Friday, April 28, 2006

On my honor...I will strive to keep Sumo where it belongs

I recently went to Tokyo where I attended one of the oldest and most popular Japanese sporting events. And no, I’m not talking about karaoke.
The sport was Sumo wrestling, an athletic pursuit that dates back nearly 1500 years. The Japanese love Sumo because it is a sport based precisely on their culture, meaning it is rich in symbolism, rich in history, rich in honor.
That’s why we should never attempt to bring it to America.
Trust me, if Sumo wrestling ever appeared at the local “United Airlines/PSI.net/Tropicana,/OJ Simpson” arena, we would ruin it faster than condominium developers ruined the Florida coastline. How, you may ask? One only has to watch Sumo for an hour or two before realizing how American greed, corporate marketing and sheer hucksterism would combine to put this sport just above roller derby on the “honor chart.”
First, let’s clear up some misconceptions about Sumo. It’s not a bunch of fat guys running into each other while wearing diapers, which is how most Americans, after seeing snippets of it on SportsCenter or Marv Albert’s blooper tape, would describe it. Sure the guys are a bit “proportionally challenged” and yes, their attire looks like something that holds draperies in place, but there is so much more.
Also, Sumo is not an everyday event. I assumed that hefty Japanese man (and trust me, you have to look hard to find them in Japan) got together somewhere every weekend to carouse, blow off steam and get away from the kids. In America we do that all the time. It’s called “golf.”
No, the yearly Sumo schedule consists of six “grand tournaments,” occurring in four “grand Japanese cities,” with tickets costing “a grand fortune.” Out of sheer luck, I happened to make my first Tokyo visit during the September tournament. It took place at a stadium known as Ryogoku Kokugikan, which means, “expensive taxi ride.” Bob, my best college buddy and also my host thanks to his international assignment for a large advertising agency, scored the tickets. Bob did not tell me what he paid for our tickets, which were in the last row of the arena. However, he did make sure I knew what the front seats cost. The crème de la crème seats of a Sumo match are not seats at all. They are red mats, arranged in groups of four to form what we refer to as a “private box,” but without a dessert cart coming by every 20 minutes full of good ol’ sporting event chow like lobster tail and crème brulee. I didn’t see the thrill of sitting on a mat. Hey, at least I had a seat, with a seat back! If I wanted to squat, I would have visited the Japanese toilets, or what Americans call “a freakin’ hole in the floor!” Besides, I could never have afforded a mat, which cost (drumroll please) $850 U.S. dollars or enough Yen for the average Japanese to purchase something really pricey – like China.
A Sumo tournament lasts about six hours and the audience is free to come and go as they please. We arrived about four o’clock. Actually we arrived about two. We found our seats about four. Even though Bob’s Japanese is excellent, he apparently missed the Berlitz class where they taught how to read seat locations in kanji characters.
Had we been there for the start, we would have been able to see the “doyo-iri,” known in Japanese as “entering the ring.” The “rikishi” or “fat guys” enter the ring wearing “kesho-mawashi” or “colorful aprons.” Once everybody crowds in, the “yokozuna” appears. I’m not sure what yokozuna means in English but I think he’s kind of like the football team equipment manager, meaning he probably wanted to Sumo wrestle in high school but couldn’t make the team on account of his thighs weren’t large enough to hide small children.
The yokozuna claps his hands together loudly. This is supposed to attract the attention of the gods. Or maybe it’s just his way of saying, “grab a beer, we’re getting ready to start.” Oh yes, you can drink Asahi, Suntory or numerous other Japanese brews while watching Sumo. But you have to get it yourself. You can’t raise a finger, yell BEER-SAN (Mr. Beer Man) at the top of your lungs and then pass Yen down the aisle until it reaches its destination. The Japanese may make better automobiles but we definitely outrank them in the beer vending department.
Now the bouts begin although when they actually “begin” is anybody’s guess. Two wrestlers remove their “kesho,” leaving only their “mawashi,” which barely covers their “private parts.” Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when the mawashi was first designed. I’m sure the idea took many seconds to create. “Hey Mito, should I take this scrap material to the dumpster?”
“How much is left?”
“Only about enough to fit around the waist with a little left over to cover the butt cheeks”
“Hmmmmm.”
Not only do the rikishi wear these garments proudly, but they do a lot of bending at the waist prior to their bouts. When this occurs, all cameras cease operation for obvious reasons.
Once the rikishi disrobe and enter the ring, they engage in much symbolism. They rinse their mouths with water and wipe their bodies with paper towels to purify themselves. They throw handfuls of salt into the ring, to purify it as well. Upon deciding that the ring is pure enough, they squat and face each other in the center of the ring, like opposing linemen on a football field. They glare, they arch their backs, they make menacing gestures and then…they retreat to their corners and DO THE SAME THING AGAIN! Apparently Sumo wrestlers are very picky when it comes to purity. The “drink, throw, glare, arch, repeat” routine occurs several times until, at last, the dohyo is as pure as an Osmonds’ family reunion.
