Getting someone into a new sport is a daunting proposition. Unlike video games or other hobbies, there’s an underlying perception that sports fans are born, not made. Baseball fans are baseball fans because their parents forced them to play it as kids, not because some weirdo on the internet (hi) told them to try watching the MLB. Getting people into sumo, Japan’s traditional form of full-contact wrestling, then, may seem like a fool’s errand.
Despite being both Japan’s national sport and derived from Shinto rituals, sumo’s reputation internationally (and occasionally within Japan itself) is relatively silly. Sumo wrestlers or exaggerated caricatures thereof have shown up in enough media as punchlines that sumo itself tends to be seen as a joke. When I tell people that sumo is one of my favorite sports to follow, there’s usually a beat, then they do a double take, and they say, “Wait, what? Why?” Well, I’ll tell you why.
There Are a Lot of Reasons, Actually
As esoteric as it may seem, sumo is actually one of the easiest sports in the world to get into. Sumo is extremely simple to grasp, meaning that the rules take about two minutes to learn. After both men touch both of their fists to the ground at the same time, whoever steps outside the ring or touches any part of their body aside from their feet to the ground loses. That’s it. You are now an expert on the basic rules of sumo.
It seems straightforward, but sumo bouts are thrilling, incredible feats of power and balance. I’ve seen 400-lb men get blasted out of the ring like they were nothing, I’ve seen unbelievably creative wrestling techniques, I’ve seen matches whose outcomes were so close that they had to start the match over because even instant replay couldn’t make the call.
Sumo is also one of the fastest sports around. Individual matches have no time limit, but typically take about 10-20 seconds. Tournaments last for fifteen days, with every wrestler fighting once per day in a round robin format, and you can watch every match from an entire tournament in the time it takes to watch a single game of just about any other sport.
Sumo’s speed and simplicity doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to explore once you’re past the basics, though. Did you know that they make the dohyō, the raised clay wrestling ring, from scratch before every single tournament? Did you know the referees (gyōji), ringside announcers (yobidashi), and even hairstylists (tokoyama) have their own ranking systems, much like the wrestlers? Did you know that as simple and direct as the combat seems, there are 82 different classifications for winning techniques, known as kimarite? The best games are always the ones that are immediately engaging but present a surprising amount of depth to investigate as you get more invested, and there’s always more to learn about sumo.
And while it’s quick and easy to keep up with the top level of Japanese sumo, called makuuchi, there is always more to watch. There are levels beneath makuuchi, starting with jūryō and continuing through makushita, sandanme, and jonidan, all the way down to jonokuchi, where every Japanese wrestler makes his debut. You can find these matches, too, if you want to watch the young prospects, or you could cast your eye to international sumo.
The Japan Sumo Association does not currently allow female wrestlers to compete, a disappointing mistake that some brave wrestlers are trying to reverse, which you can currently see on Netflix in the documentary Little Miss Sumo. The International Sumo Federation holds events around the world, though, and they do allow female competitors. While it’s harder to find places to watch international sumo, there are plenty of highlights available on YouTube.
If you’re like me, you’ll explore more and more of these fun facts, learn new and unique throwing and pushing techniques, look up the records of past legends, and more. But that’s not enough to really get you into sumo. If you’ve ever gotten into a new sport, you know that the tipping point is when you become a fan of a specific team or athlete. So let’s introduce you to some wrestlers.
Meet the Rikishi
My favorite all-time sumo wrestler is Akebono, a retired 6’8” 500-lb Hawaiian who became the first non-Japanese man to attain sumo’s highest possible rank, yokozuna, and made some forays into pro wrestling after retirement. His story is an inspiring one, as many sumo officials at the time believed nobody born outside of Japan should ever be allowed to reach that rank. Akebono, born Chad Ha’aheo Rowan, opened that door while maintaining one of the greatest rivalries in sumo history with another yokozuna, Takanohana. You can watch all of their matches on YouTube and they are electric.
My favorite currently active rikishi (the specific word for sumo wrestler) is Hokutofuji, a classic pusher-thruster who looks unstoppable when he wins and ridiculous when he loses. This is because his entire style revolves around dynamic, inexorable power, so much so that sometimes he charges too hard and falls over. He has an energetic pre-match ritual that involves slapping himself and stamping his feet and I just love him to bits.
My girlfriend’s favorite wrestler is Enhō, the shortest and lightest wrestler at the top division. Weighing in at a minuscule 212 pounds, Enhō manages to win as much as he loses at the highest level of the sport because of brilliant footwork and stunning throws. It doesn’t hurt that he’s the protégé of the greatest sumo wrestler of all time (more on him in a moment). Enhō’s coming off a poor tournament, but it is genuinely thrilling every single time he wins. He has a lot of fans and is undeniably adorable.
Another reason that now is the perfect time to get into sumo is that we are coming into the twilight years of the most successful sumo wrestler of all time, Hakuhō. Hakuhō has been a yokozuna for 13 years, and holds the records for most tournament wins, most undefeated tournament wins, most consecutive wins, and a variety of others. A 6’4” Mongolian wrestler, Hakuhō combines ferocious power, deceptive speed, and unearthly balance with a depthless wrestling experience, and sometimes he seems utterly impossible to stop. However, his career is nearing its end, and while he still wins the occasional tournament it’s a very exciting time for up-and-coming wrestlers gunning to take over his mantle.
Among those up-and-coming wrestlers is Asanoyama, a newly minted ōzeki who nearly won the most recent tournament. Asanoyama’s sure-footed power ended up losing out to Terunofuji, a veteran wrestler with an incredible story. Terunofuji was once an ōzeki, but was demoted after a serious injury kept him from wrestling. Matches missed for injuries are treated the same as losses when it comes to sumo’s rankings, and Terunofuji fell all the way down to jonidan, sumo’s version of the minor leagues. Terunofuji eventually got healthy, though, and fought all the way back to the top level and won his very first tournament after returning.
I could keep listing interesting sumo wrestlers for hours, but the important thing to know is that that’s where sumo is as a sport today, with the stage ready for new fighters to ascend to the highest levels.
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Where to Watch
For a long time, sumo was difficult to find for international fans. Nowadays, though, there are a few different ways to watch. The official way is the NHK World Japan app, which you can download for free on iOS and Android. Their free 24/7 livestream includes half-hour recaps of each day’s matches, though they may air later in the day than is convenient and include less complete information than is desired. There is also, as with any sport, a variety of less than legal streamers that will allow you to watch the full daily coverage.
But for the quickest introduction to the sport, the way to immediately feel caught up on the action, I would recommend YouTube channels like Kintamayama. Kintamayama posts videos that compile every match from each tournament day, a complete view of the makuuchi level that takes less than 20 minutes to watch. It’s somewhat baffling that the NHK itself doesn’t seem to offer a similarly comprehensive recap on demand from each day, which is perfect for those new to the sport to get a taste of what it offers.
The September tournament starts on the 13th, and will continue through the 28th, barring any coronavirus-related issues. I hope you’ll be watching, as the one thing this wonderful sport needs is more fans.