Two fleshy cannonballs slam into one another with enough force to shatter a normal human’s vertebrae. Atop their sandy pedestal the engorged gods slap, scrap and grapple, hoping to create the split-second of leverage needed to topple their fellow titan. From far below (where else can a three-foot drop feel like a bottomless crater?) the judges watch, no doubt reliving their own glory days while scrumptiously examining the battle being waged. Around the ring the two men thrust, while tangled up in one indistinguishable mass, their nimble feet testing every grain of sand, searching for the forbidden ring’s edge.
The younger wrestler’s right foot finds that dreaded lump, and instantly, the fight or flight instincts kick in. His seasoned foe notices the change in demeanour, and immediately uses the youngster’s carelessness to his advantage, lunging forward, hoping gravity is on his side. The panicked rikishi’s arms flail as he’s knocked backwards, hoping to grab an elbow or arm, anything to force them to the ground together. If he can pull it off, the match becomes a race to avoid the ground for a split-second longer. As he floats and flails in bullet-time, his opponent lowers his centre of gravity and wards off any attempts to latch on. The mighty redwood comes crashing down, and a dull roar fills the beyond-capacity stadium. The fight lasts a little under six seconds, and the fans’ hearts might not have survived a second longer.
Baseball has its heritage, basketball its personalities, hockey its speed and football its violence. But give me all four in one. This is sumo wrestling, and it’s a goddamn spectacle.
As widely known as the word “sumo” is in Western culture, few know of the actual mechanics of the sport. Pop culture usually mocks it, and in the worst cases, culturally appropriates it. But the most offensive part of inflatable fat suits isn’t that a person is wearing another person’s skin; it’s that they undersell the skill and discipline practiced by the competitors. Thanks to a decade of sumo suit events, most think sumo is the art of two overweight men bouncing off each other’s bellies like zorb balls, hoping to knock their opponent backwards. This couldn’t be further from reality.
What really happens is a graceful, calculated, psychological and physical bout between two men who know all of their opponent’s movements, tendencies and tactics. Sumo wrestling involves hundreds of quick decisions and moves, made within a matter of milliseconds leading to hundreds of possible counters and outcomes. Unlike other combat sports, there are no rounds to break up the action or timeouts to recalibrate. The average match only lasts a few seconds, meaning the pressure to win is immediate and mistakes are magnified. But when they do win, there might be nothing like it in sports.
Sumo wrestlers are revered like royalty, the Ozeki like kings, and gods and men alike aspire to be treated like the Yokozunas. To achieve a high enough rank means you hold the title for life, long after your physical skills abandon you. But the world of sumo doesn’t come without its physical and personal costs.
Instagram regularly spoils us with athletic feats of strength—pics of the car you pushed, or it didn’t happen. But while those offseason workouts are elective, the sumo lifestyle is tightly regulated, with mandatory rules that govern every aspect of a wrestler’s existence strongly enforced by Japan’s Sumo Association. From regimented eating schedules to sleep patterns to the hierarchy within sumo stables, to the gruelling tasks needed to be performed by the lower ranks, the sumo life makes North American initiation practices seem like child’s play.
And those directives go beyond preparation for competition. Critics of the NBA’s dress code would be fascinated by how controlled a sumo’s personal life is. While David Stern told players what they had to wear courtside, sumo wrestlers are told what to wear every time they so much as leave the stable. Traditional robes and sandals must be worn every time a sumo is seen in public, no exceptions, even in winter.
And for those who love the danger element of sports, the average life expectancy of a sumo wrestler is 10 years less than the average man in Japan. Thanks to a variety of lifestyle-related maladies directly linked to the massive weight gain needed to compete (including consuming around 10,000 calories per day), and constant alcohol consumption required in the sumo cookbook, the champions top out at about 60 years of life on earth.
Sumo is a sport unlike any other, and well-deserving of a wider audience west of Osaka. So, in order to get you acquainted with the world of sumo, the following guide includes a number of questions you might be asking in the early days of your fandom, and answers to those questions in as simple terms as possible.
The GSC Guide to Sumo
Explain it like I’m 5: Two large men (and yes, only men…more on that later) wrestle until one of the wrestlers is either pushed outside the ring or has any part of their body other than the bottom of their feet, touch the sand inside the ring. Matches are winner-take-all, single-round bouts.
How long does a sumo match last? They usually only last for a few seconds, but the fight itself is only part of the fun.
Prior to the match, you’ll notice a purification ceremony of the dohyo (the ring), feats of strength, and a number of psychological taunts. Veteran rikishi will often try to rev up their opponents to bait them into mistakes. It’s magic.
Where can I watch sumo wrestling? The only professional sumo league in the world is in Japan, and yes, you’ll have to go to Japan to see it in person. To watch it, you’ll need to be visiting during one of the six, two-week-long Grand Tournaments held every year.
What if I’m not in Japan? If you can’t casually fly to the tournament, you can still catch a live stream on NHK World Japan. Their coverage usually includes both a Japanese version of the program, as well as one with a charmingly excited British commentator.
