Grand Sumo Tournament

LA Sports Arena, Sunday, June 8, 2008

Even if you know nothing about sumo wrestling (and I don't), it's incredible how quickly and deeply you become involved in the spectacle while watching it live. I'm not alone. This event was the first experience with live professional sumo wrestling for many of the audience here. It's not like the chance to watch it comes around often — the last time a tournament of this sort was held in Los Angeles was 1981.

The tournament was preceded by pregame festivities: Following the opening ceremony, a group of small children in sumo dress went one-on-one against some of the rikishi, or wrestlers. One wrestler, Aminishiki, greeted his 5-year-old competitor with a bellow that filled the arena. Believe it or not, the kid actually won that match, which leads me to believe that some of the fights may be fixed. Just kidding. Occasionally, the rikishi let a child win. Other wrestlers were swinging their child opponents through the air by their arm or leg.

The matches with kids were followed by shokkiri, a comedic run-through of illegal wrestling moves. Shokkiri only takes place before exhibition matches (or jungyo) like this one, and involves a kind of Laurel and Hardy routine between a big wrestler and a small(er) one, demonstrating eye gouging, kicking, hair pulling and threats against the referee.

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Eventually, all 41 rikishi were introduced, and proceeded to the ring. From the crowd's reaction, I realized there were hometown favorites, despite the lack of American sumo wrestlers at this event. First, anyone from Mongolia got huge cheers, and there were several Mongolians competing. Second, Asashoryu, at 325 pounds, was by far the fans' favorite. The first Mongolian to reach the highest rank in sumo, Asashoryu has been a controversial wrestler, which you can learn more about here.

Apparently, sumo wrestling's popularity is waning in Japan, partly because of the large number of non-Japanese competitors. But in Los Angeles, the Mongolians were the ones getting the big cheers.

On to the matches!

The first bout of the tournament featured a very thin (well, it's all relative) Mongolian fighter named Hakuba against the Japanese wrestler Kotokasuga. A “backward pivot throw,” quite possibly known as utchari, was enough to end the match after a few seconds, Hakuba the victor.

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While many of the wrestlers at this event were not Japanese, they all take traditional Japanese sumo names, so where they were from wasn't always obvious. Roho, a Russian in the second match, scored a fast win against his Japanese opponent Tamanaoshima.

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The pacing of the matches was quite nice. Though the action was often short, there was a 3- or 4-minute break between each one, with a quick ad for a Japanese law firm or a Little Tokyo restaurant; just enough time to try to figure out the names of the next wrestlers, whether I've seen them before and, of course, if they might be Mongolian.

In this tournament, the sumo who won their first-round bouts faced significantly stronger fighters in round two. So only a couple of the first-round winners became second-round victors. The first match of round two featured the Mongolian Asashoryu, who won Saturday's match. Though the stadium was not full, cheers for him were huge. Here's Asashoryu wrestling Kakuryu:

Or, rather, he's lifting Kakuryu out of the ring. And that's a win.

Roho, the Russian — for whom I'd already developed a fondness due to the low number of syllables in his name — was set to fight the likewise forgivingly named Ama. But Ama, a Mongolian, got all the crowd's love. I don't think I'd ever seen a real Mongolian flag before, but at least half a dozen waved throughout the stadium.

Ama, relatively light in comparison to many of the other wrestlers, was fast. He defeated Roho, and went on to beat his next opponent, the Japanese Futeno, also much larger than Ama.

Asashoryu, on the other hand, went up against the very large Baruto from Estonia. Twice, Asashoryu lifted Baruto off the ground in an effort to move him out of the ring. Here it is:

On the second lift, Asashoryu succeeded and advanced to the next round. He now faced Ama in an all-Mongolian spectacular — and Ama isn't anywhere near as big as Baruto.

I really thought this was it for the little guy. Asashoryu had won Saturday's tournament and, after he beat Baruto, the pairing almost seemed unfair. But check out the YouTube video for the unexpected outcome.

Meanwhile, the Japanese wrestler Kisenosato had been dispensing with his opponents with little problem, and, just one match away from the finals, Kisenosato put an end to Ama's excellent string of wins.

Asashoryu was waiting in the wings to go against the winner of Sunday's final, which came down to two men: Japan's Kisenosato and Hakuho from Mongolia, whose biggest fan was a tiny elderly woman who sat behind me, shrieking HAKUHO! with surprising force. It was a fitting final, easily one of the best and longest matches of the tournament.

Kisenosato went down, and it appeared that Hakuho had won, but Hakuho was thrown out of the ring a split-second earlier, losing the match. So while a Japanese wrestler had won the Sunday tournament, the day still belonged to the Mongolians: Saturday's champion, Asashoryu, faced off against Sunday's victor, Kisenosato — and walked away with the cup.

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The Mongolian fans triumphant, the final ceremonies took place and prizes were dispensed, among them a year's supply of vitamins and a rice cooker.

The victorious Asashoryu:

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The Mongolian flag

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