Sumo is probably the greatest sport on earth.  At least it is the most amazing form of non-team competition, and one of the most fascinating spectator sports around.

The reasons why might not be immediately apparent, especially since the wrestlers themselves are all anonymous fat men.  People who dismiss sumo fail to realize the various points of sumo that make it an amazing sport:

1. Other athletes (like tennis players or baseball players or golfers) might look like average people if you meet them in the street, but only sumo wrestlers actually alter their bodies to fit their sport, inducing massive weight gain which will actually endangers them later in life.
2. Despite the pageantry of sumo, when these boys get down to business they don't fool around.  A winner can be determined in record time.  The late-night "sumo digest" summary shows give you one fight after another, so there is all the intensity without any of the waiting around.  It's a great quick fix.
3. Wrestling is done without weapons, making is possibly the most primordial competitive sport.  Internationally, sumo is one of the biggest wrestling federations outside of "professional wrestling" which cannot be taken seriously, at least not in the same way.
4. A 120 kilogram (264 pound) wrestler may be much bigger than you and me, but in sumo it is quite likely that he can face an opponent near twice his size.  When a small wrestler bests a significantly larger opponent, it is really a sight to see.
5. In addition to the long-term effects of weight-gain, there is also the danger of severe injury during competition.  Even if you win your bout, if your 200 kilogram (440 pound) opponent falls on your ankle, you might never walk again.
6. Competiton is severe - these guys may look fat and sluggish, but in a pinch they are like rhinos and can move lightning-quick.

In Japan, there are six sumo tournaments a year in every odd month.  Every other tournament is in Tokyo.  They are held as follows:

1. January - Tokyo
2. March - Osaka
3. May - Tokyo
4. July - Nagoya
5. September - Tokyo
6. November - Fukuoka

A tournament takes place over the course of 15 days, from a Sunday to the Sunday two weeks following.  Competition takes place all day and there are different categories.  People usually only show up for the top category; it is this category that is televised from 4 to 6 each day, and also the one that receives the brunt of media and popular attention.  The strongest wrestlers are all media superstars, and between tournaments some can be seen on TV or in commercials, often singing karaoke songs.

The rankings of the top league of sumo (maku-uchi) are as follows:

I. Yokuzuna (of which there are 2 to 4 depending on the circumstances and standings)
II. Ozeki (of which there are 2 to 4 depending on the circumstances and standings)
III. Seki-wake (of which there are 2 to 4 depending on the circumstances and standings)
IV. Ko-musubi (of which there are 2 to 4 depending on the circumstances and standings)
V. Mae-gashira (of which there are 28 members in two groups - the east group which is ranked from 1 to 14, and the west group which is also ranked from 1 to 14.  For example, in the March 2000 tournament Mongolian wrestler Kiyoku Tenho was "west Mae-gashira 2."  The lowest ranked members of maku-uchi are Mae-gashira 14 and west Mae-gashira 14)

Wrestlers regularly go up and down the ranks, with one exception - once a wrestler has accepted the top rank of Yokozuna, he cannot drop down.  If his performance weakens and he begins to lose more than win, he is honor bound to retire.

In sumo I often root for a few favorites, but if I don't know the wrestlers well I will either root for the smaller contestant (the underdog) or the foreigner.  Perhaps this is because I am a 75 kilogram gaijin myself.  In the top ranks the foreigners are all either Hawaiians or Mongolians:

Yokozuna Akebono - a.k.a. Chad Rowen, Akebono is one of the biggest, tallest guys in the ring and looks nasty as hell.  He weighs 229 kilos and is 203 cm. tall.  This means he is nearly 7 feet tall and weighs a quarter ton (503 pounds).  He has spindly legs and a huge midsection - like Wilt Chamberlain would have if he had swallowed 50 basketballs.  His big body and long arms and legs sometimes give him the appearance of a large spider.  He tends to overuse the technique of overpowering his opponents by pushing them out of the ring, and is a master of the nasty pre-match stare-downs with his opponent.

Yokozuna Musashimaru - Musashimaru has a nice face, but as long as he is a sumo wrestler we might never see him smile.  He is just as strong and heavy as Akebono, but much heavier-looking and closer to the ground, so he actually looks like the Michelin man.

Kiyokushuzan - from Mongolia, he is a medium-sized wrestler who doesn't often win, but who is famous for his techniques - he will on occasion use moves that haven't been seen in Japanese sumo for decades.

Kiyokutenho - also from Mongolia, he is somewhat of a newcomer.  He has had some strong performances, including some yokozuna upsets, but he has not been around long enough to distinguish himself.

Konishiki - also from Hawaii, he was once a yokozuna contender.  He peaked at the rank of ozeki, just below yokozuna, then fell in the ranks until his severe weight and injuries forced him to retire.  He is almost as heavy as a human can be, looking more like a couch than anything else.  His attempts at weight loss have been the subject of numerous TV documentaries, and he has become a kind of de facto Hawaiian mascot in Japan.  He is the face of post-retirement sumo, now, with countless TV and print advertising campaigns, merchandising, as well as a new rap album and various TV appearances.  Most people love him, although some are sick of seeing him in so many commercials and think he has sold out.

** new face Sentoryu ** - Henry Armstrong Miller, from St. Louis, Missouri.  He is the newest foreigner in the ring.  Although he has not made it up to the top category yet because of various injuries, he is expected to be promoted soon enough since he finished at the top of the second-highest category in the March 2000 Osaka tournament.

In the lower ranks of sumo, there are other foreign wrestlers - from Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Korea and China.  Recently a Brazilian wrestler won a championship in one of the lower divisions.

Check out the best sumo website on the web, it has all of the statistics and links you need to become a sumo expert.  I don't know how Mr. Abe finds the time to maintain it, he must be exhausted!

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email: Peter Höflich
  last updated: 21-05-2000
all original writing copyright Peter Hoflich 2000