I’ve never had much appreciation for sports – particularly anything with a ball. It just never kept my interest. I don’t understand the rabid fandom that comes along with it either, especially with the advent of free agents in professional sports. As I always understood it, you rooted for a team because they represented your city – this makes sense to me. But these days loyalties are bought and sold with million dollar contracts and footwear endorsements. Sometimes even the team won’t stay in the city it was born in. Nuts to that.
I gravitate more towards one on one competitions, like boxing. They seemmore honest, somehow. Recently, I’ve discovered Sumo.
I’m in no way an afficianado, having only discovered my enjoyment of the sport about two years ago during a demonstration at the Cherry Blossom Festival down in Little Tokyo. I’m only vaguely aware of the traditions and history (though I’m pretty eager to learn more – would ultimately love to travel to Japan and see a traditional match).
What hooked me was the surprising athleticism, and the sheer force that’s unleashed when two near naked three hundred pound dudes slam into each other like a couple of charging bulls and then proceed to slap, throw, or push each other until one gives ground. There’s no pussyfooting around, not ‘downs,’ no ‘half-time,’ no three second timer that somehow gets dragged out for fifteen minutes. It’s hard and fast, and head on. The rules are pretty simple – basically you just have to get any part of your opponent’s body out of the circular ring, or get him to touch the mat. If two guys go out at the same time, whoever hits the ground first loses. And these guys sometimes get air – even at four hundred pounds – and they come down like avalanches.
Out here the impetus of the sport appears to me to be the California Sumo Association, whose US Sumo Open I’ve attended for the past two years now. It’s an admittedly humble affair, though they have hosted international matches at the LA Sports Arena in the past.
This year’s Open was supposed to be held at the Anaheim Convention Center, under the umbrella of an MMA Expo event (MMA – not a sport that thrills me either. Too much emphasis on floor grappling, which can sometimes be like watching somebody bully their kid brother for a half hour), but the MMA folks backed out a few days before and canceled the entire show (in what I assume is a pretty major breach of contract). Kind of a dick move in my opinion, but thankfully the Ohana jujutsu association, which held exhibitions in the next hall over helped the CSA get an exhibition room at the Anaheim Sheraton – not the 5,000 seat arena promised, but still better than nothing.
The competition was quite good this year, with three weight classes (light, middle and heavy) competing and as a bonus, a women’s exhibition. My favorite wrestlers returned.
First there’s the indomitable Byambajav ‘Byamba’ Ulambayar from Mongolia.
Clocking in at around 330lbs, this guy is a consummate athlete, and he’s got the ego to match. I believe he was a professional Sumo in Japan for five years, and his training really shows. The guy is nearly indefeatable. I use him as a sort of measuring stick for the ability of other wrestlers. When he faces a guy who’s not up to his skill level, he gets this baby-like smile of amusement on his face, and proceeds to fling the other guy around the ring, usually one handed. The smile doesn’t show when he’s actually got to work – then you know you’re in for a show. At the Open today in the gold medal match in the heavyweight division, I watched him throw the 420 lbs Kelly Gneiting over his hip, land on top of him and literally bounce to his feet off the guy’s prodigious belly. That’s something you don’t get to see anywhere else – and particularly not while enjoying a Sapporo.
I’m a fan of Siosifa ‘Big Joe’ I’sama’u, another 330 lbs wrestler from Tonga. This guy doesn’t always come out on top, but he’s like the Muhammad Ali of Sumo in the showboating department. He’s got a great personality, and a sense of humor I enjoy. He gets this very intimidating war face when he toes the line – reminds me of those fierce Maori warrior expressions, where they stick their tongues out right before they club you. Wish I’d got a shot of him doing it, but my camera’s not so hot.
Erdenebileg Alagdaa of Mongolia always makes a good showing as well. He’s extremely fast and nimble. At 203 lbs, he’s one of the lighter middleweight competitors, yet still able to take down heavyweights in the open weight class matches, usually with this sneaky leg hook he favors.
Aside from watching these three guys, highlights of the Open for me were a great Taiko drumming demonstration (unfortunately I forget the name of the performers), a brick breaking exhibition (never ceases to amaze me) and the debut of this 360 pound fifteen year old Canadian kid named Brodi Henderson.
The program lists highland games (which I took to be caber tossing and the like) as one of his pasttimes. He went toe to toe with some tough competitors, and even pulled a couple wins. The crowd took to him too. What a youth! At fifteen I would’ve been too mortified to show my face if I were 360 lbs. This kid put on a mawashi and kicked ass. Bravo.
The female wrestling was interesting, and entirely dominated by yet another Mongolian, Munguntuva ‘Mungu’ Bantuu.
To top it off, Byamba threw these little Sumo dolls out into the audience and I actually caught one. My daughter loves the thing.
I never catch a damn thing at baseball games….
For more on US Sumo (and better pics) – – http://www.usasumo.com/