…Continued from the previous post.
At the MGM Grand Garden Arena, it was almost showtime – both figuratively and literally – and the place was all a twitter…well, both figuratively and literally.
We were just about to go live on Showtime Championship Boxing for the Glen Johnson vs. Allan Green bout, which would warm up the television audience for the Big One: Juanma Lopez vs. Rafael Marquez for the WBO World Featherweight Championship.
After an undercard played to a small but appreciative audience, the atmosphere had definitely turned into an official “scene”. Judging by the blanket of cell phone screens alive in the dark arena, more than a few people were texting, Twittering, or…what was it that we used to do in the olden days?…oh, right – talking to their friends. And all with the same message. “Turn on your TV! This is so cool!”
“How long could it possibly take to go 2.1 miles?”
I asked that of myself while sitting in a Las Vegas hotel room recently, debating when to pull myself away from the college football game I was watching and head over to the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The undercard was just about to start, but it would be hours before Juanma Lopez and Rafael Marquez would enter the ring for the WBO World Featherweight Championship. And I already had my ticket in hand. So I sat back and watched the rest of the game before venturing out.
In answer to the question above, I’m pretty sure that salmon can complete the full upstream journey to spawn in the time that it takes to navigate two miles on The Strip, find the right place to park, and wend your way through the MGM Grand catacombs to your seat. And the salmon probably have an easier time of it.
Once I got there I got all nostalgic. “It seems like just yesterday that I left my hotel room – where does the time go?”
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.
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.
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…
He listened for a bit and then relayed to me a story from his television journalism days, when he had covered a WWF event. As he told it, he arrived early and was setting up shop at a ringside media table, when a representative from the WWF sauntered over and said with voice lowered, “I’m not so sure I’d pick that particular spot”.
Da Guy took that advice at face value and moved to another table. Sure enough, early in the first match of the evening, one of the wrestlers was tossed entirely out of the ring and landed with a thud on the very table that Da Guy had initially occupied.
“That’s an amazing story!” I said. “What were the chances of that happening?”
Da Guy was quiet for a long moment, as if he were contemplating something. “Enjoy the show, Tim”, he finally said.
And what was not to enjoy? I’ve been to several events at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, but never before had I witnessed a complete and total sell-out, with virtually every seat filled. In fact, the place was sold out beyondcapacity, given the temporary seating that had been set up around the ring.
After an elaborate introduction, the program started off with a short “Bonus Match”. The first official contest on the card however, was a singles match for the WWE Divas Championship. The reigning champion was Alicia Fox, from Ponte Vedra Beach , Florida – the home of the PGA Tour.
I barely had time to ponder whether the folks over at Tour HQ had thought to approach Ms. Fox about a co-branding relationship, when the house came down for the introduction of the challenger. It was none other than Melina, a wrestler from right here in Los Angeles – and obviously a crowd favorite.
Right from the start, Melina looked like she was in for a long match against the clearly more experienced Fox. The champion started out toying with her opponent – much to the highly vocal chagrin of the crowd. It was bad enough that Fox was physically dominating Melina, but she began to add insult to injury by taunting her. To my mind this was clearly unprofessional, and my outrage grew as Fox began to inflict what must have been painful – and what appeared to me to be patently illegal blows.
Just when it looked like Melina was totally spent however, she somehow mustered the energy for a comeback, catching Fox completely off-guard. Displaying amazing grittiness and sheer determination, Melina was able to use Fox’s early overconfidence against her and eventually prevail. And when the referee completed the three count which signaled a pin and the end of the match, the crowd erupted in a frenzy. Imagine – a hometown girl,against all odds, knocking off the champ in a huge upset.
What a great way to start the evening!
Next up was the WWE Singles Championship Match, pitting defending champions Sheamus against Randy Orton, another huge crowd favorite. It was fascinating to me how unanimous the crowd was in support of Orton over Sheamus – until the latter grabbed the microphone and started mouthing off.
That was all the motivation that Orton needed, and a titanic struggle ensued, during which both wrestlers were somehow able to throw the other out of the ring – only to see their worthy adversary pick himself off the ground and climb back in to inflict and receive more punishment. It was amazing to behold, and I couldn’t figure out how both competitors managed to avoid serious injury.
Like a man possessed, Orton finally got the upper hand, depositing Sheamus over one of the ringside tables and into a semi-conscious state. It wasexactly like what Da Guy had seen when he covered pro wrestling. What are the odds?
As you can imagine, the place went bonkers. In the middle of the celebration though, the referee emerged from the ringside fray and signaled that Orton had been disqualified for a rules infraction – and Sheamus had retained his belt.
I’ve seen a lot of sporting events, but I have to admit – I never saw that coming.
The whole thing really underscored that the toughest job in sports has got to be that of the WWE referee. In each match I viewed, there were so many close calls! I lost track of how many times a ref would get to the very brink of counting to three before the wrestler about to be pinned was able to wriggle one shoulder free. Talk about having to have split second reaction time!
Not only that, but it appeared to me that the refs had to make a ton of impromptu rules interpretations. These are such superior athletes that you never knew what they were capable of, and…
Wait a second…is that the phone? Hold that thought, I’ll be right back.
