Mongolian sumo Terunofuji G.Gan-Erdene fell into a slump right after being promoted to ozeki (professional sumo’s second highest rank) in May 2015 due to a broken right collarbone and damaged meniscus in his right knee. His weak condition right after surgery affected his performance, putting him in kadoban, or in danger of demotion from ozeki rank, four times from January 2016 to January 2017, but he managed to secure his rank each time.
At the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in March, he made a dramatic comeback by winning his first five matches before losing to Takayasu, and then beating his next seven opponents. He was the sole leader by Day 14 but he was booed by the crowd for sidestepping his opponent at the initial charge and even subjected to hate speech taunts from the crowd with the expression “go back to Mongolia”, reportedly used.
Terunofuji G.Gan-Erdene promised to show an improved wrestler and work harder from now on, reasoning that he has learned from his past mistakes. The young sumo delves into his current health condition and slump in the following interview.
Is it true that you returned to Mongolia right after the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament for another knee surgery?
I went to Mongolia straight after finishing the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament to get my knees checked and treated, and returned to Japan around two weeks later. I’ve been recovering since, and I’m feeling much better thanks to the treatment.
I’m currently maintaining a diet and doing light workouts regularly. I decided to lose weight because I couldn’t even walk after the last tournament and it is essential for me to avoid putting pressure on my knees as much as possible. I’ve managed to lose 11 kilograms of weight so far.
You took the lead by defeating Kotoshogiku Kazuhiro on Day 14 of the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament. After the controversial win, you faced backlash from the audience and it seemed to have impacted you considerably as you lost your next two bouts. Why didn’t you mention about your injury back then?
I don’t want to speak about it because whatever I say now will sound like an excuse. I don’t think there’s any need for me to explain because it was my fault that I couldn’t demonstrate a good match. The only thing I should be talking about is the fact that I’ve learned from the past and that I will work harder in the future.
I won my first championship in summer 2015 when I was a sekiwake (rank of sumo wrestler below ozeki and above komusubi) and earned my ozeki title. Since then, I’ve been participating in the top makuuchi division. I slumped during the 2016 Spring Grand Sumo Tournament and got a career-worst record of two wins and 13 losses. I couldn’t get into my usual form no matter how hard I tried at the time. Because of that experience, I tried to avoid losing as many bouts as possible even if I was being criticized by others at the latest tournament.
On the final day of the spring tournament, the audience reportedly booed you and chanted you to “go back to Mongolia”. Did you hear the chant?
I heard about it from the media after the closing of the tournament. Do I have to talk about this? To be completely honest, I heard the crowd.
It must have been hard for you both mentally and physically. You weren’t completely healed from your previous injuries at the time, right?
I was careless and aggravated my old injury during my match against Kakuryu M.Anand on Day 13. I didn’t think I needed to tell this to others back then because it was my own responsibility. I’m now paying much more attention to my health and body.
What made you want to take better care of your health?
I injured my right knee while wrestling with Kisenosato Yutaka at the 2015 Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament, which was the second tournament I entered as an ozeki. That injury has been causing the most trouble. I used to think that I would be able to win regardless of how I wrestled and what technique I used until I sustained the injury. I used to train very hard, and I was able to get into the best form and wrestle valiantly. Right after that match with Kisenosato, I got my first warning that things weren’t going right. I thought I needed to be more aware of my injury and the new responsibilities I got from my new sumo rank so I decided to focus on recovering quickly and getting back into shape.
Why did you change your ring name to Terunofuji upon entering the second highest division, juryo, in September 2013?
Terunofuji is the combination of the names of two former yokozuna, Terukuni and Asahifuji (his stable master). I believe that I was able to get promoted to the top makuuchi division in the following year thanks to my new ring name. My first opponent of 2014 and makuuchi division was Mongolian sumo Ichinojo Takashi, who was a junior at my high school. He performed well at the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in May 2013 and got to enter the top division later in September for the autumn tournament. Right afterward, Endo Shota joined the top division and all sumo-related news seemed to cover those two. It was amazing for me to watch from the sideline.
…I will never forget those who continued to support me after the injury and still support me today. I will fight harder for these people…
Did you feel jealous that Ichinojo and Endo were getting all the spotlight?
Not at all. They’re very impressive juniors. I started seeing Ichinojo, born in 1993, and Endo, born in 1990, as strong opponents ever since they made an astounding debut in the sumo world. Then came Takayasu Akira. I’ve been training with Takayasu, who was born in 1991, ever since he was promoted to juryo division.
The Naruto Stable, now changed to Tagonoura Stable, is well-known for being very strict and having intense training routines. Probably all the intense training helped him become eligible for the ozeki title with 12 wins at the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament. I don’t think there is any other sumo born since 1990 who was able to rise in rank so quickly.
Is that so? Didn’t you also rise in three ranks at the 2015 Spring Grand Sumo Tournament because of your constant training? If I remember correctly, you got seven consecutive victories since the first day of the tournament.
Ozeki Aminishiki Ryuji got seven consecutive wins in that tournament as well. People were giving me all kinds of advice back then – both helpful and unhelpful. It felt like I would be able to keep winning if I maintained my form and gave my best shot every time. But on Day 8, Aminishiki lost to Kafuseki and I lost to Kisenosato. The next morning, I was doing my training like usual when I heard people mocking me, saying that I lost just because Aminishiki lost. On Day 10, Aminishiki injured his knee during a match and was taken straight to the hospital. He had to withdraw from his matches on the following days. After seeing him being taken to the hospital, I told myself that I must win no matter what for his sake. With that mindset, I overthrew Yokozuna Hakuho M.Davaadorj for the first time in my life. My triumph on Day 13 was only possible with the courage and motivation I got from Aminishiki.
You won your first Emperor’s Cup with 12 wins and two losses in the next tournament, right?
It was all thanks to my stable masters and colleagues who helped my training. There’s a possibility that I was able to succeed because I hid well behind Ichinojo and Endo’s shadows. In any case, I aspired to become an ozeki after that tournament, but unfortunately, I lost to ozeki Goeido Gotaro in my new division. I can’t forget that regrettable bout even today.
What are your hopes for the upcoming Summer Grand Sumo Tournament? What do you think sumo enthusiasts want from you?
I haven’t been able to show a good side ever since getting injured. I want to triumph and win more than anything right now. Just recently, I was allowed to wrestle again and I had an amazing time. It was so much fun. I never felt like that before. It might have been because I couldn’t wrestle lately. Many people, including the media, supported and encouraged me when I became an ozeki but most of the people around me changed after I got injured.
I will never forget those who continued to support me after the injury and still support me today. I will fight harder for these people. I hope they will continue to look to me and see how far I can go.
This interview was originally published in Japanese on Taishu newspaper