Rebuilding the strength and conditioning needed to win the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament was a painstaking process, lone yokozuna Terunofuji said Monday.

The 32-year-old grand champion claimed his ninth top-division title Sunday at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan after pulling out of the three previous tournaments with severe back pain from a training injury.

He looked less than his imposing best at the start of the 15-day competition, losing two of his first seven bouts, but he rounded into form and eventually claimed the championship by beating sekiwake Kotonowaka in a tie-breaking playoff after both finished with 13-2 records.

Yokozuna Terunofuji speaks during a press conference in Tokyo on Jan. 29, 2024, a day after clinching his ninth career top-division championship at the 15-day New Year Grand Sumo Tournament. (Pool photo)(Kyodo) ==Kyodo

"I'm glad I was able to win the title," Terunofuji said during a press conference at his Isegahama stable in Tokyo.

"I haven't been able to practice thoroughly, but I've been getting better little by little."

The injury layoff was the latest in a series of prolonged absences for the Mongolian-born yokozuna. He won his eighth Emperor's Cup in May after sitting out the three previous tournaments to recover from double knee surgery.

The newly crowned champion said modifying his training schedule had been crucial to his successful return from injury.

"I've learned how to handle my body," he said.

He will aim for his first back-to-back titles since 2021 at March's Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka, where another Emperor's Cup would see him fulfill a long-held career goal.

"I've been saying for a long time that double-digit championships are my goal, and I want to aim for it at the next tournament. I want to achieve it as quickly as possible," he said.

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