Why T.O. Would Be A No-Go In Sumo
Here’s the thing about sumo – it is a sport with all pretense stripped away. A one-on-one flashpoint collision with one sole objective: To overwhelm and physically dominate one’s opponent. Testosterone on testosterone. And if you lose, it can often be in humiliating fashion.
Yet over the course of three hours spent at the U.S. Sumo Open, I witnessed not a single display of anger or bitterness. Literally dozens of matches took place without incident. No taunting. Zero smack-talking. Not a trace of the intimidation techniques so common (and celebrated) across the pro sports ranks today.
These guys just lined up, looked each other in the eye, and had at it, with the best man winning that particular match. And after each match was done, both sumos stood to face each other across the ring and bowed. It was an environment of deep mutual respect and competitive humility.
It was the anti-NFL. The NBA with a muzzle. It was dignified.
It was also a lot of fun to watch, at least partly because of the rapid-fire nature of the competition. The vast majority of matches pack an inordinate amount of action into a timeframe of less than a minute, and as soon as one match is done, the short ritual preceding the next match begins.
Among other viewing benefits, the brief duration of each match in a sumo tournament creates the opportunity for fans to see the full roster of competitors over a relatively brief span of time. The preliminary rounds in each weight class are round-robin in nature, with every sumo taking part in multiple matches. This format, combined with the background information that the tournament emcee provides on each athlete, makes it easy to form favorites and develop a rooting interest – which, as the devoted IGTS reader may recognize by now, exponentially enhances the event experience for your average Sports Fan.
And in that regard, the U.S. Sumo Open did not disappoint. In addition to Byamba and Bayanaa, the two sumos who had originally drawn me to the event because of their inclusion in an intriguing NFL workout experiment I’d read about, other favorites emerged.
Like Brodi Henderson, for example – a 6’7”, 367-pound Canadian who lists hockey, football and Highland games as other athletic pursuits. And who, by the way, is 15 years old and in California competing in his first international tournament.
Brodi was the picture of nervousness, and lost his first two matches in quick fashion. I’m sure I shared the same sentiment as the rest of the crowd in thinking that his first U.S. Sumo Open would be a painful memory, but a good learning experience for him to draw upon in subsequent years. After his second loss, we rose for the classic “we know you gave it your best effort” round of consoling applause.
But wait! It turned out that we’d been guilty of Premature Consolation! In his third match, Brodi notched his first-ever international win – and in impressive style – much to the delight of virtually everyone in attendance. Even his defeated opponent looked pleased for him.
And that was just the beginning, for Brodi won each of his remaining preliminary round matches and survived the cut to make it into the heavyweight quarterfinals.
While the pace and presentation of the event was crisp throughout these preliminary rounds, things came to a grinding halt soon thereafter. An exhibition of Taiko drumming was pretty much on par with some of the more creative halftime shows I’ve seen, but the break in action didn’t end there.
Somewhat inexplicably, a lengthy raffle was then conducted, during which prizes donated by the event sponsors were given out. I had to double-check to see that I hadn’t come back from a bathroom break and mistakenly wandered into an adjacent room, where an awards dinner for a charity golf outing was in full swing.
And of course, in the middle of the festivities came the sumo equivalent of the t-shirt cannon. Into a clamoring crowd were tossed a couple of dozen stress-ball type squeeze toys – in the shape of a sumo wrestler, naturally. Deceased Japanese emperors spun in their graves as the cheesy-meter pinned into the red. Although I do have to admit that I was poised to snag one of those if it came in my direction. A t-shirt is a t-shirt, but a sumo wrestler squeeze toy? Priceless.
The entire feel of the event changed as a result of that break, and it never fully recovered. And it didn’t help that the first action coming out of the break was the women’s competition.
I’m never very comfortable watching women in a pugilistic environment, but this one had the added discomfort of featuring just four competitors – two in the lightweight division, one in the middleweight and one in the heavyweight. Consequently, they went right to Open Division competition. The net result was like attending an elaborately planned party that was teetering close to the “flop” zone. Feeling vaguely embarrassed for all concerned, I sat there hoping that it would be over soon.
Thankfully it was, and we were on to the medal rounds of competition for the men’s light, middle and heavyweight divisions.
The middleweight gold medal match featured defending champion Edenebileg Alagdaa against eight-time U.S. Sumo Champion Rene Marte, who at 42 years of age was taking part in his final competition. Noticeably slowed by age and injury, Marte had somehow managed to make his way through the field until only Alagdaa stood between him and the luxury of retiring as a champion. It was not to be however.
In the heavyweight division, Brodi Henderson’s Cinderella run came to an end in the quarterfinals against Siosifa “Big Joe” I’sama’u. After overpowering his younger foe, Big Joe helped him up and embraced him warmly, no doubt welcoming him into the fraternity.
It was Big Joe’s turn to be humbled in the semi-finals though, as our NFL lineman-in-waiting Byamba literally picked all 330 of his opponent’s pounds into the air and threw them to the ground in a jaw-dropping display of strength.
This set up a classic youth vs. experience match-up for the heavyweight gold: The 25-year old Byamba versus internationally decorated 40 year-old former champ Kelly Gneiting – who hails from Idaho, of all un-sumo-like places. Befitting its marquee status, this match was one of the longest of the day – but when push eventually came to shove (sorry, bad sumo pun) youth was served. Byamba claimed the gold, joining middleweight countryman Alagdaa as champion.
As Dick Vitale might say if he could speak Mongolian, the two made quite the pair of Diaper Dandies.