Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Updated: November 15, 10:57 AM ET
Sumo excitement's worth the weight

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

FUKUOKA, Japan -- The beauty of sumo is that it is the only sport where all the athletes are fatter than the fans.

Barry Bonds, Konishiki
Large and in charge: Barry Bonds and Konishiki hang loose.
Consider Konishiki, who was one of the largest sumos in history, weighing 660 pounds at his peak. That's the equivalent of two Shaqs, three Jordans or four Ichiros. Although he's slimmed down a tad since retiring from competition five years ago, he still weighs about 600 pounds. When he took Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Mike Fetters, New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi and a couple of other players on the major league All-Star Japan tour to dinner the other night, the restaurant pushed together two chairs for Konishiki to sit on.

"He told us some amazing stories about sumo training," Fetters said. "He said sumos have to be able to do the splits, because they need to be limber, and if they can't do it the first day, then the coach sits on them until they go all the way down into a split. Basically, they rip their groins."

Feel free to wince.

"I asked him how long it takes to heal and he said, 'Heal? They do it every day.' "

Feel free to groan, hold your crotch and curl into a fetal position.

"He told us about some of the hazing rituals they do which don't get talked about much," Fetters said. "It's like in football, but worse. He said one guy was doing pushups and a sumo put a knife under his throat and held it there while he was doing them. And one time a guy broke a bottle over Konishiki's head and all he could say was 'Thank you.' "

"He said they get treated like crap," Giambi said. "They're like slaves the first two years."

On the other hand, they get to wear those wonderful little loin cloths in front of thousands of people.

Konishiki
Konishiki, known as "The Dumptruck," stares down an opponent during his prime in 1991.
"Is sumo life difficult? Life (in general) is difficult," Konishiki said. "It all depends on how you look at it. Your body gets beat up in any sport, and, in a combat sport, it gets really beat up.''

Fetters and Konishiki are distant cousins, and the two grew up together in Hawaii, where sumo has some popularity. Akebono, the first American-born sumo to reach yokozuna (grand master) status, is from Hawaii, as is Musashimaru, one of the two reigning yokozuna.

"Those guys were amazing athletes," Fetters said. "They played football, and Akebono was a good basketball player."

The home of sumo, of course, is Japan, where the sport is so deep in the culture it extends back 1,500 years, making it almost as old as Pat Morita. After covering just about every sport in my career, I finally had the pleasure of attending a sumo tournament this week when the major league tour stopped in Fukuoaka, where a national grand tournament was just beginning.

If you find postseason baseball games a little too briskly paced, if golf seems just a little too edgy, if curling strikes you as a trifle on the wild side, sumo is the perfect sport for you. Sumo is a little like watching C-SPAN, except Henry Hyde and Strom Thurmond don't wear thongs.

Sumo wrestlers
Watching sumo wrestling's like watching C-SPAN, except Henry Hyde and Strom Thurmond don't wear thongs -- as far as we know.
Ritual takes up a large portion of a sumo match, and you must appreciate the ritual to fully enjoy the sport. The match begins with the sumos parading into the arena -- which is set up like an arena for a boxing match, with a canopy that resembles a temple above the ring -- and posing around the ring in colorful aprons. It looks a little like the barbecue pit at the Tony Siragusa family reunion. The sumos then leave the arena, leaving behind the first pair to wrestle.

A referee wearing a brightly patterned kimono and a black hat similar to those worn by Shinto priests struts into the middle of the ring and introduces the next two sumos by singing in a voice that resembles Yoko Ono on the "Double Fantasy" album. This is the sumo equivalent of "Let's get ready to RUMMMMBBBBLLLE!!!!''

The two sumos meet in the center of the ring (called the dohyu), squat into position, extend their arms and display their open palms to show they have no weapons, as a symbolic show of fair play. Then they lift their legs the way dogs would salute a fire hydrant and squat down again. Then they glare at each other, get into fighting position, prepare to wrestle ... and then stand up and waddle back to their respective corners.

At this point, they slap their thighs a lot, wipe the sweat from their faces, toss salt onto the dohyu to purify the ring, and return to the center. Then they glare at each other, get into the set position, prepare to wrestle ... and then stand up and waddle back to their corners.

Things get interesting at that point. They slap their thighs a lot, wipe the sweat from their faces, toss salt onto the dohyu and return to the center. Then they glare at each other, get into position, prepare to wrestle ... and then stand up and waddle back to their corners.

Sumo wrestler
A sumo wrestler tosses salt on the dohyu to purify the ring.
Then they change things up a bit. Instead of wiping the sweat from their faces, slapping their thighs and tossing salt onto the dohyu, they might slap their thigh first, then wipe sweat from their faces and toss salt onto the dohyu. Then they return to the center of the ring, glare at each other, get into position ... and then stand up and waddle back to their corners.

They repeat this process -- which is called shikiri -- several more times until four minutes pass and then they actually have to wrestle.

If you think all that sounds a little monotonous, bear in mind that the time limit for shikiri used to be 10 minutes. And before 1928, there was no time limit whatsoever. They could endlessly repeat the process for a half-hour if they wanted to. I can just imagine the sumo purists who no doubt were appalled by this obvious concession to shortened attention spans. This is an insult to the legacy of our honorable ancestors. What is the next shame with which they shall stain us? A rally monkey?

The actual wrestling usually lasts a couple of seconds, though occasionally the bouts last a couple of minutes. Essentially, the two crash into each other like NFL linemen off the snap of the ball, and try to knock each other out of the ring. The first sumo who is pushed out of the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body other than his feet loses.

Akebono
Akebono once had mad hops.
These guys are built like Michelin Men, but clearly a lot of muscle is under those rolls of fat. The leg muscles in particular are highly developed, and the sumos can be remarkably agile. Watching two sumos battle each other, their 500-pound bodies straining against each other in a half-ton clash of flesh and bone, is actually exciting. Within minutes, I found myself betting with my companions over who would win each bout and arguing over strategy. Was it better to be relatively lean and quick? Or massive and unmovable? It got rather dramatic.

And then the bout would end and the next two sumos would enter the ring, glare at each other, get into fighting position, prepare to wrestle ... and then stand up and waddle back to their respective corners.

This goes on for about five hours each day of the tournament.

And the tournament lasts two weeks.

"The key to being a sumo," Musashimaru said, "is patience."

Tell me about it.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.