One of the many intriguing story-lines for this month’s Grand Sumo Tournament is now null and void due to a surprising retirement. With little over a week to go before the May tournament begins (May 14) former sekiwake Ichinojo Takashi has announced he is stepping away from sumo at just 30 years of age.
Official reason for Ichinojo’s retirement
Reports out of Japan state that Ichinojo’s retirement is due to lower back problems. The 6’3″ and 467 lbs wrestler’s back is so beat-up that he reportedly can’t sleep laying down.
Medical issues like this aren’t rare in sumo, especially among the sports largest and most physically imposing competitors. Wrestlers with body types like Ichinojo are in a race against time to achieve all they can before the impact of carrying so much weight becomes debilitating.
Without plans on competing, where his bulk was his greatest asset, Ichinojo can now shed weight and improve his quality of life.
It should be noted that the physiques many associate with the sport are not natural. Instead they are cultivated through rigorous eating routines. Once a wrestler stops competing (and eating bowl after bowl of chanko nabe) many become unrecognizable.
Ichinojo proved a point before retiring
The timing of Ichinojo’s retirement sure is interesting.
One has to assume that this injury, and his level of pain, didn’t materialize overnight. It seems very likely that Ichinojo has been suffering with his back for the past few months. But despite that, he chose to retire now and not in March, before he was scheduled to compete in the spring tournament.
At the spring tournament Ichinojo was forced to compete in the second division (juryo). He was relegated to that division because of a 0-0-15 record in the January tournament. That record of all absences was due to a suspension Ichinojo was serving (more on that later).
Instead of calling it quits ahead of the March tournament, Ichinojo competed. And dominated. Bad back and all.
In March he earned a 14-1 record and won the juryo championship. He looked unstoppable in the tournament. His only loss came to Gonoyama; the only wrestler who succeeded in both forcing the big man to move laterally and then being able to summon another power to thrust him back.
Other than that bout, Ichinojo was rarely troubled. He was able to throw down Asanoyama (a former ozeki who was also coming off of suspension) and swat the prodigiously talented Ochiai. He also had a highly entertaining bout with Enho. In that bout the little heart-throb was able to get Ichinojo moving, but just didn’t have the strength to do anything with it.
Ichinojo, the GOAT of showing zero expression, must have felt satisfied in showing the world that he was too good for the division, even when hobbled. I’d argue, even more satisfying, would have been the two wins he got during spot call ups to the top division, in which he beat Hokuseiho and Bushozan (two men called up to makuuchi on the same banzuke [ranking sheet] that listed him relegated from the division).
On May 1 the new banzuke was released showing that Ichinojo had been promoted back to Makuuchi. Once it was confirmed that he had a spot in the division every wrestler wants to be in, he waved goodbye. But even though he won’t be competing, his name will be on the top division standings for the whole tournament. That certainly feels like a message to those who sent him down.
Sumo association may be sighing in relief
Ichinojo will leave sumo with a very healthy retirement plan, secured by his former rank of sekiwake (just two steps below the hallowed yokozuna rank). Ichinojo also leaves the sport with nine kinboshi (merits for defeating yokozuna while in the rank of maegashira). Each of those represents a bump in pay.
The bigwigs of the Japanese Sumo Association might be writing those pension checks with smiles on their faces. With Ichinojo’s retirement, the sport (which is obsessed with ‘dignity’) loses one of its more controversial characters.
Unlike yokozuna Hakuho and Asashoryu, who ran afoul of the sumo association for their over zealous displays in the ring, Ichinojo’s offences happened strictly outside of competition.
Ichinojo’s recent suspension stemmed from an investigation into COVID-19 protocol violations from 2020 and 2021, when wrestlers were subjected to especially strict lock down rules. Additionally, Ichinojo was also been accused of physically assaulting his stablemaster’s wife. Ichinojo has also been accused of drunken and belligerent behaviour.
Prior to his retirement announcement, and before his health problems were made public, it felt as though Ichinojo was primed to make a big impact on the top division in May and perhaps play spoiler for a number of wrestlers currently trying to meet win quotas to secure the rank of ozeki (a rank the JSA desperately wants to fill). But now officials don’t need to worry about that, nor do they need to worry about seeing someone with a checkered past hoisting the Emperor’s Cup.
Ichinojo’s legacy is one of missed potential
Born Altankhuyag Ichinnorov to a nomadic clan in Mongolia, the future Ichinojo was recruited into sumo after winning a provincial bokh (traditional Mongolian wrestling) championship as a teen.
He was flown to Japan on the same flight as Gantulgyn Gan-Erdene, who would later be known as Terunofuji, the current and most recent yokozuna.
Both Ichinojo and Terunofuji were enrolled at Tottori Johoku High School. The school, located in Japan’s least populated prefecture which is home to mountain and sand dunes, is know for its sumo program and has produced many top division talents.
After graduating high-school, Ichinojo spent a year coaching the school sumo team to a national championship. Then, in 2014, he joined Tokyo’s Minato stable.
He debuted in pro sumo that same year, via the makushita (third division). He ended his first two tournaments with 6-1 records to gain promotion to the juryo. He won the championship in his first juryo tournament and was runner-up in his second tournament. Those performances earned him a promotion to makuuchi for 2014’s September Tournament.
In his first tournament in the top division he finished runner-up with a 13-2 record and earned the Fighting Spirit and Outstanding Performance awards. In that tournament he also earned his first ever kinobshi for beating yokozuna Kakuryu. He was promoted to sekiwake for the next tournament.
Ichinojo’s performances were inconsistent from that point on, as he would drift between the sekiwake and maegashira ranks. In 2022 he won his first and only championship in the top division after going 12-3 in the July tournament. His suspension would be handed down a few tournaments later.
Ichinojo’s legacy leaves us with more questions and answers. His imposing physique, quick feet and above average grappling (via bokh and judo) should have given him what was needed to ascend above sekiwake just as his travelling partner, high school classmate and ultimate rival Terunofuji did.
But instead he watched as Terunofuji ascended to the top of the mountain, while he stalled part way up and was forced back to camp.
Just as their paths diverged during competition, it feels as though the somewhat cheery Terunofuji and the often dour appearing Ichinojo might be destined for different paths outside of sumo.
Terunofuji, whose own retirement (hastened by recurring injuries) must be just around the corner, has hinted at wanting to open his own stable. Ichinojo, who has Japanese citizenship (a prerequisite for becoming a coach/stablemaster), is considered unlikely to stay in sumo now he is no longer competing. Instead, it’s believed he will likely return to Mongolia.
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