Terunofuji and the Yokozuna Rope
In December of 2019, this website did a five part series trying to find The Next Yokozuna. The idea was simple enough. By looking at the Yokozuna since 1990, as well as the Ozeki who didn't fulfill their chance at Yokozuna promotion, it would be easier to spot patterns and see the Next Yokozuna in lower ranks. This did spit out some compelling names (Takakeisho, who had a rope run in January) and some less spectacular names (Abi, who destroyed his chances with off-dohyo behavior).
This coming tournament, someone could become the Next Yokozuna. If Terunofuji wins the yusho again, he will earn the rope. Terunofuji was not mentioned as a possible Next Yokozuna originally, because in December 2019 Terunofuji was just promoted to Juryo. Even his return to the salaried ranks was impressive, as he had overcome serious knee injuries and other complications that knocked him back down to Jonidan. Yes, he was a former Ozeki with a yusho already to his name. He was also a 28 year old in the second division with a terrible injury history.
Since then, Terunofuji has gone 92-26-2, with a Juryo Yusho, 3 Makuuchi Yusho, and 2 Jun-Yusho. He has delivered Yokozuna-level sumo while simultaneously making his comeback to Ozeki. To say what he has done is unprecedented is underselling things. Terunofuji is the first man to win back-to-back yusho and not be made Yokozuna since Chiyonoyama in 1950. This was also before the six basho a year system was started in 1957. In the modern system, he is the only man to win consecutive Emperor's Cups that was not an Ozeki for the first one.
That record is more astonishing because it is incredible he is still competing. Knee injuries plagued him from his initial promotion to Ozeki in 2015 as a 23 year old. Much of this comes down to style. Terunofuji is huge, 192 cm and 177 kg (6'3" and 390 lbs). He is also wildly strong. Often, his best chance of winning was grabbing his opponents and slinging them around. It was neither subtle nor safe, for either competitor
The injuries only got worse, and in 2017 he suffered a meniscus tear. After Natsu 2017, he was an Ozeki with a yusho and four jun-yusho to his name. More importantly, he had just finished second in two consecutive tournaments, and was perhaps a yusho away from being a Yokozuna. At the very least, two consecutive yusho would not have been completely unthinkable.
And then he went 1-5-9 for both July and September because of that meniscus tear. He mounted the dohyo through May 2018, but only completed one tournament: a 6-9 for Haru 2018. Then he sat out four tournaments from July 2018 to January 2019, which sent him all the way down to Sandanme 88. No one would have faulted him for retiring. No one would have diminished his achievements.
Yet he made it back, and the ultimate question lingers over this coming Nagoya basho. Can he be promoted to Yokozuna? To answer that question leads to considering his biggest threats.
Takakeisho had an identical 12-3 record to Terunofuji in the 15 regulation matches in May. He lost the playoff, which was an exact reversal of how Takakeisho won over Terunofuji in December. These two are basically even as the top two Ozeki right now. He might also not want to be pipped as the Next Yokozuna.
The greatest of all time is not at all like his former self, but he has been talking up July as a make or break basho for his career. Additionally, he has more experience winning sumo matches and tournaments than anyone else ever. He is also the kind of competitor who has busted out face slaps, mind games, and blatant henkas when needed. Do not count even this version of Hakuho out.
Shodai is an Ozeki with a yusho on his record. He is also just a tough rikishi to face because of his peculiar brand of sumo. He might not be a threat for the yusho on a par with others, but he is definitely the best bet for a late basho spoiler match.
The ex-Ozeki has been in it fairly deep the last few tournaments. Of course, he still hasn't actually won a yusho. The other complicating factor for Terunofuji is that Takayasu seems to have his number more than anyone else.
The chances of any rikishi winning a basho, except in cases of dai-yokozuna like Asashoryu or Hakuho nearly winning every tournament in a year, are low. It is always better to count on "The Field" over any single rikishi.
Yet the biggest threat to Terunofuji ascending to Yokozuna isn't another rikishi. If there's one thing that stands out in his recent record, it's September 2020. During that basho, he lost his first two matches, then reeled off 7 straight wins. At that point, knee injuries reared their heads again. He managed an 8th win on Day Eleven. After that, he decided to pull out. That 8-5-2 seemed like a warning he wasn't up for a full Yokozuna run still.
In November 2020, Terunofuji lost the playoff to Takakeisho. In the four basho since his withdrawal, he's gotten at least 11 wins and secured two Jun-Yusho and two Yusho. If he mounts the dohyo, he performs at a Yokozuna level. Let's hope he does it for a little bit longer.