Photo/IllutrationSekiwake Mitakeumi returns to the waiting room after clinching the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament at the Dolphins Arena gymnasium on July 21. (Yoichi Kawatsu)

  • Photo/Illustraion

With all three yokozuna and a new ozeki absent, it took a local hometown favorite to step up and single-handedly "save" the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

Sekiwake Mitakeumi, 25, who belongs to the Dewanoumi stable, clinched the title for the first time on July 21, the 14th day of the 15-day tourney. Sekiwake is the third-highest rank following yokozuna and ozeki.

The tournament win validated a life-changing decision he made three years ago before graduating from Toyo University.

Mitakeumi pondered whether to enter the professional sumo world or go to work for the prefectural government, which had offered him a job. Eventually, he decided to become a professional sumo wrestler.

In the latest tournament, which ended on July 22 in Nagoya, close to his hometown of Agematsu in the southwestern part of Nagano Prefecture, Mitakeumi elicited huge cheers from spectators.

He gave fans someone to root for, with the three yokozuna and popular new ozeki sitting out due to injuries.

When Mitakeumi climbed down from the dohyo ring after defeating maegashira No. 13 Tochiozan on July 21, he breathed a huge sigh of relief.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was able to win the title thanks to cheers from the people of my hometown. I also continued to receive the support of my stable. It was good that I was able to boost the mood (of my stable),” Mitakeumi said.

During his university days, he won 15 titles, including becoming a university yokozuna and an amateur yokozuna. As a result, he was qualified to enter from the third-highest makushita division.

However, he initially had no intention to turn professional. That was partly because there was only one person who became a yokozuna in the professional ranks after graduating from a university. That was Wajima, who graduated from Nihon University, and retired in 1981.

“He (Mitakeumi) was hoping to land a stable job,” said Fumio Hamano, 68, manager of Toyo University’s sumo club.

Mitakeumi had already obtained an unofficial job offer from the Wakayama prefectural government, whose sumo club is strong in the amateur sumo world.

However, his heart leaned toward becoming a professional sumo wrestler after he was strongly urged by stablemaster Dewanoumi to join his stable.

“I want you to lend your helping hand for the revitalization of my stable,” Dewanoumi told Mitakeumi.

In those days, the Dewanoumi stable had no wrestlers in the highest makuuchi division and the second-highest juryo division though it had produced many yokozuna.

Mitakeumi thought, “I can do something (for the revitalization),” and decided to join the professional ranks.

He persuaded his parents, who were opposed to the decision. He also told the Wakayama prefectural government that he was turning down the job offer and apologized for it.

His name as a professional sumo wrestler became Mitakeumi, which consists of Mitake and "umi." Umi, meaning sea, came from the name of his stable, Dewanoumi.

Meanwhile, Mitake emanated from Mount Ontakesan, which can be seen from his hometown of Agematsu. In September 2014, the mountain erupted, killing about 60 people. It was six months before he made his debut as a professional wrestler.

“I want to encourage my hometown by showing good performances (in the professional sumo world),” he thought at the time.

After making his debut as a professional wrestler in March 2015, he was quickly promoted to the juryo division after only two tournaments, and to the top makuuchi division after another two tournaments.

Since March 2017, he has maintained his sekiwake rank, or the fourth-highest rank komusubi, for nine consecutive tournaments. As a result, he is now looked up to as a leader of the next generation.

Another renowned wrestler from Nagano Prefecture is ozeki Raiden (1767-1825), whose winning ratio exceeded 90 percent.

If Mitakeumi can win at least 11 matches in the next tournament, to be held in Tokyo in September, he could be promoted to ozeki for the following tourney to be held in Fukuoka in November.

He has won 22 matches in the last two tournaments, and 33 wins over three tournaments as a sekiwake or komusubi is generally considered the benchmark for promotion.