It was the climax of a full day’s sport. The arena was full, the lunchboxes were empty and the cameras were flashing wildly. The champion emerged from the ringside tunnel, stretched himself off and prepared to fight. The crowd started to clap respectfully, the applause rising and some mild cheering breaking out. This was going to be something worth seeing.
Then some Australians stood up and started whistling. They’d taken it too far. Those around more familiar with proceedings shot the visitors some disciplining gazes, and the whistling quickly died down. This wasn’t the WWE, it was sumo wrestling. A sport, but a strict religious activity nonetheless. And none the worse for it.
As a Western middle-class male growing up in the early 1990s, I had a slightly warped view of what ‘wrestling’ ought to be. Thinking of wrestling as something done by flabby actors with a penchant for throwing furniture at one another, I was a little surprised to find that no fighters entered the ring to the tones of Def Leppard, nobody taunted their opponent pre-fight, and none of them punched the air when they won. And it goes without saying that there was not a single foam finger in sight.
I was attending the opening day of the first sumo wrestling tournament of 2010, held in Tokyo at the spiritual home of sumo. Looking through the guidebook for the season and viewing the exhibition panels in the museum downstairs, I quickly realised that sumo wrestlers have to put in a fair old shift. During the tournaments, which occur several times in the year, they fight for several weeks end-on-end, and in between times they are up at the crack of dawn every day for strict training (and eating). Sumo wrestlers stay together in various ‘houses’, which are kind of like different stables for race horses. Each house is run by a former wrestler, and current competitors of different ranks live and train alongside each other in the hope of reaching the highest sumo rank of yokozuna. Since records began in the late eighteenth Century, there have been less than seventy yokozuna – so it’s fair to say becoming a yokozuna is a pretty danged impressive achievement.
“There are no fatties in Japan!” I proudly declared to my father on returning from my first trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, praising the Japanese diet and exercise ethic in comparison to the number of lard-arses we see walking the streets of the United Kingdom. “Aye, well what about sumo wrestlers?” my dad replied smugly. I was at a loss to respond to his retort at the time, but after only five minutes of watching the action I could see these guys weren’t just dragging extra stones around for the heck of it. Slow they may be, but beached whales they ain’t. The higher-ranked fighters ducked, dodged and weaved in a way I’d never seen WWE wrestlers do, and their tolerance to being slapped, shoved and wedgied through their big pants was quite alarming.
Fights typically last around two to three minutes, ending when one wrestler is pushed out of the ring or falls to the ground. More experienced and skilled wrestlers will generally fight for longer as they are more accustomed to reading each other’s moves and dealing with the kind of forces only a 200kg man on a strict training regime can exert. Although the crowds are generally more respectful and reserved than your average Jerry Springer audience, gasps and cheers do go round the ringside as wrestlers totter on the edge, and stirring performances are rewarded with rounds of applause. Until recently, a good win or resilient fight by an underdog would be applauded by the audience throwing their cushions into the ring, but in an attempt to emulate British society the Japanese have recently deemed this to be a risk to (shudder) health and safety and so it is forbidden.
Despite being a Japanese sport in origin, an increasing number of top-
class sumo are coming from overseas. The two yokozuna currently fighting are both Mongolian, having learned their trade in the Mongolian version of sumo wrestling. A number of Mongolians occupy the second-highest rank of ozeki, and a 203cm, 160kg brute from Bulgaria is rapidly garnering a reputation as the David Beckham of the sumo world due to his good looks and athletic build. Among recent yokozuna, Hawaiians are also present as well as a number of native Japanese.
The last fight of the day sees a yokozuna – a Mongolian chap younger than I am with a frightening track record – take on a wrestler from several ranks lower down. It’s not a cakewalk for the top dog, though. The less favoured fighter puts up a stern fight, holding his own for a good few minutes as the crowd giggle, cheer and clap with every jerk and step. At one point it looks like the yokozuna is going to lose his footing and fall over, but he regains his composure and drives his rival right to the edge of the ring. Pushing and pushing and pushing, the pretender teeters on the edge of the ring as the audience breathe faster and faster – but eventually the weight is too much and he collapses onto the ringside seats. Point proven, though, and he leaves beaten but certainly not humiliated.
Coming from a culture littered with Premiership footballers and celebrity sports stars, the stoicism of the sumo is something that impresses me no end. This is demonstrated to me perfectly halfway through the day. Our seats are right up on the top tier of the arena, near the roof and just below the TV commentary boxes. During a lull in the action, my fiancée leans over to me and whispers “turn round, very, very slowly”. Without asking why, I do so and rotate counterclockwise, peering into the dim light behind me. My heart tightens and practically stops as my eyes meet the imposing figure of Musashimaru, a yokozuna who now works as a coach in one of the houses. The sumo legend patiently stands halfway up a flight of stairs, watching his proteges in action. His huge, deep-set eyes peer straight ahead, and the weak lighting serves only to accentuate the deep cracks in his face. He seems to have lost very little of the bulk he carried during his fighting days, and fills the full width of the stairway as a result.
Very slowly, Musashimaru begins to descend the steps. If this was Michael Schumacher or John McEnroe – figures of similar stature in their own fields – I would be right up there with several others politely asking for an autograph, but it isn’t someone like that. I don’t know a lot about Japanese culture, but I do know that sumo don’t tend to interact with their fans in the same way as other sports stars might, and that approaching a sumo in such a situation is generally considered bad form. The yokozuna walks right past where I’m sitting, and an elderly Japanese gentleman a few rows in front of me applauds energetically as the former sumo cruises past. Musashimaru doesn’t turn around, smile or even acknowledge the gesture. For him – and all sumo wrestlers – it’s just a strict, disciplined sport. It may seem aloof, but after seeing the Lampards, Coles and Terrys of this world parading about on the football pitch week after week, there’s something quite refreshing in seeing someone so strictly adhering to the principles underpinning why they do what they do.