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…