Monday, May 12, 2008

Beasts of Men: Sumo 大相撲

Staring each other down with gunfighter-scowls. Feet shift in the sand, ready to spring at the slightest movement. The battle won't last long once it starts. One of them will drop. No 44-magnums in these belts though; just 350 pounds of human monster ready to thunder off the line. The crowd grows louder the closer the combatants crouch to their lines.

On the east side of ring burns Yokozuna Asashoryu, the 27 year old, 6 foot, 335 pound, 22 time Grand Champion from Mongolia. He's high grade destruction with an attitude. Hero to some, bane to others, he's the wedge-man in Japan's most traditional sport. Across from him is another guy, Kisenosato.

Their elephant feet dig deeper into the ring. Fists tensed on the lines. Eyes locked. Then, just at the right moment, they bolt at each other like atoms in a supercollider... The world stops and things goes quiet, like bomb muting reality before laying it waste...


Their massive heads collide issuing a gnarly primordial knock. The sight stupefying, the sound spine tingling: like dropping a large smooth stone on concrete. A dense thud that ripples the air, reverberating clear to upper deck of the arena where yours truly is watching the carnage. Sand flies, faces contort, and bodies roll, and roll some more. It's hard to stop a Sumo, 'bout like stopping an asteroid.

When the dust settles its Kisenosato who's left standing in the circle thinking to himself, "Holy shit! Did I just do that?" He did it alright. He did it well. He beat the unbeatable on the very first day of the two week long tourney, cutting a one-shaped slash into whatever record the champ manages to put together.

The class and grace with which these agile boulders move is stupefying. At the upper levels of competition you'd be hard pressed to find a sumo under 325 ponds. Most of 'em can do the splits which means they could kick you in the head just as easily as they could throw your ass to Neptune. I'm in awe of these modern giants who wield brute force with delicate finesse.

I've been a sumo fan since the first time I saw it on the TV here in Japan almost two years ago. NHK, the Japan Broadcast Corporation, airs all the upper division matches of the Grand Sumo Tournaments held over two weeks, six times a year. Fed up with watching from the sofa, me and two friends took action and bought upper-deck tickets for Japan's fleshy national sport.

This past Sunday (5-11), was the first day of the May Grand Sumo Tournament held at Tokyo's Kokugikan arena. We bought our tickets the first day they went on sale as weekend tickets go fast. 5,000 yen ($50) got us upper deck seats and a pretty decent view. That sounds expensive, and it is, but it's a good value because the action lasts all day, from 8am when the first lanky inexperienced Sumos dance with each other, until 6pm when the highest ranked Yokozunas toss their opponents into the front row crowd who pay over $100 a head for the privilege. That's how things usually go down, only the day I went it was a Yokozuna who was tossed out of the circle.

Yokozuna is the highest level in Sumo and it's extremely difficult to reach. The tricky part is that the title is based on tournament performances, which means its stripped if the wrestler does badly, like being sent down to the minors after a bad game. The title is extremely difficult earn, so difficult that in the last 300 years only 62 people have carried the honor. At present there are only two wrestlers ranked as Yokozuna, and, much to the chagrin of sumo ethnic purists, they're both Mongolian. One is the arrogant and dominating Asashoryu, the other is Hakuho, the newest and best of all.

Hakuho fights with a calm spirit that is ten times bigger than his 343 pound, 6'3" shell; a spirit clearly visible both on the TV and at the arena. Did I mention he's only 23? Amazing, simply amazing. Where Asashoryu is a stamping elephant, Hakuho is a deep sea humpback. I have a ton of respect for the guy and I'm not sure why. He's the first sports hero I've ever had. I never really understood the allure of having a sports heroes until now. I used to wonder why people adored athletes who's skills they would never be able to match. Now I know that's the fun of it. Not only can I not compete at Hakuho's level, I can't compete period. It's great! I bought a copy of his tegata, a life-sized hand print of his mighty right paw, on top of which is his signature; a copy of course, the real things sells for hundreds.

My day at the sumo arena was one of the best days I've spent in Japan. To my left and right were my good friends Ryan and Calum, in my left hand was a bag of tater chips and in my right a cold brew. And in front of me, well, in front of me were some of the most marvelous, and I mean that literally, some of the most marvelous people I've ever seen. The icing on the cake came when Hakuho the Pure won his match. He did it for me, I read his palm.

Watching this mammoths wrestle made me wonder just what it takes to be a Sumo wrestler. Surprisingly, it doesn't take much at all: as long as you've finished junior high, are over 5'6" and 165 lbs., but under 23, then you're good to go. Life in the training houses, called stables -proper homes for the beasts- is hierarchical with the newbies cooking the food and scrubbing their superiors' hard to reach back parts. If you can handle that then room and board is "free."

If you make it to Yokozuna level then you get a huge monthly salary to go with your cleanings: a salary in the neighborhood of $25,000... per month! That figure excludes the prize money from sponsored matches, the gift money from autograph parties, and bonuses for doing public exhibitions in the down times. What a life!, while it lasts at least. Sumo wrestlers, while amazing physical specimens aren't the healthiest folk. The average life expectancy of a wrestler is 65, a pitiful showing in Japan which boasts a global high of 78 years. After visiting the arena and seeing the Goliaths in action, hell, I'd be more than happy with 65 years, so long as 10 or 12 of 'em were spent in the ring.
Photos: Top: Takamisakari digs deep but comes up short in his bout with Goeido. Middle: Best of the Best -the top ten Sumo wrestlers in the world. Asashoryu and Hakuho are on the right and left of the speaker respectively. Bottom: Hero's Handprint, Hakuho's tegata. Video: Hakuho wins his opening match with Asasekiryu. It's not the best video but it's taken by me. All photos and video by yours truly.

Visit sumo's official English website at
For the beginner's guide to Sumo click here.

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