The sport of sumo manages to achieve with one circle what Dante Alighieri needed nine to describe.
Indeed, the only people who don’t think sumo training is hell are those that have never set foot inside a ring.
Keiko, as sumo practice is known, is an intense, rarely varied, early morning pushing of wrestlers to their physical and mental limits.
Unlike other sports where practice is a means to an end, in sumo doing keiko daily is arguably the single most important element of the entire enterprise.
The lifestyle component of sumo requires rigorous repetition of its fundamental movements, no different than soldiers drilling on a parade ground, or monks sitting zazen.
As someone who has done all of the above, I’ve seen that similarity firsthand.
While there can be a certain element of getting into a state of heightened focus akin to being “in the zone” in keiko, the overriding feeling is one of pain.
That’s primarily due to the fact that during sumo training you are completely at the mercy of your coach or stablemaster, and their task is to force you to go beyond what your body is telling you is possible.
It’s no lie to say that I had a knot of fear in my stomach before every single keiko session I did for the 10 years I was active in the sport.
My coaches were mostly ex-pros and we would often have rikishi from the nearby Chiganoura stable come and train with us.
Despite the primary focus of our club being to train young wrestlers, when the kids were done and the adults stepped into the ring, everything was exactly as it would be in a professional stable.
Almost without fail, once training was complete, I walked (or limped) home battered and bruised but on an endorphin high akin to someone who had been shot at but missed.
I say almost because there were occasions where a hospital visit was needed first.
Given that sumo training involves repeatedly smashing into teak-tough opponents for hours on end, with no protective equipment on a hard surface, it’s virtually guaranteed that you will have some kind of injury after each session.
Normally they are mild. Jammed fingers and sprained joints. The kind of thing that gets filed under “tape it up and keep going” in sumo’s macho world.
Occasionally, though, it’s a concussion, ligament tear or even broken bone.
In my own case, fracturing my humerus lengthways into three was the most memorable injury.
A badly executed kotenage throw attempt put my opponent’s full 120 kg falling at speed onto the bone.
Once it shattered, I planted face-first onto the ground with the resultant head injury causing me to temporarily lose most sight and hearing.
An MRI revealed no serious damage to the brain but even that took several attempts as the sand from the ring in my hair and ears kept messing up the readings.
A few weeks later, in full shoulder-to-wrist cast, I paid a visit to my dojo to say hello and tell everyone I’d be back fighting in 18 months (the time needed for the bone to fuse together fully).
My coach looked at me askew and said “so you aren’t here to train?”
He wasn’t joking. When I told him that I still had no feeling in my left arm or any ability to move it he just replied “What’s wrong with your legs? Go do some squats.”
That story is typical of sumo. I’ve had professionals complain that their stablemasters have flown into a rage over an ACL tear or broken finger being used as an ‘excuse’ to get out of training.
That goes back to the point that keiko is sumo. In the minds of many in the sport, if you aren’t training you aren’t a rikishi.
That training follows virtually the same pattern in all clubs and stables.
Everything starts with shiko (leg stomps). It’s the most basic and most important of all movements. It builds vital stability and lower-body strength.
The number of shiko varies. In kids’ clubs it could be 50. Most stables do 300. That takes about an hour and is strenuous enough to have people that do it every single day sweating hard at the end.
Shiko is followed by suri-ashi (moving across or around the ring without lifting the soles of your feet from the surface).
This initial part of training is where you will see most variety, with individual stables all having their own take on the pattern of warmup exercises.
One of the more interesting is the Otake stable, which uses speedskating movements, learned from lower-division wrestler Ginseizan.
Once all the warmups are done, the fighting commences, starting with the lowest-ranked men and progressing upward. In large stables, it can be two or three hours before the very top wrestlers fight.
After each group has finished their bouts, they do a pushing practice with another wrestler acting as deadweight. This is known as butsukari-geiko and is the toughest part of training.
Already exhausted, you can be forced to push someone over and back until you collapse. This is called kawaigari — literally tender loving care — and even the name alone is enough to send chills down a wrestler’s spine.
Yokozuna Harumafuji once compared it to the verge of death, and having been on the receiving end I fully agree.
Even after collapsing, you are pulled up and made go again . . . and again . . . and again. Eventually your legs are jelly, the sounds around you are indistinct and rolled into one fuzzy roar, and you can barely see through the sweat and tears.
The physical and mental gains made in those last few moments aren’t achievable any other way, and though it never feels it at the time, it’s always worth it.
Sumo keiko was the most challenging and rewarding physical activity I ever participated in but all the money in the world wouldn’t make me do it again.
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