Sumo: The Big League of Combat Sports
by Liam Walmsley
Are you a fan of the UFC? Perhaps you enjoy watching the heavyweights throw haymakers and progressively worsen their own cases of CTE. The truth though, is that these men are tiny. Practically children in the greater scheme of combat sports. The true heavy weights square off every month, but it doesn’t happen in Vegas; it happens in Osaka.
Sumo arose out of Shinto rituals, and took on its modern tournament form in the 16th century. The first professional wrestlers were mercenaries looking for a paycheck, a source of controversy that the sport has never shaken. Sumo has been tied with Japan’s Yakuza crime families as recently as 2010, information that severely damaged the sport’s popularity when it came to light. This came on the heels of allegations of the Japan Sumo Association’s (JSA) match fixing and dangerous hazing practices, and the sport still struggles to regain its former popularity. The JSA claims to have put all of that in the past, and Sumo is growing both within Japan and internationally. Despite its tumultuous past there are some constants, with wrestlers throughout history insisting on competing in nothing but a thong fit for a fridge.
The JSA hosts a Sumo tournament every second month, where each wrestler has 15 matches over 15 days. While 15 may seem high, these guys don’t have a lot of gas in the tank, and most matches last under a minute. The tournament winner is the wrestler with the best record, with a playoff in the event of a tie. Wrestlers with strong records tend to get promoted up the ranks, earning larger purses, and more fame.
Wrestlers start their career by joining a stable where they live, eat, and train together. The stable offers a lot of advantages, providing facilities for the unique dimensions of their guests.
The average weight of a professional wrestler is north of 300 pounds, with some pros weighing as much as 500 pounds. At that size, regular beds, chairs, and toilet seats are not enough. On top of special furniture, eating is a problem for Sumos, but not in the way you may expect. These wrestlers actually complain about the difficulty they have maintaining their large size, having to force feed themselves just to put on the weight required for the sport.
Stables offer a special diet optimized for building strength and cultivating mass. They are also the only place a wrestler can find sizable training partners. Once the wrestlers have proven themselves at the amateur level, they can move onto the professional ranks, of which there are quite a few. The best of these big boys become yokozuna. This rank requires at least 33 wins over 3 tournaments, meaning a consistent winning percentage over 70%. Even then, it is left to the discretion of the league to promote a wrestler. Since the league often wants to limit the number of wrestlers at a given rank, a wrestler’s winning streak at the wrong time may go wasted.
The goal of Sumo is very simple. Get your opponent to step out of the ring, or touch the ground with any part of his body other than his feet. Wrestlers accomplish this via throwing, pushing, or striking their opponent. While punches and kicks are not allowed, slapping is somehow encouraged, possibly for comedic effect.
The JSA has only begun to grant the rank of yokozuna to more than one wrestler at a time in the last decade or so. Currently we have two yokozuna.
The first is Kakuryū, a yokozuna since 2014. He took the league by surprise with two consecutive winning records of 14 and 1 after a lackluster 2013. Kakuryū’s success has been declining over the last year, and while the wrestler is usually able to secure a winning record, he will be in danger of rank demotion if he is unable to dominate the next few tournaments. Famous for his throwing technique, Kakuryū earns a lot of his wins by being faster than his opponents in the ring. If you’ve ever wanted to see what an agile 350 pound man looks like, you should lower your expectations of agility, and look into Kakuryū.
The second yokozuna, and the man most worth your attention is the sport’s undisputed G.O.A.T., Hakuhō. This guy won 86 out of 90 matches two years in a row, breaking the records for most matches won in a one and two year period. He has 14 perfect tournament victories, 33 total tournament victories, has participated in more tournaments at the yokozuna rank than any other wrestler in history, and has the most career wins of all time at 1095. Hakuhō has beat the breaks off of every fat man in Japan and he has done it with style. Last year however, Hakuhō suffered a knee injury that required surgery and forced him to pull out of two consecutive tournaments. While January’s tournament looked to be a return to form for the great, he injured his knee once again on the 11th day and was bowed out of the remainder of the tournament.
Is the reign of Sumo’s most prolific wrestler finally coming to a close? Will 2019 bring a new yokozuna before the other two retire? Sumo is readily available for free on the internet, so check out March’s tournament!