Sumo: Bigger and bigger
By Nancy Rommelmann
(January 8, 2004)
Larry Brann waits in a chair in the Jun Chong Martial Arts Center in Santa Monica, smiling as kids in tae kwon do uniforms file into class on a Sunday morning. Dressed in baggy shorts, Brann is not here to study the Korean martial art, but to take his first class in sumo wrestling, which thus far he has only seen on TV.
“It’s the ultimate sport,” says Brann. “It’s like when you were a little kid, fighting with your brother or sister to be king of the mountain; your whole job is to get them down. That’s what sumo is.”
Brann, a 55-year-old physical therapist from Fullerton, was smitten enough with sumo to see beyond its image of massive men in topknots and diapers. He’s not the only one. For the past several years, sumo has been attracting a following in Los Angeles, of people of all shapes, ages and athletic abilities who realize they needn’t be big as Akebono (the 6-foot, 8-inch, 514-pound sumo legend) to experience the sport’s concentrated grace, strength and precision. This interest has given birth to classes and competitions across Southern California, and inspired hundreds of new sumo competitors, some weighing as little as 100 pounds.
Though, at around 300 pounds, Brann suspects sumo might be a sport that matches his frame — and his temperament. “The guys who do it are also incredibly graceful,” he says. “And even though it’s like combat, it’s a very gentlemanly sport. There was a match in Japan recently, where one wrestler pulled the hair of another, and the crowd got very upset; it was considered very unsportsmanlike.”
Sumo does have a noble history. According to the Kojiki (or Records of Ancient Matters), a written history of Japan compiled in AD 712, the gods Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata wrestled 2,500 years ago to see which would possess Japan’s islands; Takemikazuchi won. The first match between mortals is said to have occurred in 23 BC, before the Emperor Suinin; in later centuries, sumo was performed for royalty and practiced by the warrior class.
Still, “when the public hears sumo, they think it’s a big comedy with big fat guys bouncing around,” says Andrew Freund, an American who caught the sumo bug back in 1997, while teaching English in Japan, when he and a friend joined in a sumo demonstration.
Despite weighing only 145 pounds, Freund loved it; so much so that in 1998 he formed the California Sumo Assn., which today promotes the sport, presents classes and demos, and has been host of the U.S. Sumo Open annually since 2001. “We’re trying to emphasize the ritual, the respect, the discipline, the basic exercises,” says Freund, who’s taught sumo to hundreds at UCLA and other locations. “We want people to do it properly, for safety reasons, and also to respect Japanese traditions.”
Also helping to promote sumo in Southern California is Takashi Imai, deputy director of the Japan Foundation in downtown Los Angeles.
“In Japan, sumo is the national sport, like baseball in the U.S.,” says Imai. “It’s not that so many people practice sumo, but they watch it on TV. But sumo is not only a sport; it has traditional rituals.
“Sumo originally came from Shinto, Japanese religion, and if you study it, you will find there are many unique movements and gestures, and that each has its own meaning. This makes sumo different from most other sports.”
Asked if he himself participates, Imai laughs. “I wish I could,” he says. “I am fat, but being fat isn’t automatically qualifying.”
Standing in the Jun Chong studio, Svetoslav Binev, the 29-year-old former sumo champion of Bulgaria and two-time Sumo World Champion, shows not one ounce of fat on his 183-pound frame.
“Sumo is really simple; it’s for everybody,” says Binev, who serves as a California Sumo Assn. coach. He eyes today’s class, which including novices Brann and Danila Oder, a small yet very muscular woman who, after attending the U.S. Sumo Open in August, thought she might have “finally found a sport my build might be an asset for”; and amateur champions Troy Collins, a 250-pound LAPD officer who won two gold medals in 2003, and Yin Mei Chung, a student originally from Hong Kong, who fights under the name May Chung.
“It’s very hard work, but very great. I love the sumo,” says Chung, twirling her long hair into a ponytail and, at Binev’s insistence, taking off her silver earrings. “I weigh 110 pounds,” she says, pumping her bicep, “but strong.”
“It’s a very mental sport,” Binev says, as Freund leads everyone through a series of stretches, sprints and rolls. “You can be very experienced, but because of the simplicity of the rules, when you get in the sumo ring, it’s very easy to win but also very easy to lose. It’s so fast.”
The rules of sumo are simple: Two wrestlers, each wearing only a loincloth, called a mawashi, meet in a ring, or dohyo, where they fight to push their opponent out of the ring, or make any part of his body (other than the feet) touch the ground. And while professional sumo recognizes more than 70 kimarite (winning techniques), today’s class is less about strategy than getting people comfortable with the basics, such as shiko lunges, an exercise that involves a squat, a kick and a slapping of the leg.
The class has had enough after a dozen; Freund says professional sumo wrestlers regularly do 200 a day. They also do scarier things.
“In pro sumo in Japan, all the people who join have to do various exercises, such as matawari,” says Freund, explaining that this is a split, with the legs at a 180-degree angle, the butt and head touching the ground.
