Terunofuji enters New Year Basho with few serious challengers to throne

Twelve months ago, Terunofuji entered the new year ranked at komusubi, and coming off a playoff loss to Takakeisho in the previous meet.

One year later, he stands alone atop the sumo world, a yokozuna whose most recent outing ended in a perfect 15-0 championship.

With four Emperor’s Cup wins in 2021 (bringing his career total to six) and promotion — first to ozeki, and then yokozuna — there is little arguing that the Year of the Ox belonged to the veteran from Ulaanbaatar.

As sumo heads into its first January tournament in two decades without Hakuho on the rankings, the Year of the Tiger looks like a good bet to go the same way.

Whatever expectation there was for a more open top division following the retirement of the legendary yokozuna is long gone, as Terunofuji seems set to further exert his dominance over a weakened field.

Anything other than a third straight championship for the Isegahama stable man at the upcoming January tournament would be a surprise.

With 42 wins in his last 45 bouts, the main question this time out appears to be whether or not Terunofuji can continue his 18-match winning streak, and achieve back-to-back perfect titles.

In terms of pretenders to his throne, it’s still essentially Takakeisho, and then an array of long-shot outsiders.

The stocky ozeki put in a fine performance in November, rattling off nine straight wins from the opening day, before falling to Meisei and a red-hot Abi making his return to the top flight.

Those losses rendered Takakeisho’s final day bout against Terunofuji meaningless, but also illustrated just how big the gap is between the two highest ranked men on the banzuke.

In five years as a top-tier wrestler, Takakeisho has managed a 13-2 record just twice. While on both of those occasions he lifted the Emperor’s Cup, the chances of repeating that feat in January, or indeed at any point in the near future, with a similar record, are much slimmer now that Terunofuji is in the ascendancy.

Thirteen wins is both Takakeisho’s ceiling and Terunofuji’s floor. To take home silverware in January, the ozeki will likely need to have a career-best tournament, while also hoping it coincides with a down basho for the yokozuna. Head-to-head, the two men are fairly evenly matched, but in terms of overall consistency, a gulf exists between them.

That, of course, can partly be attributed to style and size. Terunofuji’s mass and power allow him to overcome poor initial charges and give him an advantage even when locked up in awkward positions. Takakeisho, by contrast, has a much smaller margin for error and, while he has made improvements defensively over the past year, is still limited physically in what he can do when a bout goes to the belt.

The 25-year-old has yet to make it to Day 10 of a tournament without a loss, but in order to mount a serious challenge to Terunofuji in January that will almost certainly need to change.

Outside of the top two, picking potential dark horse title challengers is a difficult task. Overall parity throughout the 42-man makuuchi division has ensured a rotating cast of characters finishing in the top three over the past few years.

Should injury or illness put Terunofuji and Takakeisho out of commission, then pretty much any other rikishi in the top division that one cares to name is in with a chance of lifting the Emperor’s Cup.

Five men who are still active in makuuchi have already done so, and three of them are in the upper echelons of the rankings this time out.

Sanyaku-level wrestlers Daiesho, Mitakeumi and Shodai are capable of taking advantage of an opening and putting together 15 good days. None have been particularly impressive recently, but all have shown an ability to defy the form book on occasion and get hot when it counts.

It’s hard to have confidence in anyone apart from Terunofuji or Takakeisho emerging victorious this time out, but the mental side of sumo is extremely important, and so previous experience of winning a championship could well be the difference down the home stretch if the two big names are out of contention.

If there is to be a surprise winner in 2021, then recent history suggests it’ll come in the first tournament of the year.

No yokozuna has won a championship in January since Hakuho did so back in 2015.

Tamawashi, Tokushoryu, Daiesho and Tochinoshin have all stunned the sumo world in the year-opening meet in recent times, while Kotoshogiku’s out of the blue win in January 2016 was the first time a Japanese-born rikishi had won a title in ten years.

Terunofuji may be dominant, but the fact that he is a 30-year-old yokozuna with fragile knees adds an air of uncertainty to every tournament.

Also, much like last January, COVID-19 cases are on the rise and the virus could once again play a role in how the tournament goes.

Infection numbers have begun to explode across Japan in the past few days and have already taken one stable out of commission for the upcoming meet.

One of the men in that affected heya, Takayasu, took part in the Japan Sumo Association’s joint training sessions in late December. While there is no indication that the former ozeki contracted the virus, and everyone in the JSA tested negative at the end of last month, there is no doubt a bullet was dodged.

With wrestlers from many different stables taking part in the joint practices, an outbreak on a multistable scale would have put the tournament itself at risk.

The specter of canceled or audience-less tournaments hasn’t gone away completely. Unlike in some other countries, Japan has restricted attendance numbers at sporting events for much of the pandemic, and governing bodies have been proactive in calling off events regardless of their importance.

Japan’s new professional rugby league, for example, canceled its opening match and ceremonies (scheduled for the day before the January Basho begins) because of a COVID-19 outbreak among one of the teams involved.

Sumo hasn’t had a full capacity tournament in almost two years and the JSA’s finances have taken a major hit as a result. The organization will be keen to make it through the next two weeks without any further disruption, and events over the past few days will certainly have caused some nervous hand-wringing in Ryogoku.

Barring further absences there are, as usual, several other storylines worth following in the upcoming tournament.

Abi, as mentioned, burned bright upon his return to the top tier after a suspension for breaking COVID-19 protocols had dropped him down to the third division. The Shikoroyama stable man was in contention for the title right up until a Day 14 loss to Terunofuji.

At the rank of maegashira six, the former komusubi will be far from overmatched, and has a solid chance of putting up the kind of numbers needed to make a return to the sanyaku ranks.

While Abi is a redemption story, another wrestler that has experienced falls and comebacks on a couple of occasions also finds himself knocking on the door of sanyaku promotion.

Ura, the only wrestler in sumo to hail from college football powerhouse Kwansei Gakuin University, is at a career-high rank of maegashira 2 for the January meet.

The 29-year-old’s double-digit outing in November also earned him a first technique prize. That it took so long to earn the honor is surprising, as the crowd favorite is one of the most technically adept rikishi in the sport.

Any online search for examples of rarely seen techniques such as izori (backwards body drop), ushiromotare (backward lean out) or tasukizori (reverse backwards body drop) will almost invariably turn up videos featuring Ura.

Clad in a salmon pink mawashi, Ura stands out on the dohyo in multiple ways. His rank in January will also ensure a string of high-profile bouts from the opening day. A title challenge generally requires more consistency than the Osaka native has shown to date, but on a bout-to-bout basis he is capable of beating anyone in the sport — and usually in spectacular fashion.

At the bottom of the rankings, the debut of Oho is worth keeping an eye on and not just for reasons of history — his father is a former champion and his grandfather one of the greatest rikishi of all time.

To date there have only ever been three Emperor’s Cup wins by men at the rank of maegashira 17, once in 1939 and twice in 2020.

A wrestler at maegashira 18 — Oho’s new rank — has never won a title.

Even given the recent string of surprise winners in January, a championship for Oho would be in a class of its own.

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