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.
But already Adu seems to be good for the sport’s bottom line. He sold out RFK Stadium when he made his debut against the MLS champ San Jose Earthquakes a week ago — even though he got on the field for only a few minutes in the second half — and Saturday night he attracted plenty of first-time soccer fans. No one in the African-American family sitting alongside my friends and me played or coached soccer, and the excited kid with them said he wanted to be a soldier, not a soccer player, but there they were, like us, coming out to see the baby Jesus of soccer on Easter Saturday. The whole first half we had to squint to make him out, a tiny black dot in the middle of the bench across the field. He looked like a ball boy or a mascot, not a savior.
Not that he was needed right away. The Galaxy didn’t even manage a shot on goal the entire first half and seemed to be playing in reverse. Meanwhile, D.C. United kept up a persistent and well-organized attack. If not for the amazing goalkeeping of the Galaxy’s Kevin Hartman, a.k.a. El Gato, United might have been up 3-0 before Adu even stepped on the field. As it was, the visitors took a 1-0 lead into halftime. Nobody left, though, and when Adu came onto the field to start the second half, even the Galaxy fans cheered.
The Adu effect was immediate and all-encompassing. The energy surged in the stands and on the field. The kid was out there all of five minutes before he got a rude welcome in the form of a hard tackle. Give him this, though: He got right up and took down the next Galaxy player to touch the ball. Amazingly, everyone cheered the kid’s spunk, even the Galaxy faithful. Unfortunately for D.C. United, Adu’s presence fired up the Galaxy as much as it did them. The home team seemed to figure out what they were out there for after Adu got in the game, and managed to attack with energy and purpose in the second half. They finally tied the game on a beautiful shot by Carlos Ruiz with only five minutes to go in regulation time. It was a nail biter after that. In one breathtaking moment, Adu got the ball on the wing, attacked a couple of defenders, had them all but running into each other and fired a hard shot on goal. El Gato got him that time, and the game ended in a 1-1 tie.
Is Adu all that? Well, maybe not yet. But he will be. Every time he touched the ball, he did something smart or daring. His feel for the game reminds me of other uncanny athletes like Pelé or basketball’s Larry Bird, and it’s only a matter of time before his teammates figure him out and get up to speed. Then the Adu show will be really worth watching.
Guggenheimers: Local recipients of 2004 Guggenheim Foundation Awards
Stuart Banner, Professor of Law, UCLA: Law, power, and American Indian land loss.
Uta Barth, Photographer, Los Angeles; Professor of Studio Art, UC Riverside: Photography.
Cameron D. Campbell, Associate Professor of Sociology, and Vice Chairman and Director of Graduate Studies, UCLA: Social and family change in Liaoning, 1850–2000 (in collaboration with James Lee).
Judith A. Carney, Professor of Geography, UCLA: Africa’s botanical heritage in the Atlantic world.
Matthew Coolidge, Artist, Culver City; Director, Center for Land Use Interpretation, Culver City: New media art.
Erin Cosgrove, Artist, Los Angeles; Adjunct Professor of Art History, West Los Angeles Community College: Installation art.
Alexandra Jaffe, Associate Professor of Linguistics, Cal State Long Beach: Language, citizenship, and identity in a bilingual Corsican school.
Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Law, and King Faisal Professor of Islamic Thought and Culture, USC: Islamic influences on Middle Eastern governance.
Lisa Lapinksi, Artist, Los Angeles: Installation art.
Maile Meloy, Writer, Los Angeles: Fiction.
Robert Moeller, Professor of History, UC Irvine: Modern Germanies, 1933–1973.
Mark Osborne, Filmmaker, Los Angeles: Filmmaking.
David Roussève, Choreographer, Pasadena; Professor of Choreography, and Chairman, Department of World Arts and Cultures, UCLA: Choreography.
Jim Shaw, Artist, Los Angeles; Member of the Adjunct Faculty, Art Center College of Design: Painting and installation art.
Joann M. Stock, Professor of Geology and Geophysics, Caltech: A comparative tectonic history of two rift basins.
Jeffrey Vallance, Artist, Reseda; Visiting Assistant Professor of Art, UCLA: Installation art.
Carolyn Yarnell, Composer, Laguna Hills: Music composition.
William R. Zame, Professor of Economics and Professor of Mathematics, UCLA: Theoretical and experimental studies of financial markets.