“And these guys are three, four, five hundred pounds, and they all can do it,” he says. “And if they can’t do it at the beginning, they have big guys jump on their back until the tendons rip, and they’re in agony; I’ve heard people say that they passed out from the agony, and it takes weeks or months for the muscles to grow back, but in pro sumo they all do that.”
The class is silent. “But we don’t practice any of that,” says Freund, grinning. “OK, let’s set up the ring.”
While a traditional dohyo is made from clay hard-packed with sand, Freund’s is portable, an enormous plasticized mat that, once unfurled, releases an enormous odor of dirty feet.
Not to be deterred, the class helps Velcro the frets that form the ring and then help one another to tie on the mawashi, the yards-long cloth that wraps through the legs and around the waist. While pro sumo wrestlers wear only a mawashi, today’s participants elect to keep their shorts on.
With participants standing around the ring, Freund and Binev demonstrate how to keep the feet spread, how to grab one’s opponent’s mawashi from underneath, how to spin and pivot, how to plant one’s head in the opponent’s chest.
“Let’s take it easy on the ladies’ chests,” says Freund. “Though in a real match, this is often the first place the opponent goes for.”
After they are shown how to bow, how to enter the ring, and how to stare down the opponent, the neophyte wrestlers face their first-ever sumo opponents. Brann gets a guy who outweighs him by a hundred pounds.
“Show him who’s boss, that you’re not scared of him,” says Binev. “Keep your hands behind the line, your butt low, and just push!”
“No tippy toes!” Freund shouts as the two men grapple. “Keep your feet planted!”
Brann wins the bout but loses to Collins, who is so graceful and strong he doesn’t even appear to be moving. Freund then takes on Collins.
“The only chance you have if someone is bigger and stronger is to be quick or have superior technique,” says Freund, right before Collins picks him up and sets him on his feet outside the ring.
Chung faces Oder. Despite Chung having won U.S. Sumo Open medals three years running, Oder — in one of her first fights ever — pushes Chung out of the ring. Chung shrugs it off and beats her next opponent. The matches are fast, none more than 40 seconds, some as short as five.
By the end of the two-hour class, everyone has fought at least five times and is drenched in sweat. Freund announces that, for those who are interested, classes will begin to meet weekly in January.
“Sumo is for everybody,” he says, as students unwrap their mawashi. “There are no specific kinds of people who can and cannot do it. As long as you want to be in good shape, get a good workout, get excited, enjoy the dynamic and intensity of the sport, you’re welcome.
And what did Brann think of sumo in the flesh? “It’s a hard workout, very, very difficult, very taxing,” he says. “But I’ll definitely come back.”
Introduction to sumo, as well as information on other local classes, events and tournaments. 1158 26th St., No. 202, Santa Monica, (310) 288-3641, or https://www.usasumo.com.
50 pounds and 2 inches away from glory
By Nancy Rommelmann
(January 8, 2004)
I am going to admit what few women will in print, that I weigh 137 pounds, but right about now I wish it were 100 more. This is because I have my head buried in Danila’s solar plexus and am pushing so hard that everything from my ears to the arches of my feet is straining to move her, but Danila, a solid 183, isn’t budging.
“Spin! Turn!” I hear people call from the sidelines, people who are more than 250 pounds, some of them sumo champs, whereas I’ve never done this before in my life, the only wrestler I can name is Gorgeous George, whom my grandmother used to make me watch on her black and white television set …
“Squat! Lower!” I register the voice of Troy Collins, a 2003 middleweight sumo gold medalist, who, when it was our turn to wrestle, gallantly let me push him out of the ring. Then he’d given me some advice: “When you’re in the proverbial stare down,” the time just before opponents grapple, “a lot of people will look eye to eye and try to have a psych-out contest. I don’t look anybody in the eye; I focus on where I’m going to attack the person. You’re not going to scare somebody by staring at them; you’re going to get their attention and respect by your technique and by beating them.”
And so when Danila and I entered the ring, I did not affect a Steven Seagal squint or slap my belt, as I’d seen the other wrestlers do. I stared at Danila’s chest and told myself, I will plant my head there and push and I will not stop, and I have not, not when she entwined her ankle with mine and tried to trip me, not when she jabbed her palm beneath my chin, not when I emitted what sounded like someone stepping on a baby pig.
“Grab from underneath!” I hear someone shout and manage to wedge my fingers under Danila’s belt, and push her, and push, until she is tottering backward, if I can just move her two more inches …
And then she is outside the ring, laughing. Everyone is laughing. What’s so funny?
“We’re not laughing at you,” says Troy. “You did well; you didn’t stop.”
“You’re scrappy,” says Danila.
I assume the traditional winner’s pose, and as I stand back up, I glimpse my next opponent, a man more than 300 pounds, on whom Troy had landed after knocking him out of the ring, a strategy to ensure one’s opponent will be in worse shape if you have to fight him later in the day. And as I envision for the first time in my life a sweating, nearly naked 300-pound man falling on top of me, the sweet taste of victory vanishes.