Now the match begins. Upon the signal from the yokozuna, the rikishi run full steam into each other and then basically grope with more gusto than the average Duke lacrosse player. Step out of the ring or touch the ground with anything other than your feet and you lose. That’s why most Sumo matches last about five seconds. There were a few bouts when one rikishi fell down at the moment of initial impact. Sorry, match over, you lose. Next two fat guys, please! What amazed me is that, no matter how brief the match, no matter what dimwitted Sumo mistake the loser may have made, he never seemed upset. Nobody stomped their feet, pulled out their pony tail, kicked salt on the yokozuna or worse, removed their mawashi and threw it at the opponent. Both winner and loser bowed and exited the ring. And the audience ALWAYS cheered the outcome, even if they were in line getting beers and missed five bouts.
Anyway, the rikishi in the grand tournament do this every day for two weeks, putting in workdays of up to 15 seconds if it’s a real grueling match. At the end of the tournament, the guy with the best win/loss record is awarded the Emperor’s Cup, which he probably takes home, fills with Suntory and begins training for the next tournament.
That’s it. That is Sumo wrestling. And in spite of my sarcasm, it was fascinating to watch in person. I found myself marveling at the ceremony, the pageantry, the symbolism and the bouts themselves. I didn’t want the bouts to end. “No, please,” I thought,” don’t step out of the ring. Don’t fall to one knee. I want MORE!” Why did I want more? Because I MAY NEVER BE BACK IN JAPAN. AND THAT IS WHERE SUMO WRESTLING SHOULD STAY. PLEASE DON’T EVER BRING THIS HONORABLE SPORT TO AMERICA!
To prove my point, let’s pretend it did exist here. For starters, let’s say you didn’t have a ticket but really wanted to see the matches. You’d go to the stadium where, about 100 yards from the entrance, some guy would be holding up tickets, saying “who needs two?” He’d offer you grandstand or the coveted “red mat” seats at prices roughly two hundred percent over face value. You’d pay the outrageous prices and curse yourself for not first checking Ebay for seats.
Upon entering the stadium you’d be accosted by souvenir vendors, selling everything from full color Sumo programs to Sumo bath towels to Sumo chocolates. I hate to say it but these vendors exist in Japan too. For 1300 yen, (about nine bucks) I purchased a pack of Sumo playing cards, each containing a picture of a different rikishi. They looked like the “most wanted” playing cards that circulated after we bombed Iraq. But, unlike the Iraqi criminals, it would be no trouble finding a Sumo wrestler in Japan. In a country where the average man stands about 5 foot 6 and weighs 147 pounds soaking wet, a 6 foot 5, 450 pound man wearing a fuchsia diaper tends to stand out.
Souvenirs and beers in hand, you make your way to your seat. Unfortunately it is right behind some guy yakking on his cell phone, saying something profound like, “Hey Vinnie, guess what? I’m at Sumo. No really, I’M AT SUMO! EVER BEEN TO SUMO? I DIDN’T THINK SO. Yeah, I’m using the company tickets. Hey, I think it’s about to start. I’ll call you back in a few. Later.”
And at that moment, Sumo does start. Everyone can tell because a blonde bombshell with fake breasts and a bikini has just entered the ring. The wrestlers follow her in, each wearing colorful kesho mawashi laden with corporate advertising. The Pfizer wrestler walks behind the Target wrestler, who walks behind the Home Depot wrestler, who walks behind the Valvoline guy. As they parade into the ring, they are greeted with hoots and catcalls from the audience, saying things like, “Yo, Advil boy, my man Winston cigarettes is going to kick your fat ass into the next dohyo.” While the opening ceremony takes place, Vegas bookmakers closely eye contestants, occasionally whipping out their cell phones and reshuffling the betting lines.
Finally a microphone falls from the ceiling. Michael Buffer grabs it and yells, “LET’S GET READY TO SUUUUUUUU-MO.” The crowd goes wild. The first two rikishi take off their ceremonial robes, revealing their diapers. The crowd oohs and ahhs in amazement upon seeing the strategically placed location of the Preparation H logo on one rikishi’s mawashi. The two rikishi begin their pre-match ritual. One rikishi verbally taunts the other rikishi, loudly saying, “Yo baby, you in my dohyo now.” The other rikishi counters with, “Yeah? Yo mamma so fat, she need a mawashi for each toe.” Enraged, the other rikishi picks up a handful of salt and throws it into his opponent’s eyes, causing brief blindness and eyeball purification. Both Sumo coaches charge into the ring, along with a few fans from the $850 mats, who have been drinking Asahis and Suntorys in the parking lot since 8 a.m. The ensuing brawl prompts minimum-wage security guards to appear and “get the situation under control” with chokeholds and illegally obtained taser guns. Alas, the ring is purified.
The contestants enter the ring. They squat, they glare, they await the signal from the yokozuna. They charge each other. One contestant slips and falls to his knees. Match over.
Immediately cries of “fix, fix” permeate the arena. Empty Asahi cans litter the ring. One fan calls the loser “Peter McNeely.” While the winning rikishi struts around the ring holding up 10 fingers which means, “only 10 more bouts to go,” Jim Gray snares an exclusive interview with his opponent, who does his best Oscar de la Hoya impression in announcing that his knee never touched the mat and he plans to launch “a full scale investigation” and file a protest with the National Sumo Federation. To further his point, he then lays down in the dohyo for 15 minutes, refusing to move. Eventually he rises, flips off the yokozuna, and retreats to the locker room where he ingests a handful of ephedrine and awaits his next bout.
Meanwhile, 500 miles away, a 38-year-old office worker logs onto the Internet, sees the match’s results and lets out a cry of disgust because the losing wrestler was part of his fantasy Sumo team.
And that’s Sumo in America. Oh, I almost forgot. Bravo Network would hastily prepare a show called, “Queer Eye for the Sumo Guy” in which five gay men teach a wrestler the finer points of food, drink, décor and personal appearance. I can almost hear it now…
“Oh Lord, that mawashi in no way matches your eyes!”

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