How does the Sumo season work? Unlike most North American sports, there is no “season,” but rather six major tournaments spaced throughout the year (January, March, May, July, September, November) that each last two weeks. During these Grand Tournaments, each wrestler has one match per day, with their record at the end of the tournament determining their rank for future tournaments.
How does the ranking system work? Very similar to college sports in America. There are six tiers within the sumo wrestling world hierarchy, similar to how the NCAA has Division 1, Division 2, etc. The top tier is called the makuuchi division and has a maximum of 42 wrestlers in it. Within the top division wrestlers are further subdivided into ranks based on their skills (again like March Madness) with the lower seeds called Maegashira, the past champions known as the san’yaku, which in ascending order are known as kombushi, Sekiwake, and Ozeki. And above all that, the King in the North, Bosses of Bossdom, the DJ Khalid class because all they do is win, the Yokozuna.
Who is Yokozuna? A common misconception about the Yokozuna is that it’s a person, when it’s actually a professional rank—the highest you can achieve in professional sumo. This confusion was likely caused by the WWE, who introduced the “Yokozuna” character to North American audiences in 1993, played by Rodney Agatupu Anoa’i, who was never a professional sumo wrestler, nor had he earned the Yokozuna rank, nor was he even Japanese, as his pre-match ritual suggested.
To achieve the rank, you not only need to perform at a high level in several consecutive tournaments, but you also need to pass a dignity and grace test, which yes, is completely subjective and up to the discretion of both a league-affiliated panel and a civilian panel.
Yokozuna, unlike all other ranks in sumo, can’t be demoted. That being said, the sumo world expects Yokozunas to remain Yokozunas. Once the title is achieved, while it can’t be removed, the wrestler can be. If a Yokozuna looks like they’ll finish a tournament with a losing record, they’ll often fake an injury and pull out of the tournament to avoid shame. If this happens more than once, the wrestler will retire to uphold the sanctity of the title, effectively ending their careers before their skills diminish. Unlike most other sports, the elite wrestlers don’t get a chance to gracefully age. They’re forced out as soon as their skills start to diminish. Iverson would love sumo wrestling.
Can I gamble on it? North American sportsbooks haven’t seen much demand for sumo wrestling (and yet, Russian table tennis is widely available), but Japanese-based sites usually offer moneylines pre-match. However, you might want to read the next section before you start dropping some serious yen on a sumo card.
Is sumo wrestling corrupt? In “Freakonomics“, Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner discuss the ties between the Yakuza and sumo wrestling, and also the likelihood of match-fixing when a wrestler is facing relegation. These claims were confirmed when a match-fixing scandal rocked the sumo world in 2011, after texts between wrestlers discussing planned match results came to light.
Before you write-off the entire sport though, there is one significant piece of evidence that the sport maintains its dignity and credibility. For a period of almost 19 years, no homegrown wrestler elevated to the rank of Yokozuna, a national shame that caused great anxiety within the sumo community and Japan as a whole. The sport was dominated by foreign-born wrestlers during this period, until Kisenosato finally ended the drought in 2016. If the sport was entirely fixed, it’s highly highly unlikely that they would fail to award the rank for nearly two decades, unless the Yakuza was just playing the long game.
Have they had replay controversies? For a sport that dates back to 1684, they are rather progressive technologically. Ever since controversy struck in 1964, (in a match where judges got the call wrong, ending a 42-match Yokozuna winning streak) there have been instant replays employed in the judging booth, connected to the head judge, who uses it at his discretion. Hear that, baseball purists? Even a sport that predates the existence of America is cool with replay.
Where are the women? Noticeably absent from professional sumo is female participants. The gender divide is so extreme that the sport’s greatest controversy was when two women entered the holy dohyo after the mayor of Osaka collapsed due to a medical condition. Sumo wrestling at the professional level has been male-dominated for the better part of the entirety of its existence. There are now calls to let women in, but mostly it comes from the more progressive colleges, where both men and women can compete.
Do sumo wrestlers make bank? Sumo wrestlers are decently compensated, but we’re not talking Bryce Harper money. Those who reach Yokozuna status can expect to rake in about $30,000 USD per month, or about $360k per year, plus tournament and sponsor bonuses.
Has it been culturally appropriated? I mean…
Who should I cheer for? ENNNNNDOOOO.
Why? His homegrown status is part of his appeal, along with his perseverance. After rupturing his ACL in a tournament, he opted not to have surgery, and wrestled through an entire other tournament, in order to avoid relegation to the lower level.
I’m in Japan, and my ticket says the matches for the Grand Tournament start at 8 am. What time should I arrive at? Take it from someone who was forced to drag their saki-soaked, hungover ass out of bed at 7 a.m. and sprint across Osaka while doing everything in their power to keep down their 7Eleven coffee and onigiri—don’t show up at 8 a.m.
Grand Tournament tickets cover the entire day’s worth of matches (which began with the amateurs), so unless you really really want to sit in an empty stadium with just the sumo dads, feel free to arrive just after lunch.