The Next Big Thing: Loving and Living Sumo

sumo match
Local middleweight David Prado (left) attempts to defend the U.S. against his Mongolian opponent.

There’s an unexpected hot new professional sport to follow, where the champions aren’t chiseled, size matters, and athleticism defies appearances.

Sumo wrestling’s growing popularity and presence in the United States is an exciting and affirming sport for men of size. No longer simply an air-filled goofy suit to dress up in at the fair, sumo is a fun and slightly obscure hobby to have- inside the ring or out.

Who’s Dominating in Sumo?

Men from across the country train hard to learn to harness the strength, endurance, and flexibility it takes to win. The rituals and respect from each person involved- athletes, judges, and referees- are captivating to a diverse audience. The U.S. Sumo Open in Long Beach, CA grows in attendance every year. There are several clubs in the Los Angeles area alone that sent wrestlers to compete. Usually the ones to watch are the Mongolians. Each year, every weight class is dominated by a Mongolian competitor. The heavyweight class was dominated for 8 years by Byamba, the World Champion. Mongolian Nyambayar Lkhanaa won gold in the lightweight division. However, this year was a major upset in heavyweight and middleweight – both won by Egyptians. Americans medaled for the first time ever, with Roys Sims getting gold in men’s openweight, and Angel Castillo with bronze in lightweight.

sumo byamba
World Champion Byamba playfully spars with a young sumo fan

A few days before the event, David Prado, a Southern Californian local competitor in the middleweight division explained his love and motivation for sumo.

“I’ve always been surrounded by wrestling my whole life, WWF, my grandfather was a luchador. My girlfriend is from Japan and we just decided to watch a recorded sumo event. It’s so intense but calm. It just intrigued me, the complexity. It’s great watching the pros yokozuna- (the) top rankings. Once you reach that status, you can’t be demoted. Those guys are basically gods in the sport,” said Prado.

How Sumo Matches Work

Sumo matches are incredibly easy to follow. A match can be over in a matter of seconds, but it can also last several minutes. Either way, the rules and objectives are plain. Two sumo wrestlers, rikishi, face off in the circle ring, the dohyō. There are two ways to win: push your opponent to step out of the ring, or wrestle them down so that any part of their body, even hair, touches the ground.

All right, you’ve made it this far and I know you’re wondering, “What’s up with the diaper thingy?!?” The traditional loincloth-y looking wrap that scantily clads the wrestlers is a mawashi. Many of the wrestlers at this year’s event wore shorts under their mawashi, especially the locals. But many of the international competitors kept it pretty real with the traditional garb. Rikishi will try to protect their mawashi from being grabbed; their opponent can use it against their to advantage.

Becoming a Sumo Wrestler

In Japan, you’d have to decide fairly early in your life if competing in sumo is for you. The training starts early and is and all-encompassing lifestyle. Like Jedi.

“The cutoff for standing a chance going pro is about 23 years old. Heyas are like stables where the sumos train the young wrestlers. That’s why being a fan is fun – the lifestyle is so intense,” said Prado.

Sumo Judge Yama
Fans swarm legendary sumo wrestler Yama, a judge at this year’s U.S. Sumo Open

The Japanese athletes follow a strict regime in a military like structure. They train all day long. They stuff themselves, sleep, and train more. The younger athletes earn their training by cleaning the training facility and serving the other athletes.

A photo posted by Tyler Jacobs (@tj_wiggles) on

Our own Tyler Jacobs has had a turn or two at sumo. “It’s really empowering for me, being a fat guy. It’s just fun! This is something I could do and still be fat!” he laughed. “These guys are super strong. Being fast, strong and fearless will make you succeed at this.”

But it’s not all eating and throwing your weight around. The training involved strenuous exercises to get your body to be able to maintain an extremely low center of gravity, stability, and forward motion all at once. Imagine doing enough stretches and squats that your end goal is to do the center splits and lean over so your stomach touches the ground! Plus, you have to bulk up on the type of nutritious food that will burn effectively as you train.

Prado says people react strangely to his hobby. “People ask if I am too small; arent those guys really fat? I have them come down and train! It’s great that I don’t have to watch my weight, but the other people don’t have to watch their weight either. I like the lifestyle – it’s almost like a religion. There’s a huge culture surrounding it. In the end,” said Prado, “it’s intense athleticism.”

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Photo: A Collected Gentleman