Yokozuna Takanohana brought an illustrious but injury-plagued sumo career to an end Monday after his comeback bid ended in failure at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament.
Takanohana, still recovering from a right knee injury he sustained in May 2001, fell to fourth-ranked maegashira Aminishiki on the eighth day of the 15-day meet at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo on Sunday, leaving the 22-time Emperor’s Cup winner with a 4-3 record with one rest day.
The decisive defeat came in the 30-year-old grand champion’s fourth bout after his return to the tournament from a shoulder injury he suffered in a second-day match against top-ranked maegashira Miyabiyama.
Amid talk of his imminent retirement, Takanohana managed two straight wins in his comeback in largely unconvincing fashion.
However, he failed to add to the wins as he lost to rank-and-filers Dejima and Aminishiki in lopsided bouts the next two days as concern over his fitness lingered.
“I made up my mind after yesterday’s bout. I had a little hesitation, though, but now I feel refreshed and I’m convinced from deep in my heart that I have made the right decision,” Takanohana said. “I have no regrets and I’m thankful to have had such a wonderful career in sumo.”
His stablemaster and father Futagoyama said he is more relieved than sad to see his son bid farewell to the dohyo.
“He can no longer wrestle the way he did in the past. It cannot be reversed. His knee doesn’t move as he wants it to and his shoulder has been painful, too,” Futagoyama said. “I’m not sad. On the contrary, I’m relieved.”
Earlier Monday, Futagoyama notified Japan Sumo Association chairman Kitanoumi of Takanohana’s decision to retire.
“Mr. Futagoyama told me that Takanohana has run out of the strength he needs to continue wrestling. It’s sad news, especially after years of battling injuries, but every great yokozuna has to retire sometime,” Kitanoumi said.
“As an active wrestler, he made tremendous contributions to sumo with 22 tournament victories. It’s a significant milestone. I hope he will help develop young talent as a sumo elder,” he said.
The JSA later accepted Takanohana’s retirement at its executive committee and decided to award him a special bonus of 130 million yen and the name of sumo elder Takanohana as a token of its recognition of his accomplishments.
The JSA allows only retired grand champions with outstanding careers to maintain their names as sumo elders and these names are not inheritable. Takanohana is only the third such wrestler, following in the footsteps of Taiho and Kitanoumi.
Last September, Takanohana made an impressive comeback to the dohyo with a 12-3 record after missing seven straight tournaments and then opted out of the Kyushu tourney in November to nurse his knee.
On Jan. 9, Takanohana made a last-minute decision to appear in the New Year meet and Futagoyama said openly that he would persuade him to end his wrestling career if he thinks his injured knee cannot prop him up any longer.
Takanohana’s decision to retire comes as a bittersweet reminder to sumo officials and fans of the excitement he and his elder brother, former yokozuna Wakanohana, generated in the 1990s and his unexpected decline in the wake of a series of injuries.
Making his professional debut in March 1988, the Tokyo native rose quickly through the ranks, setting a host of “youngest-ever” records along the way.
Among these were the youngest wrestler at 16 years, nine months to win the makushita division (sumo’s top junior division) title (May 1989), youngest wrestler to reach the second-tier juryo division (November 1989) and youngest wrestler to reach the elite makuuchi division (May 1990).
Takanohana was also the youngest wrestler to defeat a yokozuna when he dumped Chiyonofuji in the May 1991 meet and then became the youngest wrestler at 19 years, five months to lift the Emperor’s Cup when he won the 1992 New Year tourney.
Takanohana, along with Wakanohana, sparked the “Waka-Taka” sumo boom of the 1990s, dominating in the ring with an uncanny right-handed belt grip and an aggressive style that marked him for sumo greatness.
He earned promotion to sumo’s ultimate rank of yokozuna in January 1995 by closing out 1994 with back-to-back 15-0 campaigns in the autumn and Kyushu tourneys and appeared to be on a pace to challenge Taiho’s record of 32 tournament championships.
Takanohana, the 65th grand champion in sumo history, continued to roll over his opponents, winning four of the six grand sumo tournaments in 1995, four more in 1996 and three more the following year to bring his championship total to 18.
But after four straight tournament titles in 1996, Takanohana injured his back while on a regional sumo tour and sat out his first full tournament at Kyushu in 1996. It was this injury, sumo experts believe, which led to his eventual decline and fall.
His power sapped, Takanohana began to gain weight to compensate for his ailing back and developed unspecified problems with his internal organs.
Although Takanohana added victories No. 19 and No. 20 in 1998, a dislocated shoulder and strains to his muscles and joints prevented him from winning another title until January 2001.
But the worst injury of his career came when he was on course for a full-fledged comeback.
Takanohana damaged ligaments in his right knee on the penultimate day of the summer tourney in May 2001 but came back on the final day and, though barely capable of standing, threw down yokozuna rival Musashimaru for his 22nd and last Emperor’s Cup.
The victory left Takanohana fourth on the all-time list for championships behind Taiho (32), Chiyonofuji (31) and Kitanoumi (24).
After the injury, Takanohana underwent surgery in Paris in July 2001 but failed to make progress in rehabilitating the knee and missed seven tournaments in a row before last year’s autumn tourney.
Takanohana has often come under pressure from the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, an advisory body to the JSA in charge of promoting wrestlers to sumo’s top two ranks, to step down unless he lives up to his yokozuna status.