Former ozeki Terunofuji completed a stunning comeback to the top division Sunday by clinching the July Grand Sumo Tournament with a final-day victory over sekiwake Mitakeumi. By winning the penultimate bout on day 15, the 28-year-old, fighting as a rank-and-file No. 17 maegashira, finished with a 13-2 record at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan and avoided a tie-breaking playoff.
A loss would have seen the Mongolian fall into a three-way tie with Mitakeumi (11-4) and ozeki Asanoyama (12-3), winner of the day’s final bout against sekiwake Shodai (11-4). After taking an outside belt grip at the jump, Terunofuji quickly muscled fellow Outstanding Performance Award winner Mitakeumi out backwards to claim his first championship in more than five years.
The native of Ulaanbaatar last fought in sumo’s elite makuuchi division in January 2018, before injuries to both knees and illness derailed his career. His one previous top-level championship came at the 2015 Summer Grand Tournament.
Once a candidate for yokozuna promotion, he was demoted from the second-tier juryo division after the 2018 May tourney.
After missing four straight grand tournaments, he began his comeback last year in March’s Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in the sumo world’s next-to-lowest tier, the jonidan division, where he had bottomed out at No. 48.
The newly crowned champion gave credit to his family, stablemates and stablemaster Isegahama for their encouragement during his long climb back through the ranks after he had considered retiring on several occasions.
“When I went down the ranks, there were people who were rooting for me: my family, my stablemaster, and all the members of my stable. Thanks to their support I was able to come back,” he said. “So many things have happened, but at the very end, I finally faced this day. I believed this day would come where I could smile, that if I worked hard, I would be rewarded.”
Following the injury withdrawal of grand champion and one-time tournament leader Hakuho after Day 12, the title had looked like a two-horse race between Terunofuji and Asanoyama. But after winning his meeting with Asanoyama on Day 13, Terunofuji blew a chance to secure the title the following day when he lost to Shodai.