Terunofuji’s challengers likely to emerge from amateur ranks

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Contributing writer
Yokozuna Terunofuji’s bid for a second straight championship following his promotion to sumo’s highest rank continues apace.
The powerful veteran has been nearly unstoppable in 2021.

An 11-4 record last January — which garnered a runner-up finish and technique prize — was the Isegahama stableman’s worst outing of the year so far.
That performance was followed by three Emperor’s Cups and a 14-1 effort (which fell just short of the title) in his subsequent four meets.
Significantly, Terunofuji’s record across the opening ten days of the four tournaments since his return to the rank of ozeki is an outstanding 39 wins and only one loss.
Such mastery over everyone ranked sekiwake and below indicates that sumo’s newest grand champion is likely to dominate proceedings for the next couple of years — especially with Hakuho retired, and the top division arguably the weakest it’s been in a decade or more.
For the ongoing tournament, any remaining hopes for a competitive finish lie with Takakeisho.
The rotund ozeki dropped his Day-10 bout against Meisei, but is still just one loss behind Terunofuji, with their head-to-head matchup still to come later in the tournament.
If Takakeisho is to have any chance of derailing the Terunofuji express, then Fukuoka is the ideal location for that challenge to take place.
The Kyushu venue is something of a power spot for the 25-year-old.
Both of Takakeisho’s Emperor’s Cups came in November tournaments and he has been averaging about 3½ wins more in Fukuoka as a sekitori than he has in all other venues combined.
Takakeisho has also proven that he has what it takes to defeat Terunofuji when the title is on the line.
However, the ozeki’s inconsistency outside of Fukuoka — coupled with his injury history and the inherent limits on his chosen style — means that we may need to look further down the banzuke rankings to find wrestlers that will challenge Terunofuji’s ascendancy in the medium-to-long term.
A significant number of those potential successors are following the same path: from college sumo to the professional ranks.
Two of the most recent men to do so, Kinbozan and Oshoma, from Kazakhstan and Mongolia respectively, have ōzumo careers that are still in their infancy but are rikishi that won national titles on Japan’s ultra-competitive amateur circuit before turning pro.
Those successes led directly to advanced starting points in professional sumo under a system known as tsukedashi.
Around in various forms since the Taisho Era, the tsukedashi system currently awards a title winner in any of the big four amateur tournaments the opportunity to join ōzumo at the rank of makushita 15, which is just outside the salaried divisions.
A quarterfinal or better performance in those same tournaments allows a start at sandanme 100 – essentially skipping several months at least in the bottom two divisions.
Emperor’s Cup winners Asanoyama and Mitakeumi are among the names that have joined ōzumo at tsukedashi ranks in recent times.
With Japanese college sumo becoming an increasingly attractive option for foreign wrestlers who plan on turning pro but want to complete a third level degree first, the number of future ōzumo stars at major amateur tournaments in Japan is only likely to increase.

Nippon Sports Science University freshman Hidetora Hanada won last year's All Japan amateur title. | JOHN GUNNING
Nippon Sports Science University freshman Hidetora Hanada won last year’s All Japan amateur title. | JOHN GUNNING

That’s something that has caught the attention of many in recent times. And even among foreign sumo fans, interest in Japanese amateur tournaments has noticeably risen over the past few years.
For those in Tokyo and its surroundings, the upcoming All Japan Sumo Championships at the Kokugikan in December are also one of the only opportunities to see high-level sumo in the capital during the final three months of the year.
The COVID-19-enforced cancellation of two of the four tournaments in which tsukedashi qualifications can be earned in both 2020 and 2021 has increased the importance of both the All Japan meet and the national university championships, leaving next month’s tournament as this year’s only opportunity for non-students to gain entry to ōzumo at an advanced rank.
The opportunity to watch quality sumo isn’t the only reason a visit to the All Japan Sumo Championships is worthwhile.
With many top stars in ōzumo being former collegians, it’s common to see rikishi walking the halls and sitting among fans watching the action in the ring. Without the pressure of being involved in the tournament themselves, many wrestlers are more relaxed than normal and willing to engage with fans more.
Many of the main title hopefuls in 2021 are students at traditional powerhouse universities.
In this year’s All Japan College Championships, Keita Kawazoe of Nihon University defeated last year’s All Japan champion Hidetora Hanada.

Future ōzumo star Enho participates in the All Japan Amateur Sumo Championships at Ryogoku Kokugikan on Dec. 6, 2015. | JOHN GUNNING
Future ōzumo star Enho participates in the All Japan Amateur Sumo Championships at Ryogoku Kokugikan on Dec. 6, 2015. | JOHN GUNNING

Hanada was a freshman when he claimed the title of amateur yokozuna in 2020. He intends to finish college before turning pro however, and with tsukedashi qualifications only lasting a year, he’ll need to continue winning to take advantage of the boost it gives those joining ōzumo.
The odds are against a successful title defense.
If the NSSU man wins again in 2021 he’ll be the first back-to-back champion since Keiji Tamiya (later ozeki Kotomitsuki) in the mid 1990s.
Tickets for the event can be purchased at the door and arriving early also allows you to see the sumo stars of a decade or more hence, as the national elementary championships also take place at the Kokugikan on that day.
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