The Yokozuna Terunofuji earned his sixth grand Grand Sumo title this weekend. And he did it going a perfect undefeated 15-0 (zenshō). Terunofuji is the only active sumo wrestler to hold the Yokozuna title; an honorable position which is the highest possible rank for a Sumo wrestler.
Terunofuji is a force to reckoned with in the Sumo wrestling world, but it was not always this way. Due to injuries, Terunofuji went on great losing streaks and was demoted to compete in the lower divisions of Sumo and he nearly retired because of it. But, he has had an auspicious comeback over the past two years making his 15-0 zenshō this weekend even more impressive. His career is one of the greatest comebacks in Sumo and sports history.
The Young Phenom Terunofuji
He was a young 22-year-old Sumo wrestler when he made his debut in the jūryō division, the second-highest division one can compete in. 2013 and he was surrounded by praise and promise. The community even deemed him with the name Terunofuji which is a combination of the names of two great former Yokozuna, Terukuni and Asahifuji.
And the young, Mongolian-born, Terunofuji lived up to his great name. In his debut basho (tournament) in the jūryō level, he won the championship at merely age 22. Delivering impressive records in his next tournaments he was promoted to Sumo wrestling’s highest possible level: The Makuuchi division.
In his debut in Sumo’s highest level, Terunofuji he did poorly before making an impressive comeback. The young man in 2014 had a weak record of two wins and seven losses after the 9th day. But after that, he did the near-impossible, he earned six consecutive victories
Over his next few tournaments, he would perform well and would even win runner-up status, still an impressive position for such a young upstart. He also picked up Outstanding Performance prizes along the way.
In his eighth Grand Sumo appearance, in 2015, he would earn a good 12-3 record and walk away with the championship. “When I was 15 years old I watched sumo and wanted to become a sumo wrestler and so came to Japan.” Terunofuji said as he won his first championship, “It was a dream of mine to win the championship. To actually win it is like a dream.” Terunofuji had a bright future ahead of him in Sumo.
Knees, Injuries, and Relegation
With such a promising start to his career, it would be hard to stop the man now. Unfortunately, as many athletes at the highest level will attest, knees can make or break a career.
Terunofuji while competing at the highest level, his surging had stopped, and his struggling only had begun. Starting in 2016, he would lose tournaments and would earn knee injuries. A damaged meniscus even forced him to withdrawal from a bout. He had later undergone surgery due to this injury.
Over his next few tournaments, he would have a major career slump. Often having negative records, with more losses than wins. He would spend much of 2016 and 2017 in the relegation zone, nearly losing his rank and title. Terunofuji would sustain more meniscus tears which would require more surgery. With great pain, he was forced to withdraw from the tournament and this resulted in a loss of his rank. After that, he would lose even more tournaments and get a demotion.
From a Grand Sumo Champion to a demotion back to jūryō, the second-highest, in just a few years. And in jūryō Terunofuji would be competing against a lower level of competition however he would continue to struggle. With multiple injuries, he was picking up more losses than wins and was forced to withdraw from tournaments. “I was careless and aggravated my old injury,” he admits.
These losses and injuries and added up for Terunofuji as he was demoted even further to Makushita, the third-highest division for Sumo wrestling. He was now suffering further with kidney stones to add to his lingering knee issues. Thus, he was forced to be demoted down to the Jonidan division, the second-lowest. In this division, a wrestler is considered a trainee and does not earn a salary. Terunofuji was the first in history to fall that low. A Grand Sumo champion falling to this level, he was the first.
With this embarrassment and shame, Terunofuji was looking to retire. Due to his health issues, injuries, and losses, he requested to his trainers that he was wanted to retire on five occasions. “I’ve thought about quitting many times,” Terunofuji says he told his stablemates that “‘I have to quit,’ and told my master five or six times, ‘Please let me retire.’ I had three knee surgeries, but I couldn’t even sit in a toilet.” And each time his stablemates offered him support and convinced him to stay in the competition. “Digging deep when the chips are low is something that has defined sumo’s newest champion all throughout his career.” Japan Times writes.
The Sumo wrestling behemoth from Mongolia dug deep when he needed it most. Through willpower, he fought back. He won his first tournament in this lowly division, going undefeated; this earned him a promotion back to Makushita. He won more matches and earned another tournament title. This pushed him back into the second-highest division Jūryō. His return to Jūryō was a triumphant success. The Mongolian won thirteen matches and took the championship with him. Next, he performed well enough in Jūryō to be moved back to Sumo wrestling’s highest division: Makuuchi.
Terunofuji is the first Sumo wrestler in history to fall from the top division to Jonidan and then return to Makuuchi. This man was looking to make history, and making history is exactly what he did. In his return to the Grand Sumo tournament and took it all. He won awards for Technique and Outstanding Performance prizes in addition to the championship title. “I wanted to show sumo fans I’m working very hard in the ring because I think it’s my job. I’ll keep doing that with all my might,” he said.
He won his first championship in 2015, and his second in 2020. Inbetween was struggle and pain. Through his fortitude, he made an amazing comeback. And Terunofuji was not yet finished. Online he thanked his stable master who had convinced him to stay competing and focus on healing, “It was all thanks to my stable masters and colleagues who helped my training.”
Through six tournaments in 2021 Terunofuji has walked away as champion in four of them. Including this weekend’s most recent win in which he went undefeated. Additionally, Terunofuji earned the rank of Yokozuna. “Yokozuna can never be demoted. They are seen as the living embodiment of sumo, and when no longer able to uphold the standards of the rank, they are expected to retire.”
Terunofuji had struggled greatly with injuries, illnesses, and losses. And yet, he found his strength and fought back when he was at his very lowest. Now, he has made history. From winning it all to a lowly division, to an emphatic return. His name is now among the greats of Sumo wrestling. A title he was not given easily. “I may have gradually made a habit of winning,” Terunofuji said, “It felt like only victory was acceptable this time.”
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