“Hello?…This is he…Yes, I was there…uh-huh…umm-hmmm…yeah, but…so what you’re telling me is it’s not real? Wow…OK…well, thanks for the call.”
This is a little embarrassing. See, it has very recently come to my attention that pro wrestling isn’t necessarily…I don’t know exactly how to say this …on the up and up. Apparently some of the improbable outcomes that I witnessed were somewhat…prearranged, shall we say?
You know, now that you mention it, I thought I recognized a lot of the more subtle wrestling strategies from old Three Stooges movies. In fact, all that was missing at times was the split-fingered poke in the eye, the “whoop, whoop, whoop” and the “why, I oughtta…”.
I guess this means that I owe you one. For as much as I fervently believed that WWE Summer Slam would offer wrestling at its highest levels, I am now shocked – shocked – to find out that it was merely a theatrical production. I guess that explains the ringside casket that Kane threw Rey Mysterio into during their World Heavyweight Championship match.
So here’s what I’m going to do – at some point later on in the Tour, I promise to cover a real live wrestling match and tell you what I find. My readers deserve that much. Even Da Guy.
The following is the sum total of my knowledge about the Martial Arts: Will Smith’s son is the new Karate Kid, and I loved him in The Pursuit of Happyness. That’s it, plus something in the back of my brain about grasshoppers snatching pebbles from hands. In other words, I’m a bit of a novice. If they gave out belts for martial arts watching, mine would be translucent.
But ignorance of the rules never stopped me from trying to bluff my way through to an informed opinion. A strategy which usually works – except in the case of field hockey. But I’m working on that with the help of Vancouver’s favorite field hockey team, The Dirty Birds.
In this case though, I knew that my visit to the Long Beach International Martial Arts Festival would prove to be unfathomable, so I just rolled with it. My goal was to figure out just one rule. If I added to my sports education by one single increment, I’d call it a win.
I got off to a rough start with the venue though. This was the first sports event I’ve ever attended that took part in a convention center. My knee-jerk reaction is to associate that kind of building with the soul-crushing days I spent working in Corporate America, so I struggled wrapping my brain around anyone doing something remotely enjoyable at a convention center.
To further solidify that uneasy mental link with basically any office setting in America, I arrived shortly after 9:30 and found people mostly milling around aimlessly – even though the competition was supposed to have started at 9:00. The only thing missing was a water cooler to lean on.
I eventually came around a corner and stumbled upon a long line of competitors standing more or less at attention, facing across a series of mats to what was apparently a line-up of officials and judges. Everyone waited silently and patiently for quite a bit of time in that fashion.
Then all of a sudden, without any announcement that I could ascertain, a short ceremony began that involved a greeting of sorts – after which all parties dispersed to various areas of the hall to mill around even more. A chillingly accurate reenactment of the standard weekly staff meeting. I could feel the entire creative side of my brain morphing into an Interoffice Memo.
Soon thereafter, people started to scream bloody murder and flash weapons around. I figured that either annual performance reviews were underway, or the martial arts competition had begun. Thankfully it was the latter.
For some unknown reason I expected the entire festival’s competition to consist of one-on-one clashes. In fact though, most of what I saw consisted of solo “routines”, for lack of a better term. Actually, the overall categories of the various competitions broke down into Forms, Weapons and Sparring, with only the latter consisting of what I had anticipated. I was thinking boxing or UFC and got something closer to gymnastics – much of which was done with sticks, swords, knives or nunchucks.
Another departure from expectations was the age range of the competitors. In addition to adults in their prime, there were kids of all ages – the youngest of which seemed barely out of Pull-Ups. There’s something a bit disconcerting about a weapons demonstration in which the weapon is as big as the competitor, but once I got past that I was amazed at the dexterity and body control of people that young.
Across all age ranges, personalities were so transformed into warrior mode during the performance of routines it was a bit odd to see people revert to being…well, people once they were done. Given the ferocity displayed and the aura of menace communicated, I expected everyone to be some combination of mystical, inscrutable and just plain pissed off even outside of the ring. Instead they were all smiles and fist-bumps as soon as they left the mat. And in no other sport that I’ve witnessed have I seen such respect among competitors.
Maybe the genial out-of-ring nature of the competitors had something to do with the scoring system, because for many of the disciplines it was a self-esteem guru’s dream. Every score consists of three numbers, separated from each other by a decimal – with the first two always being “9”. So an average score is 9.9.5, for example. That’s like taking a test and starting with a minimum score of 99%. Nobody ever appears to actually score badly. I felt better about myself just watching!
In the three plus hours that I spent there, I was able to sample from a full menu of different disciplines and forms – it was the perfect Spectator Grazing event. I found myself repeatedly drawn back to the Kenpo Karate area of the hall though.
Done well, Kenpo involves a dizzying display of quick moves executed in rapid-fire succession. While viewing this competition, I got to talking with a gentleman who was very familiar with Kenpo, and he made it a point to let me know that, while these moves were intended to overwhelm an opponent, the discipline is rooted almost exclusively in self-defense. In other words, I was completely safe as long as I didn’t try to steal anyone’s wallet.
This I had not known previously. Therefore, upon learning this from my new-found friend I had fulfilled my goal of expanding my knowledge of martial arts by one increment. I gave myself a 9.9.8 and headed for the door.