For most, sumo wrestling isn’t a new thing. Japan’s’ official and oldest national sport has been readily dragged, parodied and stereotyped all over the western world, leaving a very typical image of itself rippling in its wake. And while there is some truth to the picture the name ‘Sumo’ drums up of two sweat-slick, flubbery men locked in an eternal man-hug, groping at each other’s buttocks; there’s also quite a bit more to it.
Sumo has been around for centuries (starting around 1684) and still to this day upholds many traditional ritualistic aspects carried over from its practice during the Edo period. Unlike other westernized sports in Japan, Sumo maintains its rituals and they’re followed as closely and obsessively as Howard Hughes having a dinner party at Woody Allen’s house. There’s dancing, chanting, circling and salt-purification, most of these carrying over from Sumo’s association with Shinto practices. In fact, the leg-spreading ritual-dance we are so accustomed to is actually the wrestler fighting off a divine spirit, Baseball can’t very well make that claim now, can it?
An interesting fact to consider; while there are a number of Sumo divisions, with the most experienced being in the top cut (known as Makuuchi) and the fresh meat pit (Jonokuchi), full of desperate newbies sliding over each other in order to ascend into glory, the matches are not assigned according to weight. Meaning that a budding wrestler can be matched with an opponent twice his own mass, forcing him to use his wits, technique and speed to prevail. Speed really is an issue, most fights only last a few seconds with the stronger of the two quickly gaining the upper hand and forcing the other out of the ring,often resulting in an honored dignitary or illustrious client sitting at the ringside getting a face full of sweaty sumo-cheek. You pay for the privilege.
Before each tournament begins, the participants march out and stand around the edges of the ring wearing their ceremonial garb. Afterwards its time to strip down to the familiar ‘loin-cloth’ and get dirty. The stadium in Ryogoku is pretty big, but the great council of Sumo likes its audience to stay immersed in the experience, no matter how far back their seats or how cheap their tickets may be. So the ring is mic’d up the wazoo…you can hear every grunt, slap, slither and flap with studio-grade clarity. The two determined warriors step up to the play after being musically announced by the referee, a wrestlers ranking lives and dies purely on their performance in the official tournaments so combatants are grimly focused, ready to claim the podium for themselves.
They walk into the ring, slapping their thunderous thighs and enormous rumps to pump themselves up and rile the crowd. Each man in his corner, they rinse, spit and throw liberal amounts of salt into the ring (spiritual purification) before hunching down to face and give each other the lazy eye. This is an interesting dynamic;the referee does not initiate the fight, the fight commences when both combatants lift off their mark at exactly the same time, if anyone gets trigger happy, the fight is culled, the fighters exiled once again to their respective corners to wipe, slap and salt once again.
As the tournament moves higher and higher up the rankings,wrestlers seem to get more ‘showy’, playing to a crowd that has been growing exponentially throughout the day, culminating in a heady mix of first-timers,children and thoroughly over-excited veterans. The champion-league wrestlers will crouch, stare intently and then both decide the time is not right and retire. Three, four, even five times they will attempt to psyche out their opponent, seeing who will break first and bolt into a false start, like a goddamn amateur…
Each time the crowd holds their breath, a palpable sigh of relief every time the wrestlers break the tension. No element of the ritual is left out, the niceties must be observed everytime ; thighs, buttocks and nipples slapped, water spat and liberal salting over what is, by now, a very well seasoned ring. When the fight is genuinely at hand, somehow, the audience can feel it and roar with appreciation when the two sides finally slam into each other like two immovable objects; continent and continent, fire and water, matter and anti-matter.
Once the fighting starts, it’s over again in almost the blink of an eye. The shorter ones maybe lasting just a few seconds, with the combatants trying to keep each other at an arm’s length, pushing hands into faces, necks, eyes. Slapping at one another, like an honour-bound, ritual veiled bitch-fight until someone inadvertently steps over the threshold, disgusted that they allowed themselves to become overwhelmed by something as simple as a rather rude individual getting all up in their grill.
The longer bouts are justifiably so because of more evenly matched foes, no mindless slap-fu here (yes, that’s a Chinese reference, well done). Here the match is elongated by the duo being ferociously cuddled by one another, the man-hug which is often associated with the sport. Each side crashes into the other, hunkering down and gripping at the waist-line, both men amalgamating together into an undulating mass of male viscosity. Until, inevitably, the champion gains the upper hand, be it through a better grip, stronger foothold or just sheer determination, the loser broken from his clasp and hurled from the ring into the dignitaries below. Get out of my ring, my country, off my mother fucking planet.
Should the highest-ranking Sumo win, they are met with thunderous applause. Should they be knocked from their pedestal by the budding hopeful, they’re met with thunderous applause, jeers and seat cushions. Fluttering down through the stadium like over sized Cherry blossoms to cover up the failure; they have most likely cost the betting public quite a lot of money. Poor show.