Sumo’s future isn’t in the U.S.


Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times carried a very brief article on the sport of sumo.

Unfortunately, the LA Times’ editors didn’t associate the visit by the Japanese Sumo Association’s top-ranking fighters with sport, and relegated mention of the June 7-8 tournament to its entertainment pages.

They also managed to squeeze a few howlers into the six-and-a-bit lines given to the first visit by Japan’s national sport in almost three decades.

The event’s highlight, it was reported, would be “the long-awaited rematch between top Mongolian heavyweights Asashoryu and Hakuho.” Um, “long-awaited rematch?” They had only just fought in late May. The writer was also obviously unaware of the fact that such a “rematch” could only take place if the knock-out format of such overseas trips took both men to the final. In fact, the closest the yokozuna came to each other in L.A. was during the breaking of the sake barrel at the tourney’s opening ceremony.

There was also a ludicrous assertion that “lower-ranked Bulgarian Kotooshu will be gunning for a victory that could vault him to the highest level of sumo skill, yokozuna.” Come on. A single victory for Kotooshu in an exhibition bout in the United States would “vault” him to the pinnacle of a sport centered thousands of miles away? As for him being “lower-ranked,” ozeki Kotooshu is actually positioned above almost 700 other rikishi, and below just two: Hakuho and Asashoryu.

Although the LA Times entertainment writer did correctly cite Takamisakari’s nickname (“RoboCop”), as well as the respective body weight of both yokozuna (over 300 lbs), this example of the lack of interest in sumo stateside should give the sport’s authorities reasons to rethink the almost annual trips across the Pacific.

Given that L.A. is America’s second largest city, with almost 4 million residents including a sizable Japanese population, the tournament’s 32,000 tickets ought to have sold fairly easily. Unfortunately, only 20,500 were snapped up.

Was poor marketing to blame? Perhaps. Or maybe interest in sumo has finally hit rock-bottom stateside? If so, it is time for those based in Ryogoku to look west across the Eurasian landmass — mainland Asia and beyond — Europe.

In the last decade, no American-born rikishi has come close to threatening the sekitori ranks. Since late 2003, with the retirement of yokozuna Musashimaru, the continent of North America has become a recruiting desert.

In the same period, Asia and Europe have provided much of the sekitori talent on show today. Both the Mongolian steppe and Russian plains have offered much more fertile hunting. Europe proper, or at least the Eastern nations, have also turned up a decent handful of powerful rikishi in that same time frame.

Thankfully though, there is a ray of hope shining over the horizon: the planned trips to Mongolia (later this year) and London (autumn 2009). There is even talk of bouts in Moscow being tacked on to the London trip.

Couple this with the numbers of non-Japanese currently active in sumo — around 15 European or Russian rikishi and over 30 Mongolians — and you have the ingredients for local interest and healthy attendance figures.

In the case of the Ulan Bator trip, prices will have to be reduced from the (up to) $140 dollars per head charged in L.A., but what the Sumo Association lose in income in Mongolia will be more than made up for in short- and long-term public relations.