More than 500 wrestling fans last week crammed into a downtown hotel conference room — the kind of place you’d expect to find corporate managers learning the finer points of downsizing — for what some were calling the Super Bowl of Sumo. The place was abuzz with excitement as people jostled around the portable sumo wrestling ring for a better viewing spot. Then it was time for the competition to begin. Here come the Japanese giants!
Wait a minute. These guys are sumo wrestlers?
“It’s all a bunch of white guys!” one young woman complained, gesturing at the assembled field as her other hand clutched a $4 cup of Japanese beer. “What’s up with that?”
Indeed, most of the competitors at the 2004 U.S. Sumo Open were white, some disturbingly so in the traditional sumo diaper/thong, actually called a mawashi.
But that’s not the only way the field defied expectations. Some of the hopefuls vying for the U.S. amateur title could only be described as, well, puny. I checked my program. Sure, the competition was divided into weight classes, but I’d figured that would be stout, gargantuan and titanic for sumo. Two of these guys weighed 135 pounds.
And there were women, too. Apparently, women’s sumo has caught on in the sport’s homeland of Japan, though females are still banned from the pros. At this event, three women competed in a single class regardless of weight, providing one of the real highlights of the night when Amanda Soule, listed at a very sumo-like 375 pounds, defeated the eventual bronze medalist, May Chung — all 108 pounds of her.
Of a more typical physique among the decidedly un-sumo-like competitors was Kurt Rightmyer, at 5 feet 10 inches and 225 pounds — heavy, but not scary heavy. Kind of a professional Everyman, Rightmyer ran in the California recall election as an independent, garnering 837 votes. His sumo credentials got him more than his 15 minutes from the news media, but in the end he went down at the polls as decisively as he did over and over again in the ring.
Rightmyer told CNN during his gubernatorial campaign that he was afraid voters would dismiss him as merely a “hulking sumo figure.” In fact, he is more of an “office middle-manager figure,” with emphasis on “middle.” Rightmyer didn’t win a single match. He blamed his rough outing on the caliber of the competition.
“These guys are world-class,” he said in a grave voice.
There’s no doubt that some were, but the most successful wrestlers generally looked the part. Even among the heavyweights, all of whom made me fear for the lives of those sitting on the floor next to the mat, those who had the muscle to go with their bulk reigned supreme. In the open-weight category, size and experience won out, with heavyweight and three-time European champion Petar Stoyanov taking the gold.
But the variety of shapes and skill levels meant that many of the matches held the fascination of the class nerd squaring off with the schoolyard bully. In among the crushing, avert-your-eyes humiliations there were some epic struggles and even a few upsets that got the fans roaring. As the competition wore on, my surprise became enthusiasm. The matches were quick, the action was violent, and the crowd was drinking.
Sumo wrestling originated in ultra-hierarchical feudal Japan more than a thousand years ago. When viewed in that light, maybe the most unexpected thing about amateur sumo, at least in its American incarnation, is that it’s so refreshingly democratic.
Soccer moms reining in their excited, towheaded charges . . . Latino families from nearby Wilmington cooking up sausages and onions . . . Brit expats in plastic green fedoras getting rowdy around a keg in front of their tour bus . . . It wasn’t quite England’s famed Wembley arena, but for soccer in America, with lines at the will-call window hundreds deep and staffers handing out cookies to appease those waiting up to a half-hour to get their tickets, the scene Saturday night at the Home Depot Center in Carson was about as good as it gets.
Was Manchester United in town for one of its vulgar displays of international branding power? Not quite. It was D.C. United versus the Los Angeles Galaxy, of our very own Major League Soccer. Neither team would be a safe bet to beat Manchester United, Arsenal or any of the other English Premier League teams even if spotted a goal or three. Still, there was magic in the breezy, cool, marine-layered air, and it was provided by 14-year-old D.C. United rookie Freddy Adu. You may have seen the smiling, self-possessed teenager recently in one of those soda commercials buddying up with the greatest soccer player ever, and former teen phenom, Pelé. Or maybe on 60 Minutes or Letterman talking about how he and his family came over in the immigration lottery from Ghana, where young Freddy learned his skills playing in the streets. Adu is being hailed as the savior of soccer in perhaps the most stubbornly soccer-resistant country in the world. It’s a lot to ask of a kid, especially one who’s just 5 feet 8 inches tall if you believe the program — I don’t — and who weighs a slight 140 pounds.