With injuries limiting him to one full tournament in 2023, the sumo world faces the prospect of lone yokozuna Terunofuji retiring before another wrestler has ascended to the sport's highest rank.

The Mongolian-born grand champion claimed his eighth Emperor's Cup at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan with a commanding 14-1 performance in May, but it was the only time he completed a 15-day tournament all year and just the sixth time since his September 2021 yokozuna debut.

Severe back pain and other health issues rendered the 32-year-old a non-starter for four of last year's six grand tournaments and forced his withdrawal after three days of the July meet that followed his triumph in Tokyo.

While his career has been defined by one of the sport's most remarkable injury comebacks, the mounting absences over the past year have brought his retirement into focus.

Yokozuna Terunofuji (L) receives the Emperor's Cup from Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku after winning the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo on May 28, 2023. (Pool photo)(Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Terunofuji's sumo journey appeared to have reached its end long before his promotion to yokozuna. He entered the professional sumo world in 2011 and debuted at the second-highest rank, ozeki, in July 2015, before debilitating injuries to both knees and a concurrent battle with diabetes sent him plummeting down the rankings.

Having fallen as far as the fifth-tier jonidan division in March 2019, he was ready to retire before his stablemaster, Isegahama, convinced him he still had a future on the dohyo.

He battled his way back up the rankings and marked his comeback to the elite makuuchi division at the July 2020 tournament, becoming the first wrestler to return from jonidan to the top flight.

He went on to win the meet and four of the six grand tournaments the following year, along the way earning promotion back to ozeki, then to yokozuna.

While a yokozuna cannot be demoted, pressure to retire can be brought to bear on those who miss significant time. Such was the case with all-time great Hakuho, whose September 2021 retirement left Terunofuji as the only active grand champion and with no clear candidates to join him at the rank.

The Japan Sumo Association's hopes for a new yokozuna rest on three current ozeki -- Kirishima, Takakeisho and Hoshoryu.

Kirishima will be the next to make a run at promotion when he contests the Jan. 14-28 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament on the heels of his title-winning performance in November.

The 27-year-old Mongolian can step up to yokozuna by winning the championship or finishing with a record deemed worthy of a champion by the JSA.

Hoshoryu, the 24-year-old nephew of Mongolian former yokozuna Asashoryu, has shown immense potential but may need some time to consistently achieve the win totals needed to put him in the promotion picture.

The 27-year-old Takakeisho currently represents the best prospect for a home-grown grand champion, although the four-time Emperor's Cup winner has been hampered by injuries and inconsistent results since his May 2019 ozeki debut.

Attending an event at Ryogoku Kokugikan in late December, Terunofuji indicated he planned to compete at the upcoming New Year meet.

Asked about his preparation, he simply said, "I'm doing what I can."

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