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May 2013 - The Basics of Sumo and Why You Should Be a Fan

A few years ago, I would have never believed you if you had told me that nowadays I’d be a huge sumo fan, but here I sit writing a blog about why you (yes you) should have a closer look a truly remarkable sport.

At first I thought it was just two obese Japanese guys wearing diapers slamming into each other. And while that may not be too far from the truth, there’s a lot more to it. Once you understand the basics of the national sport of Japan, I’m sure you’ll be able to enjoy it much more, and hey, you never know, maybe in the near future you’ll be cheering the fat guys in diapers too.

The Rules and Strategy

To start with, sumo is an incredibly easy sport to understand. There are two guys standing inside a circle. Once they put their hands on the ground they charge at each other and try to either push their opponent out of the circle or down onto the ground. If any part of your body goes out of the circle, or if any part of your body (besides your feet, obviously) touch the ground, you lose. The average match usually takes between 3 to 12 seconds, but with all of the traditions and ceremonies that come along with it (the crouching and clapping and salt throwing), the full thing can take up to five or more minutes.

For obvious reasons it’s to your advantage to be fat because that makes you harder to push around, but history has shown that that’s not always the case. Take for instance one of the current yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo), Harumafuji. He weighs about 130 kilograms (about 185 lbs.) and is the lightest wrestler in the top division. Sometimes skill, speed and technique are just as important as size.

Striking your opponent with an open hand is allowed, even to the face. You cannot kick or pull hair. You can also grab your opponent’s belt as leverage to move them. Tripping and throwing techniques are also allowed. The most violent part of the match occurs at the tachi-ai (the opening collision) when the wrestlers charge at each other head-on. Very often wrestlers are pushed or thrown completely off of the dohyo (ring) to the ground.

How it’s Organized

At any given time there are about +500 rikishi (sumo wrestlers) who are competing in professional sumo. When a new wrestler enters the sport he joins a heya (training stable) where he lives full time and he has to do all the chores like cleaning the house, cooking the meals and serving the higher ranking rikishi.

He also enters at the lowest division. There are six divisions in sumo. However, only the wrestlers in the top two divisions are paid a salary. Also, once you reach one of those two divisions, you stop serving your fellow training mates and they start serving you (good incentive!). There are about 70 wrestlers within these top two divisions. On Fightbox, only the top division (the makuuchi division) is shown.

How to Make it Big

In sumo, it’s all about your rank. The only way to advance to a higher division and a higher ranking is to win matches. There are six tournaments each year, every other month. In the top divisions they fight once a day for fifteen straight days. If you have more wins than losses (at least an 8 – 7 record) you will be promoted the next tournament. If you have a losing record (7 – 8 or worse) you will be demoted in rank the following tournament. The higher your winning percentage is the higher your rank will be next tournament.

The highest rank is yokozuna. At the moment there are two yokozuna, Hakuho and Harumafuji. If you want to obtain this rank you must win two tournaments in a row while holding the second highest rank of ozeki.

In order to become an ozeki you must win a minimum of 33 matches over the course of three consecutive tournaments from one of the third or fourth highest ranks. There have been cases though where this achievement has been denied, if the sumo elders feel it was a fluke or that the wrestler is undeserving for one reason or another.

Foreigners in Sumo

At the moment we are in a period of time when foreigners (non-Japanese wrestlers) are fighting much stronger than the natives. Sumo is a Japanese sport with its origins dating back thousands of years and Japan is the only country which practices it professionally, so they take great pride in it, but as of late the sport’s popularity is waning due to the fact that the Japanese are not performing as well as those from abroad. In fact, right now 6 of the top 10 wrestlers are foreign-born and there are 16 foreigners in the top division. It’s also interesting to note that a rule has been passed to limit foreign participation. Only one foreigner is allowed per training stable.

What Makes Sumo Interesting to Watch

Each pairing of wrestlers presents a different dynamic. Some wrestlers prefer pushing techniques while others prefer to grab the mawashi (belt) of their opponent. Other wrestlers employ tripping techniques or try to use their speed to outmaneuver their opponent. If you watch for a while you start to learn which wrestlers prefer which techniques and how they might match up with one another.

It’s also very exciting when a wrestler is fighting to obtain one of the higher ranks. There is a lot of pressure on him to perform well and win matches or he won’t get the promotion. This makes for dramatic matches.

Another great thing is when the tournament is coming down to the last few days and there are several wrestlers who all have very good records. They begin to have matches against one another and the closer it gets to the final day, the fewer wrestlers that are left to compete for the Emperor’s Cup (the trophy given to the winner of the tournament). If there is more than one wrestler tied with the best record, a playoff is called for. Also, on the last day the two yokozuna always face each other and that’s worth watching as it’s the cream of the crop atop the dohyo (the ring).

Give It a Go!

So, to sum things up here, what may at first just look plain silly, actually requires years of hard work, dedication and as the old cliché goes, blood, sweat and tears. These guys sometimes spend years of their life cleaning and cooking and serving and fighting and battling (and eating) their way to the top of a very grueling and physically demanding full-contact combat sport. Some make it, some don’t, but it’s a sport that is definitely worthy of respect and one that is highly entertaining and quite fun to watch once you become familiar with how it works.

Why not give it a chance and watch a tournament or two on Fightbox? We’ve got all the best sumo action several days a week, which is generally on in the afternoons. Make sure to check your local listings for times and availability.


Daniel Austin


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