Ozeki Terunofuji got his yokozuna promotion bid off to a winning start on Sunday at the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, where returning grand champion Hakuho also earned a narrow win.
Terunofuji, who celebrated his return to ozeki in May with his second straight Emperor's Cup, dispatched a tricky opponent in No. 1 maegashira Endo, a title contender until the final day in May.
Endo charged low and cautiously kept him off the long reaches of Terunofuji, but the ozeki was undeterred and used his superior frame to steer Endo to the edge before forcing the rank-and-filer out at Dolphins Arena, tying their head-to-head record at five wins apiece.
Terunofuji is set to win promotion to yokozuna if the 29-year-old can post two straight championships as an ozeki, or post a championship-caliber record at this meet, the first away from Tokyo since the March 2020 Spring meet held behind closed doors in Osaka.
The Mongolian's career was nearly wiped out by knee injuries that dropped him from ozeki to sumo's second-lowest tier, jonidan, in March 2019. Terunofuji won his second career title last July on his return to the elite makuuchi division.
Hakuho, back after missing all or part of the past six tournaments, was tested throughout by debutant komusubi Meisei but also came out on top.
His stablemaster Miyagino has claimed that anything but a solid performance would push Hakuho, who has a record 44 grand tournament championships, to the brink of retirement. The win was not convincing, but was enough for the 36-year-old to pump his fist in celebration.
With his surgically repaired right knee and both feet strapped, Hakuho battled Meisei to a standstill after the charge. It came down to a throwing battle near the edge, where Hakuho won it with a slick hooking inner thigh throw.
"I think Hakuho will return to his usual self if he can get through the early stages of the meet," Japan Sumo Association President Hakkaku said. "Terunofuji was prevented from getting easy belt holds, but he kept his cool."
Ozeki Takakeisho, who beat Terunofuji on the final day in May but lost to him in a championship playoff, came out on top after trading shoves with January champion Daieisho.
Takakeisho was gradually backing off against the No. 1 rank-and-filer but had enough room to pull off a beltless arm throw.
Ozeki Shodai was at his bullish best as he barged into No. 2 maegashira Takanosho and forced him out in a comprehensive win.
Sekiwake Takayasu, who went 10-5 in the last two tournaments, is sidelined with lower back pain. Although his stablemaster Tagonoura said he could be back in action sometime during the tournament, his chance for re-promotion to ozeki, normally requiring 33 wins over three straight tournaments, is all but gone.
The other sekiwake, Mitakeumi, fighting at the sport's third-highest rank for the first time in 15 tournaments, succumbed to giant Ichinojo after the No. 2 smothered his opponent at the initial charge.
Komusubi Wakatakakage, who earned his first promotion to the three "sanyaku" ranks below yokozuna, created chances to win but fell to No. 3 Hokutofuji.
Makuuchi debutant and No. 17 Ichiyamamoto marked his promotion to the top tier with a win, courtesy of a rare backward belt throw against No. 16 Ishiura.
The grand tournament Aichi Prefecture is the first away from Tokyo with spectators since the November 2019 Kyushu tourney in Fukuoka. Attendance in Nagoya is being capped at 3,800, half the venue's full capacity, in line with the government's COVID-19 policies.
"We could not hold this tournament in Nagoya last year and caused you many troubles and anxieties. I'm as happy as can be to hold one for the first time in two years," Hakkaku said.