entered the final days.

Was winning the championship in the back of his mind?

“I wasn’t thinking about it, but toward the end, I sort of was,” he said with a smile. “When I was tied [for the lead], I thought, ‘Maybe I can win another.’”

In their match, Takakeisho got the better of the jumpoff and moved Terunofuji to the edge, but the sekiwake dug in his heels and reversed the flow. Takakeisho tried an arm lock, but Terunofuji calmly pressed forward, then sent the ozeki out of the ring with a mighty shove to avenge a loss in November with a title on the line.

The victory prevented Terunofuji from having to win the title in a three-way playoff with Takakeisho and No. 12 maegashira Aoiyama, who won a showdown of wrestlers with 10-4 records by slapping down komusubi and former ozeki Takayasu.

Terunofuji had great incentive for wanting to avoid a playoff. He has been in three before, and lost all three — including the November 2020 tournament, when he fell to Takakeisho.

Adding to his memorable day, Terunofuji also received the Outstanding Performance Award.

While denied a shot at the title, Aoiyama was rewarded for his efforts with the Fighting Spirit Prize, which he shared with No. 3 maegashira Meisei. A year ago, the burly Bulgarian took home the Technique Prize after also posting an 11-4 record.

In other action, ozeki Asanoyama won the final bout of the tournament, throwing down fellow ozeki Shodai to finish with a 10-5 record. Shodai ended up 7-8, meaning he will need a majority of wins in May to keep his rank.

The rest of the sanyaku ended mediocre tournaments on a good note, as sekiwake Takanosho and komusubi Daieisho and Mitakeumi all won to finish up with kachikoshi 8-7 records. Takanosho shuffled out No. 7 maegashira Tochinoshin, Daieisho muscled out No. 12 maegashira Akiseyama and Mitakeumi shoved out No. 6 maegashira Ichinojo.

The Technique Prize went to Wakatakakage, who showed his agility in sidestepping fellow No. 2 maegashira Hokutofuji at the jumpoff, then shoving out his defenseless opponent to finish 10-5.

Further down the ranks, a historic tournament for a pair of brothers ended well, and with no bragging right for either sibling. Both No. 8 maegashira Tobizaru and No. 15 maegashira Hidenoumi won their final matches, leaving both with 10-5 records and nice promotions ahead.

It was the promotion of Hidenoumi, the older of the two, back into the makuuchi division for this tournament that made them the ninth pair of brothers in sumo history and first since March 2014 to be in the top tier together for the first time.