by Scott Boyle
Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu! That’s Happy New Year in Japanese.
Why Japanese you ask? On account of the first Sumo tournament of the year, the January Tournament (or “Hatsu Basho” in Japanese) begins this Sunday in Tokyo.
Never been a sumo fan? You are flat missing out, especially if you are a Buckaroo wrestling fan.
One of the noblest sports around, Sumo is steeped in Japanese culture, closely tied to the agricultural cycle in Japan and is compelling in all its facets.
Sumo wrestling has great appeal in Japan, being an ancient sport that dates back thousands of years. There are six tournaments a year, beginning in January and occurring every other month.
Three of the tournaments are held in Tokyo, with the other three happening in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Each tournament lasts for 15 days, and each sumo wrestler (rikishi) wrestles once a day or 15 times.
SportShorts likes Sumo for several reasons. First, it is totally merit pay. If one wins in sumo, one gets paid. Lose and no money.
One wins a sumo match when one’s opponent either steps out of the ring or touches the ground inside the ring with anything but the bottom of the feet.
Anything goes to get an opponent out of the ring or on the ground, except hitting with a closed fist. As a result, the action is vigorous, sudden, lively, decisive and occasionally ruthless.
The more you win, the higher in rank you go and the more you get paid when you win. The way to rise higher in rank is to win at least eight of the fifteen matches (kachi-koshi).
If one gets kachi-koshi, one will go up in rank in the next sumo tournament and make more money for winning.
If one loses eight or more times (make-koshi) making him “katoban”, it means one will go down in rank and make less money for winning in the next tournament.
The winners of the tournaments usually have 0-2 losses. Win two or three tournaments and one could reach the highest level of sumo, called “yokozuna” which means “grand champion.”
Yokozuna can be forced to retire if they don’t perform at a high level, usually at least 10 wins in each tournament.
Currently there are 42 wrestlers in the top division, “Makuuchi” and three Yokozuna.
Of the 42 rikishi, 25 are from Japan and 17 are foreign, with 12 who are from Mongolia, including all three Yokozuna.
The current king of Sumo, the top yokozuna, is named Hakuho. An amazing wrestler, Hakuho has won more tournaments than any wrestler ever, 37 in his career to be exact and just won his 1000th match, also the most ever.
He has been yokozuna since 2007 and has wrestled in the top division for 13 years.
Hakuho, who is 31 years old, is SS’s favorite Sumo wrestler. He is about the normal size for a sumo wrestler at 6’ 3” tall and weighing 343 pounds.
Size is a huge asset in sumo, and is something one notices immediately when watching. The three heaviest sumo wrestlers in the top division, however, are all from countries other than Japan.
The heaviest is called Gagamaru (all wrestlers are given Japanese wrestling names), who hails from the country of Georgia.
Gagamaru weighs in at 438 pounds and is 6’ 1” tall.
Next is a Brazilian named Kaisei, who is 6’ 5” tall and tips the scales at 434 pounds.
Aoiyama, who hails from Bulgaria, packs 418 pounds onto his 6’ 3” body.
The heaviest sumo wrestler ever was Konoshiki, who was actually born in Hawaii and was the first foreign-born wrestler to reach Ozeki (the rank just under Yokozuna).
At his heaviest, Konoshiki weighed 633 pounds and was nicknamed “The Dump Truck.” He won three tournaments in the 1990s, but was not named Yokozuna though he was in the top division for 81 consecutive tournaments.
There have been two Americans that were named Yokozuna, Akebono, who was the first foreign-born Yokozuna and Musashimaru. Both were born in Hawaii and came along after Konoshiki.
But SS’s second most favorite rikishi is a newcomer to the top division of wrestlers named Ishiura.
Ishiura, who will compete in just his second tournament in the top division this January, is a mere 5’ 8” tall and weighs just 251 pounds.
Nevertheless, though the 26 year old weighs barely half of what the biggest wrestlers weigh, he still compiled a stunning 10-5 record in his first top division tournament last November, including 10 wins in a row to set a rookie record.
Size is important in sumo, but technique, skill and execution can often trump size.
And the thing SS likes most about sumo?
When the match is over, the wrestlers face each other and bow, a simple bow of the head, done with no emotion at all, making it Nye unto impossible to tell who won or lost by their body language or facial expression.
American sports could use a little of that, SS feels.
You can catch all the action, about a day late, on YouTube. Just type in “Robert Mensing January 2017 grand sumo tournament” on YouTube for most matches in the top division.
The announcing is in English and Mensing only shows the matches, none of the preliminary stuff before matches, which can take up to four minutes.
If you want to just see the top wrestlers in the top division with the preliminary getting-ready-for-battle actions plus all the ceremonies, type in “Jason’s All Sumo Channel” and find the January Tournament. You won’t be disappointed. Sayonara.