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Thierry Perran
translated by Olivia Nagioff
proofread by Moti Dichne

Tochiazuma, the hero who defies medical science

A historic feat

Since the establishment of the rule of automatic re-promotion with 10 wins in July 1969, there has never been a former Ozeki who has regained his rank twice. What's more, of the three other wrestlers who have taken advantage of this rule, none has managed to pick up an eleventh win in his comeback tournament.

Well, this Hatsu basho 2005, Tochiazuma broke both of these records. There are many explanations for this. Sumo is a discipline where the mind is critical. So, when one is doing badly for whatever reason, it is very difficult to stay confident and, with one's confidence at a low ebb, one's Sumo suffers terribly. To achieve what he has just done, Tochiazuma has shown everyone that he has a mind of steel, like few other wrestlers. Let us consider this historic feat which was unthinkable a few months ago.

The uncertainty of the medical profession

The action takes place at the Kyushu basho in November 2004. Tochiazuma, barely recovered from a strained ligament injury in his right knee, is currently kadoban, which means he has to obtain his kachi-koshi (majority of wins) or he will lose his Ozeki rank. But unfortunately, on the second day, when beating Kokkai, the brilliant technician falls heavily on his left shoulder and gets injured. The pain finally dies down but on the fifth day, during his loss against Iwakiyama, his injury gets worse and his left shoulder gives out. The decision after an MRI the following day is inescapable: Rupture of the left scapula, which requires 3 months' rest for a complete cure! This is a disaster as the Ozeki is going to find himself down in Maegashira when he comes back in March at Osaka. At least, that is what everyone thinks ...

On hearing the doctors' diagnosis on his mobile, Tamanoi oyakata jumps the gun on his son and states to the media that the latter will not be taking part in the January tournament, and that he has two good years of Sumo ahead of him. This is before the journalists can bring up any notion of retirement. Relieved of the pressure, Tamanoi and Tochiazuma can think calmly of a means of a cure, and this time nothing is clear-cut. Tochiazuma has a rather serious recent history with his left shoulder. After having dislocated the shoulder in January 2003, he later fractured his left acromion in March 2004. In the end, the former college Yokozuna has found himself with his left shoulder in pieces, broken in several places, which he must try to heal once and for all. The two men then consult an array of surgeons to discover whether there is any benefit from an operation. While they are unanimous in saying that Tochiazuma will never have a normal shoulder, they are divided on the subject of surgery. Some recommend waiting to see how the situation develops from here (February 2005), after three months of complete rest. Knowing that surgery will at least double the delay before his return to competition, Tochiazuma convinces his father to let him pursue the gentle method, with a secret idea in his head...

The master of ottsuke withdraws

Returning to Tokyo while the others stay on the island of Kyushu for the provincial year-end tournament, Tochiazuma does not doubt that he will be taking part in the January tournament, and he trains! No fighting for now, but some serious sessions of leg-strengthening work with his personal trainer. Awesomely intelligent, Tochiazuma, although courageous, is not reckless and he does not forget what the doctors have told him. If this is the end of his career, it will happen with a weakened shoulder, which gives him a tough problem. Indeed, following the example of judoka, the Sumotori also have their "special technique", and in the case of Tochiazuma, it is his subtle patented left-handed ottsuke. No-one in the history of Sumo has mastered this technique with as much control and delicacy.

To recall: Ottsuke is a counter-attack technique. When the opponent places his arm inside on the mawashi, ottsuke is the sequence of moves which consists of slapping and blocking this arm between one's opposite arm and one's side. At the same time, the blocking arm starts a vertical movement which allows one not only to raise the opponent's centre of gravity but also to reduce his weight on the ground. Afterwards, the legs get going at the right time to escort the opponent off the dohyo. This technique really tests the shoulder, which must firmly ensure the arm is blocked while setting up the vertical movement. Fearing this technique that he attempts in each one of his bouts, Tochiazuma feels that he must spare his shoulder and restrict his desire to resort to his fatal weapon. So when he starts to fight again around mid-December against Makushita opponents, Tochiazuma fights against his natural instinct to use his powerful ottsuke. Initially it is hard, but he learns quickly and becomes tougher. The Hatsu basho will be critical.

A mind worthy of a Yokozuna

Tochiazuma starts this Hatsu basho with his left scapula barely healed. His last training bouts against Sekitori were successful, but bouts in official tournaments are another matter. As additional pressure, one estimates that the energy deployed at the tachi-ai is approximately 30% greater than normal. So Tochiazuma knows that he will suffer martyrdom from the tachi-ai onwards and that he will have to fight in spite of the pain. His first bout against Tamanoshima, which lasts more than one minute, is in the style of his fantastic tournament. Although manhandled, he hangs on. He has several opportunities to force his left ottsuke, but intelligently he holds back from it and finally pulls through with a show of aggression at the edge of the dohyo. It is just the sort of bout that he would sometimes lose in the past due to relying too heavily on his technique. All that is over! This painful test has hardened him and he has shown everyone that he has the mental strength of the truly great. Japan is waiting for its Yokozuna and it may well have found him at last.

Sources: Hochi, Nikkan, Sanspo.

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