Sweat ricocheted from the torsos of the wrestlers, spraying spectators in the packed gymnasium. The competitors grappled for position at center ring, as one bent for leverage. Driving his shoulder into his opponent´s sternum , he pushed the giant man toward the white circle which marks the boundary for the match. Just as it seemed the match would end with an anticlimactic step out of bounds the retreating wrestler dug in his right heel and lifted his opponent backwards. Tossing him out of the ring and a few feet down, both men landed hard, one pancaking the other. Nearly half a ton combined, they came inches from a fan in the first row.
Sumo wrestling is a Japanese sport steeped in Shinto religious traditions. Modern sumo centers around six annual tournaments which last fifteen days each. Three are held in Tokyo. The others take place in Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka . During these competitions sumo dominates sports programs and daily papers in Japan. There are no weight classes so athletes of all girths and sizes pair up for matches. If you don´t think that sumo wrestlers are athletes, then you probably don´t know much about contact sports.
Rules and Basics of Sumo Wrestling
A sumo match is held on an elevated quadrilateral called a dohyo. The dohyo is constructed of clay and covered in sand. A large white circle marks the field of play. Two wrestlers crouch and square off from the center of the ring. The first competitor who touches the ground with anything besides the bottom of their feet or who leaves the circular ring is the loser. Contests can last a fraction of a second or up to several minutes and may involve tense stalemates. Each wrestler fights one match per day during the tournament.
Lower ranking and usually lesser-known wrestlers compete in the morning. As the day progresses, higher ranking matches begin, culminating with fights between grand champions, or yokozuna. When the higher ranking athletes compete they are allowed more time for rituals. These rituals may include foot stomping, stare downs, water drinking, and salt tossing. Many of these traditions are for spiritual purposes and they often get the crowd excited.
Seeing a Sumo Match in Nagoya, Japan
Melissa and I both attended a sumo tournament in July 2002, but we visited separately. In July 2009, we had the chance to go together. Riding the subway in Nagoya, we shared a car with several lower-ranking sumo wrestlers. These guys dwarfed their tiny train seats. We followed them past the moat and stone walls as we reached the grounds of Nagoya Castle. As we headed toward Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, we watched spectators greet famous wrestlers arriving in stretch limousines.
Continuing toward the gymnasium, we passed a gauntlet of temporary booths blaring announcements and selling packages. The packages included tickets with great seats and shopping bags with snacks and souvenirs but we weren´t interested in being pampered. We elected to buy from the gymnasium. We sat high up but the view was fine. In fact, the spectators below were constantly fanning themselves, while our air-flow was cool.
We arrived early in the day and practically had the arena to ourselves, since many people don´t show until the later rounds. The formative rounds also offer a quicker pace of matches because advertisers don´t get involved until later. The matches were action packed featuring hard collisions and intense competition.
We witnessed colorful ring ceremonies in which over a dozen wrestlers parade the circumference of the ring donning colors of their training stables. There were also percussion displays and chants. At certain points of the day, advertising flags were brought into the ring, even Ronald McDonald invests in sumo. It was amusing to see teenaged stable boys bring large pillows up and down the arena stairs. The color of these cushions matches the mawashi, or thickly woven loincloth that sumo wrestlers wear. After the final contest between two rival yokozuna, a wrestler performed a closing ceremony with a large wooden bow.