March is known as the month of surprises in the sumo world, and the last two weeks of action have provided more than enough twists, turns and upheavals for fans. The “Areru Haru Basho” (Stormy Spring Tournament) took place in Osaka, where the race for the Emperor’s Cup came to a head – and more.
A welcome return to Osaka
Anticipation was at its highest. The spring tournament returned to Osaka after being held in Tokyo last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, sumo fans were admitted to the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium for the first time in three years.
There had been serious doubts as to whether the basho could even take place in the city. In early February, the sumo association revealed that 252 members were infected with the coronavirus. Fortunately, the situation quickly improved.
And there was an added bonus. Declining cases nationwide prompted the association to raise the spectator cap to 75% of arena capacity, from 50%. This meant that a maximum of around 5,600 fans could watch the action each day. Those who grabbed a ticket were surely thrilled to be back in the stands.
The lone yokozuna comes out early
Terunofuji, currently sumo’s only yokozuna, was the favorite for the title despite being stricken with the coronavirus in early February. The 30-year-old was looking for redemption after underperforming in January’s tournament but pulled out on Day 6 in Osaka citing right heel and left knee injuries.
Terunofuji’s infection severely hampered his preparations. The yokozuna stablemaster said his boxer was far from in top form after missing practice for 10 consecutive days. Let’s hope he comes back strong this summer.
Ex-ozeki and new sekiwake fight for the title
Core wrestler Takayasu took advantage of the yokozuna’s absence. The maegashira once held the second highest rank of ozeki, and by Day 5 was in the elder’s blazing form – undefeated and in sole possession of the head.
Takayasu remained ahead of the pack until Day 11, when he faced Wakatakakage, who was debuting as the third highest ranked sekiwake. He too was playing well, with only one defeat.
Their fight had fans screaming. In the end, Wakatakakage overwhelmed Takayasu with a fast and aggressive attack. The win put them in a two-way race for the cup, with four days to go.
Both wrestlers suffered another loss, meaning their records were still tied on the final day. Takayasu fought first, but suffered his third loss. All eyes were on Wakatakakage, who faced the ozeki Shodai. The sekiwake fiercely attacked his opponent early on, but the higher ranked wrestler found a nice inside position, from where he pushed his opponent over the balls.
That only meant one thing: a title playoff between Wakatakakage and Takayasu, both tied at 12 wins and 3 losses.
Takayasu went for it, charging in with a relentless push and push offense. But Wakatakakage endured, miraculously grabbing Takayasu’s belt at ringside. He swayed his opponent – claiming the match, the tournament and the title.
It was Wakatakakage’s first Emperor’s Cup, and the first for a newly promoted sekiwake in 86 years. The feat was last accomplished by the legendary Futabayama in 1936.
Wakatakakage is also the first man from Fukushima prefecture in northeastern Japan to win a top division title in 50 years. In his victory speech, the 27-year-old paid tribute to the region, which was devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
“The reconstruction of Fukushima still has a long way to go, 11 years after the disaster. I want to play my part by giving my all in the ring.” Congratulations, Wakatakakage.
And commiserations, Takayasu. He came so close to winning the championship so many times, but once again he missed out. “I accept the result, because I gave it my all,” he said before leaving the arena. “I will come back stronger and try for the title again.”
Personally, it’s good to know that Takayasu’s fighting spirit remains as strong as ever. I really hope he realizes his dream in the near future. He deserves it and certainly has what it takes.
The new ozeki makes its presence felt
Expectations were high for Mitakeumi, who rose to ozeki rank after winning the New Year’s Tournament in January. The 29-year-old may not have won this time, but he didn’t disappoint either – remaining in contention until the final days of the tournament. In the end, he finished with a respectable 11 wins and 4 losses.
Mitakeumi says competing consistently and winning more than 10 fights per tournament is a must for ozeki wrestlers. Job done this time, and I’ll be happy to give him a thumbs up for his efforts.
Incidentally, March Champion Wakatakakage and Mitakeumi both attended Toyo University before turning pro. Mitakeumi is the older of the two, and I’m sure he’ll be inspired to see his pal find success.
Special Prize Winners
Only one man can win the Emperor’s Cup, but there are other prizes awarded to fighters who compete at a high level.
This time, Takayasu won the Fighting Spirit Prize as consolation for losing the cup.
Kotonowaka won the same prize for staying in the race until the last day.
Along with the title, Wakatakakage won the technical award for his superb skills.
Next stop: summer
Both tournaments so far this year have, unusually, been won by sekiwake-ranked wrestlers. In that sense, it will be good to see the big boys back in shape at the next basho in May.
In particular, Terunofuji will be chomping at the bit. As a yokozuna, it’s his job to show others who’s boss.
And I expect an even better performance from Mitakeumi in his second tournament as an ozeki. Barely 30 years old, he has no time to lose if he wants to become a great champion.
Mitakeumi’s other ozeki wrestlers – Shodai and Takakeisho – will need to improve considerably. The two finished the March tournament with the eight wins needed to maintain their rank. At the same time, they were nowhere to be found halfway through the title race.
Shodai started out terrible with 4 straight losses but rallied to finish with 9 wins. Takakeisho had 8 wins with four days remaining, and it stayed that way until the end. Disappointing, to say the least. Both were far from what is expected of an ozeki, and they need to improve quickly.
They may soon have additional company in their ranks. Wakatakakage will look to win back-to-back titles in May. If he does, the association will surely make him an ozeki. If he misses the cut, 12 or more wins could still see him promoted.
I’ll end with a bit of Hoshoryu – definitely a man to watch. At the tender age of 22, the Mongol competed for the fourth highest komusubi in Osaka, finishing with 8 wins. He gets better and better every time he gets in the ring. I’m sure it will raise the temperature in the summer.
The May Grand Sumo Tournament will begin on May 8 at Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo.