The U.S. Sumo Open: Not Only Big, But Agile

There’s really no other way of looking at it. I spent three hours of a Sunday afternoon watching very large men engage in a centuries-old tradition. In diapers. That is to say, they were in diapers, not I. “How did this come to be?” you might ask.

Not long ago I was reading a book entitled Andy Roddick Beat Me With A Frying Pan. The author, one Todd Gallagher, had taken it upon himself to research and in some cases actually test out many of the burning questions that have bedeviled sports fans for years. Things like “Could a team of midgets be the greatest offense in baseball history?” and “Could a morbidly obese goalie shut out an NHL team?” You know, the kind of heady stuff that has somehow been overlooked by 60 Minutes and NPR’s All Things Considered.

Keeping in mind that I was in pure vacation mode at the time, the chapter that particularly piqued my attention was “Would sumo wrestlers make great NFL linemen?” Truth be told, I had never really thought about it. But it was intriguing (remember – vacation mode).

In testing out the concept, Gallagher enlisted the services of Andrew Freund, the founder of the California Sumo Association, and creator of the U.S. Sumo Open, who in turn recruited two sumos who had spent time in the professional ranks in Japan.

Byamba

These two wrestlers, Byambajav “Byamba” Ulambayar and Bayanbat “Bayanaa” Davaadalai, were brought to California and put through a series of workouts similar to what collegian football prospects go through in preparation for the NFL Draft – with their performances graded by personnel from two different pro football teams.

The conclusion reached was…“yes, but”, or its corollary, “definitely maybe”.

The real informational bonanza that came out of the whole thing however, was that there actually is a U.S. Sumo Open. Which, as luck would have it, takes place each August right here in SoCal. And better still, the two NFL wannabe sumos, Byamba and Bayanaa would be taking part in the competition.

This was definitely worth gassing up the 2002 Mazda Tribute (the Official Car of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour) and heading down the freeway to Anaheim.

Only to find out upon arrival that there was somewhat of a wrinkle.

The U.S. Sumo Open was originally scheduled to be the showcase event within a larger international Mixed Martial Arts exposition at the Anaheim Convention Center. Until about a week ago, when the martial arts folks said “Ummmm, never mind”. And packed up their venue contract when they took their nunchuks and went home. This in turn left Andrew Freund with a production-ready tournament and a stable of athletes from around the world – but no venue.

It is at this point that I submit to you that sporting event producers should really be put in charge of international diplomatic negotiations. Because if you really want to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem quickly, just put it in the hands of sports producers – particularly those experienced in staging “second tier” sports events.

Somehow or another, Freund managed to secure the grand ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel located one block away from the Convention Center and retrofit it to host an international sumo competition. He’ll start work on world peace on Wednesday.

While I would be lying if I said that the event didn’t suffer as a result of the move from a fully-equipped 5,000 seat amphitheatre, Freund’s team still managed to pull off a professional event in a place more commonly associated with elaborate weddings. When I first took my seat, I half-expected a spirited rendition of the “Hokey Pokey” to break out at any time. But as the competition moved along I found myself thinking less and less about the surroundings and more about what was unfolding only a few feet in front of me.

Sumo matches for the most part are very short – some last just a few seconds – making a sumo tournament a treat for the attention span challenged. The reason for the brevity is two-fold. First is the basic rule that a match ends when one competitor either touches the ground inside the ring with anything other than his feet, or touches the ground outside the ring. It’s a basic one throw and done sport.

Second, this is an aggressive competition where both parties are usually on the offensive from the start. There is no “feeling out” stage of each match, and as a result the initial surge and accompanying strategy is usually a make or break one for each sumo.

Interestingly, on a few occasions the strategy employed was to take an initial step back in a kind of “matador” approach, hoping that the opponent would throw himself off balance in his initial surge – thus enabling the tricky sumo to propel their opponent quickly out of the ring. This didn’t work all that often though, which speaks to the coordination and athleticism of the sumos. They can right themselves and stop some pretty significant forward momentum in a split second – all while contorting to position themselves for leverage.

I don’t know for sure, but based on video I’ve seen, it appears that this skill set developed in Japan as a byproduct of boarding the subway during rush hour.

To be continued…

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