Abi takes Kyushu title in 3-way playoff

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Abi receives the Emperor’s Cup in Fukuoka on Sunday.

It took three wins on the day, including two in a rare three-way playoff, but No. 9 maegashira Abi came away from the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka on Sunday with his first Emperor’s Cup.

Abi defeated No. 1 maegashira Takayasu and ozeki Takakeisho in consecutive bouts of the playoff to add a first makuuchi division championship to the two he had won at the second-tier juryo division and three at third-tier makushita.

“I’m really happy,” Abi said. “I’m on a real high.”

Earlier, Abi set up the playoff and denied Takayasu the championship outright when he fought off a slapping attack, reversed course with stiff-arm to the throat and sent the top-ranked maegashira tumbling backwards out of the ring to leave both wrestlers at 12-3.

From that point, the two had to wait for the final bout on Sunday’s card to see if ozeki Takakeisho would make the playoff into a threesome. Takakeisho did just that, using a nasty slapping attack to put sekiwake Wakatakakage on the defensive, then eventually slapping him down to also finish at 12-3.

It was just the seventh three-way playoff in modern sumo history, and the first since Akebono prevailed among a trio for the Spring title in 1994.

In the playoff, Abi first quickly defeated Takayasu with a bit of trickery, leaping up as his opponent charged forward and quickly forcing him to put his hands to the sand. Takayasu was slow to get up, apparently suffering a head or neck injury during the exchange.

“His jump-off was so powerful, I felt like I was sent flying,” Abi said.

Against Takakeisho, Abi took the fight directly to the ozeki, straightening him up from the jump-off and pushing him to the edge. He kept his base as Takekeisho tried to slip out the predicament but there was no escape and he soon went out the ring.

“I only tried to stay low and quickly attack,” Abi said.

The tournament title marks a remarkable turnaround in the career of the 28-year-old Saitama Prefecture native, who has had disciplinary run-ins with the Japan Sumo Association in the past for breaking coronovirus protocols.

Getting his career back on track, he was ranked as a high as sekiwake for two tournaments this year, but eventually dropped to the maegashira ranks when he missed a tournament after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Abi hopes the news provides cheer for stablemaster Shikoroyama, who is currently in the hospital. “All I’ve done is cause trouble, I really hope he is happy with [this victory],” Abi said.

Abi said the two kept in contact throughout the tournament.

“Every day I received a message from my stablemaster in which he said to concentrate on each bout, and that’s what I did,” Abi said. “I didn’t think of victories, I focused on wrestling as well as I could.”

For former ozeki Takayasu, it was another chance for a first career title that eluded him. Coming into the tournament, he had finished as runner-up six times in his career, including twice this year.

For what it’s worth, Takayasu will at least be returning to the sanyaku ranks — the three ranks below yokozuna — at the New Year Tournament in January as three of the four komusubi will be dropping out after posting losing records.

Takayasu also took home the Outstanding Performance Award, while Abi received the Fighting Spirit Prize and sekiwake Hoshoryu the Technique Prize.

Former ozeki Mitakeumi not only fell well short of the 10 wins at sekiwake he needed to earn automatic return to the second-highest rank, he finished with a dismal 6-9 record after being forced out by No. 5 maegashira Nishikifuji.

Ozeki Shodai, already assured of demotion for the next tournament, looked listless in being easily shuffled out of the ring by No. 5 maegashira Hokutofuji to finish 6-9. Shodai had managed to keep his rank for 13 tournaments, fending off demotion five times, but couldn’t beat the odds this time.

With his drop from ozeki for the New Year Tournament, it will mark the first time ever since the status of the yokozuna rank was clearly defined in 1909 that there will be only one yokozuna and one ozeki in the rankings.

A new ozeki, however, could be in the making, as Hoshoryu stayed on track for promotion when he finished with an 11-4 record after grabbing an overhand belt hold and forcing out komusubi Kiribayama (8-7).

Wakatakage ended at 8-7 as he finished as the winningest wrestler over the year in the makuuchi division.

Meanwhile, No. 13 maegashira Oho, the grandson of legendary yokozuna Taiho who was in the title chase up to Saturday, ended the tournament on a losing note. He forced No. 4 maegashira Wakamotoharu to the edge, only to be reversed at the last moment and sent to his belly as both wrestlers finished at 10-5.