Hey all, I've been merrily watching Kintamayama's tournament videos for, what, 5 years now? I think I might finally know enough to have a few nice chats around the sport. Maybe. I look forward to chatting with you all, and learning some more.
I'm in the UK (not exactly the beating heart of Sumo), and constantly living in hope of a Takayasu yusho. I'm not sure why exactly, it might just be the way his face goes from being ultra calm, to angry fire demon as soon as he charges.
I wrote the following a while back to try and explain why I like sumo so much. If anyone fancies critiquing it (I'm sure it's wrong in many exciting ways!) that'd be nice. Or if anyone has any 'sumo stories' they can throw at me from further back in the past that would be cool too.
I'm a fan of Sumo wrestling. It might be you are too, and this article just seems like poorly informed waffle, but most likely you're not a fan. Sumo is just the fat guys wrestling, right? There was that guy in Street Fighter 2? I'm not here to change your mind, but I'd like to tell you what I think it offers.
Sumo wrestling, like any other sport can be fun to watch in itself. It's highly trained athletes, at the top of their game, demonstrating their skill. Just as a spectacle it's a lot of fun to watch, as is any sport. But Sumo gives me something I don't find anywhere else.
I'd say mainly it's down to the format sumo is held in. There are six tournaments each year, with the wrestlers assigned to ranks. You fight 15 times in a tournament. Winning the most of anyone wins you the tournament. Winning 8 or more makes your rank go up in the next tournament, and vice versa. For the very highest ranks even this isn't enough - you need to win a great deal over multiple tournaments to reach the top two ranks. Some wrestlers struggle their whole careers in the lower ranks. Others get the smallest time at one of the higher ranks, then spend the rest of their time trying to get back there. Some surge to the top and defend against all comers. This all takes place over years.
This format gives rise to long running narratives and stories. It is these stories, and following their progress over a long stretch of time that makes sumo incredible. It's like the long running storylines in dramas or professional wrestling done well, but done better. Here a few examples I've seen play out over the last 5 or so years.
Japan has not had a wrestler at the highest rank (Yokozuna) in the sport for years. All Yokozunae are Mongolian, and the lack of a Japanese champion at the highest level of the national sport stings mightily. There is hope. At the second highest rank, Ozeki, Japan has a wrestler of astonishing power. He has come second in the highest level tournament 12 times, but has always come up short of a tournament victory. With no victory there is no chance of reaching the highest rank. His fans have watched him fall just short, over and over. Now however, he has another chance.
The tournament, Hatsu basho 2017. The final day. In the spiritual home of Sumo, the Kokugikan in Tokyo. All Kisenosato has to do is win one bout, and his journey to the top of Sumo's mountain is complete. National pride will be restored. Just one win. Just one win over the greatest sumo wrestler in history. Hakuho, the wrestler who makes all others appear as mere shadows of his talent.
The dohyo is the center of a cauldron of fans, packed in as tight as possible. One room, in the nation's capital. One central focus for a nation's hopes and pride. Two men, feet on clay, shielded from the pressure and fervor only by the tawara, the straw bales which form the boundary of the dohyo. The men crouch, and launch into their charge.
It is Hakuho who gets the better of it. A powerful trademark slap across Kisenosato's face, and Hakuho forces him back. And back. And back. Kisenosato's feet are pressed against the tawara. There is nowhere else to go but to defeat. His body arcs back like a bow as Hakuho presses his charge. This is the moment. Under the bright lights. The greatest wrestler ever pressing his charge home. A nation watching their hopes fade again.
Somehow, somehow, Kisenosato turns the tide. Turning clockwise, left arm rising strongly beneath Hakuho's right, time seems to stand still. Then, it happens. Hakuho hits the dirt, thrown down, and rolls off the dohyo. Kisenesato struts across the clay, king of all he surveys. The crowd collapse into ecstasy. The long wait is over.
A rare foreign wrestler. the Georgian has had a successful career, rising as high as the third rank, Sekiwake. He has even been runner up in a couple of top level tournaments, but the consistency needed to win has eluded him. Going in to Hatsu 2018, he's sat a few ranks lower than his peak, with no real prospect of a victory on the cards.
Out of the blue, Tochinoshin does staggeringly well. He's displaying absolutely insane levels of strength. Whenever he manages to get a left hand grip on his opponent's belt, he is simply overpowering them. Some of his opponents, near 400lb of solid muscle and energy, find themselves simply being lifted out of the ring. At the half way point Tochinoshin has 7 wins to one loss, with that loss being to a Yokozuna. He can't possibly keep this up. His often injured knee won't stand up to the pressure of lifting these struggling giants around. Surely.
But the next day, it's 8-1. Somehow. Then it's 9-1, then 10-1, then 11-1. What on earth is happening? This is the end of the line though. Across the dohyo stands Ichinojo, the largest wrestler in the sport. 450lb of immovable mass. There are some things strength just can't do.
Or are there? The bout begins. The two giants meet in the centre, with a resounding thud. Tochinoshin gets his left hand grip, and although there will be no sight of Ichinojo being lifted two feet up, he can lift him enough and move him back. Like a house mover corralling a particularly unruly piano into the back of a truck, he forces the Mongolian out over the bales. 12-1.
The next day, he can win the whole tournament with one more victory, with a day to spare. And he does. When asked how the tournament win feels, he simply replies, "It feels great". No kidding.
The greatest of all time. A colossus of the sport, but seemingly at odds with its ethos of Japanese respectability. He is fading. He sits most tournaments out with injuries, or returns for only a few bouts before bowing out again. Rumours swirl of his retirement. In his place the powerful Terunofuji has risen, making the other wrestlers look like children fighting their father.
Hakuho returns. One last time. Injured and circling the drain. Can he reach the end of the tournament? Can he possibly still compete against Terunofuji? The last stand of the best that ever was. Cut to the end. 14 wins in a row, and on the final day he faces Terunofuji. In his final bout he struggles mightily, but summoning his reserves he hurls his replacement down, with a scream of pure emotion. Hakuho rides off into the sunset, his opponents' bodies littering the clay behind him, the best that ever was.
These are just a few of the stories I've followed while watching, since that day years ago when I started watching sumo out of some misplaced sense of irony. More stories are ongoing, and new ones begin each tournament. I've not seen anything in other sports that can quite match up to it.
If this is even vaguely interesting, I'd say give Sumo a watch. Don't expect to be hooked right away though - just watch a tournament, perhaps spot a couple of wrestlers who grab your interest. It'll be fine. If you persevere though, and keep watching for a while, you'll find the narratives open up to you. If you get that far, there's nothing quite like it.