A Hilarious Mockery Of True Sumo

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - May 03, 2006
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Not all sumo is made the same. Sure, to the novice it’s all pretty much equal. Big men in small underwear slam into each other at various levels of speed while an official verbally abuses them and everyone on television prays for no slow-motion instant replays.

Seriously, this is something no one should witness. Waves of flesh, fat and musubi large enough to buck Kelly Slater, slowed to a point just fast enough to turn your stomach and get you speed-dialing your cardiologist.

Making the ESPN rotation recently has been the World Sumo Challenge - Battle of the Giants. Shot last October, it’s playing now because the network couldn’t secure top level aerobic programming like Sweating to Gillooly starring Tanya Harding.

The tournament billed itself as featuring two dozen of the world’s best wrestlers from such sumo hotspots as Japan, the U.S., Great Britain and the Republic of Georgia. Legendary names like Georgiev Stiliyan, Karsten Grapp, Ronny Allman, Harrington Wa and Sydney Carty filled the dohyo. It was like reading a history book.

Held at Madison Square Garden, the event coordinators, Big Boy Productions no less, needed media hype to get their product sold. They got it. The competitors were paraded around Manhattan in only their mawashi. Something that would get you arrested in Midtown or completely ignored in L.A. The meaty men were filmed crossing Seventh Avenue, swallowing hot dogs, posing for photos with fans and curious onlookers and bankrupting a deli. All this while confusing Gotham baseball fans. “Did the Yankees resign David Wells?”

Tapes of the athletes’ interviews were played coming out of commercials. Each competitor, in his particular accented English, told why he loved the sport. The competition, the buffets, the tradition. Whether from Cleveland or Copenhagen, they all seemed to appreciate a sport in which the combatants carried themselves with grace and where opponents were treated with respect.

But come on. This is New York. Manners be dammed. The wrestlers offered stink eye to spare, stood triumphantly over the fallen and even offered an occasional slap to the back of the head of those just defeated. Possibly they were just trying to, as the ring announcer (another mainstay in the traditional sport) said, launch the sport into the 21st century.

Let’s be honest. These guys are a long way from getting their top-knots. The wrestlers moved with the speed of Ralph Kramden following Thanksgiving dinner.

And while the sport boasts some 70 legal moves, it seems these guys have not gotten far beyond grab, waddle and lean portion of the playbook.

The gyoji (referee) seemed oblivious to the fact that 270-pound Stiliyan Georgiev won by pulling his opponent down by grabbing the vertical portion of the mawashi. An illegal move that was recognized by the loser and celebrity color commentator Musashimaru, but was completely missed by the guy in the ring and the four “expert judges” on the outside. They did have taiko however. Not very good taiko, but the drums were big.

The World Sumo League, the governing body for this event, boasts a stable of more than 100 wrestlers who compete in 60 matches throughout the world. Their most recent stop was held at The Palace of Auburn Hills, prompting fans and talk radio to question, “Did the Pistons sign Hot Rod Williams for the playoffs?”

For this one night Mitshuhiko Fukao of Japan was the star. Winning the title and the $10,000 top prize, he kept to tradition by pumping his fists in victory while circling the ring, high-fiving some of the 9,000 fans in attendance who were happily unaware that the only difference between the large man before them and the stars in Japan was skill, training and determination.

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